Sunday, April 26, 2009

James Coleman's "The New Buddhism": Book Review

How do those who have not grown up within Buddhism adopt that ancient tradition? Must one convert? How do Westerners define themselves as Buddhists, and must they limit themselves in a philosophy that encourages the letting go of self-definition and fixed categories? What about meditating on your own, or simply reading about it?

Can you still be Jewish or Muslim or Christian while being Buddhist? Why are the overwhelming majority of those taking up Buddhist practice highly educated, usually affluent, and from professional, artistic, or bohemian backgrounds? Finally, what about the high correlation between boomers, psychedelic drug use in their past, and present levels of affiliation with Buddhism?

These questions were raised by California sociologist (and 15-year Zen student) James William Coleman. Curious about how Buddhism's Western transformation continues and contrasts with its Asian varieties, Coleman in 2001 published this readable and brisk report. It begins with an overview of the background in Asia and the West. Then, it expands into how the "new Buddhism" integrates-- and separates from-- traditional, ethnically Asian styles of the faith. He then shares the results of his survey of 359 members of seven different American Buddhist groups.

Luckily, the chi-squared numbers and the theoretical foundations for his academic approach are relegated to the documentation appended to what's a surprisingly straightforward study that any reader will find accessible. The book for all its readability did have a few minor flaws. "Abbot" twice misspelled, along with "John Cabot-Zinn" and "no-holds-bared." On pg. 19, Martin Baumann's study is mis-quoted: 180,000 should replace the 150,000 figure cited by Coleman. I'm not sure if other such errors remain elsewhere in the text, but researchers may take note.

Overall, Coleman integrates enough scholarship to tantalize the curious to investigate. For me, the paragraph on the advent of human self-consciousness by Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann will make me seek out more; the paragraph on gender patterns for "new Buddhists" surveyed intrigued me with this statement: "The men were more skeptical about basic Buddhist doctrines and were more likely to have experimented with illicit drugs, while the women were more likely to be attracted to Buddhism by personal relationships and the need to deal with individual problems." (154)

40% of those who move into Buddhism do so after reading about it. There's far less of a need to do so for social interaction or overcoming one's despair after trauma or a sudden life change than happens in more mainstream religions in America. The need for immersion for those most eager to take on spiritual discipline does discriminate; income and the lack of children who need care apparently means that few women raising children, let alone single moms, can indulge in three-year-long retreats, for example.

How Westerners resist the Asian-based homage given gurus or leaders, how those unwilling to become celibate monks or nuns will turn the monastic elite of an Asian tradition with less direct commitment by the laity into a version of Western Buddhism that builds on gender equality, intellectual exploration, and growing financial capital that will tempt its keepers away from austerity: these among dozens of related issues may prove valuable ideas to ponder in these pages.

Can a religion that denies the existence of gods as other religions worship them, that exists in the rich Tibetan and ascetic Zen and psychotherapeutic Vipassana versions be easily reduced to just another denomination for a few liberals, overwhelmingly white, over half with advanced degrees, most very well-off? Can other Americans get used to seeing a counterpart "religion" in a practice that appeals to a few discontented folks who begin to find an answer to "nagging spiritual dissatisfaction," one often not raised until their thirties? How about a syncretic, open-ended, and blended Buddhist practice evolving in the West that does not try to pressure others into joining it?

Coleman traces "circles of involvement" that tend to gradually draw adherents who start out reading about it, then edge from solitary meditation (often but not always) into a group, where support grows and commitment coheres. Yet, many may be more "intellectual" Buddhists; until sixty years ago with the rise of Zen with the Beats and Tibetan teachings after the Chinese invasions forced gurus into the diaspora, most who learned about Buddhists had no idea how to put precepts into practice. Now, as with Vipassana from Theravadin Burmese-Thai forebears, the overlap from the 60s counterculture moves psychotherapy into the healing blend for many here. These three main strands separate in the West as the East, but Coleman finds a more ecumenical exchange of practices and styles emerging here among "new Buddhists" comfortable with mixing and matching. Whereas immigrant Asians keep their communities solid along ethnic and more denominational lines as in other religious traditions, the "new Buddhists" may presage a blended Buddhism for the 21st Century West.

Finally, Coleman finds that beyond token multicultural diversity, Buddhism, if it was truly accepted by the West, would challenge societal notions about reality. "The mere fact that a respected, religious group would reject the existence of an independent self is bound to force some people to think long and hard about the way they look at their lives." (226) I wonder if, in the decade since Coleman did his survey, the younger generation sustains the energy set up by the hippies who set up many of the formative Buddhist centers. No New Age trend, the demand for a mystic re-orientation that undermines our capitalist, consumerist, and hedonistic lifestyle does challenge those who take Buddhism more seriously than a passing fad of a pop star or celebrity actor.

Buddhism by breaking down the idea of fame, worship, goods, or worth does appear to some rather life-denying, bleak, and existential. Coleman, however, in his last paragraph encourages us to channel Buddhist's dharma into earth's renewal rather than solitary self-destruction. Social transformation, he hopes, may accompany Buddhism brought to the world stage in the West. Unlikely as it seems now, "few would deny that there is a kind of restless instability in our personal lives and in the way we structure postmodern society, and it is not hard to imagine that some very fundamental changes await us in the years ahead." (230)

P.S. The Dalai Lama spoke the other day about our subsequent economic downturn, at the end of the decade when Coleman wrote those words. The Tibetan leader told us that the bright side of the gloomy forecast might be in its reminder that we must not look to watching our money "grow, grow, grow" as the source of our fulfillment. Family, friends, the search for meaning: Coleman and the new Buddhists would agree that these are the true sources of our happiness and our understanding of who we are not-- not separate, autonomous consumers and ravagers, but who we often have forgotten who we are-- a connected community on a fragile planet under terrifying powers of greed and chaos and force and inequality that we've create but can no longer control.

(Posted today to Amazon US.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow, Mr./sir fionnchu, you can write! (in the true Irish tradition)

...your description of James Coleman's work certainly makes me feel that Coleman's work is meaningful..(guess Oxford Press thought it was too).

thank you for your input.