Oakland Buddha


Several months ago, I became aware of a Buddhist shrine that had been built on a street corner in the Clinton neighborhood of Oakland. This morning, I finally had a chance to visit it myself and take some pictures.

Buddhist Shrine on the corner of 11th and 19th in OaklandThe first news item I found about this place tells the basic story: a local resident was frustrated by the corner attracting illegal dumping, graffiti, and the usual array urban problems. So he bought a stone Buddha statue from an Ace hardware store, stuck it on the corner, and let it be. In pretty short order, local Vietnamese Buddhists not only started leaving the statue offerings of fruit, flowers, and incense, but they built a whole shrine around it. The city tried to remove it; the neighbors fought the city and got a permit for it; and by all accounts crime and blight have dropped around the site.

I’ve since found links to other articles and blog posts that tell the same general narrative. And it’s a good one. It’s nice to know that, if nothing else, the folks in the neighborhood respect the shrine enough to leave it be.

When I got there this morning, around 11 o’clock, the neighborhood was pretty quiet, and the shrine looked much like it does in the pictures I’ve seen around the web. However, what internet pictures can’t do justice to is the full range of sensory experiences of being there. Yes, there’s the smell of incense. But there’s also music. In addition to statues and shrines and offerings, they have installed two small, battery powered audio boxes (that look not unlike the Buddha Machine) that play chants accompanied by music on a loop. The chants are devotions to Amitabha.

After being there for no more than five minutes, a woman about my age walked up with a bag full of small oranges. She struck up a conversation with me about how I’d heard about the shrine, what my interest was, and without my asking telling me its story. A lot of this story was what I’d already read online. But it was very nice to have a local informant, as it were, verify things for me. She went about her routine, placing oranges at each of the small shrines around the main one — two for different aspect of Quan Yin, one around the side, and the main one inside the shelter. She also took some incense, lit it from the votive candle, and offered it to each shrine. This routine was punctuated by her telling me about how people had added to the shrine over the years, how they pray to it for benefits — “they believe good things will happen, that there’s good energy,” she said — and how she comes to the shrine almost every morning. I asked her if she lived in the area, or if there was a nearby temple that helped with the shrine. I’m not sure she understood my question; she told me there are lots of temples all over, and mentioned one specifically in Fremont or Hayward.

IMG_0968She then proceeded to tell me about another shrine a couple blocks away. She told me that another man had tried to add an additional statue to the first shrine, but it was Chinese — “which is a different culture,” she said — and so he built a different shrine. I want to more about these two different shrines, their origin stories, and their connections to different local Buddhist communities. My informant was very kind and gracious, but I don’t speak Vietnamese, so there was a gap between us. A lot was left unsaid.

She left not long after that, and I did, too, determined to find this other shrine. It wasn’t hard, of course, only a block or two away. Despite her comment about the Chinese statue, this other shrine is also named in both Chinese and Vietnamese. Nevertheless, it does seem to have more of an explicitly Chinese sensibility to it. But here I’m venturing out of my league. I can find my way around most Japanese Buddhist altars pretty well; these shrines are familiar in many ways, but they are still unfamiliar territory.

So I’m left wondering about some of the details — what’s the history and untold stories between these shrines? what are the ancillary shrines devoted to? benefactors? ancestors? I am also left with an appreciation for religion as practice. The narrative about a Buddha statue bringing change to urban blight is nice and all; but let’s be honest. These two shrines, while certainly having an impact on their immediate surroundings, have done nothing to curb deeper and systemic political and economic inequality in Oakland. Their good energy is not having much of an impact on larger issues of discrimination and poverty. But that’s another story, another narrative to be told.

As much as those larger socio-economic issues need to be addressed, I am also left thinking about how these sites inspire a specific type of devotion and practice, a type of practice that we generally don’t talk about in “American Buddhism,” obsessed as we are with mindfulness, with meditation, with he pioneers and trailblazers, with the geeks and other shiny new things who seek to re-make Buddhism in our own image. Here, there’s something quieter happening, something involving families and women and locals and non-Buddhists. Something no less meaningful and important to the larger narrative about Buddhism in these United States. It matters to this woman who brings oranges every day. It matters to the people who clean it and care for it. It serves some purpose in their lives, and I think we would do well to recognize and respect that.

