White-washing Buddhisms: the unity beneath sectarian identities

Michael Eric Dyson’s column “What Donald Trump Doesn’t Know about Black People” (NYT, 17 Dec 2016) summarizes eloquently the dynamics of white privilege as a general problem of American society. At one point he says:

The real unifying force in our national cultural and political life, beyond skirmishes over ideology, is white identity masked as universal, neutral and, therefore, quintessentially American. The greatest purveyors of identity politics today, and for the bulk of our country’s history, have been white citizens.

This is as true in the realm of religious culture as it is in political and social. With the important exception of the work done by Thomas Tweed and his colleagues in Retelling U.S. Religious History, histories of American religion are almost invariably organized by a European origin-myth, that is, the very category of “American religion” is implicitly defined by an Anglo-European, white origin. One of the standard works on the subject, Sydney Ahlstrom’s incredibly important and literally magisterial A Religious History of the American People, begins with “European Prologue,” only reaching a discussion of “non-Western religions” on p. 1037, where it is grouped with Theosophy and Occultism. The very problematic that drives Ahlstrom’s work is the creation of a “post-Puritan America,” a rethinking of American religiosity that includes Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox Christians, and even “non-Western religions.” Although Gaustad and Schmidt’s A Religious History of America: The Heart of the American Story from Colonial Times to Today, an equally important work, struggles to accurately address the complexity of religious history on the North American continent, it is also structured by a narrative arc that begins—as indicated in the subtitle—with the English colonies on the East Coast. The consideration of native American religions, for example, is defined by the “colonial encounter.”

This is not to dismiss such histories, but rather to contextualize them, and to highlight the importance for those studying Buddhism in the US, whether self-identified as practitioners or as scholars or as scholar-practitioners, of understanding this historiography—in both meanings of that term: the body of works written about that history, and the way in which such histories are written. (Note: the distinction between practitioner and scholar is an artificial, and distinctly dysfunctional one, and the dysfunction is not really overcome by the hyphenated identity.)

It is this history of Puritans and Protestants that is the emotional and intellectual sediment structuring the present landscape upon which Buddhist temples, meditation groups, retreat centers, study groups, and especially the institutions of putatively secular Buddhism and secular mindfulness are being constructed. As demonstrated by Timothy Fitzgerald, the very distinction between religious and secular is itself a modern construct growing out of Euro-American imperialism (see his The Ideology of Religious Studies, and Discourse on Civility and Barbarity). These ideas regarding the characteristics of some kind of uniquely American religiosity directly influenced the increasingly established forms of convert Buddhism in the last part of the twentieth century.

This is evident in the discussions among convert Buddhists around the turn of the century regarding the creation and character of an “American Buddhism,” discussions that I see as an implicit concern motivating the composition of and interest in such works as Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America (Prebish), The Faces of Buddhism in America (Prebish and Tanaka, eds.), American Buddhism (Prebish), Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia (Prebish and Baumann, eds.), and Buddhism in America (Seager). Again, like the histories of American religion noted above, these are important works, but ones that must be placed in the appropriate context, particularly the presumptions of American popular culture regarding the normative character of white identity.

Concerns regarding an American Buddhism were also informed by notions of authenticity—What is an authentically American form of Buddhism?—as if that had to be something different from immigrant forms. This latter presumption would seem to lie behind the comment made by Helen Tworkov to the effect that “Asian American Buddhists…have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.” (also cited in an earlier post).

And concealed behind the language of authenticity was the nineteenth century Romantic mindset that grounded the idea of the authentic in an idealized conception of an intrinsic connection between homeland and ethnic identity—the “blut und boden” (blood and soil) nativist ideology that, for example, helped to justify early twentieth century German anti-semitism. An additional marker of an authentic identity is language, which in turn links to the originally Protestant notion that the point of reading scripture or chanting liturgical texts is a firm cognitive grasp of doctrine and ideology. This emphasis on cognitive understanding was itself dialectically related to a re-conception of the self as a rational agent making decisions and taking actions on the basis of sound, universal, absolute, or God-given principles. This conception of the self is now common throughout popular American religious culture, as is the consequent expectation that liturgical materials need to be in English so that they can be understood, that is, grasped cognitively. Hence the debates over whether the sutras should be chanted in an imported form or in English.

The conflation of homeland, ethnicity, and language is what informs the idea of a “nation,” which is distinct from the concept of state as a political entity. The modern world, since the late eighteenth century, has been dominated by the idea of the “naturalness” of the nation-state, that is, “homeland” as a political domain in which a single and unified ethnicity, speaking a single common language is socially, politically and religiously dominant. This goes far beyond racist attitudes held by those in American society from whom we may distance ourselves on the basis of education, cultural sophistication, economic standing, or cosmopolitan attitude. It is the ideology of white identity politics more basic than racist attitudes directed toward one group or another, but toward anyone—Muslim, Jew, Japanese, Chinese, black, LGBT—who does not fit into the nativist ideal and who must therefore be expelled for the sake of the purity of the homeland. It leads us into realms of invisible racism in which as Dyson says white identity is “universal, neutral and, therefore, quintessentially American.” In this way, an “authentically American” Buddhism would necessarily be one in which its Asian origins have been white-washed over.


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