MUCH INK HAS BEEN SPILLED in recent years over the question of what constitutes genuine “American Buddhism.” ls it the Buddhism of recent European American converts, or the generations-old tradition into which many Americans of Asian ancestry were born? ls it a matter primarily of ideas or of practice? ls it meditative, devotional, or both? Must one be a member of a specific organization to be counted as a Buddhist, or should “freelancers” be included as well? In short, are there any criteria at all for defining ”American Buddhism,” and precisely who should be included in the picture?
The passions stirred by recent debates on the subject make it clear that these are not merely academic issues. Lurking just beneath the surface of these attempts to define genuine American Buddhism lies the far more divisive question of what constitutes “genuine” Buddhism as such. And behind these questions lies a broader, more political issue: who gets to do the defining, and what agendas underlie these attempts? The fundamental issue, in other words, is the politics of representation.
Every act of definition is, among other things, a political act: to define is inevitably to frame the Other in one’s own terms, an act that involves a certain distance of oneself from the Other’s own perspective or, in extreme cases, even denying the Other’s very right to exist. To define is, to put it crudely, an act of conquest, in which the Other’s self-definition is subordinated to one’s own.
But surely we liberal, multicultural Buddhists would not fall into such an obvious trap. Wouldn’t an all-inclusive, all-reflective “Indra’s net” be a better image of the way we North American Buddhists see and relate to one another?
Unfortunately, it would not. There are several distinctive positions—each the product of its own history, cultural roots, and socioeconomic grounding—from which American Buddhism is being defined (and thus created) today. What is striking about these positions is not their variety, but the extent to which those in each camp have managed not to seethe others at all. ln American Buddhism today, some of us—perhaps most of us—are unwittingly engaged in the practice of defining large groups of our fellow Buddhists out of existence.
A closer look shows that these discussions have been characterized by a pervasive, if unarticulated, dualism. There is “American Buddhism” on the one hand, and unassimilated “Buddhism in America” on the other. Or there is “white Buddhism” versus “Asian Buddhism.” Or there is “enlightenment-oriented” Buddhism versus the “worldly benefits” variety. But what is noteworthy is how quietly, and how naturally, the word and slides into the word versus in these formulations. Once an object is divided into two categories, it seems difficult (at least in this culture) to avoid viewing them as competing opposites. But the polarizing effect of such treatment is obvious: one quickly becomes the standard, and the other the “deviation.”
To avoid this “reflexive dualism,” it is help ful to look at American Buddhist groups in terms of the ways they first came to this country. Using this lens will reveal great socioeconomic and cultural rifts within the population of Buddhist America.
Religions—not just Buddhism—travel to new places in three ways: as import, export, and baggage. (They also travel when imposed by conquest, but happily that situation does not apply here.) Using economic language to talk about religion may make some readers cringe, but in fact religions, like all cultural goods, are being bought and sold all the time. Missionaries are clearly engaged in the business of marketing their religion: a person who comes to a lecture on Zen is a potential consumer. If we observe these transactions carefully, we will see that Buddhists (and potential Buddhists) in North America view this product in a variety of ways.
ELITE BUDDHISM: Transmission via Import
THE IMPORT CATEGORY REFERS TO the type of transmission in which a new religion is actively sought out by the recipient. To choose a hypothetical example: you are living in the Midwest in the 1950s, and you read about Zen Buddhism in a book in your local public library. You think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever heard of, so you buy yourself a plane ticket, head off to a temple in Kyoto, and begin studying Zen meditation. After a couple of years of practice, you return to the Midwest to start a Zen center, maybe even bringing your roshi back with you.
The important point here is that you (the importer) sought out this form of Buddhism and took the initiative to bring it to your home location. For this to happen requires certain prerequisites. The book had to be in the public library, and you had to have the interest and the ability to track it down. More important for our purposes, two things were required for you to become an active importer: money and leisure time.
But these last two items are available in very disproportionate degrees to different people in our society.There is great resistance in the United States to thinking of ourselves as a class society, but part of “seeing things as they are” is to call an elite an elite. To put it bluntly: only a member of the elite level of society can start an Import Buddhist group. Not surprisingly, in Buddhist groups as in other voluntary associations, like attracts like. Thus, the class status of the founder is largely self-perpetuating.