There’s more to say, I’m sure. For now I wanted to get these initial thoughts and reflections down before they got lost in the rest of my day.

Image Request

I am in need of images, and I would like your help.

I am currently in the midst of writing an introductory textbook on Buddhism in the United States, contracted by Bloomsbury Academic. As an introduction, the book explores the history of American Buddhism from colonial contacts in Asia and the establishment of the first communities in the nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century expansion and diversification of Buddhist traditions in the US through to the present. The book will be divided into three parts dealing with history, lineages and traditions, and topical and methodological issues including art and practice, race and privilege, and modernity and globalization. Much of the discussion is being framed by the metaphor of convergence and digergance, that is, how have different cultural discourses and movements converged in Asia and the West thus giving rise to specific Buddhist discourses and communities (e.g. Buddhist modernism) while at times diverging into new lineages or movements.

It’s a fairly ambitious project. It’s consuming a not-insignificant part of my life.

Ideally, the book would have images galore of Buddhist sites from across the continent. Of course, I can only do so much (or have only done so much picture taking in my own travels across the country). And this is where you come in. If you would like to contribute images, it would be much appreciated.

How can you help? Join this Flickr group and add your images. I’m mostly interested in images of locations, of temples or churches, retreat centers and monasteries, ceremonies and celebrations. Images of people are okay, but getting permissions can be tricky. The book focuses on the United States, but it does make reference to other parts of North America; so if you have some amazing images of Gampo Abby, for example, feel free to add them.

Adding an image to the Flickr group in no way obligates you to have the photo used in the book. If I (or my editor) want to use the picture, we’ll contact you directly before it goes to press, sometime down the road, to get all necessary permissions. Beyond that, the book will have a companion website at Bloomsbury where I’ll link back to the Flickr group. So this group will have a life of its own regardless of whether or not any images show up in the printed book.

Leave a comment with any questions. And thanks in advance. Many bows.


“3:30 A.M. I’m over in the Orderly Room. I couldn’t sleep. I put my coat on over my pajamas and came over here. Al Aspesi is G.Q. He’s asleep on the floor. I can stay here if I answer the phone for him. What a night. Mrs. Fedder’s analyst was there for dinner and grilled me, off and on, till about eleven-thirty. Occasionally with great skill, intelligence. Once or twice, I found myself pulling for him. Apparently he’s an old fan of Buddy’s and mine. He seemed personally as well as professionally interested in why I’d been bounced off the show at sixteen. He’d actually heard the Lincoln broadcast, but he had the impression that I’d said over the air that the Gettysburg Address was ‘bad for children.’ Not true. I told him I’d said I thought it was a bad speech for children to have to memorize in school. He also had the impression I’d said it was a dishonest speech. I told him I’d said that 51,112 men were casualties at Gettysburg, and that if someone had to speak at the anniversary of the event, he should simply have come forward and shaken his fist at his audience and then walked off — that is, if the speaker was an absolutely honest man.”

J.D. Salinger, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” (1955)

Let’s be perfectly clear: there are riots in the streets. And it’s a shame that good, honest folk are having their property destroyed. But whatever is destroyed can be replaced. The same cannot be said of Mike Brown. Or Amadou Diallo or Oscar Grant or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or the seemingly endless line of young black men and women who have lost their lives at the hands at those meant to “protect and serve.” I’ve wanted to say something about all of this. And all I can think to do is shake my fist at this country and walk off.

Today is December 8, a day when many Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. Enlightenment is nothing more than the removal of ignorance and delusion. And if we can’t wake up from the delusion of how our privilege and power — how our own actions — cause systemic and personal suffering, then I don’t know why we’re celebrating Bodhi Day in the first place.

Via “Power and Pedagogy”

It seems to me that the advice of the Buddha was not to change how you think about things so that you’re happy and content with them as they are, but rather to see things as they are.

That might be the most important thing you read all week. Really read it. Really let it sink in. Sit with it, for god’s sake.

