Charles Prebish has probably visited more American dharma centers than anyone else on the continent. For those familiar with his work, this should be no surprise, as Prebish pioneered the scholarly study of American Buddhism as a subdiscipline of Buddhist studies. In the late sixties and early seventies, when Prebish was beginning his career, the academic study of Buddhism meant largely its study as an artifact of “Oriental” culture. As a young scholar Prebish focused on early Indian Buddhism: the development of the monastic system and the disciplinary literature known as Vinaya, topics well within the range of traditional Buddhist studies scholarship. But by the seventies, Prebish was among the first academics to observe that the burgeoning importation of Buddhism to the United States was developing its own cultural face, one that itself was worthy of observation and study. He taught the first course on American Buddhism in 1974 and published the first scholarly book on the topic in 1979. In the decades since, as Buddhism’s popularity in the West has soared, Prebish has been tracking its rapidly evolving course, recording its progress, and chronicling its milestones. Now Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Utah State University, Prebish has recounted the experience of practicing and studying Buddhism in America for four decades in his recent memoir, An American Buddhist Life.
Do we really have an American Buddhism yet? Many people don’t like to use the phrase “American Buddhism.” Last weekend [the Buddhist scholar] Jan Willis said, “I don’t think we’re quite there yet.” I’ve been using that phrase since 1975, but she is probably right; we’re probably not there yet. First we need all the Buddhist traditions to come to America in their integrity—with their traditions and their lineages and their rituals and so forth. Then it will take time for them to become distinctly American, to factor into American culture, for Buddhists to communicate with other Buddhists. We need patience. Eventually, something that we could call “American Buddhism” will emerge. And that doesn’t mean that there will be one vehicle. We will still have the same sects and so forth, but they will be much more interpenetrating, I think.
Americans tend to be impatient. We think if Buddhism has been here for a hundred and fifty years, of course it should be totally American. But that ignores the fact that in Asia it took centuries for Buddhism to become fully acculturated when it moved to a new cultural region. When it moved from India to China, it took at least 500 years before it became sinicized. And we’re expecting it to happen so quickly. It will take time.
What is distinctly American about United States Buddhism? It reflects democratic principles, the sense of “liberty and justice for all.” These are uniting principles within sanghas—equality in the best sense of the word. Understanding the way of the bodhisattva in an American context involves social engagement— things like hospice work, environmentalism, and prison ministries.
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