In North American Buddhist practice we are now beginning to see a fruitful cross-fertilization
between Buddhist communities of different sects.
Buddhism's growth to more than twentyfive hundred communities on the North American continent doesn't begin to reflect the complexity of the development of this expanding religious tradition. Now there are North American Buddhist books on virtually every topic imaginable, establishing this literature as its own cottage industry. Conferences that aim to bring together scholars and practitioners alike are popping up regularly, like Naropa's recent conference sponsored by the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, which highlighted a brilliant keynote address by Jan Willis entitled "Dharma Diversity: The Many Forms and Faces of Buddhism in America." But perhaps the most telling sign of Buddhism's acceptance, and complexity, on the North American scene is the dozens of university courses devoted to North American Buddhism. All of the above move beyond the simplistic image of "Hollywood Buddhists" or "celebrity Buddhists" and point in the direction of a genuine Buddhist literacy developing in the United States. At least one author has even suggested that we consider English as the newest canonical language, and another scholar - Stephen Berkwitz - has cleverly and perhaps properly suggested that rather than having our students begin their studies of North American Buddhism with the fine academic textbooks that are now available, they instead should read the "primary" sources of North American Buddhism: books by the Asian Buddhist masters who appeared on the American scene, interpreting the Buddhist tradition for willing North Americans.
A North American Buddhist Typology
So is there anything out there that makes sense of this complex tradition? Is there anything that tells us how we might best approach our studies of North American Buddhism in this new subdiscipline of the larger field of Buddhist studies? I think there is! When Kenneth Tanaka and I edited The Faces of Buddhism in America, we settled on five major thematic issues to consider: ethnicity, practice, democratization, engagement, and adaptation. I expanded a consideration of these topics in my 1999 book Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, and framed the discussion between the two "bookends" of "Who is a Buddhist?" and "Ecumenicism." Why do I think this typology continues to offer the most promising paradigm for understanding North American Buddhism and Buddhist America? No matter where one goes, the discussion always focuses on these issues. Virtually every one of the twenty-four papers presented at the "Buddhism without Borders" conference at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California, in March 2010 dealt with these issues. It's the same at panels on North American Buddhism at the American Academy of Religion annual meetings or the International Association of Buddhist Studies. The insightful and well-prepared new scholars of North American Buddhism are now publishing lots of exciting articles on the development of North American Buddhism, yet they are still trapped in what Louis Nordstrom called the "scenery" of American Buddhism in 1977 and have not offered any creative new ways of understanding the "path," or the whole development of Buddhism on our continent. To move beyond this limitation, we can now begin to explore creatively the ways in which each of these five issues has impacted North American Buddhism in new and developmental ways. What better way to launch these new investigations than to consider the issue of American Buddhist practice.
American Buddhist Practice
Many researchers, me included, have walked into North American Buddhist centers and begun their investigative inquiry with the question "What's your practice?" The first time I asked that question was in a Buddhist Churches of America temple. The faithful and respectful Jodo Shinshu practitioner looked at me as if I were crazy. She never did answer, but as I watched her over the next several days, I learned that her identity as a Buddhist and her identity as a person were inseparable. In the nearly forty years since that initial observation, my experience with Asian immigrant Buddhists has been almost identical to that initial meeting. On the other hand, when I visit North American convert sanghas, I almost always get an immediate, and different, response: "meditation." Indeed, the specific form of meditation, such as Zen or Vipassana, varies, but the focus on meditation remains immediate. If I then push back a little, and ask some specific questions about what other aspects of Buddhist practice they might do, there's usually very little response, almost as if Buddhism for them were a monolithic "Meditation-Yana" tradition.