It’s from this excellent post by Richard Payne, a reflection on the ongoing reflections about mindfulness in non-Buddhist contexts, in this case, education. There are a host of companies the world over now who are advocating for mindfulness in education (I am patiently waiting for someone to raise the Lemon test, but I’m not holding my breath). Without getting into the details of that whole discourse and debate, I think this one sentence sums up my frustration with Buddhist platitudes more generally. Never-ending not-really-Buddha quotes meme-ified across the web constantly make reference to how the world is an illusion, suffering is a matter of how you look at things, “there is no spoon,” etc., all of which, it seems to me, misses this most basic of points.


A few posts back, I mentioned that I had some writing goals for the summer. Here’s an update.

But first, I’d like to reflect on something. The inspiration for this goal setting came from @mittensprings and, more generally, things like AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month) which challenges folks to set writing goals for a period of time and be held accountable via the internets. Most of what I’ve read regarding these things usually includes a word count. You’ll notice my goals have no word counts. I’m lousy at that. Someone’s selling some little bit of software that allows you to track your word counts, and it includes revisions which would be extremely helpful in my case. But breaking down my writing productivity into word counts doesn’t make sense for me. I’m more able to gauge my ability to get stuff done by actually, well, getting stuff done, i.e., finishing a project. Academic writing, for me, is long and complicated and doesn’t make a lot of sense along the way. I write drafts and outlines and chop things up into numerous copies of files and stitch them together in awkward ways and leave smart-ass notes to myself that I (usually) remember to delete before letting others read the draft which almost always gets completely gutted a least a couple times before I finally feel happy with it. I’m content measuring progress in terms of drafts and completed projects, not individual word counts.

Which brings me to what I have to report regarding this summer’s goals.

  1. Four complete book chapters: I honest don’t remember how many I had finished when I set that goal. Which is horrible. I think I’ve completed two since then. I’m going to say I’ve completed two since then because I’m pretty much on track to finish two more before mid-August. I’ve got a completed draft of one propped up precariously on my computer as I write this, covered in red-pen marks. And I’ve got half a draft of another chapter somewhere on the old hard drive. So I’m going to go with “half-way there!” (Besides, I have drafts of the first four chapters already done, sent off to the editor, and received back with feedback, so I’m feeling good about overall book progress. This is me. Tooting my own horn. And hopefully not jinxing myself.)

  2. A conference paper. And 3. A journal article. I’m lumping these together because they’re intimately connected. First, of the journal article, not only did I finish the damn thing, I sent it off to a journal. It is now in proverbial peer-review land. So I am in proverbial “let’s not think about it” land. The conference paper, in hindsight, was a lame-ass goal to make for myself. The paper I’m planning on presenting is a shortened version of the one I just submitted to the journal. Which means “writing” in this case is more “editing,” a task in itself but, c’mon Scott. Really?

On the other hand, I had a really good idea for another paper based on the same body of research. I did some initial research and analysis and drafted an outline of that one. I’d like to believe that I can squeeze in some writing on that between now and mid-August, but the remaining book chapters and conference preparation are higher priorities. So we’ll see.

So. That’s the update. How goes your own summer research and writing?


It seems improbable to me that Danny Fisher has a day job given how frequently he posts things to the internets (including Lethal Weapons clips to my Facebook posts). Earlier today, he posted this to Twitter.

The article, about Amazon changing terms of service to publishers around the world, includes this aside:

Authors will suffer as publishers claim that paying large advances is increasingly risky and, of course, authors are traditionally paid less on print books if publishers concede high discounts. On ebooks they are paid a proportion of net receipts so higher terms for Amazon will result in less money going to authors,” said Solomon… The changes, she said, “highlight one wider, and growing, trend across all publishing and bookselling. Namely, that the author is the only 100% essential component in the creation of a book.

On a not-at-all unrelated topic, I received a lovely email from the editor of my book the other day. It included not only her own very encouraging and supportive feedback but the feedback of an anonymous peer reviewer which was also quite helpful. Let me tell you. When you’re in the middle of a large project, deep in the weeds, it’s easy to get lost, to feel like you’re not at all sure you’re saying things that make sense or merely talking out of your ass. So it was good day.

