March 27, 2010

From Cradle to … ?

One term bandied about at the Buddhism without Borders conference was cradle Buddhists. I believe Thomas Tweed gets credit for this term, one which aims to refer to Buddhists who grow up in Buddhist families, regardless of whether their families have been Buddhist for over a thousand years or whether their parents quit Catholicism and joined a Zen Center in the seventies. As Wakoh Shannon Hickey discussed problems with different Buddhist typologies, she made a side comment that perhaps I would be satisfied with the term cradle Buddhist.

Well, I don’t like it.

For the record, I appreciate the motivation behind this term, that it transcends the racial (dare I say racist?) undercurrent in the common day use of other terms like ethnic Buddhists and immigrant Buddhists. But to be very plain, this term is infantilizing. I’m also perfectly happy associating with another term that darts about the literature: heritage Buddhists.

For those of us who like to hang out in Asian America, the term heritage Buddhist is very powerful. This expression conveys the very true sense that Buddhism is woven into the fabric of our cultural heritage. Like the broad sense of the term heritage speaker, it includes both people who imbibe Buddhism through their childhood milieu and also those who later come to Buddhism through a sense of affinity with their cultural heritage. Heritage Buddhist gets at how we see ourselves.

Heritage shouldn’t be understood in contrast to convert. Several of my friends identify as both convert and heritage Buddhists. They are not born into Buddhist families (i.e. they’re not “cradle Buddhists”), but they also relate to Buddhism through a sense of familiarity or belonging. At the same time, many of us “cradle” Buddhists very much turned our backs on the Buddhism of our childhoods, only to be drawn back to different forms that diverge radically from the traditions we first experienced. One example is in the growing interest in the Vietnamese community for Theravada Buddhism. So while still heritage Buddhists, many of us are also converts within our own religion.

Lastly, don’t overlook the distinction of the growing pool of converts’ children (Dharma brats?) and their children out there. I’m happy to call them heritage Buddhists too, but this group grapples with some very unique issues that deserve to be understood in the context of their unique identities and upbringing. I’m not sure that plopping all of us down in the same cradle—as opposed to converts and sympathizers—appropriately reflects differences in both how we act and also how we see ourselves.

So scholars, maybe think about revisiting the term heritage Buddhist. If there’s an exceptional moral/academic imperative behind the term cradle Buddhists, is it so hard to instead talk about “Buddhists raised in Buddhist families”? Maybe I just dislike being institutionally infantilized.

What better term can you think of to replace cradle Buddhist?

3 comments :

  1. I very much agree that this term fails, both as an image and also as a descriptor for the multiple groups of people lumped under it. The more I read academic and even popular work on Buddhism, the more I see how much everyone seems to struggle with labels. (Probably true of anything else as well.) I'm also starting to see how people gravitate towards easy to remember phrases that miss the mark, but might point towards something. Hmm, I think I'm going to write a post about it.

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  2. I really have to admit some of the terms just get silly ... and I still quite like the "Dharma Brat" moniker ever though I am not one myself.

    What about the Inherited and Acquired Buddhist labels as portrayed here?

    While not really catchy, they do seem to do the trick. Although Heritage Buddhists has a ring to it. But being antisocial myself, it just isn't going to cover me.

    I just go with what most people out here -"heathen". A decent catch-all that I have embraced for myself.

    Cheers,

    John

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  3. I don't expect that we'll come to any consensus any time soon. There simply aren't any terms that will sufficiently and accurately cover the many emerging and present types of Buddhists in the West (we could have fun and start applying these categories historically Eastward too). What kind of Buddhist was Rahula? Oh, I forgot, there were no "Buddhists" until the English/French created the term in the 19th century :) I think Ponlop Rinpoche recently wrote about Buddha not being a Buddhist, ha! So our categories break down. You can call me a scholar, but do I really deserve that label the same way Richard Gombrich does? (hint: no) Or a practitioner, but...

    I think as long as our categories aren't demeaning or racist, we should accept their imperfections and get on with it. That said, I'm very appreciative of those who do the heavy lifting, so to speak, of challenging accepted categories and seeking out new ones. :)

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