An American Buddhist Life

Yesterday I wrote about a book that I haven’t read. Based on the promotional material accompanying it’s release, I formed an negative impression of this work. That might seem unfair. But consider this: the author promotes his book in various ways, including interviews and writing opinion pieces. The idea is to inform potential readers about the author and his book in the hopes of creating a positive impression that will lead to book sales. Sometimes an negative one is created and that’s what happened with the book by Owen Flanagan.

Today, I’d like to mention another book, also by a scholar, which I also have not read, but one that I have a very favorable impression of: “An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer” by Charles S. Prebish (2011, Sumeru Press Inc.).

Prebish is a professor emeritus of religious studies at Penn State. The difference between Prebish and Owen Flanagan is that Prebish is also a practicing Buddhist. In fact, he has paved the way for scholar-practioners, a breed sorely needed. So, to me, that’s a big difference. It’s means that Prebish’s thoughts have a bit more credence since he is inside the practice, not outside looking in.

Prebish is also a founding co-editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the Journal of Global Buddhism, co-editor of the Routledge Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism series and the Routledge Curzon Encyclopedia of Buddhism project, an officer in the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and co-founder of the Buddhism Section of the American Academy of Religion. If that isn’t enough he’s  written or edited more than 20 books. In other words, he’s got some credentials.

The book is a memoir that details Prebish’s “role in bringing the field of American Buddhism to prominence. The difficulties he faced in establishing American Buddhism as a legitimate field of study, and in trying to be recognized as a “scholar-practitioner,” as one reviewer describes it. The subject of Buddhist studies is not an altogether un-sexy, since apparently Prebish dishes some dirt and names names. It’s also an informal history of Buddhism in America. As I said, I haven’t read the book, which was released in May, nor have I been able to find any excerpts. However, according to the publisher,

Dr. Prebish has been involved in virtually everything exciting in the Buddhist world over the past forty-five years. Because of his unique involvement and longevity, he has an incredible historical record to document and share, and a huge number of stories to tell. These stories allow us to share his incredible personal journey, and provide a true “insider’s” viewpoint.

This sounds infinitely more worthwhile that yet another “lets-fix-Buddhism” tome, a genre that is growing increasingly tiresome. Some of the self-proclaimed historians on the Net who claim that modern Buddhism is some sort of conspiracy being foisted upon us would do well to read some of Prebish’s other books (such as “Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America”) in order to learn something of the real history of Buddhism in the West.

When Prebish calls himself a pioneer, he isn’t kidding. He was one of the first to have “touched on Buddhism as a ‘Western’ phenomenon in any classroom in North America” (his own words). And while he is concerned with the development of “modern” Buddhism, from what I have read of his work, Prebish does not seem obsessed with the so-called hocus pocus aspect of Buddha-dharma, that so many others feel compelled to whine about ad nauseum.

Instead, many years ago, Prebish coined the term “two Buddhisms”: Asian-American Buddhists, practicing what might be described as “family Buddhism” vs convert white Buddhists centered around “sometimes only meditation.” In the early 90s, he rejected the notion that Asian-Americans were contributing little to the development of American Buddhism. Rather, he saw that both Buddhisms were doing valuable work and that if they could only talk with each other, it might be possible to create a harmonious American Buddhism that had nothing to do with one’s ethic or religious background.

This, I think, is an important issue facing Buddhism in the West. Complaining endlessly about karma and rebirth and hocus pocus does not bring us together. It doesn’t add much to our understanding of dharma, since the supernatural aspects are only there if you take everything literally.

Yesterday, I mentioned the spirit of Buddhism. I have found this concretely stated by Lama Govinda in his book, “A Living Buddhism for the West“, in which he writes

The Dharma of the Buddha differs from many other forms of religion in that it does not demand of its followers that they should believe in anything that lies beyond the experience of the individual. It allows a fresh view of reality to ripen within us, which grows from an experience that is only possible through hard work on ourselves and service to others.

There you have it. No one has to believe anything they don’t want to. It would be nice to get past all the discussion over belief and superstition and quit disparaging others because their practice either is or is not meditation based, and starting talking about how we can transcend sectarian differences and create a holistic and inclusive home-grown Buddhism.

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