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.

It has been a rather busy and productive annual meeting despite the fact that I was not serving in any official capacity or presenting papers. There are, always, meetings. It was good to check in with the folks at SUNY regarding the book, and the folks at Bloomsbury regarding the next book. It’s a surreal feeling to see one’s work in the exhibit hall.

The Buddhism Under Capitalism working group kicked off what was a weekend of much discussion regarding mindfulness. Whereas the papers from that session were all very good, I must be frank and admit that by the end of this trip, I’m a little mindfulnessed-out. Many of the arguments being made were versions of arguments made before, all very astute and reasoned and nuanced and needed and necessary. There were those who see the value in mindfulness and contemplative programs while urging more thoughtful and true inter-religious conversation between Buddhist-derived practices and the communities they seek to serve. There’s a call for active listening which is always a good suggestion. There is the suggestion — one that should be made more forcefully in my opinion — that Buddhist-derived medical interventions have real impacts on patients that go beyond the purely medical. Without disclosing these consequences, can we say that patients have informed consent?

On the other end of my interests, pretending I’m a Japan scholar, I crashed a few panels on Japanese religion. There’s some really fascinating work being done both historically and more contemporarily on Japanese Buddhism. I am appreciative of Aaron Proffitt’s take on Pure Land and esoteric practices and histories; and even though I heard parts of Jessica Starling’s work this past summer in Berkeley, her work on religious literature written for women Jodo Shinshu Buddhists is fascinating. It’s new work; and her forthcoming book will be on a different topic but no less fantastic. You should buy her book.

The Buddhism in the West group I attended this morning further complicates our received narratives about Buddhism in the US. Philip Deslippe discussed some of the early twentieth century white guru figures who show up in nascent US Shin Buddhist communities. These figures speak against the presumption that early US Japanese Buddhist communities were mono-ethnic, and in this light, Deslippe’s work follows on Michihiro Ama’s. He also does something rather interesting; rather than just exploring these figure’s biographies or accounts of their lives in newspapers, he brings this into conversation with larger cultural narratives that sought to discredit these spiritualists’ and occultists’ work exposing multiple layers of tension within the American religious landscape that played itself out often within the developing Buddhist Churches of America.

Courtney Bruntz revisited the work she did last summer on Buddhists in Nebraska comparing the local Laotian and Vietnamese communities. She noted that due to a variety of factors, the local Nebraskan Laotian community has been more diffused making it difficult to build a community or temple leading, in turn, to Laotian Buddhists to privative their religious lives and, now that they have a space to call home, a willingness to embrace diversity. This is in contrast to the Vietnamese community which has preserved a strong sense of ethnic identity in part due to ongoing support from Catholic charity services and the ability to create a temple some decades ago that allows the community to be self-segregating. This is sharp stuff. We should all be paying more attention to what Prof. Bruntz is up to, what’s happening in the Plaines, the complexity of refugee experiences that cuts across the trope of a single Asian immigrant experience.

Now that the book is done, this has been an inspiring weekend for me. I’ve already begun to think about the types of projects I’ll be working on in the year ahead. And I want to thank all the folks I ran into over the weekend who were so gracious and welcoming and apologize for not having enough time to hang out with other friends I may have missed.

Now off to the airport.

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