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.
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