The Tranquil Meditator

This past weekend at the American Academy of Religion, I participated in a panel for the Dharma Academy of North America. Our panel was organized by the wonderful Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and it brought together a variety of perspectives on the transmission and development of Buddhism in the United States. More details on other papers can be found here (PDF, see page 6).

I recorded my talk and have posted audio below. The audio quality isn’t great, and I feel as though my argument is larger than a fifteen-minute presentation can really hold. But I also believe that there might be the germ of a good idea here, so in the off chance anyone else finds this topic useful, here it is.

A couple of things: this piece is about pop-culture and mass media representations of Buddhism in the U.S., representations often done by non-Buddhists and perpetuated within Buddhist media. These representations are a reflection of just one discourse among many, and the icon of the Tranquil Meditator I propose here is just an icon, an imperfect reflection of certain aspects of our culture. But drawing our attention to this icon and the discourse it represents, I hope to actually move past it to discuss more important issues.

Namely, I believe that Buddhist philosophies, doctrines, ethics, and practices potentially contain extremely useful and powerful tools and strategies for solving contemporary social problems and collective suffering. And by that I don’t mean that mindfulness/meditation alone can save the world. The style of meditation represented by the icon of the Tranquil Meditator is just one Buddhist tool, one practice. And no one practice or spiritual technology can solve all of our problems. Moreover, what the Tranquil Meditator represents is extremely seductive; she promises a type of instant psychological and emotional gratification that may alleviate immediate or short-term suffering without necessarily addressing the underlying or root causes, thus merely delaying any potential cure to that suffering. And it is precisely those underlying or root causes — as well as practical and reasonable solutions to these causes — that I would like to see more people (especially Buddhists) talking about in the media, rather than just the constant quest for short-term happiness.

I believe we can do better.

I’m deeply grateful to Karma Lekshe Tsomo for organizing this panel and to DANAM for providing us the opportunity to present our work. I am also grateful to my fellow panelists whose own papers were of far better quality than my own! I’m humbled by their hard work and dedication and hope to see all of our work developed and published in the near future.

I hope to write another post soon about other experiences and lessons learned at this year’s AAR. So stay tuned.

Lastly, because I don’t technically have permission for all of the images I used during my presentation, I do not feel comfortable posting the slides here. But if you’re interested in either the slides themselves or in getting a hard copy of my paper, let me know and I might be able to send them to you.

Dharma Dialogue

Jane Iwamura down at the University of the West has a class going on right now on Buddhism in the West, and her students are managing a blog called “Dharma Dialogue.” It’s an admirable project to give students the opportunity to share their experiences and what they’re learning, studying, and the issues with which they’re wrestling with the public at large. Especially given the vitriol one usually finds in the Buddhist blogs these days when the topics hit so close to home. I find the posts smart and the entire project bold. I’m a fan.

In a recent post, my name was mentioned. Specifically, my Masters thesis. Dear god. That thing’s still floating around out there? Rumor has it that the GTU library can’t find their copy of it, and my electronic file has been corrupted and is barely readable. Which is just as well. I defended my thesis in the summer of 2002, and did most of the research for it over the corse of the previous year. The Internet, in 2001-2002, was a much different animal. Things have changed. When I wrote my thesis, not only did “web 2.0” not yet exist, not only was there no Facebook or Twitter, but “blog” wasn’t really even a household word yet. That’s the problem with doing research on contemporary issues and especially the problem with the Internet. It’s the very definition of a moving target.

If I could do it all over again, I’d probably do it differently. Specifically, I’d be interested in the questions of community, identity formation, and the five skandhas. That is, of late, I’ve been thinking more and more about the importance of sangha (community) in one’s Buddhist practice, how community helps in the formation of identity, and (to put a Buddhist spin on all of it) the extent to which the five skandhas are actually present in one’s online life or if it’s just two or three (or four?) of them. I don’t have any firm answers here on any of these questions because, quite frankly, I’ve haven’t been doing any real research on these issues of late. I’ve been focused on other things. But I hope that as others, including the dedicated students down as U-West, dig more into this topic, they keep some of these issues in mind.

Now, where Monica is absolutely right, of course, is in her observation that digital Buddhism does not necessarily reflect real-world Buddhism. Her statistics about how many folks are online, what languages they speak, and where they live in the real world are worth a look.

