Thursday, March 4, 2010

Charles Prebish & Martin Baumann's "Westward Dharma": Book Review

Buddhism beyond Asia's explored by 22 scholars in this 2002 collection. It focuses on the transformation, since the later 19c, of the Buddha's teachings into Western, and cross-cultural, and analytical transformations that try to retrieve a purer, primitive, or truer original teaching. Thomas Tweed sums up these evolving trends: "If modernist Buddhists have de-mythologized and rationalized traditional Buddhism one may say that post-modernist Buddhist practitioners secularize and psychologize modernist Buddhism." (60)

Tweed distinguishes a "migrant religion trajectory" from a "missionary-driven transmission," in turn separate from a "demand-driven transmission" as the three methods of current transfer. (62-3) He notes how the 'foreign' religion might have deliberately been fetched from abroad by sympathizers and initial converts. In the case of Buddhism, texts in Asian languages were transmitted and published, Buddhist ideas and practices were adopted, and Asian teachers were invited to lecture." (52) Westerners rely on Eastern exchange, as transport, globalization, and immigration thicken the ties rather than allow the crude models of Orientalist domination or imperial manifestation to control the emergence of a dharma-practice adapted not only to secular First World settings, but contemporary capitalist and countercultural markets all over Asia, Brazil, Oceania, and North America.

Tweed pioneered efforts to try to define who in this milieu's actually Buddhist. Besides converts, "night-stand" sympathizers who try out practices often in privacy and those who mix and match Buddhist with other religious or therapeutic or esoteric approaches complicate easy tallying. It seems that in Europe, most Buddhists still are of Asian origin, but the authors agree that Westerners continue to make it, as in France, one of the West's fastest-growing denominations. B. Alan Wallace, Martin Baumann, and Charles S. Prebish all discuss the ramifications of this acceleration, as Tibetan Buddhism and vipassana "insight" meditation widen the appeal beyond the slightly earlier arrival of Zen midway through last century.

For section two, the territory of Western Buddhism emerges. Baumann looks at Europe, while Richard Hughes Seager examines in America the three strands Tweed separates. Bruce Matthews does the same for Canada, Michelle Spuler for Australia and New Zealand, Michel Clasquin for South Africa, and Frank Usarski for Brazil. In "Buddhism in the Promised Land," Lionel Obadia looks at the tiny Israeli community, comfortable in its Jewish identity while taking on the dharma. A Zen master, Soen Nakagawa, founded an early center with the pun of "Ki"="Basis" and "Butsu"="Buddha" as similar to the Hebrew for "Kibbutz." (181) He also translated poetry based on the linguistic happenstance between "mut"="die" and "Mu"="emptiness" from Japanese. (182) It makes an intriguing counterpart to Rodger Kamenetz' Tibetan-Jewish dialogues documented in "The Jew in the Lotus" and "Stalking Elijah" (see my reviews last year on this blog & Amazon US) during the 1990s.

Section three surveys how changes happen, more topical and less geographical. Duncan Ryukan Williams studies Buddhism in the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII; Douglas M. Padgett reports from a temple in suburban Tampa, Florida; David L. McMahan takes up the repackaging of Zen for Westerners into its current ubiquitous use as a name-brand conjurer of sold serenity, hip detachment, and instant well-being; Sandra Bell briefly retells the sadly familiar stories of scandal at the San Francisco Zen Center and at Chögyam Trungpa's Vajradhatu/ Shambhala Training-- these episodes have been covered elsewhere in more detail as the subject deserves, but her summary may serve as an introduction for the newcomer. It seemed more than these two prominent examples might have broadened the material beyond these two oft-told tales.

Lifestyle in section four gives testimony from those who practice. Ajahn Tiradhammo looks at how the Thai Forest Tradition faces the task of dealing with the Asian model of a strong leader and obedient followers when Westerners and Western influences broaden the traditional expectations in a monastic discipline. Karma Lekshe Tsomo tells an intriguing predicament: unlike Christian monastics, Buddhist monks and especially nuns must support themselves while in their pledged status. This leads to many who study in Asia finding themselves unable to continue as nuns, and they must go to the West to work to afford to go back to an Asian monastery for more training. Or, they leave and return to the West, often "disrobing" and teaching as lay instructors. Out of such shifts, Sylvia Wetzel sees a new in-between type of full-time, often necessarily professional, Buddhist practitioner who is "neither monk nor nun." Gil Fronsdal, a leader in the expansion of the vipassana movement into ethically interdependent awareness and therapeutic venues, looks at the tension when people try to expound "virtues without rules" in their often New Age-affiliated interpretations and modifications of Buddhist dharma into a self-help, transformative type of holistic healing.

The final section shows similar widening of styles. Judith Simmer-Brown examines "women's dharma in the West;" Christopher S. Queen in an excellent article takes on the "interbeing" promoted by Thich Nhat Hanh and the "universal responsibility" advocated by the Dalai Lama. Queen shows how "engaged" Buddhism as Bernard Glassman's Zen Peacekeeper Order, Nhat Hanh's "Order of Interbeing," methodological agnosticism, and globalization align with Joanna Macy's popular concept of interdependence to create a Buddhism that demands social action. Franz Metcalf follows a similar path, showing how intertwined the dharma can be with psychoanalysis, yet how fundamentally difficult it may be for Buddhism to resist the pull of appropriation of the dharma-- as may have happened already with yoga, meditation, and arguably Zen in many Western adaptations or distortions-- into a more "transformative" but perhaps less faithfully Buddhist contribution to healing. Metcalf hopes that Buddhism can overcome the diminishing tendency by some Westerners to commodify it as "a form of religious psychotherapy." (360)

Ian Harris takes on art and modernity, musing how romanticism, modernism, and commodification alter what passes as Buddhist when entering the Western market. His example of a Tibetan artist raised as a dogmatic social-realist in Communist-occupied Lhasa, Gonkar Gyatso, and the artist's subsequent attempts to intergrate Buddhist themes into his "modern 'thangkas'" that led to his flight to Dharamsala, shows a cautionary tale about too reductive an approach taken by observers into whatever's authentically Buddhist. For, it's a subject perpetually open to the unexpected, as cultures merge and practitioners migrate. As these scholars here remind us, Buddhism can never stand still; its very nature is to undermine permanent or defined categories that resist change. (Posted to Amazon US 3-4-10)

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