Who Are American Buddhists?

I recently heard what may be the most important piece I’ve come across on American Zen, and though I share some thoughts about it below, the bottom line of this post is that I can’t recommend highly enough this profoundly moving talk by Duncan Ryuken Williams at the recent Soto Zen Buddhist Association conference.

There’s a funny and disturbing thing I’ve noticed about myself that I think I share with some others in the family of “Western Zen,” that is, we non-Asian, “convert” Zen students.  I saw it more clearly than ever this summer while I was reading the great critique of Western Buddhism, Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism Under Colonialism, edited by the first rate Western Buddhism-critiquer Donald Lopez (more on his work in later posts, I hope).  A basic “Orientalist” pattern revealed throughout Lopez’s book is the tendency of Western Buddhism to simultaneously appropriate and distance itself from Asian Buddhism.  That is, we naturally tend to draw our Buddhist authority in large part from our connections to Asian Buddhism – from Suzuki Roshi, for example, or any of the other handful of important Japanese missionaries, or our Asian robes, or our knowledge of Asian texts, or our skill in Asian meditation practices.  But at the same time we tend to distance ourselves from the living Asian traditions these people and objects and teachings and practices come out of and represent, repeating themes like “you know, in Japan they don’t really sit,” “it’s just funerals in Japan,” “it’s just ceremonies in Japan,” “what they do in Japan isn’t relevant to us,” etc.  It turns out that at some level we seem not too much to respect the actual tradition we give ourselves so much credit for being heirs to.

Maybe that’s too harsh, and certainly it doesn’t cover the whole span of whatever “American Buddhism” is, but it’s a dynamic I recognize in my own life and to some extent in my community.  I think my book is actually a good case study of it – as I detail my “misadventures in wacky Japan,” I get the benefit of association with the “authoritative” Japanese Zen while at the same time disparaging and distancing myself from it.  The two shouldn’t work together – if you are insulting a thing you shouldn’t get credit for being part of it – but paradoxically they seem to somehow fuel each other.

But more than just personally or even as a single Zen community, this appropriation and distancing is a dynamic that colors the way that the history of Western Buddhism has tended to be presented, and it continues to  mark “American Buddhists’” relationship with the Asian kinds of Buddhism in America – the Asian and Asian-American Buddhists who are present and active in the West alongside “us.”  Drawing our legitimacy from Asia and appropriating the tradition as our own, we then turn around and distance ourselves from these actual Asian and even Asian-American Buddhists who have the whole time been practicing and investigating and evolving the same traditions we are.

The truth is, of course, that Asian and Asian-American Buddhists have been practicing the Dharma in the U.S. for far longer than our usual genealogies acknowledge.  We tend to say that American Zen started in the 1950s and 1960s with these great Japanese missionaries, but what about the Japanese and Chinese temples that were in the U.S. long before?  Why don’t we look to them for what American Buddhism is?  Why don’t we really think of them as the founders of American Buddhism?  Why don’t we ask them about the problems of integrating with mainstream culture, with finding a place alongside Christianity, with creating thriving American Buddhist congregations and relevant American Buddhist observances and institutions?  Why do we so easily imagine that we starting making this “American Buddhism” up in the 1960s, when great priests and practitioners have been thinking about it since the century prior?

Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Japanese-American Soto Zen priest and well-known scholar, recently gave a very powerful talk before the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of North America – and it may be the most important piece on American Buddhism that I’ve ever heard.  It tells some very moving stories of some of the Japanese Buddhists who predate our standard chronology of when “Buddhism arrived” and whose practice can’t be reduced to anything like “mere ceremony” or “not relevant” or, most perniciously, “not really American.”  And his talk holds the seeds, I think, of a new approach, a new mutual appreciation and real exchange, that could break – I hope for me at least – this cycle of appropriation and distancing, of respect for the abstractions of Tradition alongside the dismissal of the people who “own it” at the very least as much as “we” do.