It is here—and only here—that the issue of race becomes relevant to the contours of Buddhism in America. Much as we might like to believe otherwise, those occupying the upper rungs of the ladder in our society are still overwhelmingly people of European (particularly northern European) descent. So although race does not function as a direct factor in determining what sort of Buddhism (if any) a person may be drawn to, class does. And to the extent that race is a major factor in shaping one’s class identity, there will naturally be racial differences among the various Buddhist groups in America.
The term white Buddhism thus fails to capture what we are looking at, for while the Buddhist groups of the Import variety are indeed overwhelmingly Caucasian, it is above all one’s class background, and not race or ethnicity as such, that determines whether a potential member will be drawn to such a group. The presence of an occasional middle-class African-American, Asian-American, or Latino member in these circles should not be surprising; the far rarer appearance of a non-college-educated European-American should.
The lmport pattern of transmission results in the formation of the Buddhist groups I refer to as Elite Buddhism. These groups attract a clientele well above average in terms of income, education, and status. Almost all are college graduates (with the exception of some artistic or literary dropouts), and a substantial percentage have postgraduate training. Their education is far from ordinary: many have attended Ivy League colleges (or, in their early years, prep schools), and a high percentage have specialized in nonlucrative fields in the arts and humanities. This is a clientele, in sum, for which mere economic survival is seldom viewed as a problem.
The most interesting question, of course, is just who are these Elite Buddhists? At first glance, the composition of Elite Buddhism suggests tremendous diversity, for it includes a whole range of schools, representing all three “vehicles” of Buddhism (as the Vajrayana tradition would classify them). But a closer look at the beliefs and practices of Elite Buddhists reveals that they are not at all representative of Buddhism as a whole. On the contrary, Elite Buddhists are overwhelmingly affiliated with a small and specific subset of the dozens of brands of Buddhism available on the world market today: namely, Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana, and Zen. An important clue as to why these three types have been selected can be seen at a glance, for the names of two of the three mean “meditation.”
A fundamental characteristic of Elite Buddhism is its obsession with meditation. Or to put it another way—for, the rhetoric of Dogen and his ilk aside, Americans rarely sit in meditation just to sit—Elite Buddhists are extraordinarily concerned with how to get enlightened.
“But that’s what Buddhism is all about!” the reader may be saying. True, no doubt, for the Buddha himself, and for his immediate circle of monastic disciples. True also for a small percentage of monks and nuns down through the centuries in various countries of Buddhist Asia. But Buddhism has historically consisted of a whole repertoire of ideas, practices, and institutions, and Elite Buddhism in the United States is characterized not only by its tremendous emphasis on meditation but also by its “selecting out” of so many other items. To choose just two examples: the almost total absence of the central Buddhist institution of monasticism, and a noticeable lack of interest in the ethical precepts. (Note that serious concern with the precepts has generally arisen in Elite Buddhist communities only under duress, most commonly in the wake of a scandal.)
Many other elements of Buddhist thought and practice are largely absent from these communities as well. The strong tradition of self-reliance in Elite Buddhist circles is paralleled by a lack of interest in (and even condescension toward) traditional devotional activities involving reliance on various Buddhist divinities, and the emphasis on “virtuoso” spiritual practices in Max Weber’s sense—e.g., Zen sesshins, long Vipassana retreats, and complex Tibetan visualization meditations—seems to be correlated with a lack of interest in practices (including ethical precepts) that are perceived as elementary. Finally, there is a significant lack of respect for those who mix material or worldly concerns with their Buddhist practice, whether these concerns are expressed in chanting mantras for a higher income or simply indulging in social activities that serve as the Buddhist equivalent of a Catholic bingo game. ln sum, Elite Buddhists are involved in the one-track pursuit of insight, up to and including enlightenment itself.
One could argue that it is unfair to describe such Buddhists as elite, since many actually experience downward mobility through their contact with the dharma. Regular attendance at prolonged meditation retreats may make it impossible to hold down a high-paying job, and indeed the performance of semiskilled and service occupations (e.g., carpentry, housecleaning, and gardening) has taken on a certain cachet in some Elite Buddhist circles. Nevertheless, it is usually those who have experienced some modicum of financial security who are willing to make such precarious choices.
