Episode 135 :: Charles Prebish, Sarah Haynes, Justin Whitaker, Danny Fisher :: Two Buddhisms Today

| September 22, 2012 | 12 Comments

Charles Prebish

Today we have a round table discussion with Charles Prebish, Sarah Haynes, Justin Whitaker, and Danny Fisher on the changes in the American Buddhist landscape.

Our cultural landscape is changing, and it seems the rate of change is more rapid than ever. We’ve seen tremendous progress in civil rights, diversity issues, and of particular interest to Buddhists, our communities of practice. There is now a much wider representation in America of traditional Buddhism, and increasingly secular groups. Whatever you find most helpful to you in your practice, it’s likely out there somewhere, or on the way. But, that wasn’t always the case. Buddhism has grown through the pioneering efforts of those from particular traditional backgrounds, and their sanghas reflected that.

Today, we’re going to have a round table discussion that’s a response. Not to the cultural landscape’s change, but to criticisms about past efforts to understand that landscape at the time. Understanding that this is a controversial topic, we’ve invited the participation of four Buddhist scholars to discuss it, and provide their insight and point of view.

Charles Prebish is among the most prominent scholars in studying the forms that Buddhist tradition has taken in the United States. Dr. Prebish has been an officer in the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and was co-founder of the Buddhism Section of the American Academy of Religion. In 1994, he co-founded the online Journal of Buddhist Ethics, which was the first online peer-reviewed journal in the field of Buddhist Studies. Prebish has also served as editor of the Journal of Global Buddhism and Critical Review of Books in Religion. In 1996, he co-founded the Routledge “Critical Studies in Buddhism” series, and currently co-edits the Routledge “World Religions” series of textbooks. He is also co-editor of the Routeldge Encyclopedia of Buddhism project.

Sarah Haynes

Sarah Haynes is assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy & Religious Studies at Western Illinois University. Her primary area of research is Tibetan Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhist ritual and its manifestations in North America. She has also conducted research on Jodo Shinshu communities in North America and their relationship to Mormon communities in Utah and Alberta. Her publications include: A Relationship of Reciprocity: Globalization, Skilful Means, and Tibetan Buddhism in Canada, in Wild Geese: Studies of Buddhism in Canada; An Exploration of Jack Kerouac’s Buddhism: Text and Life Journal of Contemporary Buddhism; and the forthcoming collection of essays “Wading into the Stream of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Leslie Kawamura”.

Justin Whitaker

Justin Whitaker is a student of Damien Keown and a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London. There he is working on a thesis comparing early Buddhist ethics and the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Mr Whitaker holds a BA (with Honours) in Philosophy from The University of Montana and an MA (with Distinction) in Buddhist Studies from Bristol University. He has extensive experience teaching Buddhist Studies and Philosophy as an Instructor and Teaching Assistant at The University of Montana as well as Antioch University’s Education Abroad programme based in Bodhgaya, India, and currently works as a Distance Education Instructor in Comparative World Religions for Mohave Community College, Arizona. He has presented papers at several academic conferences including “Meditation’s Ethics: Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and Buddhist Metta-Bhavana” at the American Academy of Religion’s 2009 international conference in Montreal as well as “Wriggling Eels in the Wilderness of Views: Studies in Buddhist Ethics” for the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, and “Warnings from the Past, Hope for the Future: The Ethical-Philosophical Unity of Buddhist Traditions” at the International Association of Buddhist Universities UN Day of Vesak, both in 2012.

Danny Fisher

Reverend Danny Fisher is the author of the Patheos blog Off the Cushion, maintains an official website, and writes for Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, and elephantjournal.com. Rev. Fisher’s commentary on Buddhism in the United States has been featured on CNN, the Religion News Service, E! Entertainment Television, and others. Rev. Fisher earned his Master of Divinity from Naropa University and his Doctorate in Buddhist Studies from University of the West. He is also a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008 and is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. He also serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program, and in 2009 became the first-ever Buddhist member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice white grape juice.

:: Discuss this episode ::


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Music for This Episode Courtesy of Rodrigo Rodriguez


The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez. The track used in this episode is “Sagariha” from his CD, Traditional and Modern Pieces: Shakuhachi.

Category: The Secular Buddhist Podcast

Ted Meissner

About the Author ()

Ted Meissner is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has been a meditator since the early 90’s, has been interviewed for Books and Ideas, Mindful Lives, and The Whole Leader podcasts, spoken about mindfulness with various groups including Harvard Humanist Hub, and has written for Elephant Journal and The International Journal of Whole Person Care. He is the Executive Director of the Secular Buddhist Association, host of the SBA’s official podcast The Secular Buddhist, and is on the Advisory Board for the Spiritual Naturalist Society. Ted’s background is in the Zen and Theravada traditions, he is a regular speaker on interfaith panel discussions, and is interested in examining the evolution of contemplative practice in contemporary culture. Ted teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care & Society, where he is the Manager of Online Programming and Community Development.