Please listen to this talk!

16 thoughts on “Who Are American Buddhists?

  1. Culture is empty. Any exo-form can be a useful way for one to calibrate one’s endo-chaos. The word Buddhism is compound: Buddh-ism. There is nothing particularly cultural about the Buddh part. The Buddh refers to a particular discipline of mind that makes it more plastic. Only the -ism part of Buddhism is cultural. I never tell anyone that I am buddhist or a buddhist – Rather, I confess that my way of going about the world is buddhan, not buddhist. When asked “what’s the difference” I answer the one is about transformation, the other about conformity. It seems to me that you are correct to notice that the tension between appropriating and distancing Asian culture is a buddhist problem. It’s not a buddhan problem, however. In fact, it’s a buddhan solution.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I find it really interesting/intimidating/threatening. As soon as I get some quiet time I’m going to listen to that talk.

    I’ve always felt unclear and uncomfortable about how I, as a “convert”, am supposed to relate to Asian Buddhists/communities here in the U.S. It has somehow felt like I am supposed to avoid them – or at the very least like they are about something entirely different that I can’t (or am not supposed to) understand or relate to.

    I think it’s related to something else I’ve been thinking about a lot – the idea that Zen (whatever I mean by that) is ultimately only about zazen practice. It seems that idea has a lot of currency in contemporary U.S. zen culture. I got that idea loud and clear early on, and it was encouraged by my shallow readings of Dogen and others. One important thing that happens when we simply extract zazen practice is that we entirely lose the community piece of the puzzle. If it’s only about zazen we don’t need to eat together, work together, and live together. We can feel justified in being judgy about people who put their emphasis on something other than long painful hours in the zendo – they must be missing the REAL point.

  3. Thank you so much for this, Jiryu. Here is a really nice update on the question of Two Buddhisms in America as represented by white (and western-identified?) scholars. For grazers such as myself it provides a useful historiography of the issues as they have changed over time in the study of Buddhism in America. I found it posted on the Angry Asian Angry Asian Buddhist website, posted there because Arun’s efforts are mentioned specifically by Charles Prebish, who would rather see a more proactive approach, such as that of Duncan Ryoken Williams. For Prebish, the useful question is “Why are Asian American Buddhists so invisible?”. But maybe it takes an Angry Asian Buddhist to be the watchdog for that invisibility, and a consistent advocate for change, otherwise those marriage laws would not have been changed in 1917.

    Also, you write: “…this appropriation and distancing is a dynamic that colors the way that the history of Western Buddhism has tended to be presented.” The talk you link to by Duncan Ryuken Williams is a lovely and moving address towards history as a discipline and for practitioners it underscores the value of history towards an appreciation of Buddhism taking hold, an opening for our gratitude, a great big yes to the ancestors. No sticking. Thank you also to the Soto Zen Buddhist Association for inviting him, and for making this talk available.

    With palms together, Catherine Seigen Spaeth

  4. In this conversation there is another lineage dynamic which needs attention:
    What happens to Americans who are not Christian?
    What is America, if not Christian?
    If one is American, as I am, and do not identify with the Mosaic and Monotheist traditions/lineages, as I do not, and one is drawn into Dharma practice, what living lineage might one become a part of?

    As I perhaps approach Jukai in the Soto Zen / SFZC / Empty Hand Zen Center lineage, I reflect on these things. I am most wary of exoticism, having seen many gateways along my path whose allure seemed partly to be the avoidance of liberating my many linages’ ancient, twisted kharma, sprouting from beginningless greed hate and delusion. It seemed to me that certain gateways were perhaps simultaneously more attractive and less profound because I knew nothing of their ancient twisted kharma,

    My way led me to the Empty Hand Zen Center, not because it had a connection to Japan, but because when I met Susan Jion Postal in the late 80’s, something began. Decades later, I was somehow called to find her sangha. When I first heard the sutras there – the Heart Sutra, the Sandokai – I had a visceral experience I liken to drinking cool, clear spring water after a thirst I didn’t know I had. The work of her lineage spoke of experience as I had lived it, was consonant with the gestalt of all my many lineages and experiences, rang true to me.

