What does Buddhism in America Mean to You?

The story of Buddhism has always been one of adaptation and transformation. This month I am inviting a discussion about how Buddhism has adapted to and transformed America (that is, the Americas) with optional special attention to climate and climate change.

Given the ongoing heatwave in the southwestern United States and the tragic consequences of a fire in Arizona yesterday, it only seems appropriate that as we reflect on our nations and Buddhism here, that we also consider how Buddhist principles and practices can go toward solving this growing crisis.

Buddha, the Americas, and Climate (Change)

I’ll be sending this around for the next couple days. If you have a blog and write about Buddhism in …. Canada/USA/Mexico/Brazil/etc or N. America/S. America/The Americas, drop me a comment and I’ll add the link to a round-up on Thursday (or soon thereafter). If you have some thoughts but don’t want to write a full post or don’t have a blog, send those too: what’s your take on Buddhism in …? Where is Buddhism now and where is it going?

Buddhist teachers and scholars are already talking about this. A few recent articles shed some light on what they are thinking:

Ron Purser and David Loy published an article today called “Beyond McMindfulness that warns of the increasing separation of Buddhist meditational methods from underlying Buddhist practice and wisdom. This stress on ‘mindfulness’ apart from religion, they say, has been great for corporate marketing:

In their branding efforts, proponents of mindfulness training usually preface their programs as being “Buddhist-inspired.” There is a certain cachet and hipness in telling neophytes that mindfulness is a legacy of Buddhism — a tradition famous for its ancient and time-tested meditation methods. But, sometimes in the same breath, consultants often assure their corporate sponsors that their particular brand of mindfulness has relinquished all ties and affiliations to its Buddhist origins.

Yet, while shedding the ‘religious’ basis of mindfulness and perhaps watering down the practice might get it to more people, it also falsifies ‘what it’s all about’, from a traditional Buddhist perspective (hint: escaping the rounds of rebirth and suffering).

While a stripped-down, secularized technique — what some critics are now calling “McMindfulness” — may make it more palatable to the corporate world, decontextualizing mindfulness from its original liberative and transformative purpose, as well as its foundation in social ethics, amounts to a Faustian bargain. Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

Along similar lines, Lama Jampa Thaye, a Western scholar and practitioner in Tibetan traditions, yesterday wrote “We Are Not Kind Machines: A Radical Rejection of Scientific Buddhism.” He suggests that “scientific” Buddhism is just Western Materialism co-opting a few Buddhist ideas here and there and -as above- losing sight of the bigger picture that Buddhism offers. Additionally, he writes:

Materialism needs to be distinguished from science as well. While scientific discoveries continue to be made, modern philosophical materialism is in most important respects similar to the ancient Indian theories of the Charvaka or Lokayata systems, which Buddha and the great masters of his tradition knew and rejected. (So much for materialism’s cutting-edge modernity—a notion advanced to bewitch us into thinking that it’s the irresistible wave of the future.)

So there are two strikes against what we might call Stronlgy Adaptationalist Buddhism, the kind of Buddhism that seeks to give up all that is necessary in order to gain wider acceptance. These are calls for a Strongly Transformational Buddhism, a Buddhism that sticks to what has worked best for generations before in order to transform American society.

On the other side of the spectrum, in a sense, is Ethan Nichtern with a very short article on why Buddhists should not consider ourselves religions, “Losing Our Religion: Buddhism in a Post-Religious Society.” This is not a perfect case of apples to apples, though, as he is not arguing that Buddhists need to adopt science or drop ethics and wisdom and just push mindfulness practice. However, he is making what to some will be a bold claim that “I firmly believe that Buddhist meditation, philosophy and psychology should not be viewed as religious practices.” And, “I believe framing Buddhism as a religion is neither helpful nor true…”

Again, he doesn’t elaborate on what this means exactly, so perhaps we could persuade him to do a follow-up post.

