In 2008, religious studies professor David McMahan made the case in The Making of Buddhist Modernism that many convert lineages in the West had departed from traditional Asian Buddhism and created distinct new and modern forms. But there are clear indicators that these convert lineages have passed beyond the modern age, developments that have been recorded by Dr. Ann Gleig in American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, now available from Yale University Press.

Gleig, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida, recently spoke with Tricycle about her new book. In it, she offers the first scholarly examination, based on ethnographic and textual research, of postmodernity’s impact on meditation-based convert Buddhist groups.  

Gleig sees American Dharma as a continuation of McMahan’s thesis, agreeing that predominantly white convert lineages, including American Zen traditions, Insight communities, and secular Buddhists, have been influenced by modernity and postmodernity. These changes can be seen in the groups’ tendency toward becoming more secular, democratic, and liberal.

“Postmodern,” said Gleig, is a “contested term that doesn’t have one set meaning” and can be associated with certain literary styles, such as “cynicism, suspicion, and a heightened irony.” In American Dharma, Gleig uses postmodern in a broader sociocultural sense to indicate a continuation of modernity as well as a critique and “correction” of it.

Below, Gleig speaks about several developments from her book on the not-so-traditional Buddhist tradition taking hold in the West.

What does the shift from a modern to a postmodern culture mean for the average practitioner in an American convert Buddhist community? In terms of the continuation of the modern, the secular mindfulness movement is a really good example. It grew out the Insight community, which is an already modernized form of Buddhism, and radicalizes this modernization by dropping all Buddhist signifiers. And in terms of critiques, there have been two main types. The first, which is a traditionalist or canonical critique, compares secular mindfulness with the Buddha’s right mindfulness from the Pali Canon, and notes that attention of the present moment is a truncated definition of mindfulness. And then you have the other critiques on sociocultural grounds. One example would be the trope of the mindless worker, which claims mindfulness is basically working as the opiate of the people and is a tool of capitalism and neoliberalism.

In terms of what this means for the average Buddhist, because the postmodern is both a critique and continuation of the modern, we are seeing the continuation of secular and scientific forms of Buddhism. But we are also seeing within some of these communities, such as the Secular Buddhist Association, a willingness to acknowledge and engage with the ways that promoting secular mindfulness might be harmful for other Buddhists who practice in more traditional ways. In terms of the critiques of modern Buddhism: we are seeing a renewed appreciation for traditional aspects, such as ritual and community, that were neglected in modernization. And in terms of sociocultural critiques, with whiteness for example, we are seeing more support for persons of color (POC) Buddhist groups and also the beginnings of white racial affinity groups in Buddhist sanghas. [These organizations, including White Awake, are educational and spiritual training programs that work to combat white supremacy.] One other important thing is more awareness of the diversity of Buddhist lineages in the US, such as Asian American communities that were earlier dismissed as just “cultural Buddhism.” In general, there is an awareness that there is so much more to Buddhism than just meditation and enlightenment.

You write that Buddhist racial justice movements propelled by the protests in Ferguson, MO, and the Black Lives Matter movement are more than 20 years in the making. Can you explain a bit how this ongoing work in the Buddhist communities you studied was advanced by the wider social and cultural movement? I note that in 2000 a group of POC teachers and their white allies distributed the booklet, “Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities” to the Buddhist Teachers in the West Conference. It’s an absolutely fantastic document, and so much of it is completely relevant to now, which got me thinking: why have these issues taken so long to be discussed in mainstream sanghas?

What was so striking to me was that material is very similar to the Buddhists for Racial Justice letter that started circulating in July 2015 and quickly gained a lot of traction. This open letter was rooted in the Buddhist Statement on Racial Justice presented at the first White House US Buddhist Leaders conference in May 2015, which opens with the sentence, “As Buddhist teachers and leaders we are distressed and deeply saddened by the killings of unarmed African Americans by police—most recently brought to light with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Maryland and too many others—and the frequent failure of the courts to bring justice to these cases.”

Black Lives Matter started in 2013 and emerged as a major platform and organizing tool for highlighting systematic racism and black liberation and healing. Black Lives Matter put the public spotlight back on systematic racism, so the need for this work is moving from the margins to the mainstream. There’s a kind of acceleration that has started to wake up white America and white Buddhists, but that doesn’t mean that the demographic shift has happened. These sanghas are still extremely white.

Your chapter titled “The Dukkha of Racism” includes a case study on diversity work at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW), founded and led by Tara Brach.  Are practitioners of color starting to feel more confident in the mainstream sangha? Well, to see where they were currently at with this, I checked in with La [Sarmiento, a member of IMCW], who stressed that the mainstream sangha does want groups to come together but that there is a long way to go before the gap can be closed. Essentially, dominant cultures haven’t done the work that is needed to make the mainstream space safe for affinity groups. I echo La in saying that from my research it has become clear that mainstream sanghas need to work on decentering whiteness if they want to see more racial diversity within their teachings and events. White teachers and leaders at IMCW, for instance, all reported that a major turning point in their own ongoing journey was realizing that they needed to do their own work and started a yearlong White Awake training.