Elite Buddhism, then, is not merely generic Asian Buddhism with an American veneer. It has its own unique characteristics, both in terms of what it includes and what it excludes from the Buddhist teachings it has inherited. And this uniqueness is directly related to the side effects of the Import pattern of transmission. Long before actual contact with a living Buddhist culture takes place, the importer has already formed his or her own idiosyncratic notion of what Buddhism is all about, generally from an ad hoc assortment of books. Once these preliminary ideas about Buddhism have taken shape, even the most fervent efforts of a Buddhist teacher may be insufficient to uproot them. At the very core of Orientalism is the creation of an imagined and artificial East, which may have little in common with the actual experience of any real group of inhabitants of Asia. At the core of Elite Buddhism, by analogy, lies the possibility of a largely invented tradition that may bear little resemblance to any living form of Asian Buddhism.
Does this matter? That is of course another question. The answer will depend largely on whether the reader conceives of Buddhism in essentialist terms (as having some core or essence that must be preserved if Buddhism is to remain “authentic”) or in a more pragmatic sense (as a set of ideas and techniques designed to bring about a certain result, which can freely be adjusted according to changing circumstances). But for the purpose at hand just one observation is germane: of the three types of American Buddhism discussed here, it is Elite Buddhism that is likely to bear the least resemblance to Buddhism as practiced in any Asian country.
EVANGELICAL BUDDHISM: Transmission via Export
IT MIGHT SEEM STRANGE, even artificial, to separate Import from Export religions, for one person’s import is obviously another person’s export. But when it comes to matters of religious history, an important distinction needs to be made. By Export I mean a religion that is not sought out by people residing in the United States, but which is brought here by citizens of other countries who come to these shores as missionaries.
Export religions are supply-driven: the initial interest comes from the exporter, not from the potential convert. In fact, there are virtually no prerequisites—neither money, nor power, nor time—to becoming the addressee of a missionary: one need only be present where the proselytizing takes place (whether on a street corner, at work, or even in one’s own home). Missionaries may choose to carry out their conversion activities in a wide variety of settings: some will speak primarily to an elite, while others seek their first converts among the poor. The Buddhism of the Export category—which I call Evangelical Buddhism—is thus something of a wild card: it can draw a broad and varied membership, or it can appeal to no one at all.
Who are these Buddhist missionaries? Even if we exclude those “missionaries” who came to this country to serve an already-Buddhist ethnic community, it is sometimes difficult to tell where to draw the line. ls a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who writes to an American asking for an invitation (and receives one) a Buddhist of the Export or the Import variety? And what of the various Zen teachers who arrived in this country in the early twentieth century to propagate their own (often eccentric) notions of Buddhism in North America? In the case of Zen, the degree of American seeking soon overwhelmed that of Japanese selling, so most of American Zen falls quite securely into the Import Buddhist camp. But there is one classic case of Export Buddhism in the United States: the Buddhism of the Soka Gakkai.
The Soka Gakkai began its life in Japan in the 1930s as a lay organization devoted to the support and furtherance of the teachings of the Nichiren Shoshu school. During the postwar period, however, in the volatile atmosphere created by the freedom-of-religion policies imposed by the Allied Occupation, the lay organization experienced tremendous growth. Soon the vast majority of Nichiren Shoshu members were those who had been converted by lay members of the Soka Gakkai, leading to a situation in which the tail (the Soka Gakkai) threatened to wag the dog (the priestly establishment). The Soka Gakkai maintained an alternately supportive and antagonistic relationship with the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood until 1991, when the Soka Gakkai was officially excommunicated from the school.
Long before this traumatic event took place, however, the Soka Gakkai had amassed a substantial membership in the United States, and this membership was dramatically different from that drawn by the Elite Buddhist groups. Advertising higher income, better health, and improved relationships as among the results of Buddhist practice, the Soka Gakkai (first known here as Nichiren Shoshu of America) attracted a highly diverse following. In contrast to Elite Buddhism, whose members are largely of middle-class background or above (“We call it the Upper-Middle Way,” one western Theravada monk told me with a smile), the Soka Gakkai drew its initial membership from a broad social spectrum. Though it does have a small percentage of highly educated members, only about half have attended college, and barely a quarter hold bachelor’s degrees. Statistics provided by the organization show a wide range of educational levels and occupations; my own observations suggest a center of gravity in the lower-middle class.
But it is not only in its class composition that the Soka Gakkai is unusual, for it has a substantial percentage of African-American, Latino, and Asian-American members, in addition to those of European-American ancestry. According to a 1983 survey, fully 55 percent of its members come from non-European ethnic backgrounds. In sum, in both class and ethnicity, its clientele stands in stark contrast to that of Elite Buddhist groups.
