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 weeks ago, I was invited to participate in the Mindfulness and Compassion conference at San Francisco State University. (Round-ups can be found here and here.) I’ve been meaning to write something about the experience, but nothing has gelled.

Last week, Ron Purser kindly forwarded this article to me and a dozen or so other folks (many of whom attended the conference). It’s worth a read. In sum, the author discusses her disillusionment with mindfulness practices as she learned them because, among other reasons, they tended to make her less engaged with the world rather than more engaged. Rather than quelling the mind and its distracted trains of thought, she wonders if distraction and multitasking aren’t actually good things.

It’s easy to critique this woman and her teachers and her (mis)understandings and their (mis)appropriations of mindfulness. It’s easy to draw quick conclusions from this and point our fingers and say that either she didn’t “get it” or they didn’t teach her right. It’s easy to point to some other version of mindfulness (“traditional,” “Buddhist,” monastic, whatever those terms mean) and make the claim that these other versions are more authentic, more correct. And then to lament the secularization of mindfulness. Alternately, it’s easy to leave all that aside and make the claim that mindfulness is in some way universal, not something that Buddhism “owns,” and whereas this woman had a bad experience, a lot of positive good has come to people who have engaged the practice. In short, it’s easy to use this article as evidence of one set of ideological claims or another — claims either in support or critical of secular mindfulness, its value, its limitations.

Collectively, this article and many more like, represent not mindfulness itself but a growing narrative about mindfulness. Rather than concerning ourselves with the questions of whether or not this version of mindfulness is “really” Buddhist, rather than concerning ourselves with questions of whether or not the secularization of mindfulness is a good thing or a bad thing, rather than asking whether or not mindfulness really “works” in any way close to the way its apologists claim — all very good critical lines of inquiry — I’d like to suggest that these articles, this narrative genre, be taken at face value. Regardless of this version of mindfulness’s relationship to any other, it is a version of mindfulness that is being perpetuated in a growing body of popular sources, creating its own narrative truth. It is becoming naturalized. Like it or not, historically accurate or not, this is what mindfulness means. To quote the article:

I dove into what was an open-ended experiment to see if I could correct the things about me that were loose and scattered, and reap the touted benefits of mindfulness. It was a good time for me to try, because I was about to go through a pregnancy, and wanted to be a good parent, a “mindful” parent, as all the parenting books suggested. Besides, since this way of being was supposed to greatly improve my life, to make it feel more meaningful, and to even help me lose weight, who was I to argue with it?

This is the narrative. Some aspect of modern life is pathologized and problematized (we’re too distracted, there are too many iDevices). Mindfulness, described alternately as singleness of attention and “thinking about nothing” is offered as the cure. It is valued as the thing that will create meaning in all aspects of our lives, from the vague and abstract (making life meaningful) to the mundane and particular (loosing weight). And critical thought is discouraged. Indeed, who are we to argue when all of this sounds so good?

(In passing, I’d like to note the never-ending layers of pathologization going on here, the creation of dichotomies, the explicit labeling and valuing of those dichotomies, and the endless deployment of fixes. Weight gain is a problem. A life without meaning is a problem. Distractions and cell phones are problems. A lack of productivity is a problem. Here is this fix. The irony, of course, is that mindfulness is supposed to be the nonjudgemental awareness of mental phenomenon, here deployed in the service of endlessly judged problems.)

This narrative should not surprise us. It did not come into being with Jon Kabat-Zinn. It is not unique to secular mindfulness. Its origin is implied in the article when the author lists all of the various practices she engaged in on her mindfulness journey — meditation, yoga, books by gurus, aura readings. This is familiar territory. This is the New Age/self-help narrative that has been a central aspect of American popular religion for at least the last four decades. This is not new.

(See Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality for a good overview.)

To note how this narrative overlaps with pre-existing narratives is not to discredit some aspects of mindfulness practice (or Buddhist practice, for that matter). For every New Age dilettante with a Native American dream catcher hanging from his car’s rear-view mirror on his way to a yoga class on his lunch break, there are countless persons who use the same signs and symbols for wholly different reasons, often to great effect. Whereas the author of this article may not have “succeeded” in her quest for a more meaningful mindful life (whatever that might mean), the same practices have no doubt helped countless people overcome a host psychological and physical aliments. To note that this narrative stinks of the same snake-oil as other quick-fix self-help products is not to dismiss mindfulness in its entirety. It is merely to be critical of one of its current meanings.

Mindfulness has now taken on at least three different meanings: (1) some “traditional” Buddhist meaning, (2) a “legitimate” psychotherapeutic meaning, (3) and a quasi-New Age/self help meaning. Each of these meanings can be critiqued; each of these meanings has its own underlying ideological assumptions and agendas. And, obviously, they overlap. But being clear on what it is were are critiquing, and what we are not, provides us with a clear way forward.


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.

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.

#SBLAAR 2014 Buddhism-related events

It’s that time of year again: the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion is fast approaching. If you’re planning on attending, below are some panels that may be of interest to our students and community. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive! The complete program book is online and searchable here: AAR Program Book.

In the interest of self-promotion, the IASBS is hosting a public lecture with Prof. James Dobbins on D.T. Suzuki. More info can be found here. This lecture is held during the AAR, but it is open to the public (no need to register for AAR to attend). Also, I’ll be chairing the Buddhist in the West panel on Monday morning, and other IBS/GTU students and alumni are presenting as well, including:

Finally, here’s some highlights. Head over to the program book and search for “Buddhism” for more.

See you in San Diego.

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.