A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk to a group of BCA folks about Buddhism in the United States that is not Jodo Shinshu. An easy task, sure. No. Wait. Not an easy task. There is a dizzying diversity and variety of Buddhist tradition in the US; assuming it can be summed up in a reasonable way is preposterous.

Having said that, I still had to give the presentation. So I did what you do when you have to give a presentation; I created a PowerPoint. Actually, I created a Prezi because I’ve been toying with the software a bit lately and thought this was as good an opportunity to test it out as any. Specifically, I wanted to create some sort of chart or graphic or map that would help orient my audience to the diversity of Buddhist traditions in the US. So I created this — wait! Before you click on that link, read the rest of this post.

I created this chart with the following assumptions in mind:

  1. This is very much a first draft.

  2. The dark lines were intended to represent more explicit or direct lines of influence. The lighter gray lines were meant to represent connections of some sort that are more complicated, contested, subjects of debate or ambiguity. I was limited by the software as to how complicated I could be in this regard (in my head, I had dotted lines, arrows, multiple colors, etc., things that are just not available in Prezi); so the simplicity is equal parts my own ignorance and technical limitations.

  3. I was never going to be able to cover everything. I wasn’t able to cover everything because (a) I didn’t have time and (b) I don’t know everything. No one does. That’s okay. So instead I did my best to hit the highlights, to focus on some of the more visible, larger, long-lived traditions and lineages in the US. Because this was not the only thing I’ve got going on in my life, I had very fuzzy definitions of “highlights” and “visible” and “larger” and the relative worth or value judgements of those terms. Given time (and this post is an attempt to force myself to make time to think more clearly about these issues) I’d be happy to sit down and think of a substantive set of criteria with which to judge a community’s “worthiness” as an object of study and inclusion in a presentation such as this.

  4. I tried very much to balance both lines of transmission and relationality. By that I mean there’s a good argument for tracing the development of American Shinshu, for example, back to Japan, through the Tokugawa, to its origins in Shinran and Honen (and thus its connection or relationship to to Jodoshu) and their experiences with Tendai and thus Tendai’s implicit “pure land-ness” as well as its “esoteric-ness” and Tendai’s connection to Tientai in China, etc., etc., etc. This points directly to two different ways of conceptualizing the history of Buddhism as either a history of lineage and traditions or a history of ideas, attitudes, and practices. In the former, we rely on explicit (or implicit) connections generation to generation between specific schools or institutions. In the later, we rely on families of resemblance and the lines of influence that often self-consciously transcend arbitrary sectarian distinction. Is one better than the other? It depends, of course, very much on the kind of work you’re doing. In the specific case of the United States…? I’m open to suggestions. I can seen benefits and drawbacks to both approaches, and so in my presentation I (perhaps unconsciously) incorporated both.

  5. Having said that, many of my decisions about where to place certain forms of Buddhism were based more on how they would look in close-up on screen than on any academic criteria. So if I were to re-do this not at an interactive presentation but as a static image, I would make different choices.

  6. I am very much aware of the fact that dividing Vajrayana from Mahayana is not an unproblematic move. I did it for the purposes of this presentation (and will likely do it again in other contexts) to highlight not “Vajrayana’s” distinctiveness from Mahayana but its focus on specific practices and its importance in the greater Tibetan cultural sphere and how those traditions have been imported into the US, a point I tried to make clear in my presentation. I’m willing to be wrong on this point, and I suspect that if I am it would change the graph entirely while possibly calling into question the aforementioned distinction between lines or transmission or history of ideas.

  7. The boxes of “overview” text were intended to be talking points during during discussion. In other words, they were my way of saying, here are some important names and places and ideas in these various traditions; questions? comments? discussion? In the delivery of this presentation, our discussion quickly went of the rails into directions I did not anticipate. It. Was. Awesome.

  8. Duh. I left a lot out. Tell me what you think is important. (Like Shinyo-en. Where would that go?)

Which is why I’m posting this. I’m posting this looking for answers to two basic questions: (1) what would you have included that I left out? which traditions do you think need to be highlighted? which traditions were simply left out altogether and you’re flabbergasted that I ignored? where would you move things to highlight relationships or lines of transmission? Leave me a comment. Really. (2) What would your chart look like? If you felt compelled to create a “lineage” chart of US Buddhism, how would your organize it? By lineage? By family resemblance? Some other criteria? Would it be a family tree? A complicated Venn diagram? An amoeba? What?

So, having said all of that, what do you think? And keep in mind two things. First, I made this chart for a very specific audience, and its limitations may reflect its pragmatic needs more than any hard and fast “academic” decision on my part. Secondly, and related to the above, any chart would necessarily be made for its own audience. What audience would you have in mind if you were to make a similar chart? Your immediate community? A university undergraduate class? An intro text book? “The Internet”? Audiences often define how we do our work. So keep that in mind while your critique mine and create your own.


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