Welcome to the Institute of Buddhist Studies Home

Thank you!

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!

Overview | Conference Schedule | Paper Abstracts | Film Screening |

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

Denominationalism in American Buddhism

Christine Walters, University of South Florida, Tampa

Just as there is no singular American Christianity, but rather many forms of American Christianities, the same holds true for American Buddhism. Yet, the prevailing categories of ethnic and convert Buddhism in scholarship on American Buddhism make no distinction between various ethnic groups, and tends to portray American Buddhists in a simple dichotomy of whites and Asians, without having to explain the racial implications or the complex history that lies behind the development of Buddhist communities in the United States. Similarly, the depiction of the various American Buddhisms today as comprised of “two Buddhisms” is reflective of a pattern which has largely degenerated.

In order to better understand what constitutes American Buddhism today, I suggest the use of denominations to identify diverse religious communities, rather than using racial or ethnic identity. Especially in the United States, we have seen an emergence of denominationalism in Buddhism not unlike that paralleled by American colonial Christian communities. By recognizing distinct denominations, communities can be portrayed as historical developments who share a common doctrine and practice, rather than ethnic enclaves for those of Asian ancestry or European ancestry. Religious communities have, at times, functioned as ethnic communities to confirm cultural or ethnic ties, but the importance of that distinction has begun to diminish for many communities with the increase of intermarriages and attendance at “ethnic” temples by whites. The proposed emphasis on denominations applies Thomas Tweed’s method of self-identification, but rather identifies whole Buddhist communities according to their self-imposed religious identities. By using the World Buddhist Directory website, a pattern of adherence can be observed that implies denominations, and thus the directory is a useful tool for understanding the complexity found in American Buddhism. With a model of denominationalism in place, other typologies, like the “two Buddhisms,” can be applied within established denominations in order to draw out patterns of doctrine, practice, and ethno-racial identity. By applying alternative typologies within established denominations, we can reveal unique patterns of transmission while maintaining the integrity of the communities’ self-proclaimed affiliations to one type of Buddhism or another.

« previous   |   next »