On the eve of the Dalai Lama’s appearance with President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast this week, CNN ran a surprisingly good opinion peace on how far Buddhism has come in America over the last 70+ years:
Today, Buddhism is the model of a minority religious tradition that exerts an influence far beyond what its numbers would suggest. While the Buddhist population of the United States is not much larger than a million – less than 1% of the population – the number of Americans inspired by the Buddha is estimated to be more than 10 times that size.
The cultural position of Buddhism 73 years ago could not have been more different.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, authorizing the evacuation of all those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to war relocation centers, the Buddhist faith practiced by many Japanese Americans was itself regarded as a potential threat.
This is not very surprising when you recall that Communism was labeled “godless” to make it even more scary, and that today Islam is viewed with a great deal of political suspicion and subject to a lot of vitriol. CNN is right, though. Japanese Buddhism, in particular, has had to face an uphill battle in the US.
Alfred Bloom, in “Shin Buddhism in America,” pointed out that Japanese Buddhism brought a lot of “cultural attitudes” with it from Japan:
… individuals tend to be more conscious of their external relations than their own inner promptings. There is, consequently, a disposition to be conformist, unquestioning, and prudent. This tendency has given rise to the terms quiet Americans or model minority, which, though seemingly positive, have negative implications and undermine Japanese American critique of American society.
In addition to ethical values, there are other cultural attitudes that have been transferred from Japan. These are shikata-ga-nai, which means to accept those things over which one has no control; mottainai, which generally suggests modesty… gaman, which means to endure and persevere in the face of difficulty; enryō, which is nonassertive restraint or reserve; and finally okage-sama-de and arigatai, which express gratitute and appreciation to all those factors supporting our lives, though unseen. These cultural attitudes have contributed to the seemingly closed character of the Japanese American Buddhist community.
Buddhism has come a long way, although Japanese Buddhism remains relatively a minority-within-a-minority as far as American exposure goes. It’s evident from various scholarly works and discussions among Shin Buddhists, in particular, that the Japanese and Shin communities are still struggling with the problem of “marketing” and making themselves visible. This is a bit of an uphill battle against the Japanese cultural attitudes described by Bloom, above, but also against the American understanding of Buddhism itself.
While Buddhism is not necessarily targeted by the FBI anymore, there is still a lot of misunderstanding of Buddhism as it is practiced by so many in America and abroad. This misunderstanding pervades even the prominent Buddhist community of teachers, authors, Zen masters, and the like.
As an example that particularly grated on me, consider Jack Kornfield’s analysis of the anti-Muslim violence by Burmese Buddhists. He attributes a variety of factors to the increase in violence, including the association of Buddhism with nationalism (never a good thing in any country) and the lack of a strong government security presence (something I’m dubious about). He also takes potshots at the quality of Buddhism practiced by the Burmese, though:
Surprisingly, there is widespread ignorance in Burma of many core Buddhist teachings. Most of Buddhist practice in Burma is devotional.
Kornfield’s “surprise” is rooted in the overall American Buddhist ignorance of how Buddhism is experienced and practiced by many, if not most, Buddhists around the world. With these two sentences, Jack Kornfield is communicating to you a formula that I see often as an undercurrent in contemporary American Buddhist teaching and writing:
Devotional Buddhism = Ignorant Buddhism. The Burmese Buddhists are “ignorant” of many “core Buddhist teachings” – and, it just so happens, the majority of their practice is devotional. Sure, Kornfield doesn’t say it as bluntly as I’m interpreting it, but he doesn’t hide much of his cultural bias as he continues:
In this culture of devotion, the teachings of the noble truths and eightfold path, of nonviolence, mindfulness, meditation, and virtue, are not emphasized. And the Buddha’s admonition to see and think for yourself is lost entirely. The Burmese education system does not teach people to question authority.