    Japanese-ness was seemingly a distraction at the outset. Now, however, I am deeply grateful for the women and men of so many generations, in so many cultures, who have sustained and endlessly evolved this practice through the branching streams of this lineage into whose list my name may one day be added.

    In the same way that descendants in the slave disaspora have forgotten the history of their own ancestors – and thus find solace for the occulted pain arising from their own ancient twisted kharma through identification with the biblical slavery of the jews, so the history told by Duncan Ryuken WIlliams offers non-mosaic folk like myself a way to understand the struggles of our non-conformist ancestors over these past few thousand years in the west.

    The bigotry recounted by Williams is a reminder of the dynamic and incomplete state of the “american idea”, that meme of post-tribal, egalitarian, religiously free community. And so, we practitioners along these lineages are called to assist in the nurturing the vitality of that liberation meme. A meme hardly American. A liberation aspired to in many cultures, time out of mind. It must be part of our practice to learn the history of our dharma ancestors, and to take on as ours the wrongs they suffered – wrongs (and rights) that bring us face to face with our own ancient, twisted kharma – the work we are given to do along these Bodhisattva paths, here where civilizations flowing from east and west dance in eddies of assimilation and differentiation, of release and new grasping, escape, liberty, passing bondage and the Bodhisattva Vows.

    So it seems.

    In Gassho,

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  6. Thanks Jiryu! Recently two girls came to visit a friend at GGF and they laughed good-naturedly at the Americans “playing Asian.” As you can imagine some people felt a little turned off and felt like “no, we’re doing something different!” But it really drove the conversation in the direction of what is “cultural appropriation?” Why do we want to say “we are not that?” The answer seems like it could be, because we want the credit for “starting something.” We hold tradition and lineage so dear to our hearts but maybe it’s just so we can say “we’re legit, so listen to us.” So I will contemplate this as I wear robes, practice tea and chant in Pali.

  7. Oh, Jiryu. What a relief it was for me to read your post and listen to prof. Williams. It gives me hope for self-awareness and respect in my mostly-white-buddhist-sangha that you propose we have somethings to learn about how we in the west have simultaneously appropriated and distanced ourselves from Asian tradition, culture and religion.

    The issues of class will be intertwined with, be underneath, or at least be close behind our discussion of race, culture and appropriation. I have received compassionate bonks on the head when I didn’t see that coming.

    In our hearts, I think it will be easy to understand that western buddha dharma has not escaped the reality that our culture has long had an illness with understanding and inclusion with race and class. How this dialogue could come to my mostly-white-buddhist-sangha has been mysterious to me. I think we need training, training that will be tough to face, because we are looking at our diverse identities and how to live together in harmony. We are looking at what we treasure and love, and what we are accustomed to.

    For those who have limited exposure to Asia or Asian buddhism, please investigate statements about Asian things and about where western buddhism has come from. Consider that some statements are being repeated out of context.

    In gratitude, Luke

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  10. I wonder why Zen became so associated with Asia, and specifically Japanese culture? Only the outward, superficial form points to that, and attaching to the past creates even more suffering. Zen is not a tea ceremony, or a shaved head, or reciting chants in difficult languages. Nor is it a a bowl of rice, or robes.

    The dharma is here, right now, and those who look to past, long dead traditions and rituals miss the mark. Zen is sitting meditation, the three jewels, and the eightfold path. It’s a rational, creative, in-the-here-and-now practice which allows us to live fully in the present and understand the workings of our ego and cause and effect. It means waking up to reality, and these cultural and religious traditions prevent people from awakening to the truth.

    There is not one thing that is cultural or Asian based in authentic Zen, and that this has happened is directly due to many, many attempts to turn a spiritual path into a religion.

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