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Posts Tagged ‘American Buddhism’

Time is the reason I haven’t been able to update more frequently, so it seemed appropriate to resurrect this site by looking at the $13.99 Zen Page-a-Day® Calendar from Workman Publishing, based in New York. The box promises “surprising sayings, koans, parables & haiku for 2015” as well as a mini meditation primer in the first part of January. Its packaging displays a close-up photo of a rock garden, a pile of three round stones on a bed of neatly raked sand. The quotation on the back of the box reveals much about how the calendar’s creators understand Zen:

“The only people who get anyplace interesting are the people who get lost.” — Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was interested in Buddhism and translated the Lotus Sūtra into English for the first time, but even more than that his attitude toward Buddhism and Hinduism set the stage for popular understandings of these traditions in the U.S. (thanks to Jeff Wilson for the correction — it was Elizabeth Palmer Peabody who translated the Lotus Sūtra into English) He did not convert to Buddhism, but explored Buddhism alongside Christianity, Greek religion, and Hinduism, seeking the deeper truths of existence he saw as underlying each. This approach has spread in the centuries since, as evidenced by the Zen calendar’s broad definition of Zen. While Thoreau had a connection to Buddhism (if not Zen specifically), there are plenty of figures quoted in the calendar who didn’t. Take, for example, Mark Twain (Tuesday, July 28: “A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes”), Pablo Neruda (Wednesday, May 20: “When did the honeysuckle first sense its own perfume? When did smoke learn how to fly?”), and the generic “Spanish proverb (Tuesday, January 6: “It is not the same thing to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring”).

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The calendar quotes from many Buddhist figures, such as Ruth Denison, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the Dalai Lama, and does include several Zen masters, as well, among them Mazu, Dōgen, and Hakuin. However, to be considered Zen a quotation just has to be pithy and vaguely mystical, evoking the literary genres of the kōan and haiku. This understanding of Zen goes back to the image developed by people like D.T. Suzuki: if everything is Zen, anything is Zen.

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D.T. Suzuki’s influence is also apparent in the introduction and mini meditation primer that presents a basic form of meditation over the week of January 5-9. The introduction proclaims that Zen is about meditation and direct experience (hence the Proust quotation), which could come straight from Suzuki’s writings about the timeless essence of Zen. As with other aspects of modern Buddhism, these notions aren’t necessarily wrong or inauthentic from an academic perspective, but they are recent, which is to say that the idea of timelessness is not itself timeless.

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The primer prescribes meditation focused on the breath, which isn’t unique to Zen (or Buddhism), but is part of Zen meditation practice. The author shows some familiarity with Japanese Zen in referring to zafu and zabuton cushions, and in alluding to the concept that seated meditation is enlightenment. On the last page, the author even encourages readers to seek out a sangha, or Buddhist community, for group practice. Considering the usual emphasis on solitary practice in the home or office in Zen products, I found this suggestion surprising. As a whole, however, this calendar falls into the category of made-in-China desktop Zen products meant to provide calm and contemplation during a hectic workday.

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James Atlas’s piece “Buddhists’ Delight” in the Opinion section of this week’s New York Times (6/17/12) doesn’t directly deal with Zen, but relates to a lot of the themes that come up in pop culture depictions of  Zen in the U.S. Atlas recounts his own experiences with Buddhist meditation, discusses the larger phenomenon of American Buddhist converts, and touches on scientific studies of mindfulness meditation as well as the modern movement of Engaged Buddhism.

I was intrigued by Atlas’s citation of Dr. Paul D. Numrich’s conjecture that there might now be as many Buddhists as Muslims in the U.S. In fact, a Pew Forum survey from 2007 suggests that there might be more Buddhists than Muslims: it gives the percentage of Buddhists in the U.S. as 0.7%, and the percentage of Muslims as 0.6%. However, Atlas also notes that many of these self-identified Buddhists are what Thomas Tweed labels “nightstand Buddhists,” i.e. people who have read books about Buddhism, but who do not participate in Buddhist communities or engage in Buddhist ritual practices. This makes it more difficult to parse statistics such as those the Pew Forum reports. Even if there are (or were) more Buddhists than Muslims in the U.S., what does this mean in terms of religious communities and public religiosity? Nightstand Buddhists might also identify as members of other religious traditions, especially (in the U.S.) Christianity and Judaism, or might not see their Buddhist identity as “religious,” but rather “spiritual” or “philosophical.”

In classrooms, online, and in popular books on Buddhism, I frequently encounter this idea that Buddhism isn’t really “religious.” Some Buddhists and non-Buddhists in America and Asia reject Buddhism’s religiosity because they don’t see it as possessing the dogma, ritualism, and superhuman powers that they associate with religions. Buddhism seems more empirical, rational, or scientific than religion does. I think this underlies some of the scientific studies on Buddhist meditation that Atlas mentions in the article. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and U.C.L.A. have studied how Buddhist meditation can change the brain’s neural pathways or work as cognitive therapy. In 2011 UCLA held the symposium “Buddhism and Neuroscience: a Discussion on Attention, Mental Flexibility and Compassion” to consider similar issues.

While cognitive science theory can be useful explanatory tool for understanding religion, these studies run the risk of reducing Buddhism to meditation and furthering the idea that Buddhism isn’t really “religious.” Many people already see Buddhist meditation, like Hindu yoga, as a kind of therapeutic exercise rather than a religious practice. These people aren’t wrong — Buddhism, like all religions, has changed significantly throughout its history, and continues to do so — but this view ignores what most Buddhists have done throughout the religion’s history, as well as the orientalist underpinnings of American Buddhism.

In the same book where he coins the term “nightstand Buddhist” (The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912) Thomas Tweed describes the introduction of Buddhism to Europe and America. 19th-century Europeans and Americans got interested in Buddhism for different reasons: some embraced its esoteric and “occult” aspects, while others saw it as conforming to the Enlightenment values of rationality and empiricism. Both ways of looking at Buddhism have continued in the U.S., and it is the latter view of Buddhism as rational or science-compatible that persists in these cognitive science experiments. The same Victorians who embraced Buddhist rationality were horrified to discover what Buddhists were actually doing in Asia, namely worshipping the Buddha and other deities, performing rituals, and in most cases not paying much attention to the doctrinal content of Buddhist scriptures. This led to a narrative of degeneration, according to which the Buddha’s eminently reasonable teachings were corrupted by later followers to varying degrees. It was up to these European and American scholars to revive “true Buddhism.” I’ve seen American Buddhist converts express dismay at the devotional Buddhism practiced in East Asia because it doesn’t look anything like the “true Buddhism” they encountered in the U.S. My point is not that American Buddhism is “inauthentic,” but that American Buddhists often ignore the history of their religion, especially the imperialist/colonialist forces that shaped it.

“Buddhists’ Delight” outlines the various reasons for Americans’ interest in Buddhism, from the “mind-body obsession” to the pressures of modern urban life, to global concerns such as the environment, human rights, and public health. As someone who studies Buddhism from an academic perspective, I’d like to see these interests extend to the historical and cultural forces that have shaped American Buddhism.

 

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