A further contrast can be seen in the types of demands made on the practitioner, for membership in the Soka Gakkai involves no long retreat or training periods. The primary practice—chanting the mantra namu myoho renge kyo—can be done in one’s own home rather than at a central meeting place and requires only a small commitment of time each day. On the other hand, an integral part of Soka Gakkai practice is spreading the teachings to others, which is seen as a way to change society for the better as well as to improve one’s own karmic “fortune.” Both of these practices can (and indeed should) be performed in the midst of society and not in retreat from it. As a result, working-class and middle-class Buddhists can carry out their religious duties without interrupting the pursuit of conventional occupations.
Since these Buddhists view material conditions as the direct manifestation of one’s spiritual state, and therefore as amenable to immediate change by the force of religious practice, it is hardly surprising that the Soka Gakkai has a strong appeal to those with significant material needs, including recent immigrants and African Americans (for whom racism serves as an ongoing obstacle to material success). Small wonder, too, that Buddhists in this category commonly experience upward rather than downward economic mobility. For Soka Gakkai members, in other words, there is no sharp break between the material and the spiritual. Naturally, to many of its members the “enlightenment-only” concerns of Elite Buddhists seem to reflect the complacency of those for whom material circumstances are not a problem.
ETHNIC BUDDHISM: Transmission via Baggage
FINALLY WE COME TO THE CATEGORY of Baggage Buddhism—though perhaps we should have begun with this type, for here at last we meet with Buddhists who are simply born into the faith of their ancestors. Like Export Buddhism, this type involves travel by a foreign-born Buddhist to the United States, but in this case, the motives are totally different. For while the founder of an Export Buddhist group comes to this country for purposes of propagation, members of the Baggage Buddhism category travel for reasons that have nothing to do with religion at all. Instead, these Buddhists come as immigrants to the United States in order to pursue economic opportunity, to escape persecution, or for other personal or family reasons. As for their religion, they simply bring it along. It is the experience of immigration itself that has shaped the composition of Baggage Buddhist groups, for prior to the passage of the new immigration law of 1965 that offered preferential entry to professionals, most of those who left home to forge a new life in the United States were members of less privileged classes. Arriving here with little knowledge of English and with few marketable skills—most being farmers or members of the working class—those Asian Buddhists who migrated to the United States generally began their lives here at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, working to build railroads across the western states or toiling in the pineapple fields of Hawaii.
Buddhist groups of the Baggage category, then, have generally begun as organizations of the disenfranchised. The absence of sophisticated job skills among recent arrivals, their lack of facility with English, and the anti-Asian racism that periodically flares up with such ferocity have combined to create a real need for a sangha that could serve, in a literal sense, as a refuge.
It follows that Buddhist groups of the Baggage type tend to be deliberately monoethnic at the outset, for this can be a key element in self-preservation. All Buddhists, of course, have their own ethnic identities, but it is only in this category that ethnicity is the primary defining feature of a Buddhist group. For this reason, I refer to this category as Ethnic Buddhism.
Not surprisingly, Ethnic Buddhist organizations serve a range of purposes quite different from those of either Elite or Evangelical Buddhism. A major concern at the outset is survival, sometimes in a literal sense, but more broadly in a sense of cultural integrity. In this respect, the role of language, traditional festivals, and even food comes into clear focus: all of these things serve to bind members of an ethnic community to one another and to their own communal past. Do these Ethnic Buddhists want a bunch of Anglo enlightenment seekers milling around at their church suppers? Hardly.
But, in fact, things are not quite so simple, for as students of immigration history are well aware, the priorities of an immigrant group can change significantly over time. While monoethnicity can be an advantage for survival in the initial phase, it can become a disadvantage in subsequent generations. As the children of the second and third generations become increasingly involved with mainstream society and seek to obtain better jobs and a better education, identification with a “deviant” religion (the term is chosen advisedly) can become a real barrier to assimilation.
All of this follows, of course, only if assimilation is seen by the community in question as desirable, an attitude that may well vary across generations. The choices made will vary from one Ethnic Buddhist community to another, shaped both by the inner dynamics of the group and by the opportunities and pressures presented by the world outside.
So how do we American Buddhists see one another? Or, more realistically, are we even seeing one another at all? To begin with the point of view of Elite Buddhism (by far the dominant perspective in the American media), a quick perusal of representative publications reveals a remarkable lack of attention to Buddhists of the Ethnic and Evangelical varieties. Don Morreale’sBuddhist America, for example—ostensibly a guide to practice centers of all types—contains not a single mention of the Soka Gakkai, and the only Pure Land Buddhist center listed is the Cleveland Buddhist Temple, which also offers instruction in Zen. And in Rick Fields’s now-classic history, How the Swans Came to the Lake, Ethnic Buddhism seems to disappear after the 1890s, while Evangelical Buddhism is conspicuous by its absence.
