Review: Ann Gleig’s comprehensive report on the state of Buddhism in today’s United States, “American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity”

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An important account of how modernist and post-modernist trends in contemporary culture are transforming the way Western Buddhism is being practiced in America, this book is invaluable reading for anyone concerned with the future of Buddhism, and especially with the future prospects for a socially engaged Buddhism, in this country.

Here’s the review I recently posted on Amazon and Goodreads …

 

“Growing Pains”

Zen, Chan, Tibetan – all well-known names for the distinctive versions of Buddhism associated with three of the countries that have been home to the dharma for thousands of years, namely Japan, China, and Tibet.  However, here in the United States, where its presence is more appropriately measured in decades rather than in millennia, Buddhism has earned the far less distinctive, almost bland, name of “Western Buddhism” – as if it is still too immature and too undeveloped to merit a more memorable name.

In her remarkable new book, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, scholar Ann Gleig makes a compelling case that Western Buddhism, as it currently exists in America, is anything but immature and undeveloped.  On the contrary, in the relatively brief half century of its presence here, Buddhism has already passed through two important transformative stages – the first mostly completed, and the second well under way but still in process.

The first transformation has its origins not in Buddhism’s migration to the West, but rather in colonialism’s intrusion into the East.  Gleig contends, convincingly, that the British and other European colonizers exerted a subtle but powerful influence on the traditional Buddhism being practiced in India, by virtue of their forceful introduction of Enlightenment values into the native culture.  This colonial culture gave rise to the radically new idea of meditation as the pursuit of individual wellbeing, rather than an expression of community among individuals following shared traditions and rituals.  It was this novel Enlightenment-based approach to mindfulness that was taught to the American students who arrived in India in the late 1960s to learn meditation from “traditional” masters.  When these students returned to America in the 1970s to pass along what they had learned on their pilgrimages to the East, they were in fact spreading modern, not traditional, Buddhism.

While the modernism of Western Buddhism may have its infant roots in the post-colonial culture of the East, its growth and maturity are firmly rooted in contemporary America.  Here, over the past four decades, Buddhism has attracted a mostly white, mostly well-educated, mostly well-to-do group of practitioners – overwhelmingly liberal in their political sympathies, devoted to European Enlightenment ideals of science and reason, and drawn to the psychotherapeutic benefits of mindfulness.  Gleig refers to this meditation-centered, mostly secular, and highly psychologized version that has become the dominant form of Buddhist practice in America as “convert Buddhism”, underscoring the deep divide between it and the more traditional forms of Buddhism still practiced in the West by what she terms “the immigrant community” of mostly Asian-American, usually more religious, and generally less well-to-do practitioners.

This first transformative stage of Western Buddhism into its modernist form is now largely complete, but the split just described between “convert” and “immigrant” communities has laid the groundwork for a second, more dramatic transformation which is just getting started.  It is this second wave of transformation that Gleig’s research has detected, and that defines the core thesis of American Dharma.  Gleig proposes that the characteristics of “Buddhist modernism” – firmly established by the success of the convert communities in the first wave of transformation – are now, in response both to internal pressures building within the convert communities themselves and to external forces occurring in American culture, entering upon a state of radical transformation into what she designates as an emerging form of “postmodern Buddhism”.

In three key chapters in the first half of her book, Gleig examines three different manifestations of the impact of modernist American culture on convert Buddhism – the secular mindfulness movement, the sexual revolution and its attendant abuses, and the growing confluence of psychotherapy and meditation.  Here she shows how this modernist form of American Buddhism, with its predominantly white culture and its primary focus on individual wellbeing, contains within itself the seeds of the diversity challenges – both racial and generational – that are opening the doors to a variety of postmodernist trends.  Her detailed account of how one such community in the convert lineage has struggled valiantly, but ultimately in vain, to overcome the racial divide between its majority white membership and its minority persons-of-color group is heartbreaking to read.

In the second half of the book, Gleig switches focus away from the modernist communities and their leadership, and toward the voices and the projects of the emerging postmodernist influencers in the American Buddhist community.  Once again, three key chapters explore in depth three significant developments – the emergence of a radically new emphasis on social and racial justice as a necessary component of Buddhist practice, the growing popularity of online communities and social media networks with younger practitioners, and the tensions brewing between the aging “boomer” generation of teachers and the much younger “Gen X” teachers getting ready to assume leadership roles as the boomers begin to retire.

As she documents each of these manifestations of postmodernist challenges to the existing modernist ideals, Gleig is careful to point out how these new developments should be seen as simultaneous continuations of, and corrections to, the established forms of convert Buddhism.  Her message is that Buddhism in America is growing into postmodernity; it is not being overthrown and reborn into something radically new and unfamiliar.  It’s an evolution, not a revolution.

And yet, a careful reading of American Dharma leaves one with a palpable sense that Western Buddhism is, at this particular moment in the United States, experiencing severe growing pains that make its future at best unpredictable, and at worst unsustainable.  Especially in the latter half of the book, Gleig necessarily devotes a significantly larger portion of her narrative to the postmodernist developments – this is, after all, the story she has set herself to tell in support of her thesis.  For readers whose practice has been grounded for many years in the modernist tradition, it’s easy to feel unsettled, as if we are being completely overlooked, or even worse, being altogether set aside – in the gloomy metaphor of one longtime Zen teacher and blogger, “like a dinosaur”.

But perhaps the better perspective for us “dinosaurs” to hold as we read this book is one of appreciation for Gleig’s in-depth reporting on the various post-modernist trends impacting contemporary Western Buddhism.  By letting us more clearly “see things as they really are” – a hallmark of wisdom in the Buddhist teachings – American Dharma can help us to respond more skillfully to the changes that are all but certain to come.