There's little doubt that the above reinforces some of the problems in understanding the distinctions that exist between Asian immigrant and American convert communities. And it's understandable, too. In his introductory chapter in Don Morreale's first catalog of American Buddhist centers, Jack Kornfield, one of the superstars on the North American Buddhist scene, indicated that a wonderful process was happening in North American Buddhism. He said, "American laypeople are not content to go and hear a sermon once a week or to make merit by leaving gifts at a meditation center. We, too, want to live the realizations of the Buddha and bring them into our hearts, our lives, and our times." A decade later, when interviewed by Time magazine, Kornfield was far more direct: "American people don't want to be monks or nuns. . . . They want practices that transform the heart." Kornfield went on to explain that is why so many convert Buddhists attend Vipassana retreats or Zen sesshins, and in so doing, he essentially dismissed the efficacy of all nonmeditative traditions. We should bear in mind, too, that it was not only the ethnic Buddhist traditions that Kornfield omitted in what he called "the real practice of the Buddha." He also eliminated the Soka Gakkai tradition, and that may indeed be the single largest Buddhist tradition, in terms of membership, on North American soil.
Kornfield was certainly correct when he defined North American Buddhism as an essentially lay Buddhist tradition. North America has never had a monastic culture, but to focus exclusively on the lay Buddhist tradition overlooks the immensely critical role Buddhist monastics have played throughout Buddhism's history in Asia. Moreover, in its globalization, the monastics - along with the scholar-practitioners - remain the culture bearers of the tradition. It's no accident that two decades after Kornfield wrote his remarks, more and more monastic centers are growing throughout North America, and an increasing number of American Buddhists - men and women - are choosing the monastic vocation as a means of making Buddhist practice the focal point of their lives. While this is no insignificant issue, it is not free from dilemmas, for the monastic codes for monks and nuns, known as the vinaya, were largely written for a religious environment that is two millennia old . . . and no longer entirely applicable to our modern, and sometimes urban, lifestyle. As a result, the codes themselves, and the degree to which they are enforced, become problematic. Many Western Buddhist monastic centers have had to incorporate many exceptions into the detailed rules, and my suspicion is that it will not be too much longer before the commentarial tradition, which died out nearly fifteen hundred years ago, will be reawakened. Additionally, as early as 1970, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi commented on the problem of the choice between a lay or monastic life in America, noting that "American students are not priests, yet not completely laymen." He went on: "I think you are special people and want some special practice that is not exactly priest's practice and not exactly a layman's practice." Lama Surya Das has called the alternative experiments an "in-between sangha."
Moving beyond the lay-versus-monastic dichotomy, it does seem that academic studies and popular books alike focus almost exclusively on the various meditative traditions. And in typical North American fashion, success is often measured quantitatively rather than qualitatively. The more hours in meditation practice, the better, irrespective of any measurable improvement in one's religious or secular life. If one wants to know just how dominant the meditative tradition is in North American Buddhism, all that's necessary is to peruse the pages of the front and back sections of Tricycle or Shambhala Sun or Buddhadharma. One can even find places where the Buddhist tradition has blossomed into part of the wellness movement, thanks in part to the spectacular efforts of individuals like Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The choices available are far different and more comprehensive now than during the Dharma-hopping explosion of the 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, if Lama Surya Das was correct when he identified the Three Treasures of North American Buddhism to be "me, myself, and I," then perhaps the motive hasn't changed all that much. Instant enlightenment still sounds pretty good. By no means does this rule out the serious, well-intentioned students who value Buddhist ideals and mental training, but it also recognizes that many North Americans still collect teachings and immediate gratification the way they collect baseball cards and songs on their iPods. More is better. I am again reminded that my early students at Naropa Institute were far more impressed to learn that I did four hours per day of sitting meditation, and all-day sits on Sundays, than they were with my academic credentials. Nobody ever asked me if I really did satipa??hana or simply engaged in silly fantasies during those long hours. And it was no different more than thirty years later when the Cache Valley Sangha members in Utah were very impressed to learn of my many hours on the cushion and my month-long retreats early in my training, but they were turned off immediately when I explained that my major practice no longer involved daily formal meditation.