Also in not-unrelated news, for most of my professional academic career, I’ve served on a variety of committees — as an editor, advisor, peer reviewer, and so forth. I have been the man behind the curtain who herds all the cats to pull off a conference or symposium (often with amazing help and support from others). It’s generally the kind of work that goes unnoticed (unless it’s done poorly). I can attest from both sides of that fence — as the creator of scholarly content and one of the invisible folks who makes it possible for scholarly content to see the light of day — all persons are important. All forms of work are valuable.

Think back to the last really great book you read. Fiction or non-fiction. It wasn’t just the author who created it. And it wasn’t just a bookseller (local independent, online MegaCorp, or brick and mortar MegaCorp) who got into to your hands. A dozen or more people are responsible for that book being both really good and in your hands. Now think of the last book you read that was genuinely crap. And not crap because of the tangible details but crap on technical levels — being poorly copyedited, badly researched, full of factual errors. Yes, the author made some mistakes. But so did the editors and a dozen other people whose jobs it is to make sure the book isn’t crap.

That’s what you’re paying for. It’s not unlike the movies, really, except that the dozens of people who are responsible for making a movie happen all get their names in the credits. Perhaps we should starting doing that with books, too.

This isn’t to say that the publishing industry — especially academic book publishing, lord knows! — is not without its flaws. There are plenty of ways to critique and improve upon the publishing model, including some valid and wholly revolutionary ideas. However, let’s not kid ourselves. Really good writing can arise spontaneously and be self-published. But it’s not as common as our culture — obsessed as it is with individual genius — would have you believe. (Kerouac’s On the Road scroll would still be a scroll without some help from an editor.) No, really good writing is most often a collaborative affair, especially if there’s only one author listed.

Which is really my long winded way of saying thank you, thank you to all the editors and other folks working behind the scenes whose names never appear in the credits. Much appreciation.


Wilson is right (as is Silk) that the Washington Post map is wrong.

I don’t think we should throw it away, though. Or, at the very least, I don’t think we should thumb our noses at it and say “their methodology is flawed, to hell with it.” Rather, and I say this as a teacher, I think we should use it as an opportunity to discuss the limits of our knowledge and our assumptions. After all, you only ever get answers to questions you ask, and to the extent that this survey was designed by asking questions about institutions (or congregations), it necessarily reflects that bias.

But let’s not assume that we’re bias-free just because we can so easily see the bias in others. Wilson does a great job of critiquing the methodological flaws in this survey as they pertain to the specific case of Buddhism, including that by relying on institutional affiliation the survey necessarily misses those who practice Buddhism but don’t belong to an organization while simultaneously relying on institutional membership data that might be inflated. On the other hand, surveys (such as the 2008 and 2012 Pew surveys) that rely on self-identification may underestimate numbers of Buddhists because not all persons who practice Buddhism self-identify as such or openly reject the label. These folks (see Tweed’s “night stand Buddhists” and “Buddhist sympathizers”) are a potentially large population who, because they eschew these two standard ways of “counting” religious adherents, are notoriously hard to quantify. Wilson, however, makes the startling claim that “[t]hese missing Buddhists almost certainly comprise the majority of people practicing Buddhism in America. So at the very best, these maps represent the relative sizes of minority religious institutions in each state rather than the actual relative number of Buddhists, Muslims, and so forth.”

I’d be very curious to know how he supports this claim that the “majority” of US Buddhists fall into a category that is nearly impossible to quantify.(1)

More to the point, the continual advocacy for these “missing” Buddhists in the literature on US Buddhism is itself a sort of bias. It presumes that individual practice, absent of any institutional affiliation or self-identification, is as important or more important than traditionally defined Buddhist institutions or lineages. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. I’d argue that neither of these positions is more important; they’re just two aspects of what it means to do Buddhist practice in the US. Sometimes, it can be very useful to know the “relative sizes” of “institutions.” After all, what is an institution if not a sangha?

Finally, I almost hate to do this, but I must. While I agree with the majority of Wilson’s concerns about this survey, he uses this critique to bring us back to his regionalism approach to the study of US Buddhism. “To practice Buddhism in California may be a different thing than to practice it in South Carolina,” he writes. Yes, absolutely. But I would go further. To practice Buddhism in Ukiah is most certainly a different thing than to practice Buddhism in Alturas. (I consider Jeff a colleague and a friend, and he once said to me that he thought we should go even more hyper-local in our approach. It’s in that spirit that I’m writing this, to point out that the spirit of religious tolerance and experimentation in California is hardly universal in my home state.)