However, I’d caution against using Google searches as any indication of anything. First is the problem that Google searches are powered by a proprietary search algorithm that changes rather frequently. How search results are ranked is a complete mystery. Secondly, and related to the first issue, even though a “casual” Google search might appear to be the same for a large number of people, it isn’t. As Google grows in sophistication, search results are actually custom tailored toward specific demographics, locations, and individuals. One person’s “causal” results might not be like the next person’s.

Further, and perhaps more importantly, Google searches are clearly not the only way that folks discover new content on the web. The Internet mirrors real-life, and it’s reasonable to assume that one discovers new Buddhist content through existing, self-selected networks. For example, I might follow Buddhist Blogger A, not only her blog but also on Twitter, largely because I agree with her point of view. i.e., the digital equivalent of self-segregation in the real world. If Buddhist Blogger A re-posts something or links to something or tweets some other blog, I’m likely to start following that as well. (It is, after all, how I found out about Dharma Dialogue.) And this has nothing to do with what Google might serve up or what the “mainstream” blogs or media assumes is important.

Simply put, we need more research on use patterns. We need more data about how individuals use the web, search out new content sources, and discover digital Buddhism(s).

I’ll end here, in part because I’m actually 39,000 feet above Nevada at the moment, on my way to Chicago. But I wanted to say that I appreciated this particular post, part of a much needed new blog in the mix of digital Buddhism. Great work!

See you in Chicago

For those who go to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, it’s coming up this weekend in Chicago. The program book is online, searchable, and here’s what’s happening in Buddhist Studies.

I’ll be presenting on Friday during a related meeting, the Dharma Academy of North America. My topic is, once again, media representations of Buddhism. Check it out if you’re in town.

Also, the main Buddhism Section meeting is Sunday morning. It’s worth going to this meeting (not only because the topic looks interesting) but because during the business meeting future topics for the group are discussed. If you’re interested in participating in the ongoing development of Buddhist studies as an academic discipline, this is one way to get your voice heard.

See you in Chicago!

Space Buddha

Space Buddha
Supposed 1000-year-old iron staute of Vaishravana carved from meteorite.

As you may remember, the story of a Tibetan Buddhist statue carved out of a meteorite and found in Germany with connections to the Nazis made the rounds of Buddhist and mainstream media a month or so ago. And really, that’s not surprising. Nazis, Tibet, statues made from space rocks. It has all the makings of a great TV movie.

Via the Buddhist scholars network H-Buddhism, however, I found an article by a Tibetologist who makes a convincing argument that the statue is not, in fact, Tibetan but is likely an imitation. (Here’s a direct link to the PDF of the article.) The original scholarly article that brought this story to life was written by mineralogists and planetologist who explicitly asked for folks from other fields to weigh in on “cultural matters” related to the statue. Achim Bayer, in his article, has done so. In sum, he argues that the iconography of the statue is inconsistent with what one would expect of a statue made a thousand years ago in central Asia. Instead, he believes it was likely made in the twentieth century in Germany.

Bayer goes on to discuss the continued popularity of various myths surrounding Tibet and Shangri-la and suggests that there is a “myth of Tibetology” as well. He suggests that Tibetology as a field of study is a science with a “methodology just as rigid as any other.” While I’m not sure I want to grant any rigid methodology the label “science” just yet, I do agree that Tibetology, Buddhist Studies, and religious studies more generally do in fact have sophisticated methodologies and that, as a general rule, the humanities are not taken as seriously as the hard sciences. Which is a shame.

More importantly, to my mind, Bayer points out that there is often a distance between academics and popular discourses about our subject of study. In this case, journalists seemed to have all but ignored Tibetologists and Buddhist Studies scholars and assumed, uncritically, that “iron man” Buddha statue really is a thousand years old. It is the silence of professional scholars here that helps maintain these myths of Tibet, Tibetology, and Buddhist Studies.

This isn’t always true, of course. In my paper on media representations of Buddhism, I found that reporters did reach out to Buddhist Studies scholars quite frequently. Reporters’ motivations and how scholarly opinions are reported, of course, is another matter. Regardless, Bayer’s point is well taken. Buddhist Studies scholars tend not to be public intellectuals (with a few exceptions, of course); avoiding public discourse does no one any favors. It allows for our work to be considered unimportant or irrelevant to the everyday practice of religion or the social good, and it allows misperceptions about Buddhism and Buddhist scholars to persist unchecked.

Buddhism and pop-culture across cultures

Via Tricycle, via RocketNews, comes the following video demonstration of a Japanese video game released earlier this year titled “Sutra Master.”

The game is simple enough. Your character must beat a wooden fish drum and singing bowl to the high-speed, J-pop techno music while swatting away the occasional ghost fire balls and human-animal hybrid gods. The purpose of all this mayhem seems to be to help send the recently departed off to better rebirths. You’ll see little sutra scrolls and nameplates pop up here and there. Oh, and of course, since it’s a game, you earn points and, I’m assuming, there’s a way to win the game.

A lot of my recent research has been focused on how Buddhist ideas, imagery, and persons are represented in various media. I’m interested, primarily, in North American media because that’s my general area of speciality. But, of course, in this increasingly interconnected world, it’s all too easy to come across media from other cultures. Tricycle’s only comment on this video was “weird”; and the original article from RocketNews, while betraying a serious lack of knowledge about Buddhist practice more generally, was a least sensitive to the fact that this game is a game (i.e., not the most important thing in the universe) while reporting on how different audiences (namely both Japanese and Chinese audiences) reacted to it.

A couple of quick thoughts came to me when I found this earlier today. First, I think it’s important to resist the urge to read media in a vacuum. That is, media rarely exists without an audience, and yet many media critics restrict themselves to merely reading media as a kind of text without also considering how that media is received by different audiences. (Edward Schiappa has some interesting things to say about this.) The makers of this particular video game had a very specific audience in mind when they created it, so it’s important to think about that audience and question the producers’ motivations. Was this game intended for Japanese audiences only? Or a more global market? Was it intended to be nothing more than a diversion? Or was it produced explicitly as a way to help people engage with Buddhism, if even in an extremely non-traditional way?

Secondly, I’m reminded of conversations I have with my students about Buddhism, media, pop-culture, and the attendant changes to Buddhism as it interacts with modernity and moves across cultures. It is easy to look at Buddhism in media and dismiss it as little more than Buddhism’s way of adapting to modernity or as a consequence of moving from one cultural location to another and then say, “Well, Buddhism always changes and adapts to new cultures.” To me, this attitude often stops conversation. Yes, Buddhism always changes, so let’s look at how and why it’s changing in this particular culture, at this particular time. Let’s think about the particular cultural context in which this game was developed (rather than simply dismissing it as some “weird” by-product of a foreign culture). What are the specific issues facing Buddhism in contemporary Japan that have allowed for this game to come into being? Do the varied reactions of Japanese audiences reflect different opinions about the “sanctity” (for lack of a better word) of Buddhism in an increasingly secular Japanese society? As this game moves across geo-political and cultural boundaries, how are different audiences reacting to it from their own particular cultural contexts?

By taking seriously these questions I believe we can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which Buddhism is affected by contemporary issues. Moreover, we can be attentive to the specific strategies and logics that Buddhists employ to maneuver shifting cultures while remaining relevant to an increasingly secularized, modern, and globalized world.


Map of the Buddhist Churches of America

The Buddhist Churches of America is the United States’ oldest and longest-lived Buddhist community, with over sixty temples and fellowship divided into eight different districts in a dozen different states. It’s always hard for me to keep track of where all these communities are, and since I’m a big fan of maps, I decided to put together the following Google map of the BCA and its districts.

View BCA Temples, districts in a larger map

The BCA, of course, has a similar tool on their website, which is great. I’ve tried to include the smaller, branch temples as well, however, and their map lacks district lines. Knowing districts is helpful, to me anyway, in trying to understand the regional differences between different parts of Shin Buddhist America.

I have not included all of the fellowships on this map because it seems as though some of them are located in people’s homes. A full list of BCA communities can be found on their website here.

I’ve never seen a district map of the BCA, and I’m not sure if the BCA has one or if the borders of the eight districts are actually set in stone. So, on this map, I made it up! I’m assuming that the “eastern” district, for examples, covers everything east of the mountain states. Feedback, of course, is most welcome. Just leave a comment below.

Pure Land Buddhist Studies at AAR

On behalf of the North American District of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies, I am happy to announce that we have been accepted as a Related Scholarly Organization by the American Academy of Religion.

The mission of the IASBS is to foster the development of international Shin and Pure Land Buddhist studies while providing a network for communication and the exchange of ideas and resources among its members. Membership of the North American District is diverse, as are our members’ academic interests, covering a broad range of Pure Land traditions across Asia and the West as well as range of methodological approaches, including textual, anthropological, historical, and biographical. The IASBS publishes an annual journal, The Pure Land, that publishes both translations of canonical texts as well as research articles, essays, and book reviews.

