American Buddhism in the News

My apologies for being out of touch lately – with travels, study deadlines, and life in general, I’ve had a very full plate. I hope to be back up to speed quickly.

And there is a lot to catch up on. This Tuesday, while I was in London for a meeting regarding my phd, two of the most amazing people in the world were meeting (for the first time, I believe) in that very city: H.H. the Dalai Lama and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.But more on that and Tibet and Burma (Myanmar) will come soon.

First, to American Buddhism, which has been in the news of late. Shortly after the NYT story about the death at Diamond Mountain, Geshe Michael Roach’s ‘University’, ABC’s Nightline aired a segment as well. Clearly there are lessons that need to be learned from this. Hopefully a weariness for charismatic teachers promising the moon will find its way into the fabric of American Buddhism so that deaths like this will not happen again. Lama Surya Das, one of Americs’s best known Tibetan Buddhist practitioners and teachers, even recently provided a (somewhat tepid) discussion of the topic.

In more general American Buddhist news is the guest blog by William Wilson Quinn (Buffalo Bill?) at the Washington Post last week. The post, which suggests the emergence of new Western form of Buddhism based on the ‘core teachings of the Buddha’ and free of ‘culture-based ceremony’ stinks of shoddy orientalism. Quinn is listed as a ‘scholar of Buddhism’, but the piece lacks any cultural context for American Buddhism. Mumon and Arun’s critiques are far more enlightening than the article itself.

A second opinion piece comes from James Atlas in the New York Times, and is called “Buddha’s Delight.” It is basically an account of his brief retreat and, aside from identifying Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as “among [the] early American proponents” of engaged Buddhism (that’s certainly news to me) and referring to Jewish converts to Buddhism as “Juddhists” instead of the popular “JuBu“, it seems innocuous. But at the same time I didn’t find it terribly illuminating, either. It has been a few years, but it reminded me a tiny bit of Dinty Moore’s book The Accidental Buddhist, about a journalist who tries out various Buddhist practices. The book, as I recall, was much better.

  • Erik Henchal

    I’ve been trying to discern this idea of an American Buddhist. From your “About” it appears that your training leans towards the Mahayana school, especially Tibetan. However it appears that you may be trying to mash up all different kinds of philosophies, including catholicism. I had gotten form Stephen Bachelor a concept of a pure buddhism without the religious trappings and ceremony that sounds more American. Actually – the more I read Stephen he seems to be mashing up agnostic ideas and Theravada buddhism. So what is American buddhism?

    • Justin Whitaker

      Erik – yes, this is somewhat funny, as I think American Buddhism is many things, including some at times odd mash-ups. My Catholicism is a matter of my culture, I would say, and I have done some academic work in that area. My training otherwise is pretty all over the place. :) But I think Batchelor’s ‘pure Buddhism’ is just that, Batchelor’s pure Buddhism. To the extent that it’s helpful, people will pick it up. And to the extent that other practices and understandings are helpful, those too will be picked up.

  • Mumon

    Oddly enough I was thinking about Moore’s book while that whole Michael Roach thing was developing. That book had pretty nice words to say about Roach, but that was before, uh, he got kind of odd.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Oh – I completely forgot that Moore wrote about Roach. What a strange small world it is. And yes, it’s interesting to look at before and after (the ‘oddness’) impressions of Roach. I just got a very nice comment on the old ‘death in the desert’ post that I think is typical of many people’s experience with Roach:

      Hey Justin, I met Roach at a difficult transition time in my life and he was just what the dharma doctor ordered. I studied almost daily with him over 3 years in Manhattan, transcribed tedious and repetitive lectures–he is not a classically eloquent man as you must know, tho I found him bizarrely charismatic–wrote the first draft of an important teaching anonymously, and pretty much could not take my eyes off his languid figure slouching against the podium as he drilled the same stuff into us, over and over again. The thrall broke when I began to see how he was manipulating people in the sangha–for instance, one condition he made for those who wished to draw closer to him was that we all learn Tibetan. As an Indian with an appreciation for Siddhartha Gotama’s origins, I saw no need for this, or for many of the other strictures imposed upon the sangha. I also had no intention of not speaking my mind. So I served my time and got out in the nick of time. It has been 13 years since I last saw Roach around Christmas Eve in Bodhgaya. Today I feel no anger against him for breaking his vows as a teacher–because, despite my fascination with his personality and his simple but powerful way of getting the message across, I was always more into the Dharma than the teacher. (Principles before Personalities). And as time goes on, I continue to find myself very grateful to him for training me so diligently in eastern philosophical fundamentals that serve me well everyday, though I am now on a totally different path which makes sense to me in a way Tantric Buddhism (as Roach and the other lamas I later studied with in the Himalayas taught it) never did. I honestly feel that at the time I was his student (around 96-99), Roach taught pure dharma untainted by the ego and with good intentions. But like so many of immense potential who never make it to the top of the mountain, Roach fell–for the same old reasons that most teachers fall–sex and the ridiculous adulation of the naive and the ungrounded he attracted. By the way, some comments to your post indicate that some folks don’t understand why old sangha members are stirred by this whole sorry mess. Arrogant as it may sound, I say to them that it takes decades (in this lifetime alone) to acquire a decent foundation in eastern philosophy. Without this, no matter how many degrees you have, or how high your IQ is, you will never understand how important it is that the guru’s heart and mind stay pure, and that he keep his vows. As a modern American, there was nothing stopping Roach from taking off his robes and doing anything he wished; but he wanted everything — the dignity conferred by his title as well as all the goodies forbidden to such a one. Justin, thanks for your work!

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