Dharma Dialogue: a new blog on Buddhism in America

Dharma Dialogue

Dharma Dialogue, a blog created at the University of the West, promises to be a great addition to the tiny niche of blogs at the intersection of academia and Buddhism in the U.S. At just one month old (or so), the blog only has four articles, but I’m guessing that the number and quality will increase greatly as the semester progresses.

From the ‘about’ page, the blog is described as:

Beyond the Ivory Tower


This blog begins as a discussion space for a graduate-level course about Buddhism in the U.S.  However, we hope it will become a public space for discussing the past, present, and possible future of Buddhist history and practice in the United States.  This course is being taught by Dr. Jane Iwamura at University of the West in Rosemead, California.  Dr. Iwamura and her students will be posting here regularly about topics being raised in the class.  Comments are welcome and encouraged both from enrolled students and the general public.  Please, tell us what you think!  What does Buddhism in the U.S. look like to you?

There is also a reading list (shared by the students) and some guidelines. One of the things I noticed that was unfortunate is the anonymity of the people creating each post. It would be nice if each person gave, if not their name, then at least some background, for example: “authored by “Tim,” a 27 year old Ohio native, world traveler, and former business student who is now a Tibetan practitioner (of 4 years) and studying chaplaincy at U West.”

The earliest post deals with the Buddha’s views on God, and while it touches on a sutta or two, it basically expresses the author’s frustration with Westerners (lack of) understanding when it comes to the Buddha and the complex pantheon of Brahmanic gods. I understand the frustration. Gods appear throughout the early Buddhist canon, but you have to read a lot of it to begin to get an idea of what the Buddha thought of god, or the gods. But you not only have to read the suttas, you have to develop a way of interpreting them. There is a playful quality to some of them that can be missed when you read them literally (though some commentators deny this). There is one, for instance (I don’t recall where it is of hand, please comment if you know) in which a man asks “where is the end of everything?” to successive levels of gods, each sending him ‘up’ to higher (and supposedly wiser) levels. Finally the highest God, after a pause, sends him to ask the Buddha. There is also the Tevijja Sutta, DN 13, wherein the Buddha teaches two young Brahmins how to “dwell with Brahma” (by leaving their former path and following his teachings on ethics and meditation). Here the Buddha doesn’t demote the god or replace it so much as change its meaning to fit his own teachings. So you won’t get anything definitive from just one or two suttas, and you shouldn’t trust anyone who points to any sutta as the definitive view of the Buddha (on pretty much anything).

I enjoyed the post on jhanas – having been told once not to get ‘addicted’ to them once myself. The author of this post does a good job of defending the legitimacy of jhanas against mostly contemporary Western Buddhists who worry that the pleasant feelings associated with them can lead to clinging, thus defeating the purpose. The author also does a good job of giving the historical context that explains some of this worry, in effect demystifying some of the changes that have occurred in Asia (specifically Burma) over the past hundred or so years.

The best (and most recent) posts come in a two part series on the study of Buddhism in America: one on cradle-Buddhists, and the other on “night-light” Buddhists. The first of these is great, describing the absence of discussion of children and families in scholarly writing on Buddhism in America – at least until we read that these are part of the “power-laden representations that dominate the “American” hegemonic understanding of Buddhism in the United States.” This comes, both literally and metaphorically, out of left-field. And it continues like this for a while:

These representations are absolutely normative. While they are presented as facts, they are designed to shape (or create if necessary) a “Buddhism” as it should be (as preferred by some), a “Buddhism” that reinforces the power of particular groups and individuals.

One has to be very careful when one is accusing scholars of shaping (or creating) their object of study. One has to be even more careful when accusing them of doing so in order to “reinforce the power of particular groups and individuals.”  If such accusations were true of just one academic in just one book or article, it could be devastating to his/her career. I’m afraid the post continues with this train of thought for a while, perhaps right of the metaphorical cliff:

Since hegemonic structures support themselves with illusions and fictions (in fact, their logic is predicated on using sleight-of-hand in addition to a closed fist to make lies appear to be true), it is not always easy to discern their inner workings. Normally, one might ask “who benefits from these structures?” In this case, a close examination of the common themes within the points above provides a unique glimpse of the foundation of this particular hegemonic structure, a dominating and dominant representation we might term “American Buddhism.”

The post does go on from there to make some good points worth reading. The second part of the series likewise carries on with these good points, but with some of the same problematic (conspiratorial?) slant as the first post. Overall they are great posts though, indeed the best so far, and the zeal in them is itself commendable. But if you’re going to call out most if not all of the top scholars in a field for “illusions and fictions” – be careful – and be prepared to present pages and pages of evidence. But again, as a student-led blog, one shouldn’t get too worked up. Enjoy what’s there and keep an eye out for more excellent and thought-provoking work to come.

  • Doug

    I think the sutta you’re looking for with the higher levels of gods is the Kevaddha Sutta. It’s a great one; I was just looking at it.

    • Justin Whitaker

      That is the one – thanks, Doug. Available at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.11.0.than.html for those interested (go toward the bottom, “Conversion of the Gods”).

      • Doug
        • Justin Whitaker

          Thanks for that link, Doug. That’s a great discussion (by you, I take it!) of the Kevaddha Sutta. I don’t know if I’d call it a “manifesto” though – as the Buddha elsewhere performs miracles. I think we can say that here, at least, the Buddha is discussing when and why certain types of miracles are not to be performed and – of course – why the ‘miracle of the dhamma’ is superior. And yep, it does seem to be one of many pokes-in-the-ribs of Brahmanism found in the Pali suttas.