So those are three articles posted in just the last day or so that might give us a starting point for where/how to think about this. Today I emailed Arun Likhati of Angry Asian Buddhist. Arun, if you don’t know, has long been a strong voice for Asian American Buddhists, a community which, while numerically equal to or larger than non-Asian American Buddhists, has nonetheless been vastly underrepresented in popular culture, print media, and scholarly work dealing with Buddhism in America (n.b. none of the four authors I included above are Asian). He kindly put me in touch with Chenxing Han, a scholar working on Asian American Buddhism (I wrote about her earlier this year here), and so hopefully I will get to hear from her or others over the next few days.

My hope it to hear from as diverse a group of people as possible and really on as many topics as people feel they want to talk about. Climate Change is one of the things I care very much about and hope others do as well, but I know that other things like the economy, racism, NSA/big gov’t, foreign wars, etc will weigh more heavily on some people’s minds.  I also can’t help but invite non-Americans (that is, Europeans, Asians, Africans, and Australians) to the discussion as well. In fact, when I first wrote about Buddhism in America for a class project back in 2001 or 2002, it was in Australia that I found the most lively discussion and best demographics on the change that had occurred there since the 1970s.

As bloggers, both authors and readers/commenters, we can be part of this discussion.

Please comment, add a link, and spread the word.

The Onion sends NBC’s Brian Williams to Tibet
Intersections of Gender, Identity, and Buddhism: an interview with LGBTIQ meditation teacher La Sarmiento
Practicing Compassion, a review
Mapping Buddhism in America
  • http://www.108zenbooks.com Genju

    This is really thought-provoking and timely, Justin. I have several thoughts that have been cooking and Loy’s article today has encouraged me to articulate them. The primary one (which differs slightly from your parenthetical comment that Right Mindfulness in the context of Buddhist teachings addresses rebirth etc.) is that Right Mindfulness must be firmly structured on sila. This is the part that is completely missing in the “secularized”, corporatized, and now thoroughly cutthroat business of McMindfulness.

    I’ve written two posts on the importance of teaching (not just claiming to embody) ethics as a core principle in Mindfulness-Based Interventions. Of course, in the headlong dash to the mindfulness finish line, it’s a bit like wailing in the wilderness or pointing at the Trojan Horse! ;-)



    • justinwhitaker

      Many thanks for the comments and links, Lynette. I especially resonate with the statements of Joanna Macy and the warning of T.S. Eliot. And yes.. sila, sila, sila… It’s a burden when we think of mindfulness as a race, but not when we realize that the race is a long one, a life-long one at that. So the person who just jumps out to the house in his bathrobe can be the first one down the block or so, but the person who takes the time to put on the appropriate sneakers will catch up soon enough.

      So as we plod along we’ll see a fair number of both burned out or scandal-ridden McMindfulness teachers and plenty of others sprinting on by us, winning quick fame and fortune…

  • Charles Carter

    I am new to adopting Buddhism into my life. I have searched my whole life to find some spiritual path that followed what I believe in and what my goals in life are. I have been posting on a blog every now and again with my feelings on certain topics.

    “All about cup-filling” blog: http://charliekehl.blogspot.com/
    twitter: @CharlieKehl

    • justinwhitaker

      Welcome to the blog (and blogging world), Charlie. Good luck in your journey and don’t hesitate to pop back by and say hello from time to time.

      • Charles Carter

        Thanks for the warm welcome!

  • Douglass Smith

    Interesting topic, Justin. As you know, I’ve written pretty extensively about a modernized or secularized Buddhist belief and practice over on my blog at the Secular Buddhist Association. As regards the relation between materialism and Buddhism, interestingly the Buddha’s arguments against materialism in the Canon were pretty exclusively ethical. I don’t see that he had much of an argument against a materialist approach that included a robust ethics.

    For more on the Buddha of the Canon and materialism, I’d suggest (e.g.):


    • justinwhitaker

      Very good stuff, Doug. This process of ‘naturalizing’ Buddhism seems to be well in progress in the West, and I agree that ethical principles can still persist. So a properly ethical Secular Buddhism isn’t going to be the target of Purser and Loy.

      Something that I’m curious about, however, is whether some Secular Buddhists might not actually be better called Buddhist Humanists, or Buddhist (inspired) Secularists/Materialists, etc. It’s all fuzzy territory and there may be plenty of non-philosophical reasons for choosing one label over another, of course, but it seems that if one’s ultimate metaphysical orientation is more toward someone like Kesakambali or modern materialism and one just borrows certain ethical ideals from Buddhism, then he/she is better understood as a Buddhist inspired Materialist.

      • Douglass Smith

        Food for thought, Justin. I think distinguishing Buddhism from its secular variety is complex and conflicted enough that we may not want to introduce new labeling … Particularly given how problematic labeling is anyhow. For example, do I want to call the sort of modern approach I favor “materialism” anyway? Sure, the word is convenient, but insofar as we allow for non-material things like ethics, “naturalism” might be better. Or it might not.

        I find it generally more helpful just to focus on claims and arguments, particularly as regards Buddhism arguments from the Canon, and let the labels fall where they may. Though anicca being what it is, that may change.

        • justinwhitaker

          haha – yes, the anicca bit is apt. As would be a reference to papanca, which I fear I spend too much time involved in every day…

          • Jamie Montgomery

            This is very interesting to me, especially the mention of papanca.

            I got here (to this post) via your comment on Rev. Danny Fisher’s post on Scientism vs Buddhism. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dannyfisher/2013/07/rejecting-scientistic-and-post-religious-buddhism/

            Here’s my question that kind of spans both posts: Would papanca be the most apt exemplification of this very need to define Buddhism, American Buddhism, Secular Buddhism, Budo-Secularism, Neo-Spiritual Materialism, Secular-Budo-McMindfulnessism? I ask myself this as someone who feels compelled (obsessed?) to put into action the classifying of a practice-path with thinking, ideas and language, just as any pro or amateur academic or philosopher may.

            It seems that labels, concepts, analysis and classification are mostly about being on the outside and trying to look back in, even if that “outsideness” is only momentary and for the sake of communication to others?

            In reading Thanissaro Bikkhu’s translation and commentary on MN 18, The Ball of Honey Sutra, I find papanca to be one of the most cutting ideas put forth or expounded upon by the Buddha. It seems to be the root of this and most every other discussion on this desire to categorize or similar topics. For that matter, would that also suggest that the whole idea of religion as binding together (inside), or being bound together (from the outside) also at the very heart of this conflict?


            This points to the idea that the conflicts that arise from such discourse are more a symptom of an “unskilled habit” and pretty much useless.

            Still, I put this idea forth anyway…..despite papanca seeming the mighty axe in the forest of ideas.

            Thanks for all the work and thought.

            • justinwhitaker

              Great points, Jamie, and thanks for the link. I’m sure a great deal of my writing (and conversation) is rooted in unskilled habits. The intention though behind this act of classifying is to clarify, to sort things out so as to move forward more skilfully. It’s a bit like reading a map before going on a journey. Reading the map, discussing routes with friends, etc *doesn’t get you anywhere* in itself, but it sure is helpful for recognizing landmarks when you are on your way.

              Papanca, to me, is more like the act of painting flowers on the map or scratching it out – which is completely useless for everyone involved (even for the person who *likes flowers* and claims it’s useful… it’s not). :)

              • Jamie Montgomery

                Indeed. Unskilled habits are the name of the game. They’ve got us all by the stones.

                I haven’t thought about this too much, but am now thinking of papanca in this instance as more of the obsession to want to paint flowers on the map so that others can see that an artistic plant-lover has also viewed the map and deemed it worthy of commentary. In a word – self-reflexive.

                To momentarily leave the allegory, it is helpful to some to try and analytically classify Buddhism. It helps build solidarity and provide cultural support for the propagation and proliferation of the practice/religion/method/philosophy/whatever. However, I think I am suggesting that feeling the need to do so, to hang your hat on an object (classification), is terribly human and also self-reflexive thus “breeding external contention”.

                A map is useful, no doubt. But obsessing over the route or the stops along the way doesn’t make the journey any different, so long as you still travel.

                All fun to think about. Thanks for the dialogue.

