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The Institute of Buddhist Studies would like to thank all the panelists, participants, and guests who made the 2010 Buddhism Without Borders Conference such a wonderful success!

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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel IV: Identifying Buddhists, Buddhist Identity, 9:30 - 12:30

Dharma Images and American Buddhist Identity

Richard Hughes Seager

During the 1990s, in the midst of a surge of academic work devoted to Buddhism in the U.S., a debate emerged over how best to categorize American Buddhists. As the debate ensued, various parties argued that there was only one, surely two, or possibly three distinct American Buddhist communities. As issues shook out, attention increasingly focused on immigrant and convert communities, the relations or lack thereof between them and questions about which best represented the future of American Buddhism.

Partisans in both camps argued from American culture and history. One saw Buddhist immigrants as the natural center of an emergent American dharma because they followed in the steps of earlier Asian immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and others who collectively created an “immigrant nation.” In this view, the Americanization of the dharma would proceed through well known immigrant adaptive strategies and generational issues. The second camp argued that it was native born, mainstream, largely white Americans who had taken up Buddhism – the so-called “converts”—who carried the banner for a genuinely American Buddhism. In this view, the Americanization of Buddhism would proceed through converts’ effort to embrace Buddhism as an alternative spirituality, even as they adapted it to mainstream norms such as humanistic psychology and to the social and economic exigencies of middle class families.

This sometimes rancorous debate, which was taken up both by academics and by the popular Buddhist press, was effectively put to rest with the publication of Heartwood: the First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in the U.S. In Heartwood, Cadge richly described the different orientations of immigrants and converts toward Theravada Buddhism in ways that diffused simplistic arguments. As importantly, she portrayed the two communities as moving towards each other as both Americanized Theravada traditions, each in their own way.

My own somewhat earlier work had focused on a characteristic development in the 1980s and 90s—the emergence of a wide variety of discrete Buddhist schools in the U.S. and their institutionalization in both immigrant and convert communities. Prior to this time, aside from a few landmark studies on the Jodo Shinshu tradition, Buddhism had been primarily studied as a diffuse spiritual sensibility finding expression in art, literature, martial arts, and a small cluster of counter-cultural movements. The flourishing of institutions in the 1980s and 90s was something new and most scholarship at that time and since has been designed to advance our understanding of the practice of Buddhism in a wide range of communities.

For the March 2010 conference, I propose to revisit two issues that structured much of the earlier scholarship on Buddhism in the US - the distinction between immigrant and convert and the contrast between Buddhism in institutionalizing religious communities and as a diffuse sensibility. I intend to work through anthropological literature, especially Mary Douglas’s Natural Symbols, to argue that immigrants and converts, however much they may differ in their interpretation of Buddhism, share a common approach to traditional concepts, rituals, and symbols because both communities regard them as essential to disciplined religious practice. In contrast, in those quarters where Buddhism remains a more diffuse sensibility, concepts, rituals, and symbols are typically treated quite differently, more as malleable signifiers of the spirit opened to highly individualized interpretations and placed at the service of the creative imagination engaged with the creation of music, literature, and art.

My intention is to develop this interpretive argument with reference to on-going developments in various Buddhist practice communities and to the 2001-03 consortium Awake: Art, Buddhism and the Dimensions of Consciousness and its two associated publications, Jacquelynn Baas’s Smile of the Buddha: Influences in Western Art from Monet to the Present (California 2005) and Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, edited by Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob (California, 2004). While I am currently working on a number of interpretive angles, one line of argument under consideration it that both on-going religious institutionalization and perduring dharma-inspired sensibilities continue to shape American Buddhism in important ways, although stable Buddhist practice communities, both immigrant and convert, are the key to the future of American Buddhism.

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