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.

 

A Few Words about the June Democratic Debates

In my last post, I declared that I would be listening to each of the participants in the first round of the Democratic presidential candidate debates for some hint of generosity, compassion, and wisdom in their remarks.  Well, not long into the first evening’s debate, I started feeling a little like the hapless hero of that old pop tune, the guy who was “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places”.  There I was, looking for compassion on a debate stage whose ten occupants were focused mostly on creating a visual moment that could go viral on social media and thereby boost their poll numbers. What I heard instead was a lot of interrupting, grandstanding, and in a few cases, personal attacks. Hardly what Buddhism refers to as “skillful speech”.

With hindsight, I guess this was to be expected.  The format of these early debates – crowded as they are with so many candidates – all but guarantees this kind of behavior. Attention goes to the ones who speak up the most forcefully, and at this early stage, media attention is to a campaign what oxygen is to a person – the very substance that keeps one alive.

The fact that Kamala Harris is considered to have scored the biggest “win” – largely if not entirely due to her impassioned verbal confrontation with Joe Biden – would seem to validate this assertion.

My conclusion:  we’ll have to wait until the candidate field has been narrowed down before this form of one-upmanship abates.  Ironically, it will probably take even more of this one-upmanship in order to accomplish the very narrowing down that will hopefully bring about its end.  Then, perhaps, the debate stage will morph from one of the above-mentioned “wrong places” to, in fact, the perfect place to listen for words of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

I’ll be waiting.

A perspective on the upcoming Democratic candidate debates

Two years ago, on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, I argued in one of my final posts on my old blog that no practicing Buddhist could in good conscience support the candidacy of Donald Trump for the simple reason that his entire public life prior to his entry into politics had been marked by Buddhism’s “three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion.

Two years later, I would make a similar argument that no practicing Buddhist can in good conscience support his presidency, ravaged as it has been by those same three poisons. And few, if any, Buddhists of my acquaintance would need that argument presented to them.  There is simply no way to reconcile the policies of what many pundits have termed “Trumpism” with the ethical principles of Buddhism.

So, whether politically engaged or not, most American Buddhists will likely find themselves aligned with the Democratic party in the 2020 presidential election, and thus I suspect that quite a number of us will be watching the upcoming Democratic candidate debates with a particularly keen interest.

What criteria might a liberal Buddhist apply in order to differentiate among the twenty candidates who will be participating in the first of these debates, scheduled to take place in two separate sessions, with ten candidates in the first and the other ten in the second, on the successive evenings of Wednesday, June 26th, and Thursday, June 27th?

Certainly one essential quality needed in the eventual nominee is the “electability” factor. Undoubtedly, every person in this country – Buddhist or not – who has for the past two years been appalled by the spoken and tweeted words of Trump, horrified by the inhumane actions being taken at the southern border, and terrified by the reckless climate-change-denying policies being implemented throughout the nation, passionately hopes to see the current president soundly defeated at the ballot box next November.

And while I too will be watching the Democratic debates with an eye toward discerning who among the candidates has the most realistic chance of actually winning the election, I will also be listening to what each of them says with an ear for detecting who among them is speaking in terms of the Buddhist virtues of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  These three traits, of course, are considered to be the antidotes to the “three poisons” – greed, hatred, and delusion – which have been the shameful hallmarks of the Trump presidency, and of Trumpism in general.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there was a memorable TV and billboard advertising campaign for a popular packaged bread at the time, Levy’s real Jewish rye. The ads featured the smiling faces of persons of indisputably non-Jewish ethnicity (a burly middle-aged Irish policeman was one such happy face), each of whom had just bitten into a delicious-looking sandwich made on rye bread, with the tag line “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.”

In a similar vein, I would like to propose that you don’t have to be Buddhist to be in favor of generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  And I’m hoping that some of the Democratic candidates are in favor of them as well, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever meditated or sat through a dharma talk.

Generosity.  Compassion.  Wisdom.  These are what I’ll be listening for during the debates this week, and again during the next round of debates in July.

In my next post, shortly after the July debates, I’ll report on whether or not I heard them.