          • Doug

            Yeah, I thought about ‘manifesto’; I guess it’s a manifesto on a particular use of miracles. Anyhow I wanted a punchy title …

            Love the blog, BTW. You’re doing what I considered doing … but I went the philosophy route all the way.

            • Justin Whitaker

              Many thanks, Doug.

              I know the pitfalls of punchy titles well :) It is a great article though. As one who attempts a philosophical approach to religion, I would have liked to go the philosophy route all the way, but it just turned out to be more convenient/accepted that I take my philosophical approach from within Religious Studies departments… It’s great to see more philosophers interested in the Pali Canon. Keep up the great writing…

              • Doug

                Thanks, Justin. Means a lot that you like what I’m writing.

  • http://dharmacowgirl.wordpress.com Monica


    Thanks for the plug. We have begun adding bios to the “About This Blog” page over at Dharma Dialogues. Hopefully, they’ll be fleshed out by later this week. We hope you’ll keep checking back with us throughout the semester. Feel free to leave comments, too. Otherwise, I’ll clue my classmates in to your post. Thanks!

    Monica (aka, student at UWest and webmaster for Dharma Dialgoue)

    • Justin Whitaker

      You’re very welcome, Monica. Big kudos to you, your fellow students, and your professor for setting this up.

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    Dear Dham !
    Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha was passing through a village where the people of that village were against him, against his “philosophy”, so they gathered around him to insult him. They used ugly words, vulgar words. Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha listened. Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha’s disciple Ananda, who was with him, got very angry, but he couldn’t say anything because Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha was listening so silently, so patiently, rather as if he was enjoying the whole thing.

    Then even the crowd became a little frustrated because Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha was not getting irritated and it seemed he was enjoying. Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha said, ”Now, if you are finished, I should move – because I have to reach the other village soon. They must be waiting just as you were waiting for me. If you have not told me all the things that you thought to tell me, I will be coming back within a few days, then you can finish it.”

    Someone from the crowd said,
    “But we have been insulting you, we have insulted you. Won’t you react? Won’t you say something?”

    Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha said,
    “That is difficult. If you want reaction from me, then you are too late. You should have come at least 10 years ago, because then I used to react. But I am now no longer so foolish. I see that you are angry, that’s why you are insulting me. I see your anger, the fire burning in your mind. I feel compassion for you. This is my response – I feel compassion for you. Unnecessarily you are troubled.Even if I am wrong, why should you get so irritated? That is not your business. If I am wrong I am going to hell, you will not go with me. If I am wrong I will suffer for it, you will not suffer for it. But it seems you love me so much and you think about me and consider me so much that you are so angry, irritated. You have left your work in the fields and you have come just to say a few things to me. I am thankful.”

    Just when Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha was leaving he said,
    “One thing more I would like to say to you. In the other village I left behind, a great crowd just like you had come there and they had brought many sweets just as a present for me, a gift from the village. But I told them that I don’t take sweets. They took the sweets back. I ask you, what will they do with those sweets?”

    So somebody from the crowd said,
    “What will they do? It is easy, there is no need to answer. They will distribute them in the village and they will enjoy.”

    So Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha said,
    “Now what will you do? You have brought only insults and I say I don’t take them. What will you do? I feel so sorry for you. You can insult me, that is up to you. But I don’t take it, that is up to me – whether I take it or not.” Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha said, ”I don’t take unnecessary things, useless things. I don’t get unnecessarily burdened. I feel compassion for you.”

    This is response. If a person is angry and we are present there, not with our past, we will feel always compassion. Reaction becomes anger, response always is compassion. We will see through the person. It will become transparent that the person is angry, suffering, in misery, and ill. When someone is in fever we don’t start beating him and asking, ”Why are you having a fever? Why is your body hot? Why have you got a temperature?” We serve the person, we help the person to come out of it.

    And when somebody is angry the person also is having a temperature, the person is in a fever, the person is feverish. Why get so angry about it? The person is in a mental disease which is more dangerous than any bodily disease, more fatal. So if the spouse is angry the other spouse will feel compassion, will try in every way to help the angry apouse to be out of it. This is just mad – that the spouse is angry and the other spouse also gets angry. This is just mad, insane. We will look at the person, we will feel the misery the person is in , and we will help.

    But if the past comes in then everything goes wrong. And it can happen only if we go deep in meditation, otherwise it cannot happen. Just intellectual understanding won’t help. If we go deep in meditation our wounds will be thrown, a catharsis will happen. We become more and more clear inside, clarity is attained, we become like a mirror. We don’t have any wounds really, so no one can hit them. Then we can look at the person, then we can respond.

    Reactions are unconscious, there’s little or no real thinking involved. I used to assume that if something didn’t make any sense, then it must be the other person’s fault. Would I ever make a mistake?
    A reaction is often emotional, which may demonstrate that we have a belief. Beliefs are just adopted from someone else, without any critical thinking to see if they make sense. If we can defend something rationally, we usually do. If we can’t, then we react emotionally instead.
    A response shows thoughtfulness, we can change our life by usingour intelligence to consider how best to respond. One secret of success is to think before we speak or write. Respond has the same root as responsibility. Without taking responsibility for our actions, we will battle to achieve any goal or intended result. Our thoughts, our words and our actions create results. And if we want a certain outcome, then we need to focus our thoughts, and our words and our actions on its achievement.
    Response is always good, reaction is always bad. Response is always beautiful, reaction is always ugly. Avoid reactions and allow responses. Reaction is from the past, response is here and now. Our lives are not lost by dying; Our lives are lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways.