I’m A Yankee Doodle Buddha

My All-time Favorite Movie

I’m a Yankee Doodle Buddha
A Yankee Doodle, do or die
A real live nephew of my Uncle Shantideva
Born in the 8th Century

I’ve got a Yankee Doodle dharma
It’s my Yankee Doodle joy
Yankee Doodle came to America
Just to hype some phonies
I am the Yankee Doodle Buddha Boy

(Apologies to Geo. M. Cohan)

Every so often, someone asks me what kind of Buddhism I practice. I used to occasionally reply, “American Buddhism.” “What’s that?” they would ask. I’d say, “I don’t know, we’re still trying to figure it out.”

Old American Buddha

I think that is probably the best thing that can be said about “American Buddhism.” Only these days, I don’t know if we need to figure it out. It’s just another label and we have enough already: Engaged Buddhism, Integral Buddhism, Existential Buddhism, Secular Buddhism, Speculative Non-Buddhism, Humanistic Buddhism, Consensus Buddhism, Post-traditional Buddhism, Neo-Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, True Buddhism, Rebel Buddhism, Practical Dharma, Living Dharma, Buddhist Geeks, Dharma Punx, and on and on. Some of these, do not make any sense.

For a while, I practiced non-sectarian Buddhism. Another label, another “ism.” These days, I’m just a Buddhist.

New American Buddha

And, every so often, the news media discovers that some Americans practice Buddhism and then they publish articles proclaiming it to be the next big thing. Every five years, I reckon.

Several recent articles have cited findings in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Religious Landscape survey and the American Religious Identification Survey that estimated “the number of [Buddhist] adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, reaching 1.2 million followers in 2008.”

I find that hard to believe. I think a lot of people are interested in Buddhism. A lot of people read about Buddhism. They like the Dalai Lama and think he’s cool. But I don’t think that many actually “follow” or “practice” Buddhism.

One of these articles, at Humanities, notes that Buddhism has become a marketing tool and “its ideas permeate American culture—from song lyrics by the Beastie Boys and spiritual themes in Star Wars, to the publicly professed faith of superstars such as Tiger Woods and Richard Gere. Buddhists have been elected to Congress, and according to recent polls, Buddhists are less discriminated against than are Christians.”

A sales tool, absolutely. But the Beastie Boys, Star Wars, Tiger Woods, and Richard Gere are hardly evidence that Buddhism has permeated anything. And only two Buddhists have been elected to Congress. And I don’t buy that Buddhists are less discriminated against than Christians. The article goes on to ask the probing question, “But what do Americans really know about Buddhism?” I suspect not much when you really get down to it.

Another recent article, actually a guest blog at the Washington Post by William Wilson Quinn, delves into the matter of how Americans practice Buddhism and suggests that they are doing so in un-traditional ways. I have mixed feelings about that. Buddha-dharma must change, and will change. I’m just not so sure that people doing most of the changing know what they are doing.

My real question though, is just who the hell is this guy, William Wilson Quinn? He is identified in the blog piece as “a scholar of Buddhism and brother of On Faith’s Sally Quinn.” But I can’t find anything on the Internet about him beyond this single article which everyone and his or her brother who is not related to Sally Quinn seems to have picked up on. I don’t think he’s a real person. Maybe he’s really Sally Quinn. I think an investigation needs to be launched into this matter. Spurious people spinning specious scripts about Buddhism is suspect. Actually, this may be a job for my favorite crime-fighting Buddhist – The Green Lama!

Maybe William Wilson Quinn is a real person. Maybe American Buddhism will be the next big thing. Maybe Justin Bieber will renounce his career and all worldly things and go to live in a monastery. Maybe he is the reincarnation of John Wayne. Maybe Abraham Lincoln really was a vampire hunter. Maybe this post has no real point to it. Now, that last one is a definite possibility.

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Song and Dance Men

George M. Cohan' statue in Times Square

Although he always maintained that he was “born on the Fourth of July”, George M. Cohan was actually born today, July 3rd, 132 years ago.  The American public was happy to forgive him for stretching the truth, because the “father” of American musical theater was “the whole darn country squeezed into one pair of pants.”

His time is remote to us now, so it’s difficult to truly grasp just what George M. Cohan once meant to America. You could say he was the early 20th Century’s Bruce Springsteen.

Since the late 1940’s, each year on Independence Day, television stations around the country have shown Yankee Doodle Dandy, Cohan’s musical biography starring James Cagney, and continuing that tradition, it will air tomorrow at 5:30 PM Eastern (2:30 PM Pacific) on Turner Classic Movies.

I four or five years old when I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy the first time, and I’ve seen it nearly every Fourth of July since, and many other times as well. It’s hokey, corny, a propaganda piece (made in 1943 at the height of World War Two), the standard Hollywood movie bio pic, and yet, it transcends all that and for me, holds up after repeated viewings.

It might have something to do with Cohan’s songs, which are wonderful, even though the sentient they express doesn’t always fit that well with today’s sensibilities. It might also have something to do with Cagney’s performance, which is flawless, or that it was directed by Michael Curtiz, who just the year before had directed a little film called Casablanca.

Cohan himself appeared in only five films, three of them silent. You can watch a scene from The Phantom President on YouTube here. Unfortunately, part of it is in blackface, but if you can get past that it offers a rare look at the singing and dancing style of one of the masters, and you see Cohan do some of the same steps that Cagney imitates perfectly in this classic clip:

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