Friday, November 09, 2007

American Buddhism in decline?

Very elegant and lovely article in today's Wall Street Journal Taste page, by Clark Strand, an editor with the Buddhist review Tricycle, on the difficulties that American Buddhism has in reproducing itself. Here. This article made me recall a book that I found by complete accident in the used and remaindered section of the Stanford University bookstore a few years ago, Shoes Outside the Door, novelist Michael Downing's (nonfiction) account of how a Bay Area Buddhist community more or less fell apart around issues of integrating religious practice into the rest of life. I gave away my copy, but I am now going to Amazon to get another ... it was one of the most gently elegant and, in a way, intelligently elegaic books on religion I think I have ever read.

*** Excerpts:

When I suggested to my colleague that he might want to think of ways to integrate his Buddhist experience into the long-term life of his family, and that he might look to existing religious models, like his local synagogue, for ideas on how to do that (rather than to the out-of-state monastery where he goes alone on retreat twice yearly), he answered shortly, "When my kids get old enough, they can decide for themselves whether to meditate or not."

It's an argument I have heard before. Having left the religion of their birth, often with good reason, American converts tend to be wary of anything approaching religious indoctrination, even if that means failing to offer their children the basics of a religious education. This has the advantage of giving Buddhist children great freedom of religious expression, with the disadvantage of not giving them any actual religion to express. The result is a generation of children with a Buddhist parent or two but no Buddhist culture to grow up in.

What does this mean for the non-Buddhist culture at large? Why be concerned that so few Buddhist baptisms, weddings or funerals occur among Buddhist converts each year that most of them have no idea what such ceremonies even look like, or that years after their conversion, their extended families persist in thinking of them as basically Jewish or Catholic at heart? The answer is surprising all around.


In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion. Note that the Dalai Lama (rather than the pope) was asked to provide the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, even though, like Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism includes beliefs (think reincarnation) that are anathema to medical science. Likewise, though Japanese Buddhists melted their temple bells to make bombs during World War II, the idea of Buddhism as a peace-loving religion persists as an enduring fantasy in Western people's minds. And yet, such fantasies are instructive nonetheless.

Though some of my more devout Buddhist associates may balk at the idea, these days I have increasingly come to see Buddhism in America as an elaborate thought experiment being conducted by society at large--from the serious practitioner who meditates twice daily to the person who remarks in passing, "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist." The object of that experiment is not to import some "authentic" version of Buddhism from Asia, as some believe, but to imagine a new model for religion altogether--one that is nondogmatic, practice-based and peaceful.

In that case, all the more reason to keep Buddhism in America alive. But to keep that experiment running (as it must if it is ever to yield practical results for the broader religious culture), it has to get itself grounded in the realities of American family life.