I've always enjoyed my time spent at Buddhist centers where the meditative tradition is properly integrated into an overall Buddhist lifestyle, but it was no accident that for my very first invitation to speak at a Zen Mountain Monastery retreat, Daido Roshi asked me to plan a weekend's lectures on precepts. There's no need to rehearse my staunch support for the precepts-as-practice approach, offered by Stephen Batchelor and others. Yet I think it is important to understand that Buddhist communities - composed of mostly Asian immigrant Buddhists - value and utilize ritual practices, chanting, and faith-based observances in quite the same way convert communities emphasize sitting meditation. The mental focus and concentration required to carry out ritual practice in the proper fashion is every inch as demanding as samatha meditation. But additionally, I think that the precepts-as-practice approach can help bridge the gap between the Asian immigrant and American convert communities because, irrespective of the specific practice dictated by the individual sanghas, all Buddhists are obliged to follow the five vows of the lay practitioner. Those five vows are something we are all encouraged to do all the time. One cannot overestimate the importance of ethical concerns for the entire Buddhist community globally. In the more than twenty-five hundred years since the Buddha's ministry, the ethical concerns and challenges we face as global and American Buddhists have changed drastically, and we are indeed fortunate that scholars like Damien Keown have helped us better understand the contextual circumstances for issues never considered during the Buddha's lifetime, like abortion, euthanasia, bioethics, sexual ethics, and the like. All of these issues fall under the category called practice, and they will continue to become more complicated as we move through this new century.
What is rarely mentioned in discussing Buddhist practice is the issue of Buddhist family life. To the best of my knowledge, the only Buddhist publication that devotes a regular column to Buddhist family life and parenting is Turning Wheel, published by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Fortunately, we now have books like Sandy Eastoak's volume called Dharma Family Treasures: Sharing Buddhism with Children and Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn's book called Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. The issue of Buddhist parenting and family life cannot be overlooked, because many of the young North American Buddhist converts, and many of the latest generation of Asian immigrant Buddhists, now find themselves having given birth to yet another generation of American Buddhists. One of these "Dharma brats" is Sumi Loundon Kim, born into a small Soto Zen community in New Hampshire in 1975. Her interest in Buddhist family life prompted her to publish an edited book in 2001 called Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists, with about thirty short sections written by young Buddhists. Five years later she followed up with The Buddha's Apprentices: More Voices of Young Buddhists. At the end of her second book, in a section called "Looking Ahead," she tells her own story, addressing the issue of how to infuse Buddhist practice into the lives of our children. She wastes no time in raising the critical issue of practice: "How are we, the greater Buddhist community in America, going to receive these beginners and young people?" She postulates three things that might secure a sane Buddhist environment, and practice, for our future generations. First, she hopes the overall Buddhist community will continue to create a welcoming atmosphere in individual Buddhist communities. Second, Buddhist communities need to create participatory roles designed to energize young people. Finally, and most important, Buddhist communities need to address the psychological needs of youngsters.
Is Sumi Loundon Kim's approach working? One of the contributors to her first book was Noah Levine, now noted for his work with Dharma Punx, one of the most visible Buddhist organizations today despite its unusual focus. Another was Jimmy Yu, now a Buddhist studies professor in Florida. Still another was Venerable Yifa, a Fo Guang Shan ordained nun since 1979. And perhaps most notable is Jeff Wilson, who is possibly the brightest new voice in the study of North American Buddhism.
Truly, in North American Buddhist practice we are now beginning to see a fruitful cross-fertilization between Buddhist communities of different sects that has been identified as hybridity. Scholars are now more clearly understanding the linkage and association between adaptation and hybridity in the various forms of Buddhism that are emerging and cooperating in North America. As Buddhism continues to globalize, the advances in technology have enabled North American Buddhist groups to communicate not only across regional boundaries in their own continent but across continental boundaries as well. This is additionally important because the practices, teaching lineages, and communities of important ancient and modern Buddhist teachers have become worldwide enterprises. Global Buddhist dialogue with respect to Buddhist practice enables modern American Buddhism to truly be involved in productive boundary crossing. North American Buddhists traveling abroad can now use their computers to instantly find a community with which to practice in virtually any country on the globe. Better still, because of global Buddhist dialogue, they'll know what to expect - within the limits of cultural and regional differences - in terms of that practice, and when traveling, they needn't be a proverbial "sangha of one" any longer.
Charles S. Prebish, PhD, is professor emeritus of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, where he served on the faculty from 1971 until 2006. He is also Charles Redd Chair in Religious Studies Emeritus at Utah State University, where he served from January 2007 until December 2010. He also served there as director of the Religious Studies Program. His recent books include Encyclopedia of Buddhism (coedited with Damien Keown, Routledge, 2009).
This article was originally published in the July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.