In 2008, by a slim margin, California voted to ban same-sex marriage (a ban since overturned). This came as a shock to folks who mistake “Hollywood” for “California.” To those of us living here, we know very well that the Golden State is anything but homogenous. In places like Alturas — located in a part of the state so conservative it’s tried to succeed from California and form its own state with southern Oregon — Proposition 8 passed by as wide a margin as it failed in San Francisco. Alturas, by the way, is just 300 miles away from Abhayagiri Monastery, but it may as well be 3000 miles away in terms of a place where diversity in general is celebrated.

Which brings me to a set of questions. Is flawed data necessarily useless? Or can we use flawed data pedagogically? When the 2008 Pew Report came out, many of us used it as an opportunity to reveal the flaws in our thinking about “American Buddhism” especially as it pertained to the real majority of US Buddhists (cough Asian Americans cough).(2) Can we use this set of flawed data in a useful way, to expose the limits of our thinking about states and regions? Does it make sense to talk about “California” Buddhism? On the flip side, can we locate patters of practice or belief across state lines? For example, both Dallas County, Texas, and Santa Barbara County, California, voted for Pres. Obama by the same percentage in the last election. Are these two metropolitan locations more similar to each other than they are to neighboring counties in their own states? Why or why not? Looking at the county-by-county map of US Buddhist institutions (even if that inaccurately reflects individual persons) are there similar patterns between, say, Contra Costa County, California, and Fulton County, Georgia (both of which have the same range of reported “congregations” according to this survey)? There may be. There likely aren’t. But in the absence of a different type of data — ethnographies of Buddhist communities in both locations — we just don’t know and shouldn’t presume to know.

In short, we’ve got a lot to learn and a lot of unanswered questions. Stop reading this; go out there and find some answers.

Tangential aside 1: Say what you will about the Pew Reports, but I think it’s worth noting that their 2012 report on Asian American religion used “religious commitment” as a category rather than membership. This had its own flaws (as a measurement based on a set of questions that included rates of attendance at worship services but did not include whether or not folks had a home altar), but I think it’s a good first step toward better accounting of religious/spiritual practice and, potentially, could be used as a way to get an accurate number of this category of “missing” Buddhists. Maybe. It’s something to think about, anyway.

Open question 2: It’s possible that Asian American Buddhists are included in Wilson’s category of “missing” Buddhists. But he doesn’t explicitly say this, so I’m not sure. I’d be curious if this is what he means, and I will admit that when I first read this piece I assumed his “missing” Buddhists were a reference to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd — an assumption that might be wrong. And I’d be happy to be wrong.


Inspired by another “not that kind of doctor,” I have decided that this will be a summer of writing. And accountability. Hold me to it, internet hive mind.

To wit. I’ve officially got a book under contract. It’s not the book I thought I’d be writing this summer, but, hey, it’s a book. And I’m excited about it. And I know that once the fall term starts, I’m going to wake up and it’ll be May again. So I want to get as much stuff done as possible this summer. Which looks like this:

  1. Four complete book chapters
  2. A conference paper
  3. A journal article
  4. …one blog post… a week…?

Since word counts are supposedly a good way to track progress toward those ends, the above would work out to roughly 3500 words a week. Give or take. Knowing that some work has already been done. In some cases, I’m revising drafts not writing from nothing.

Two of the four chapters are already on their way to completion. Together with stuff I’ve already finished for the book, that’ll give me six chapters, almost half-way there.

I’ve already got a paper accepted to a conference in August. So I sort of need to actually write it. And the journal article has been rattling around in my head for some time now; the subject is my ongoing music project, so the paper itself shouldn’t be too difficult to get done. And, importantly, I don’t want to completely loose sight of this project while I’m working on the unrelated book.

I’m unsure of the blog post goal. I know there’s value in doing non-academic writing. I also know that I don’t always have anything worth saying (which, regrettably, doesn’t always stop me), so I’m not sure how or if to quantify that one. Thoughts?

