I was reading an article in Tricycle Magazine that talked about American Buddhism. I have to admit I was unaware there was a specific type of Buddhism for Americans but after reading the article and just thinking a bit it made sense. Often times, we in America take everything and turn it into something that fits our American culture. On the surface that isn’t wrong or exclusive to America. As thinking humans, it’s important that things make sense; and we learn by adapting ideas in ways that make sense for how we were raised and can understand. The whole idea of American Buddhism is to assist in the language and cultural barriers to make learning and adopting Buddhism easier. I can admit to having difficulties with Sanskrit words, and adjusting established Asian customs to my American ways. But one thing the author of the article did mention was American’s need for everything now; enlightenment in 30 minutes or less, and that is where I feel we cross the line.
I included the article above, which is an interview with scholar, psychologist, and professor of Buddhist Studies, Charles Prebish. I was unfamiliar with this gentleman before the article but have been and will continue to research him and American Buddhism to expand my own understanding of this growing movement. I was also unaware there was even an American Buddhist Congress (website is under construction but information is in the link), but again am very curious and excited to continue my study on the topic and this organization. Before when I thought of American Buddhism, I only saw the consumer end of things, and like the article spoke about, it seemed less about Buddhism and more focused solely on mindfulness and meditation. Yes these are tools Buddhist use to deepen their connection with self, and subsequently all sentient beings; but Buddhism like all religions are more than one or two tools.
I saw and still see my point illustrated in Buddhist groups I attend at home and social media. Just this weekend I came across a post online that said while the individual loved the Buddha, they didn’t consider themselves Buddhist. They continued to explain they felt if they were to study the Dharma as a Buddhist, they didn’t feel they would be able to study, learn and appreciate other religions. At first I was upset because I didn’t believe the latter statement to be true. Then I moved into thinking that was such an American thought line; to want it all and not commit. After I saw my judgmental mind at play, I had to just look at the statement objectively and what I saw was a thirst for knowledge where ever it may lay. It boiled down in my mind to not wanting the labels, something even the Buddha said were harmful, to rule our lives. The same thread mentioned Buddhism in its form, like I believe all religions in this current form, was not and is not the intended vision of the Buddha, Jesus, or the Divine. We are lost in words and categories; and what I enjoyed about the article and what the American Buddhist Congress is trying to achieve is a shared collective of Buddhist traditions that are accessible to all.
As much as I am a fan of making the pursuit for enlightenment accessible, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy what the ancient traditions offered. First, I’m a Virgo so I like structure, organization, and intelligent thinking. I like tradition for its connection to our ancestors and guidance in a world that wants to be so new and singular. Of course the past is littered with traditions that aren’t in line with current ways of thinking and being; but not all past concepts are dated and destructive. I would call anyone a liar that said they learned nothing from their grandparents, parents, and great relatives that hadn’t and isn’t shaping their lives; something they want to pass down to their children and younger family members. Traditions are needed and very much missing in an American culture that seems to want to rebel against all of the past,not just the negative aspects of the past.
I was introduced to Buddhism through books, specifically books by Thich Nhat Hanh. The lack of traditional Buddhist temples and Sangha gave rise to a more scholastic approach to learning the Dharma, and with that a market to make money. I, in no way believe it’s all about money; but it does come off that way with the abundance of costly retreats, meditation products, and DVDs offering enlightenment in five weeks. These ideas are completely an American thing, and I have to wonder if that is what American Buddhism will look like. Will American Buddhism be nothing more than the new frontier of mega churches, mega dollars, and Sunday morning spiritual worship I can watch on television while eating breakfast?
Clearly this is all supposition and my own fear over what Americans do best, commercialize everything. I’m a person that loves foreign movies, tradition and culture, and wants them to say authentic. Just like most would agree a movie based on a book or already established foreign property tends to pale in comparison to the original; I can’t help but think the same about American Buddhism. However part of me would welcome Buddhism explain in easier terms, as long as the underlying meanings and traditions were the same.
In the end it’s a balancing act and if Buddhism has anything at all the teach, impermanence is high on the list. Everything changes, everything evolves and who really wants to stand in the way of progress. But it won’t be 30 minutes or less.
So what are your thoughts? Please share in the comment section and school me if you have more to offer.