The book

coverI sent off the final page proofs of my forthcoming book to the publisher earlier this month. I assume that means it’s all said and done, that’s all she wrote, whatever mistakes were made and not caught will just go to press, and I’ll have to live to this thing for the rest of my life (or, buddha willing, I get the chance to write a second edition). In honor of that, here are some reflections on the book.

Things that happened during the writing of the book:

  1. Ruth Dennison passed away.
  2. A bunch of Buddhists went to Washington.
  3. A different bunch of Buddhists crashed a Google conference.
  4. Shambhala Sun went and changed their name on me.

Things that happened/I discovered/changed after I finished writing (or finished proofing) and couldn’t do a damn thing about:

  1. Jamba Juice relocated to Texas. They are no longer a “California-based fruit-juice smoothie franchise.”
  2. The magazine Buddhadharma published a whole goddamn issue devoted to race. Might have changed what I wrote in chapter 10. (Then again, maybe it wouldn’t’ve.)
  3. New research is being published about Jewish Buddhists. Wish I’d written more about that.
  4. Roshi Zenkei Blanche Hartman passed away.

Things that I love about this book:

  1. The line “In short, the government is not concerned with anatman when it passes legislation.”
  2. The figure titled “Jizo, Budai, and meditating elephant statues for sale at Pier One.”
  3. I got to talk about Oakland.

Things I considered putting in the index but chickened out:

  1. cheese, royal with 242
  2. cats, pictures of 165
  3. flag, do you have a 1

If I had to sum the book up (my elevator pitch):

It’s about Buddhism in America, “best viewed as a broad set of locally specific traditions with connections to all parts of Asia, an active participant in and recipient of modern global Buddhist discourses expressed in various local contexts.”

On tattoos and whiteness

Seeing my name in (digital) print, I can’t help but to comment a bit further on this piece published by Tricycle on Buddhist tattoos. I’m not going to comment too much on the meat of the issue, but I did want to comment a bit on what I was trying to do when I spoke with Mr. Hay a couple months back.

Fundamentally, I wanted to complicate the idea of “Western.” This has increasingly become the name of choice among people who practice or study Buddhism in Western cultural contexts, and I’m concerned about the lack of sustained critical reflection that has been given to this term. (If I’m wrong about that — I try, but can’t possibly, read everything — if someone has written a recent scholarly or popular article examining taxonomy, examining what to call this thing we’re all so invested in, please let me know in the comments. And I’ll get to RKP’s piece in a minute.) To my mind, the term “Western” is simply too broad to have much value. What are its limits? Where are its boundaries? Who is included in this category and who isn’t? On what criteria?

The simplest response, of course, might be to fall back on country-specific designations, following in some way a traditional Buddhist Studies/area studies model (Buddhism in Japan, Buddhism in Thailand, Buddhism in the US, and so forth). But I can already hear those who take transnational issues seriously (myself included) chomping at the bit to remind me that in this increasingly interconnected and globalized world, geo-political borders scarcely matter.

To which I reply, that’s not true. Virtually everyone who’s theorized about globalization over the last several decades has always been quick to point out that globalized culture is always locally enacted. To study the global is to study the local.

But I’m getting away from myself here. Let’s go back to complicating “Western.” The reason I want to complicate this term, or more to the point, the reason I want us to critically examine what we mean by this term, has much to do with Natalie Quli’s excellent article “Western Self, Asian Other.” It seems to me that all too often when people deploy the term “Western,” they are merely swapping out the word “white.” I applaud Mr. Hay for being up front and honest about the fact that folks in the West are subject to their own cultural biases and influences. And I don’t believe he is necessarily intentionally replacing “white” with “Western” in his article. When we spoke, I had hoped to point out that there are plenty of folks in the West — that is, Westerners — who are not coming to the Buddhist tradition as “outsiders.” In other words, when I said (as he reports in his article) “There are also Westerners who don’t claim to be Buddhist but who have extended family who are” I meant people who were born and raised Buddhist, whose parents and grandparents were Buddhists, and have been Americans for three, four, or five generations. Sometimes, these folks happen to be Asian American. Sometimes they’re white. But they’re both Westerners. It just so happens that some of their ancestors crossed the Atlantic to get to North America and some crossed the Pacific.