These goals pale in comparison to the other doctor’s goal. I am in awe of her. I am also mindful of other professional and family obligations I’ve got, so I’m not going to set myself up for disappointment. That would be lame.


So it’s okay to say a prayer before a government meeting. This was not news to me. I am not surprised.

First, this is a quick and dirty post about why I’m not a fan of quick and dirty writing. Daniel Burke, religion writer for CNN, declares that today’s US Supreme Court “ruling upsets #Hindus #Jews #atheists, #Buddhists, #AlmostEveryReligiousMinority.” My first reaction to his tweet was, “Not me.” I want to be clear. I want to be clear. It does bother me, but not that much. My lack of irritation is a result of an awareness of context, which I’ll get to. Burke’s tweet is deliberately provocative. The linked article has a completely different headline, and whereas Americans United for Separation of Church and State is quoted and “Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday’s decision,” these two statements do not warrant the conclusion that there is some mass of non-Christians out there seething and carrying torches and pitchforks.

Second, let’s be clear about something. While I agree with Kagen, when Burke writes “She suggested that the five justices who formed the majority — all of whom are Catholic — don’t understand what it’s like to belong to a minority faith in America,” and that “they are members of the country’s largest church, Roman Catholicism” — that’s just wrong. As to the first point, Catholics are indeed a “minority” religion in this country. Lest we forget, out of forty-four US Presidents, how many have been Catholic? JFK’s speech defending his Catholicism may seem like a long time ago to people with no sense of history; but it wasn’t that long ago. And note that no one’s been able to replicate his results. Moreover, the Roman Catholic Church might be big, but this statement that it’s the “largest church” is misleading. It implies that there are more Catholics in this country than other Christians. This is wrong. Very wrong. Christians, as a whole, make up nearly 75% of the population, and only 23% of the population is Catholic. By definition, Catholics are a minority. Glossing over the diversity of approaches to Christianity is part of the problem. It presumes that just because they all fall under the category of “Christian” that they all adhere to some similar set of beliefs or approaches to religion. It essentializes and reduces complexity to sound bites. (Ahem, note that Justice Sotomayor dissented. And she’s Catholic.)

Oh, and by the way, calling attention to the Justice’s religious identities suggests that they are motivated not by their commitment to the US Constitution but by their religious beliefs which reinforces the idea that people are guided not by individual conscious but by group-think. Now, this may be true in the cases of the majority decision today. I have no idea. But, then again, neither do you. Until one of them says something like “They didn’t bring the Koran over on the pilgrim ship. Let’s get real, let’s go back and learn our history,” we don’t know what motivated them apart from what they wrote in today’s decision. Which I haven’t read. Because I haven’t had time. I suspect most of us won’t ever actually read it, but we can’t assume that people are motivated by sinister religious forces without evidence. To assume people are motivated by sinister religious forces without evidence is prejudicial.

Third, why is surprising? Have we forgotten what country we live in? Here. Let me remind you of this:

Here’s the deal. A Hindu chaplain is being heckled by an evangelist Christian. That’s a messed up thing to do, to be sure. But let’s be clear about this. A Hindu chaplain is leading a prayer in front of the US Senate. Why? Because every session of Congress opens with a prayer. This isn’t some little town-hall meeting in the middle of upstate New York no one’s ever heard of. This is the United States Senate.

Also, that line about the Koran I tossed out up there. It came from this guy, an Alabama state judge. It’s an actual quote. From a judge. Who was elected to his seat by citizens of the state of Alabama. It’s maddening.

In this context, is today’s ruling so surprising? Given our country’s history, is it really so out of place?

This does not mean that we should just accept this and let it go. Far from it. I want to be perfectly clear here. I agree with Kagen’s assessment of a hypothetical Muslim speaking before the town hall. I agree that prayer shouldn’t be in public meetings. But I also firmly believe that in order for us to get from here to there, we need to move past reductionist and reactionary commentary that is divorced from larger considerations of culture and history. I recognize that there is an impulse to comment on everything as soon as it happens, that the news cycle feels compelled to throw up stories all over the web or in print as soon as they happen — the “nowness” of news. But the problem with the now is that it often comes as the cost of perspective. We loose sight of the big picture by being focused on the minutia. There is a way to react to current events without loosing sight of the broader scope of history (I hope that this post is evidence of that). And by doing so, we can elevate the discussion from the realm of “group A is pissed off at group B” to the realm of, hey, life’s messy and complicated and some people are hurt by it; let’s come together and make things better so that people stop getting hurt.