                • justinwhitaker

                  Yep, fun to think about (and hopefully helpful – to some at least – I know it is for me). But yes, the important next step is to put away the map, have a cup of tea maybe, and get on the journey… (and thank you as well)

  • justinwhitaker

    Comments have also been pouring in from various social media so I’ll collect many of them here. From facebook (link at bottom):

    Debbie M: I have two aspirations for Buddhism in America:

    The first is to divorce the teaching of Buddhism from the mythology of Buddhism. We need to divorce ourselves from the pantheon of gods, Devas, etc that, in Asia, become entangled with the core teachings of the Buddha. The second thing we need to do is to incorporate complete equality between men and women in the practice and teaching of Buddhism. The 8 rules of respect need to be eliminated from the monk’s code of conduct, for a start.

    Dave P: Eastern terms need to be clarified with western definitions and words for starters. We don’t have a culture with historical temples or training the young…do we really need that? And additionally, we now have the internet and Skype..two tremendous tools to reach many with out direct access to formal training centers…let’s use them…

    And via G+:

    luz n: Peace :)

    Randy B: the same now as 2500 years ago. suffering and the cessation of suffering.

    Justin Whitaker: I like both of those, +luz n and +Randy B. But I wonder… is that the core of it, while just the clothing has changed/is changing? Is anything essential lost as we adapt to American culture?

    BoogerBooBear G: its a good thing

    Justin Whitaker: Could you elaborate on that, +BoogerBooBear G?

    Randy B: as long as the core stays who cares about the clothing?

    Colin E: I think a good amount of westerners are discovering Buddhism through yoga/meditation, which is helping many people heal their mental selves. I don’t think Buddhism is fully embraced by the majority of mediators, but the more people learn to reflect on themselves, the better our society can become.

    Justin Whitaker: +Randy B.- I agree; I suppose then the question arises: what is the core? And I think that’s where the disagreements will arise. +Colin E., Good point; I think the worry of Loy and others might be that yoga/meditation alone might just make us more effective credit-default-swappers or simply better liars or whatever else we might be that is actually very bad for our society.

    Andrei V: (This is a topic I thought a lot about, and have a strong emotional connection with, so expect silly hyperbolas and unjustified claims.)

    In my opinion, Western society, and American society in particular, has a stronger potential to embody the true spirit of Buddha-Dharma, than any other society before it. This is because, in the course of its evolution, Western culture and American culture specifically, invented and evolved many of the same notions that Buddha’s genius recognized as wholesome ~2500 ago. I’m not talking about the “dark” sides of American character of course (such as infamous materialism, egotism, consumerism, careerism etc.), but only about the positive traits such as:

    - strong emphasis on positive thinking and self-management, including management of expectations;
    - clear focus on function and not on the ceremony;
    - democracy of knowledge as opposed to blind faith in established authority;
    - the well-developed notion of “perspective” as opposed to “one of us must be wrong”;
    - the culture of mental discipline and precise verbal expression of thought;
    - the unique culture of being open to new ideas if they prove to be of value;
    - well-developed body of sciences, including cognitive sciences;
    - willingness of wide masses to adopt rational / scientific methods and discourses;
    - widely understood need for emotional and spiritual health;
    - well-established culture of enthusiasm, energy, and diligent effort;
    - well-understood need to balance orthogonal and often conflicting interests;
    - general feeling of sanity and practical no-BS attitude;
    - humanistic belief in free choice and self-determination;
    - general acceptance of the primacy of social harmony over individual interests, embodied in mature and well-balanced legislative/judicial/executive systems;
    - mature culture of polite and respectful inter-personal relationships;
    - commitment to equal rights irrespective of age, sex, or race;
    - widely available high-quality education.

    I believe that many of these points are equivalent to main ideas and implications of early Buddhism (pre-Theravada), as is evident from Pali Canon. With some effort we could show sutra parallels to above ideas.

    On the other hand, mainstream Western and esp. American culture exhibits many obviously adharmic features such as:

    - egoism, individualism, personal competitiveness and social alienation;
    - widely accepted indulgence in entertainment and gluttony, combined with underdeveloped aesthetics;
    - acceptance of obsession as justifiable mode of existence;
    - perverted belief that to rush and to be busy multitasking is a valid way to spend one’s life justified by the need to be “successful” and competitive;
    - overall focus skewed towards future success as opposed to present harmony;
    - at the same time there is a definite desire to preserve and increase the quality of life even at the price of future survival, ecology-wise.