So I think it’s worth critically engaging and examining what we mean by “Western” Buddhism, what this category implies, and — most importantly — who’s included and who’s excluded.

I suspect, at the risk of putting words in his mouth, that this is why Richard Payne has adopted the phrase “white Buddhism” in a recent series of blog posts. Unsurprisingly (to me at any rate as someone who’s been accused of being a race traitor), there were folks who assumed that he was critiquing “white people” and found it odd that Chade-Meng Tan was included in this category. “Hey,” some seemed to be saying, “he isn’t white!” A more cogent version of this critique was the assumption that by critiquing white Buddhism (and/or white Buddhists), Payne was suggesting that the Buddhisms they practice are inauthentic or invalid.

It seemed clear to me from the get go (and, full disclosure here, I know Richard, pretty well, and my closeness to him as a person and his body of work may color my interpretation) that Payne was not taking about persons per se but a cultural discourse. In other words, he was critiquing a rhetorical and discursive field that is culturally and historically situated, one that relates to Buddhist thought and practice in a particular way, a way that can (and should) be unpacked. Because we’re talking about a discursive field, anyone can participate. I can participate in white Buddhism not because I happen to be white but through employing the rhetorical devices of that rhetorical field. Mr. Jolly Good Fellow does the same when he claims his practices and teachings are more “authentic” (or at least more appropriate to this time and place) than those “degenerate” practices of Asia. For Payne, that’s white Buddhism (the discursive field or rhetoric), not the ethnicity of the person participating in it (white or otherwise).

Moreover, as I’ve said before, I believe that it is possible to critique something and still find value in it, still love it. In fact, I’d argue that it’s necessary and vitally important to critique those things that we love and find value in precisely because of our commitment to them. Criticism does not necessarily lead to rejection but can, if done well and out of compassion, lead to a deeper and fuller appreciation as well as positive change. By interrogating and critically analyzing what we mean by “Western” or “whiteness,” we put ourselves in the (often uncomfortable) position of critical self-reflecton; we force ourselves to examine the unexamined skeletons in our closet. And then we have the opportunity to do some house cleaning.

On oxymorons, briefly

The author of a review over at Trike of the Steve Jobs movie used the following phrase:

These days, Buddha branding of all sorts of things has created the oxymoron of a Buddhist consumerism.

I have nothing to say about this review nor the movie since, I’ll be honest, I didn’t read the whole review and I haven’t seen the movie. I do have something to say, briefly, about the “oxymoron” of Buddhist consumerism and what it reveals about unexamined and unquestioned biases and implicit theologies.

Somewhere along the way, folks began to advance and then uncritically accept the notion that because there are strains of Buddhism that teach the value of non-attachment that it logically follows that Buddhists should not be attached to wealth, that they should not engage in the endless buying of things. To say that “Buddhist consumerism” is an oxymoron is to imply that Buddhists cannot or should not be consumers. There is a not-too-subtle value judgment there that if you’re a Buddhist (or perhaps just a “good Buddhist”) you are not also a consumer. And, if you are consumer, then, at best, you shouldn’t be attached to your stuff or, at worst, you should feel bad about it.

Continue reading “On oxymorons, briefly”

The stories we tell

From America’s most trusted news network: Study Finds Every Style Of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults.

Our daughter turned four last year. Hands down, the past four years have been some of the most joyous, profound, fun, exhausting, and frustrating years of my life. I feel like I must look like those before and after pictures of the President: oh, look how youthful and bright-eyed I am in this picture from 2010. Look how much grey in my beard now. And my knees. My god how my knees ache. When did I get this old?

And whereas the exhausting frustration of parenting comes surly from arguing with the irrational mode swings of this tiny human my wife and I created, exhausting frustration also comes from a genre of literate I like to call “You’re Doing It Wrong.”

Continue reading “The stories we tell”

Not everyone must be Buddhist

I was just going to tweet the following sentiment. But then it became a short rant. It may not be long enough for a bona fide blog post. But I can’t think of where else to get this off my chest. More substantive posts are forthcoming. I promise.

I cannot tell you how sad it makes me that any time anyone dies, a certain Buddhist magazine tries to connect them to Buddhism, however tenuously. It is not just the opportunistic attempt to generate hits that bothers me (but it does). It’s the sense that for this person’s life to have meaning, they must have some connection to Buddhism. If nothing else, this is simply dishonest. Rather than appreciating this person — who can no longer gift us with their art, music, writing, wisdom, compassion, whatever — on their own terms for who they were, we must find some way to appreciate them because of a connection to Buddhism. The world has been populated with amazing beautiful human beings long before Buddhism was a thing and will be populated by amazing beautiful human beings long after. We need not force them into this tiny (Buddhist) box to appreciate that beauty. Be grateful for what we received from them, as it was, Buddhist or not, fully and honestly.

Dispatch from AAR

For context, it’s Monday afternoon, and I’ve found a comfortable spot to write in the Tibetan sand mandala exhibit. As such, I am surrounded by chanting and the sound of sand mandala construction, a repetitive metal scratching from their implements as the monks construct the mandala. Oh, and, of course, the occasional cell phone going off.

Continue reading “Dispatch from AAR”

Buddhist Studies at AAR

In a few days’ time, thousands of religion scholars will descend on the city of Atlanta. Consider yourself warned.

As in years past, I have compiled a list of Buddhist-y things happening at AAR. I was hopeful to be able to do that this year; however, time has gotten away from me. Which is just as well. The good folks at H-Buddhism has done the hard work for us, providing us with this list of panels with content related to the study of Buddhism.

A couple of things not on the list:

Monks from Drepung Loseling Monastery will construct a sand mandala. The opening ceremony will be Saturday morning; it’ll be deconstructed Monday evening.

The AAR has a resource for social media best practices. Even if you don’t use social media at these things, it’s good to know what the expectations are, what others might be up to.

And as much as I want to attend the Buddhism Section Saturday morning, I’m torn by an equally strong desire to check out the Religion and Science Fiction Group’s panel on the many tentacles of Cthulhu.

Sigh.There’s always a schedule conflict.

Worth Fighting For

In a previous incarnation of this blog — indeed what feels like a previous incarnation of my life — after receiving some well-deserved and pointed criticism, I wrote a post about the pitfalls of blogging while on the academic job market. I had begun blogging while still in grad school, when the only people who knew I existed were friends and family, and for many years, my blog reflected my life. I was as likely to write about my romantic life as I was to write about Buddhism as I was to complain about then-President Bush. Over time, the blog became more overtly political and less concerned with my personal life; nevertheless, I intentionally blurred boundaries between the personal and the professional, for better or worse. For worse — well, that was the cause of that pointed criticism I received, and it caused me to consider the professional consequences of this particular type of public speaking.

This was in 2009. A lot has changed since then. Continue reading “Worth Fighting For”


A couple of quick professional updates, filed in the “self-promotion” category.

First, a big box of books landed on my desk today. After much hard work, Natalie Quli’s and my edited volume, Buddhism Beyond Borders, has been printed and is ready for purchase. Or for review copy request. Or for borrowing from your local library. It was a supreme joy to work with Dr. Quli who has a sharp intellect and keen eye for typos, two things I am deeply envious of.

Second, the Board of Trustees of the Institute of Buddhist Studies generously bestowed upon me an endowed chair, the Rev. Yoshitaka Tamai Professor Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Studies. Rev. Tamai was an influential minister at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple in Denver, Colorado, serving for half a century and deeply devoted to the spread of Buddhism in the United States. It’s an honor to hold a chair in his name. (It also means I may be traveling to Denver in the not too distant future. Something to look forward to.)

Lastly, a couple of weeks ago I finished a draft of the other book. Editing now, and I hope to be able to get the final draft completed and sent off to the press before the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. If all goes well, another box of books will land on my desk a year from now.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled internet.