I'm not sure what kind of factory you're thinking of; we just make boxes here.

I’m not sure what kind of factory you’re thinking of; we just make boxes here.

I’m writing a book. Well, I’m actually writing two books, sort of, but I’m not ready to talk about any of that right now. Mostly, I want to talk about failure.

In the process of looking through notes of projects past for one of these books I’m working on, I came across the second revision of my dissertation. Following my grad school career, I re-wrote, almost from scratch, my dissertation for publication twice. It was twice rejected. Following the second rejection, I decided it was time to let that one go and move on to other things. I was as happy as one can be with the dissertation; I was less happy with my re-writes. I had the sense that I was cramming too much into them. The immediate years following graduation were an awkward time for me, academically, and while I know I produced some good work then (or at least did some good research that lead to better work down the road), I don’t think those dissertation revisions were my best work. Not by a long shot.

Nevertheless, skimming over some of the stuff I wrote for that second revision, I had that moment of, “huh, there’s some interesting bits in here. I wonder if I could revisit this, spruce it up, and see if I can resurrect it from the dead.” That thought was short-lived. I then looked at the peer review feedback I got when it was rejected and was reminded how much work would be required to do the resurrecting. Pro tip: once you’ve let a project go, don’t go back and read the negative criticism. It’ll just depress you.

I’m a believer in failure. By that I mean that I think there’s some value in working your ass off on something, putting it out there, and then falling on your face. You might learn something. You might discover what you’re capable of and what you’re not. You might be able to take some of that and pour it into another project.

But let’s be honest. It also blows.

I really have no sense of what being a “success” in this field would look like. I recognize that, from a certain point of view, I have some sort of success. If anything, I have a job, which is a lot more than some of my friends and colleagues can say, trapped in adjunct hell. But does “having a job” count as success? Shouldn’t there be a book out there with my name on the cover? How about tenure? Or, on those rare instances when Buddhism pops up in the news, would those who get reporter phone calls be considered successes? What about keynote speeches at flashy x-Buddhist conferences? This kind of stuff can drive a person crazy, and I’m fairly convinced that being driven crazy is an occupational hazard. Not one unique to academia, to be sure, but it seems to be an important part of being an academic to the extent that the filed is defined by intellectual output and achievements that are all relative, arbitrary, subjective, and unevenly applied. Success, whatever it might mean, is fuzzy.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that since one’s success is based on sometimes unknown or arbitrary criteria including intellectual output, and since intellectual output is accomplished by some fuzzy combination of personal effort and the vagaries of the publishing world, when you fail, if you’re like me, it’s hard not to let that failure in some way define you.

I’ve read such confessional literature as this from folks in other fields — mostly creative or artistic — confessions that speak to the way in which failure turns into self-doubt. In my case, this manifests itself as an inability to get stuff done, turning into a proverbial deer in headlights while sitting before the blank page. Whatever successes I’ve had in my career, they are crowded out by voices born of failures and rejections.

I really want to be clear here that I’m not writing this as a confessional, per se, and I’m really really not writing it looking for sympathy. I’m not feeling particularly “woe is me” today, nor do I need the support or encouragement of “the Internet” to see me through the next bought of writer’s block. I’m mostly writing this to reflect on how weird this career of mine is, and to put into words something that I’m sure is a shared experiences, even if it’s not expressed by people very often. An academic career is weird in that you are judged by your intellectual output, and as such there’s a pretty clear connection between one’s sense of self and how one makes a living. If I assembled boxes for a living, and made some particularly crappy box one day, whatever. (No disrespect to box workers.) If I write a particularly bad book (which I did, apparently, twice), then I’m an idiot. And I suspect that a lot of folks in my field have this experience, that despite our usual type-casting as arrogant, pedantic, asshats, we are at times not only wrong, not only spectacular failures, but we know it. And it sucks.

And when that happens, there’s only one thing to do. Get back to work.