    Another group of challenges, mostly unique to these times, but not necessarily to this country, has to do with development and rise of virtual entities known as “companies” or “corporations” to an unprecedented position of power. Lives of individuals, more now then ever before, are defined and controlled by the processes of struggle, survival and cooperation of these meta-human super-sentient “beings”. The way corporations exercise control over their human constituents and victims is through the mechanism of memes, specifically designed to condition human minds in the interest of one or another company-being. While corporate beings have long existed in the form of kingdoms, churches and clans, only at recent times their natural selection has brought them to the point of direct conflict between human and corporate interests. Developing tools and techniques for protection against memetic attacks and resulting neuroses is one of the most important tasks of next decades, and Buddhism with its experience fighting harmful obsessions is at the cutting edge of this war.

    The size and scale of these issues in 21st century America dwarfs anything Buddha could mull over in his worst feverish nightmares…

    On the bright side, western buddhology is at the forefront of recovering the original Buddha’s teachings from Pali Canon, buried under ages of misinterpretations by the conservative monastic establishment. These are the teachings that were perhaps never fully understood even by second or third generation of Buddha’s students. As Chogyam Trungpa said, when the rest of the world will forget the true Buddha-Dharma, it will be our job to return and teach it back.

    Perhaps the first time in history we are uniquely positioned to fully understand and implement the true legacy of Buddha. These are the most exciting times in the history of Dharma and I am proud and happy to live at this time, in this place.

    BoogerBooBear G: RC, not a Buddhist, but love and peace are the word. Most peaceful and loving folks I’ve met, anywhere.. got a glow about them.

    Mildred C.T.: I am in agreement with you BoogerBooBear.


    Facebook group:
    G+ group: https://plus.google.com/u/0/113335470510495756476/posts/ChRxNRdUJaX

  • urownexperience

    Do as you please. Nobody really cares.

  • Dean Hill

    Great question! I just finished writing a blog entry in response: http://dean108.wordpress.com/2013/07/03/what-does-buddhism-in-america-mean-to-me/

  • Jennifer L Myers

    Essentially, Buddhism in America to me means practicing Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai (www.sgi-usa.org). I know there are many different Buddhist sects in Asia as well as in the U.S. and other countries. I don’t think that very many people understand the differences between the different types of Buddhism. A lot of Americans believe there is just Buddhism and that’s it. I write about Buddhism on my own blog (www.sundancekidonline.com) and how I incorporate the teachings into my own life on a daily basis. It is definitely much more than just meditation and “mindfulness”.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for the comments, Jennifer. You’re one of the few/rare SGI members that stop by here. You’re absolutely correct about Americans’ ignorance about Buddhism (and other faiths too, even their own, often enough). We need more discussions about our differences, our different histories, as well as what brings us together. Thanks also for adding your blog link. I hope people have a look and I hope you will comment here again in the future. All the best – jw

      • Jennifer L Myers

        Great! Thank you Justin!

  • http://www.sumeru-books.com Yonten

    Thanks for your great blog, Justin!
    My response at: http://www.sumeru-books.com/2013/07/what-does-buddhism-in-canada-mean-to-you/

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks, Yonten! Great post as well. I agree that we need more ‘in-the-world’ activity and I think it’s happening with people like Lynette Genju Monteiro (who commented below), Ari Pliskin (Zen Peacemakers, with Bernie Glassman), and Katie Loncke and Nathan Thompson of Turning Wheel/Buddhist Peace Fellowship… They’re out there, but yes, the talk of mindful this and mindful that will probably continue to dominate the broader conversation for some time.

  • justinwhitaker

    Rev. Danny Fisher tackles two of the above posts in a great post on his blog here:


  • 969 Movement

    9 Aspire to live like the Buddha, 6 aspire to live the dhamma, 9 aspire to raise the moral purity of the sangha.

  • hmw

    Buddhism is the True Religion Of The Peace.

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