Book summary feedback request

A colleague has suggested I write a summary of The Book. Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that I can be, in a word, verbose. And that my writing is prone to be overly academic in tone. The Book, of course, is an academic book. As I said to a friend the other day, I wrote specifically because I have things I want to say to other Buddhist studies nerds. But I also hope that normal people read the thing, and to convince them/you that they/you may be interested, perhaps a summary is in order. 

To that end, I present the following and a plea for help. This is very much a first draft. Any feedback, suggestions, clarifying questions, polite ridicule would be welcome. Feel free to drop a comment below or shoot me an email.

In The Making of American Buddhism, I argue that it is the often unseen labor of primarily women and persons of color that have made American Buddhism possible. In the middle of the 20th century, second-generation Japanese American Buddhists, facing extreme discrimination and interment during World War II, laid claim to an American identity inclusive of their religious identity. This book focuses on a Buddhist magazine called the Berkeley Bussei wherein Japanese American Buddhists argued that Buddhism was both what made them good Americans and what they had to contribute to America, a rational and scientific religion of peace. More than just a study of a particular magazine, however, this book also explores the behind-the-scenes labor that made it possible.

The book focuses primarily Japanese American Shin Buddhists who made possible American Buddhism. To make this claim, I unpack a series of false choices and reductive binaries that have largely defined the study of Buddhism in North America. Such binaries of ethnic/convert, traditional/modern or authentic/inauthentic are unable to account for the complexity of American Buddhist history. Rather than forcing the Buddhists under study into arbitrary categories, I allow them to be fully and simultaneously Asian/American/modern/Shin/Buddhists whose experiences are shaped by their local contexts and connections to transnational networks.

Divided into five chapters, I start The Making of American Buddhism with an overview of Jōdo Shinshū or Shin Buddhism. Shin Buddhism is one of the largest schools of Japanese Buddhism, and the vast majority of pre-WWII Japanese immigrants were Shin Buddhists; and yet, Shin Buddhism remains largely understudied and misunderstood in both academic and popular accounts of American Buddhism. Thus, the book begins with an overview of this tradition and how Shin thought and practice are detectable in the early history of Buddhism the West.

At the same time that Japanese immigrants were bringing Buddhism to the West, Asian Buddhists and their European sympathizers were developing what has now been widely accepted as “Buddhist modernism” — a catch-all term used to describe various changes to the Buddhist tradition in the wake of colonialism, modernity, and globalization. Despite the fact that the Shin Buddhist teachers who established communities in North America were all raised and educated in this cultural and historical context, American Shin Buddhism is often excluded from scholarly accounts of Buddhist modernism. The Berkeley Bussei challenges this exclusion. Therein, Buddhism is presented time and again in throughly modernist terms, as a rational religion of science and peace that serves as a panacea for virtually all the world’s problems.

I suggest that the exclusion of American Shin Buddhism from the study of Buddhist modernism mirrors Japanese American exclusion more generally, with the case of WWII incarceration being a prime example. Building on the work of Duncan Ryûken Williams in his groundbreaking American Sutra, I argue that Japanese Americans defined their American identity in thoroughly Buddhist terms. What’s more, I argue that this unapologetically Buddhist American identity was leveled as a critique against America’s failure to live up to its ideals of religious freedom.

More than a study of modernist or identity discourses in one mid-century Buddhist publication, however, The Making of American Buddhism is also interested in labor. Whereas many studies of American Buddhism take for granted that people worked hard to build Buddhist communities, this labor is rarely theorized and much less valued. In this book, I argue that without affective, emotional, non-productive, and religious labor — labor which overwhelmingly falls to women in my study — the work of usually more famous men would never come to light. To put it plainly, without someone typing, editing, copyediting, and distributing their work, no one would have ever heard of D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, or the other teachers and thinkers often taken for granted as the usual suspects of Buddhist modernism.

Many of these usual suspects show up in the Berkeley Bussei. During the 1950s, the resident priest of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, Rev. Kanmo Imamura, and his wife, Jane, were responsible for hosting a cosmopolitan program of education, publication, and public outreach that attracted the growing West Coast countercultural movement at mid-century. Indeed, the Imamuras became life-long friends of Alan Watts and other member of the Beat Generation. These connections gave a generation of American Buddhist converts and sympathizers access to a living Buddhist community and networks of exchange that no doubt supported their mainstream popularization. Here, I ask, what if? That is, rather than merely tracing out connections between historical figures, I ask the reader to speculate on an alternative history that could have been. Had the Japanese American (women) Buddhists not opened their homes to wayward Beat poets, how different would American Buddhism look today?

In the end, I hope this book helps to uncover hidden histories, lift up forms of labor we all too-often ignore or undervalue, and reveal connections between communities of practice and scholarship that are often presumed to be mutually exclusive.

On a more personal note, the bulk of the writing was done during the height of the covid-19 pandemic, at a time when we have all become viscerally aware of our planet’s fragile ecological and political state. The subjects of this book similarly lived through difficult times and found the courage and hope to both carry the dharma forward and forge connections with persons outside their communities. I hope that there are lessons and inspiration we can glean from this history as we head into whatever future is in store for American Buddhism.

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