But Fields and Morreale are not simply ignoring Asian Buddhists, for both of them include certain Asian-born Elite Buddhist teachers in their accounts. How, then, can we explain the persistent invisibility of Ethnic and Evangelical Buddhists in these supposedly pan-Buddhist sources? The answer, in retrospect, is obvious: Elite Buddhists have redefined Buddhism as synonymous with the practice of meditation. Those Buddhist groups that do not focus on teaching of meditation, therefore, are viewed as not really Buddhist at all.
It now becomes clear why Elite Buddhists often feel that they have included “all the schools” if they have mentioned Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana, and Zen. But in fact this list is not at all comprehensive. It simply includes all the Buddhist groups within a single category: the Elite, meditation-oriented category to which they themselves belong.
Yet Elite Buddhists are not alone in defining Buddhism in such a way that a substantial proportion of their fellow Buddhists simply disappear from the map. Evangelical Buddhists likewise define other Buddhists out of existence, but this time on more conscious grounds. Nichiren was not merely critical of other Buddhist schools; he taught that they would lead their unwitting practitioners to the lowest Buddhist hell. For Soka Gakkai members to define other forms of Buddhism as legitimate, then, would require a break with these centuries-old beliefs. While there is some evidence that such a revision may slowly be taking place, we are still a long way from seeing real openness toward other schools.
However, there is another serious obstacle to such ecumenicity, for just as Elite Buddhists have defined Buddhism as equivalent to meditation, so for Soka Gakkai members it is equivalent to chanting namu myoho renge kyo. Once again, those who do not teach this practice (in this case, all other Buddhist groups—even other Nichiren groups, who do the right chant but in the presence of the wrong ritual objects) are framed as “not real Buddhists,” and thus are defined out of the picture.
lt is among Ethnic Buddhists that we find the most complex and sophisticated picture of Buddhism of any of the groups discussed. For Ethnic Buddhists, Buddhism includes both monastics and laity, both intensive practice and small steps toward a better rebirth. lt includes not only the teaching of doctrine but many of the values deeply embedded in specific cultural forms. Ethnic Buddhism, in sum, involves the entire fabric of life, not just of the individual but across generations. From this perspective the Buddhism of both Elite and Evangelical groups appears quite truncated, since so much has been omitted from their repertoire.
Yet this does not mean that Ethnic Buddhists have a panoramic and all-inclusive vision, for many would be surprised to find themselves lumped together with Buddhists they have never heard of before. In fact, the monoethnic character of these communities (at least at the beginning) does not lead to much interaction across ethnic lines. It is quite common for members of a Japanese temple, for example, to be unaware of the existence of a Thai temple nearby, or for a Chinese group to operate without any knowledge of its Korean neighbors. Most Ethnic Buddhists end up having more contact with Elite Buddhist groups, generally at the initiative of the latter, than they have with their fellow Ethnic Buddhist believers.
Asked about Tina Turner’s brand of Buddhism in a recent interview—for African-American Buddhists of all sectarian preferences are constantly reminded that the Soka Gakkai is the only Buddhist organization with a substantial black membership—bell hooks dismissed Ms. Turner’s form of Buddhism as the “get-what-you-want” variety. She’s right, of course. But what is more difficult to see is that all Buddhism is get-what-you want Buddhism. Some of us already have the material basics; some of us do not. All of us want a respite from suffering. And the thirst for nirvana is no less a desire than is the hope for a better job or the wish that one’s grandchildren will carry on the family’s Buddhist traditions. We all practice get-what-you-want Buddhism; we just want different things.
The greatest challenge, then, is not just to say to those who are different from ourselves (whether in terms of race or ethnicity or class), “You are welcome to come and sit zazen with us,” for example. Allowing others who are unlike ourselves to want what we want is “small inclusiveness.” Large inclusiveness is to view what others want—even if it is radically different from our own needs and preferences—as deserving of equal respect.
Only a few American Buddhists—mostly Ethnic Buddhists, in my experience—have yet attained this spirit of generous tolerance. But it is an example we would all do well to emulate. Until then, there will always be “two Buddhisms” in America: Us and Them, however we define each other.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.