I’m sorry, Jack, but you are committing the same intellectual dishonesty and cultural colonialism that Russell Kirkland identified in his analysis of American Taoists:
Just as modern Confucians dismissed Taoism as the antithesis of their supposedly enlightened tradition, so modern Westerners came to dismiss it as antithetical to their Enlightenment mentality. This intellectual purge — the product of the collaboration of fear-ridden Confucians and Victorian Orientalists — exempted only two ancient texts — the Tao te ching and the Chuang-tzu — and persuaded the modern audience that no other element of Taoism deserved serious attention. As a result, the rest of Taoism — i.e., two thousand years of complex and diverse religious phenomena, many of them the product of thoughtful, highly educated men and women — has either been ignored, or it has presented in the same ghastly caricature that prevailed among the ill-informed sinologists of the Victorian era…
Modern intellectuals are, for the most part, members of a particularly pernicious cult, for they suffer from the delusion that they are not actually part of any cult, that they do not have any socially constructed beliefs that may sometimes need to be re-examined and possibly repudiated. With the smug assurance that the modern mindset is an infallible guide to what is true — regardless of what reason or the facts may demonstrate — modern intellectuals have often comforted the general public that we are entitled casually to exploit other cultures for the fulfillment of our own individual and social needs, specifically our need to believe that we may repudiate the Judaeo-Christian tradition and yet be honorable adherents of a culture-free “Truth.” (emphasis mine)
It’s taken me years to see it and come to this conclusion1, but it’s obvious to me that the rise in “Americans inspired by the Buddha” is in large part the same phenomenon that has happened with Taoism, just on a larger scale. Russell Kirk calls it a kind of invasion, or cultural colonialism. The “invaders” settle down in the foreign land (Buddhism) and export the gems that they can market back home (“mindfulness” and “spirituality” sanitized of any stench of deity or devotion that might remind them of Christianity). But, like any good colonial invader, they also have to denegrate the indigenous population and its backward ways.
This can be seen with Russell Kirk’s example of American “Taoists” who study two American-friendly texts, usually in very poor translations and “interpretations” by unqualified authors, and then have the gall to say practicing Taoists in China are not “real” Taoists. They’re not “real” because they don’t fit the American intellectualized cult and its assumptions, and they don’t play along with the popular disdain for God, religion, devotion, and humility.
Similarly, you have the Jack Kornfields of the world decrying the “ignorance” of devotional Buddhism. Like American Taoists, these Buddhists pick and choose the bits that fit their cultural assumptions and their “cult that’s not really a cult,” then look down upon or outright insult those who follow a different path. Much like Americans who don’t understand the good aspects of Chinese “tiger mom” parenting because it doesn’t fit their liberal, “my child’s self-esteem bruises like a peach” mindset, those who insult devotional Buddhism fail to understand what it’s about, how it impacts millions around the world, and its valuable place throughout the 2,500 years of Buddhist history.
So, back to the Dalai Lama. Insofar as politics is an evil we are stuck with, it is a positive thing to see such a prominent figure of Buddhism welcomed in such a visible way. But insofar as American Buddhists think that the fashionable “no-mind” Zen Buddhism, the “noble savage” Tibetan Buddhism, and the “secular” Theravada Buddhism are the whole story, there is still a long way to go.
While traditional Japanese Buddhists might be skilled in enryō (non-assertive restraint), in this matter I will not be non-assertive. I am asserting my disappointment in prominent Buddhist teachers, writers, and practitioners who spread misunderstanding or denigration of the devotional path. They should know better, and should consider that it does more harm than good to cultivate a sanitized, smiley-faced version of Buddhism which fails to address the depth and breadth of human experience. This, by necessity, must include an understanding of devotion and the great teachings that devotional Buddhists have shared through the centuries.
Namu Amida Butsu to you, my friends.
- I’m sad to say that I also misunderstood devotional Buddhism, Pure Land, Shin, etc. for many years, and myself perpetuated some pretty ghastly caricatures of this vibrant and beautiful branch of the Buddhist family tree. ↩