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Buddhadharma : Summer 2005
buddhadharma| 69 |summer 2005 rately describe its history or the current configuration of Theravada Buddhist America.” Her response, however, is not to articulate a bold new thesis or schema, but to thickly describe variations, highlighting both similarities and differences in how these two communities are adapting the dhamma. Implicitly, Cadge seems to lend her support to the “many Buddhisms” way of thinking, while emphasizing universal processes of globalization and adaptation, a perspective underscored when she writes briefly about Wat Phila and CIMC sharing patterns in common with other contempo- rary American groups, both Buddhist and Christian, and Asian and non-Asian. Despite the irenic tone she strikes, Cadge does not avoid the toughest, most divisive question at the heart of the 1990’s debates: Is it immigrants or converts who plumb the true depths of the Buddha’s core teachings? Cadge’s diplomatic method for answering this question is to proceed metaphorically, with reference to the par- able of the heartwood – hence the name of the book – as told to her by Bhante Gunaratana at the Bhavana Society, dur- ing one of her many interviews. The gist of the story is that when various individu- als went in search of the heartwood of a tree, one came back with leaves, and oth- ers with twigs, bark, or a soft portion of the inner trunk, all of them thinking they had heartwood in hand. One, however, searched out and found the solid heart- wood of the tree in question. As Cadge retells it, the point is that each individual found a portion of the tree necessary for its survival and is happy with what they found, even though only one had true heartwood. Gunaratana explains that temple-going immigrants are like those in possession of leaves, twigs, bark, and the soft inner trunk. It is meditating converts who tend to find the heartwood, which in the Theravada tradition is taken to repre- sent the core of the Buddha’s teaching. At this juncture, however, Cadge adds that others assess who possesses heartwood differently, a proviso that not only reflects real differences of opinion, but also allows her to use the metaphor to appreciate evenhandedly the distinctive takes on the dhamma expressed in the two communi- ties she studies. Cadge devotes most of the book to the- matic chapters in which she explores the ideologies expressed in each community, their communal structures, how the insti- tution is used to construct personal identi- ties, and gender issues. In every chapter, she seesaws back and forth between Wat Phila and CIMC in order to bring out their distinctive qualities, even as she under- scores many interesting similarities. As to similarities, both groups were founded by ordinary laypeople in the mid-1980’s. The majority of practitio- ners in each are professionals and of the American mainstream – the Asians at Wat Phila are not bound by ethnic enclaves and are generally fluent in English. The average age of practitioners is about forty-five and about two-thirds of them in both centers are women. Neither group is part of a larger formal institutional struc- ture, but both created organizations that blend Asian (particularly Thai) models, with those native to the U.S. According to Cadge, people in both groups practice meditation and understand it to be at the core of the Buddha’s teachings. As well, chanting and other ceremonies play a significant role in each, although much more so in Wat Phila than CIMC, which came late to practices such as chanting and precept ceremonies. Even so, differences between the two groups remain substantial. To varying degrees, immigrants adhere to a tradi- tional Buddhist cosmology and believe that only monks are likely to achieve the depth of insight in meditation that leads to nibbana. Converts believe that such an experience is available to monks and laity alike, although their ideas about nibbana, a term little used among practitioners at CIMC, tend to be cast in words such as “freedom,” “liberation,” “ease of mind,” or “compassionate heart,” which are undergirded by humanistic psychology. As one would expect, practitioners at Wat Phila value merit-making rituals and use the temple as an ethnic community cen- ter and venue for celebrating traditional holidays in a way that CIMC converts do not. All told, Cadge draws a rich portrait of two communities that have been in motion since their founding. Both of them have been moving a bit towards each other, with immigrants shedding ele- ments of tradition that do not serve adap- tive ends in the U.S. and converts learning that leaves, twigs, and other components of traditional Asian practice have a utility in developing a well-rounded and sustain- able lay Buddhist practice. Cadge wants the reader to see that both communities may lay claim to the tree and its heart- wood, although each will do so according to its own measure. Cadge also portrays the communities as facing similar problems as they move from the first generation to the second. Membership recruitment may become an issue for both as the children of the first generation decide whether or not to become involved in the religious life of the communities. As the first generation ages, leadership issues must be addressed, along with the financial burdens of sus- taining and expanding institutional infrastructures. Both groups also walk a delicate line as they work to express the dhamma in ways that are relevant to their members. Immigrants at Wat Phila run the risk that ethnicity-related issues will overwhelm the heartwood of the dhamma, while converts risk having their spiritual practice devolve into thera- peutic techniques for stress reduction and mental hygiene. In the last analysis, I found Cadge’s account to be a heartening look at American Buddhist institutions whose basic viability seems secure, especially because she entertains none of the exag- gerated notions of the world- and nation- transforming potency of the dhamma that were part and parcel of the excess of the 1990’s. Instead of overblown and often divisive rhetoric, readers get a sym- pathetic yet realistic assessment of the substantial gains the dhamma has made in the U.S. through the dedication and creativity of many individuals willing to work in groups. There is nothing revolu- tionary in what Cadge has to say about American Theravada, which is part of why I think both practitioners and aca- demics should find it valuable. While advancing important questions, it gently moves the dhamma in America out of its heady, formative era into another in which Buddhism has been largely divested of the distracting allure of hipness. For those of us who are longtime Buddhist sympathiz- ers, there has always been the hope that the dhamma might actually help to trans- form America. That is a long-term project, however, and Cadge seems to suggest that, whether or not that eventually comes to pass, Theravada Buddhism in America has, in the course of a few decades, been set on strong foundations.