What is absolutely crucial to note is that it’s not like POC have divided the sangha; the sangha has always been divided. It’s kind of the illusion of oneness that white people have, like they confuse a universal state with white perspectives. They often don’t understand the dominant positionality and pervasiveness of whiteness.

And, I think it’s important to acknowledge the ways that scholars have also participated in whiteness in American Buddhism. Speaking for myself, much of my earlier research was concerned with defending the “modernization” of Buddhism particularly in relationship to the integration of psychology into Buddhism. It was only through working with POC sanghas and learning from Asian American scholars like Joseph Cheah that I started to see and question the slippage between modernization and whiteness. It’s definitely been a learning journey for me as well.

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I also want to mention a week-long retreat held at Spirit Rock in December 2018 called “The Courage to Live: The Practice of Forgiveness.” It was an historic event because it was the first general residential retreat at Spirit Rock, which opened in 1998, to be led by an all-POC teaching team, and 32 out of the 78 practitioners who attended identified as POC. I interviewed nine people from the retreat, and one thing that struck me was that even though the people who normally participate in POC and LGBT sanghas still went to the affinity meetups at the retreat, they didn’t feel that those gatherings were completely necessary because the retreat itself felt so welcoming, safe, and connected.

A couple of other points were that the teachers said they didn’t receive any pushback from bringing up race, which often happens. One of the teachers, Amana Brembry Johnson, explained, “the most important thing was for us to bring diverse communities together so the sangha can be exposed to and understand difference. This cannot happen in white majority or all POC sanghas.” So, I think the gap can be closed, but it is going to take a lot of intentional work, and it’s the white practitioners who really need to be doing that work, including supporting affinity groups for as long as they are needed.

American Dharma looks at the response of several Zen communities to improper student-teacher relationships, including Eido Shimano Roshi and Joshu Sasaki Roshi, and how many of these communities had similar psychological responses to these revelations. The research for your book was completed before all the breaking news of 2018 that included sexual abuse accusations against Shambhala leader Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. Have you found Shambhala responded in a similar way? To be honest, I don’t think Shambhala as an organization has responded adequately to their long history of sexual misconduct and abuse. From the reports that I’ve read, senior members and teachers of Shambhala appear to have stalled, minimized, and deflected these accusations. So we have to wait and see whether they will bring in more psychological work.

But one place we do see the therapeutic/psychological response is Buddhist Project Sunshine [a series of three independent reports released in 2018 detailing anonymous survivor stories]. The founder, Andrea Winn, talks about drawing on her clinical therapeutic training, and you can certainly see a therapeutic component to her project: she talks about projections and building emotional safety and resilience. And like the Zen examples I explore in the book, she articulates this within a wider Buddhist framework—she sees the project as a kind of expression of a neglected feminine principle in Buddhism.

However, I do want to add that alongside the therapeutic, we are also seeing more structural analyses of power and privilege, which are the impact of generational changes. A good example of this is Lama Rod Owens, [a Tibetan Buddhist teacher] who has been visiting Shambhala communities to offer healing to them.

And was Buddhism’s year of #MeToo propelled by the wider cultural conversation, much like diversity and Black Lives Matter movements in Buddhist circles? In terms of #MeToo, yes, I definitely think that there is a somewhat analogous process going on, in that wider cultural trends propelled by social media and technology are impacting and shaping Buddhist issues. A big part of it is social media. Information can be disseminated so quickly, and individuals who think they’re the only one being mistreated or who have been marginalized in their wider communities can find a support network. We’ve seen that with Buddhist sexual abuse. Without social media, a lot of these women just disappeared, and their stories were lost.

In fact, Andrea Winn of Project Sunshine, did run an initiative called #ShambhalaMeToo and some Rigpa survivors from the Netherlands started a #MeTooGuru campaign. Both parties have stated that the wider #MeToo movement inspired them.

In your conclusion, you identify five points that will affect the future development of American convert Buddhism: cross lineage gatherings, teacher training, the role of the Buddhist press, development of practices and retreats, and changing demographics. All of these things are partially underway, right? They are underway and also gathering momentum. I attended the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) conference in September 2018 and was struck not just by the fact that the entire conference was devoted to the theme of diversity and inclusion but also to learn about the work being done around white privilege in Zen communities in Oregon and Minnesota. Another example is the emergence of the SF Collective Dharma in San Francisco in the wake of the dissolving of Against the Stream (ATS). Their vision statement highlights a commitment to marginalized populations and stresses that they are formed and operate as a transparent collective. So I think that we are going to see the continuation of racial justice work, more robust structural response to sexual misconduct and abuse, and the production of more transparent and collective policies and/or the formation of more collective and transparent communities. But we are also going to see the continuation of opposition against these developments.

What else would you like our readers to know about your book? Some readers might be put off by the theoretical components of the modern and the postmodern, but I think the book operates in two ways. It’s a conversation about the history and the development of Buddhism using these theoretical terms, but it can also be read as what’s happening now in these meditation-based convert lineages. I wrote this book to be accessible to non-academics, so hopefully academics and practitioners will get something out of it.

The other thing is, this is all happening in real time. I’ll be interested to see how future developments confirm, add nuance to, or challenge my findings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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