Being a RSO of the AAR will provide the North American District with a time and space to host annual meetings for the IASBS with the aim of providing a regular venue for scholars to meet and share their work on Pure Land Buddhism. Our hope is to be able to bring Pure Land Buddhist Studies to the attention of a broader array of religious studies scholars. The North American District Steering Committee plans to begin offering public events during the AAR annual meeting in 2013.

For more information, please visit the IASBS website.

Open Access

Part of being an academic means being part of a closed system. Much of the work we do as scholars remains hidden in obscurity, behind some formidable pay-walls. Whether it is the high cost of academic books or peer reviewed journals only research libraries can afford subscriptions to, there is a problem of access in academia. Most of the public never sees our work, even if they want to.

I’m happy (dare I say, proud) that I work for an institution whose own academic journal, the Pacific World, is freely distributed to anyone who wants it, in both electronic PDF format and good old fashioned print. This is made possible by the generous support of the Numata Foundation, an organization that does all sorts of good work for Buddhist studies all over the world, helping make our work as scholars accessible.

I’ll not debate the merits of this closed system here. Suffice it to say, a lot has been written about what’s wrong with this system and the need for more access to scholarly work. Many of these arguments, however, never address the fact that merely having access to scholarly work can never take the place of an education. Real education does not happen simply by reading something; education takes time, commitment, guidance, good teachers and mentors, and a peer group. But that’s an argument for another time!

My only purpose here is to acknowledge the difficulty many have in getting access to good scholarly work. Even students, who do have access to research libraries, often find themselves either looking for something that the library does not have or in the position of needing to buy something ridiculously expensive. But, fortunately, there are a number of sources out there that are open access. You just need to know where to look.

Below is a short and no doubt incomplete list. My own research interests mean I’m just not aware of everything out there. So I encourage anyone with other tips to leave them in the comments. It’s a start. A way of helping expand our collective knowledge.


Journals with open access:

Journal of Global Buddhism

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

The Pacific World

Contemporary Japan

Japanese Journal of Religious Studies


Journals with other levels of access:

The Pure Land: the Journal of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies. Membership in the IASBS is relatively inexpensive ($20 per year; $15 if you’re a student, and the first year is free). With membership, you get a subscription to the journal as well as access to all back copies via the Internet.

Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies: 60 months after publication, the JIABS goes online in free PDF format. If you can’t wait that long, become a member and get a regular subscription to the journal.

The Eastern Buddhist is a subscription-based journal, but unlike other academic journals, it’s subscription price is pretty low. Just $25 per year. (Compare that to the journal Contemporary Buddhism — a fantastic journal — which has subscriptions starting at $87 up to more than $300.)

A subscription to The Journal of the American Academy of Religion comes with AAR membership. For students, this is $50 per year. It’s a sliding scale otherwise, based on your income. Not cheep. But sort of essential for scholars. I’m told you can get free access to PDFs somewhere online, but can’t figure out how.

As I said, if I missed anything, let me know in the comments!

AAR 2011

The American Academy of Religion is North America’s largest professional organization for scholars of religion. Each year, the AAR hosts a conferences that brings together thousands of scholars as well as academic book publishers and editors. And Buddhist studies is well represented!

This year’s conference is being held in San Francisco, so it’s a great opportunity for our students and extended community members to experience the AAR.

What’s more, there are a couple of events happening at this year’s conference that are directly related to the Institute.

New Research in Pure Land Buddhist Studies:

A panel organized and moderated by myself will be held on Sunday, November 20, at 3 o’clock. The purpose of the panel is to bring Pure Land Buddhism to the forefront of academic inquiry. Former IBS faculty members Kenneth Tanaka and Eisho Nasu are joined by Jessica Main and Mark Blum.

Reception honoring Leslie Kawamura:

Leslie Kawamura was a dedicated scholar as well as a formidable presence in American Shin Buddhist communities who passed away earlier this year. The University of Calgary, along with the Buddhist Studies group at the AAR, the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies, and the IBS are hosting a reception in his honor on Monday, November 21, at 7 p.m. All are invited to attend.

Other Buddhism-related panels:

As always, there are dozens of other panels and events that are related to Buddhism, Buddhist studies, and Asian religions. View the online program book for more information.

For more information about the AAR, check out their website. And students — please feel free to come talk to me if you have any questions about the benefits of AAR membership.