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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
buddhadharma| 53 |fall 2006 waKoh Shannon hicKey: When I first started prac- ticing Buddhism, it was in a BCA church. I was very warmly welcomed by people there, but I had had very painful experiences with Protestant Christianity, so the pews and the hymn singing and the style of worship, if I may use that term, were in some ways too familiar and something I was trying to get away from. What I didn’t realize was that those adaptations were a response to racist persecution, an attempt to not look so different from the dominant culture, to ease the pressure on the community. Coming to understand that history really changed my understanding of that kind of practice and my own feelings about it. Socho ogui: I understand what Wakoh Sensei is say- ing. Even today, we still use the word “church” instead of “temple.” That originally started so that someone could say they were going to church this coming Sunday, which was very important for Japanese-Americans of a certain time period. When I first came here, I could not understand the hesitations and intimidations, the fact that people could not identify themselves as Buddhists at their school. It takes enormous effort to go beyond such deeply ingrained hesitations. We still call it the Buddhist Churches of America, but the time has come to review that kind of thing and to begin to encourage people to stand on their feet and confidently introduce Shin Buddhism to the world. ron KoBata: This was all part of the Buddhist pro- cess of adapting to a host culture. We wanted to look less alien. We were affected by the McCarthy era too. As I was growing up, I was reluctant to acknowledge I was Buddhist. It was still seen as pagan. But as I look at my children and succeed- ing generations, it is different for them. Perhaps we can attribute it to the influence of convert Buddhists and to the Dalai Lama’s influence. To say you’re a Buddhist now has a certain kind of sophistication, a positive image. That is the result of convert Buddhists, who on the whole are edu- cated, thoughtful, and socially upper-middle class. The fact that people in the dominant culture are acknowledging Buddhism, and the value and the treasure of the buddhadharma, makes it easier for us traditional Buddhists to feel good about being Buddhist. Buddhadharma: Duncan pointed out that the term “American” can carry a lot of baggage. What does that say about the notion of “American Buddhism”? duncan williamS: If we use American in the lim- ited way I was talking about before, we find that American Buddhism can be defined as white wHoSe american buddHiSm? from an historian’s point of view, says richard seager, it’s too soon for any group to define or lay claim to american buddhism. During the 1980s, some observers began to use the phrase “american bud- dhism” to denote expressions of the dharma that developed among converts in and around the 1960s counterculture and were shaped by subsequent events in the 1970s and ’80s. the phrase was meant to convey the idea that converts’ innovations were giving rise to uniquely american forms of buddhism that could claim normative status and be understood as the wave of the future. at about the same time, others deliberately began to use the phrase “buddhism in america” to convey the idea that there are many expressions of the dharma in this country, some associated with immigrants, others with converts, but none that can be characterized as normative. this difference in emphasis reflects a running debate over which group can legitimately claim to carry the standard for the dharma in the united states, a question that refers to the distinctly different claims of americanness converts and immigrants can make. converts often believe that their experience as native-born gives them a uniquely american perspective from which to interpret the dharma. advocates for the immigrants tend to point to the centrality of the immigrant experience and its importance to the nation’s religious history as a different, but no less valid, claim to americanness. given the extraordinary diversity in the worldwide buddhist community and the amount of time needed for any religion to take root in a new culture, i think that it is premature to announce the establishment of a unique, authentic form of american buddhism. Writing as a historian rather than a partisan in current debates, i am most interested in the long-term challenges involved in building viable forms of buddhism, whether among converts or immigrants. observing the current vitality of the american buddhist landscape, i often wonder how it will change, even within the next thirty years or so, as some forms continue to thrive and others fall by the wayside. all the groups under consideration...have successfully negotiated the problems of becoming established. but they now face new challenges to their survival over the long haul, be these rooted in economic considerations, leadership and succession issues, or in keeping and replenishing their membership. the definition of american buddhism will be determined by those forms that survive the winnowing process that can be expected during the early decades of the twenty-first century. from Buddhism in America, by richard hughes seager. Published by columbia university Press. donfarber