Following the failed coup in Russia a cartoon in a New York newspaper featured two people standing in front of the Kremlin. One was saying to the other, “If you miss the one-party system, go to America.”
As the cartoon implies, new political alliances threaten to recast the United States as, at best, a beleaguered advocate of ideological plurality. Let’s hope that American Buddhism doesn’t follow the national political trend, especially since diversity is as central to Buddhist history as it has been to the history of the United States.
After two thousand years of migration and cultural adaptation, Buddhism lays claim to an enormous variety of practices, rituals, and interpretations of scripture. There is no one way to be a Buddhist. Like other world religions, Buddhism has proved capable of providing something for everyone. The many sects that now exist in the United States reflect the compelling and flexible dimensions inherent in any body of ideas that has been tested by time and has crossed continents. That so many of these traditions have found resonance here, in a society long energized by diversity, is no surprise. But within Buddhism, as well as the society at large, the difficult job of cultivating the open and tolerant view that promotes political plurality remains: how best to capitalize on differences, how to use them for the benefit of everyone, how to celebrate diversity, and how to assure its representation with all of the wild contrast and contradiction that must accompany that representation. If we are to affirm true pluralism we must accept that one person’s practice is another’s poison. And with that behind us, we must still figure out how to make it all work!
There are a growing number of voices here concerned with the shape of American Buddhism, concerned with arbitrating which interpretations seem appropriate for this society and which may be better left behind in Asia. But whose America? Whose Buddhism? And it doesn’t seem too soon to question whether these concerns best serve the task of interpreting the dharma.
The spokespeople for Buddhism in America have been, almost exclusively, educated members of the white middle class. Meanwhile, even with varying statistics, Asian-American Buddhists number at least one million, but so far they have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism. In addition, the dharma has extended into AIDS hospices, prison projects, and homeless programs initiated by Buddhist activists, and how this might effect the demography of American Buddhism is, at this point, anyone’s guess. There are also cogent exponents for monasticism, but their chosen path has, predictably enough, been overshadowed by those of the secular social activists. And contemporary Buddhism has yet to find its Thomas Merton—an authoritative, inspired voice of social consciousness entering the mainstream from the monastic margin.
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