Religions Separate and Different

This morning I read Stephen Porthero’s Boston Globe piece on why it’s important not to think all religions are intrinsically the same—that they are substantively different. His argument is well articulated. All religions accept that there is some intrinsic problem with the world as-is—but they diagnose this problem differently and prescribe very different treatments aiming at sometimes diametrically opposed outcomes. (Medical analogy may not be the most appropriate here, but it’s early in the morning for me.)

When it comes to international conflicts where religion is involved, he argues, it’s important to take these differences into account. I can accept this—up to a point. I am very weary of assuming that humanity’s religious differences are at the forefront of today’s so-called “Clash of Civilizations.” These differences are, in my view, merely contributing factors to larger political and socio-economic conflicts, which use religion and culture as the playing field on which to wage battle.

I’m quite happy with Prothero’s argument that religions are actually different. This is in fact what I believe about Buddhism. At the same time, I’m not sure if I buy into the political implications he extends—but my uncertainty may simply be rooted in that I don’t understand his argument well enough yet.

Your Call: Buddhism in America

Right now I’m listening to an episode of Your Call with Sandip Roy interviewing Anchalee Kurutach of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Mushim Ikeda-Nash of the East Bay Meditation Center and Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge of the Buddhist Church of Oakland.

[W]e meditate on just what it means to be a Buddhist living and practicing in the United States. Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the country. The Dalai Lama is a revered household name and Tiger Woods has publicly linked his infidelity to “losing track” of his Buddhist upbringing. What is the appeal of Buddhism to so many Americans? And what does it have to teach us?

The coolest thing about this interview (for me) is that all the participants—interviewer included—are Asian American! How awesome is that! And they come from such diverse backgrounds, traditions and perspectives. There’s a lot of wonderful material here for me to ruminate over and post about later on. I hope you get a chance to listen!

What a wonderful morning—many thanks to Working Dharma for the link.

Unsolicited Plug

Wandering Dhamma is the hands down favorite blog that I hardly ever read. Brooke Schedneck writes wonderfully thorough (and very long) posts about her dissertation research in Thailand. (I vow to read them all.) Her exploration of the Thai meditation traditions is relevant and illuminating on many levels. Most prominently, meditation is one of the primary “Dharma gates” through which many non-heritage Buddhists come to Buddhism. So how is meditation in Thailand presented to Westerners? Her research also touches on the role the Theravada in modernity. Through investigation of particular histories, she reveals how the increasing diversity and dialogue within the Theravada community manifests itself within contemporary Buddhism in Thailand. Not to mention that the recent Australian bhikkhuni ordination and institutional backlash have shoved the Thai forest traditions into the spotlight of the Buddhist media. (Check out her post on visiting a bhikkhuni meditation center.) These are traditions that are often romanticized and poorly understood in the broader Buddhist community. Honestly, I would know hardly anything if one of my dearest friends weren’t a monk at a Wat Pah Pong branch temple in Thailand. If you’d like a more intimate perspective on Buddhist meditative traditions in Thailand, Wandering Dhamma is certainly a great place to go.

Zen Buddhism in Brazil

Dangerous Harvests blogger Nathan shares an article about Zen Buddhism in Brazil.

The author, Cristina Moreira da Rocha, writes of the history and development of Buddhism (primarily Zen Buddhism) in Brazil, beginning with the arrival of Japanese immigrant laborers in 1908 up to the present day diversity of approaches Buddhism and Buddhist communities. What I have been struck with is how many parallels there are to the North American Buddhist story.

He expands on five themes that jumped out at him, namely, the initial arrival through Asian immigrant communities, oppression of citizens and immigrants of Japanese descent during World War II, the increase of Buddhist “missionaries” and teachers arriving during the 1950’s, the issue of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, and a certain level of Christian influence. Both pieces are well worth your time, but for those of you with very little time to spare, Nathan’s post is a good summary.

Don’t Rush the Western Buddhist

Barbara O’Brien elaborates on terms such as “modernization” or “westernization” and what these terms might mean in the context of Buddhist history.

There seems to be a rising tide of westerners interested in Buddhism who demand that it be “westernized” asap, stripped of ritual and anything “Asian.” The truth is, most of us have barely scratched the surface, and already we’re making judgments about which parts of Buddhism are “essential” and which aren’t.

The more time I spend with this remarkable tradition, the more grateful I am to the Asian teachers for their care and practice through the centuries. I feel no rush to “westernize” anything. First we should be sure we can maintain the teachings with the same care that brought them to us.

These words are indeed of some comfort to me, but they fail to deal with a central concern in a couple ofprevious posts. Aside from the many issues with what “Western” means, the discussion of “Western Buddhism” is still one that marginalizes Asian Buddhists of the West in the very community where we comprise the outright majority. Apparently we may be welcome into Western Buddhism, our contributions admired, our history acknowledged—but only so long as our say is not proportional to our greater numbers. This Western Buddhist rhetoric is so offensive precisely due to its implicit suggestion that Asian Westerners and our culture do not properly belong in the West.

I have a hunch that there will never be a distinct Western Buddhism, so the very discussion of it may be in vain. We live in a world that is ever more globalized, interconnected, transnational and multicultural in ways that defy historical precedent. Imagine what the Buddhist blogosphere will be like with millions of Chinese Buddhist bloggers! What this increasing entanglement also suggests, however, is that while there may not emerge a “Western” Buddhism, Buddhism in general will appropriate more “Western” features. And perhaps the West will also become more Buddhist.