Comments (12)

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  1. Candol says:

    The issue of the asian buddhist communities and the western buddhist communities is definitely worth more attention from the point of view of keeping all expressions of racism and segregation and discrimination to a minimum. I can’t say much about it, even the Australian context except that i am aware of how some of the thai forest centres here are engaged with asian buddhists communities. So they seem to make the crossover by running their centres along pretty similar lines to the way they are run in Thailand at least ostensibly. At least that is what it seems like to me from afar. It would be more interesting to investigate on the ground – although that’s not a job for the likes of me.

    it would certainly be worth it for buddhist leaders to keep working on keeping the connections and lines of communication open between the asian and non-asian communities just as its probably important to keep the lines of communication open between the secular and non-secular western groups open.

    So if you can’t get the asians or traditionalists to come along to your buddhist conferences, perhaps you should be going to theirs – as academics and buddhist community leaders, I mean.

  2. Ben says:

    Fascinating episode! I just wanted to thank Chuck Prebish for suggesting (on both this podcast and the last one on which he appeared) the work of the late John Daido Loori Roshi. After listening to Dr. Prebish’s first appearance on the Secular Buddhist, I discovered that recordings of many of John Daido Loori’s dharma talks are made available at wzen.org, which is operated by the Mountains and Rivers Order that he founded. They’re well worth a listen!

  3. Iskander says:

    This was a very interesting episode, that raised a lot of questions for me. I must say that I’m an european living in Europe, so the controversies surrounding american buddhism history were a complete unknown to me. This episode allowed me to realize that they exist at all. I write this to indicate that I may misunderstand a lot of things in what I’m going to write about, but also because I’m in an analogous position to the speakers, although in a differente country.

    After listening to the round table discussion, and reading the “angry asian buddhist” blog, I would like to list the following remarks:

    * it would have been nice to have someone who actually criticized Prebish’s model to be present at the discussion, I had the feeling that since everybody roughly agreed, there was not much of a debate. This is not really meant as a critic, as I don’t know if Ted tried but did not manage to enlist someone. Same goes for the presence of an Asian Americn Buddhist. But again perhaps Ted tried without sucess?

    * Prebish claims that he does not understand the problem of talking about “ethnic” buddhist communities. I think most contemporary Buddhists are aware of the issues surrounding language, and the choice of words. One must only think about the consensual fading of the use of the term “Hinayana” in favor of “Theravada”. The term Hinayana was considered demeaning for the followers of the Theravada tradition, so people generally stopped using it. In the case of “ethnic” Buddhism, Asian American Buddhist dislike the term, so why keep using it? They suggest that we use the term “Asian American” instead, which suits me fine. The problem with the use of the term “ethnic” is that it’s impresice and wrong. It’s wrong because everything is ethnic, so why single out minorities as ethnic? Why not speak of the “ethnic” wasp lutheran church? The “ethnic” South Presbyteran church, etc… To use the word “ethnic” to qualify an ethnic minority is derogatory, because the ethnic majority is just as “ethnic” as the minority. So let’s just speak about Asian Americans, the same way people speak about African Americans, and Native Americans.

    * As for the issue on having something to offer instead of the two models, I think one should start by reframing: One could talk about “traditional” or “historic” Buddhism, and “convert” or “born-again” Buddhism. I am a bit cheeky, but there is a kernel of truth in it. People born in a religion live it more as a cultural structure, whereas converts and born-again believers examine and identify a lot more the belief system of a religion. I speak of a born-again Buddhist thinking of a person born in a traditionnally Buddhist family, which would develop a real interest for the relgion in itself, and who makes the effort to read, learn and practice the core aspects of it. Not the bland relgious life of a “cultural” believer, that goes to church once a year out of habit. A good example of cultural vs born-again religion is what happens in Northern Ireland, where even atheists are either “catholic” or “protestant”, simply because in that conflict religion has become an ethnic (hence cultural) flag. In Portugal, where the majority of people are catholic and religion is not an important political issue, an atheist is NOT a catholic/christian.

    * I think that one point of friction between convert/born-again buddhists and cultural buddhists is the issue of “freeing Buddhism from its asian cultural trappings”. I think I can understand both points of view in conflict here. For such neo-buddhists as “secular buddhists”, it’s important to separate what in Asian Buddhism is intrinsic to Buddhism, and what is the result of specific cultural developments of Buddhism in Asia. For an Asian American Buddhist this process can be seen as hurtful, since it’s Asian culture that is directly put aside (and thus in a way felt as rejected). How can one feel confortable when others want to eliminate what you perceive as part of your culture? On the other hand, the formulation can be very arrogant because of two things: 1) rejecting asian culture 2) speaking of an non cultural (and by implication more authentic) Buddhism. Neo-buddhists are not removing cultural trappings to retreive a “purer” or “superior” Buddhism. They are just removing historical Asian trappings so that they can put their own cultural trappings (which they can perceive as more modern, enlightened, or just plain confortable). I think things would be better accepted if one would not speak of “remove cultural trappings”, and instead speak of “replacing cultural trappings”. As for Asian American Buddhists, they should see this process as analogous to any process of cultural assimilation. The peoples of West Africa have developped their own form of Islam, increasing the diversity and richness of the Islam universe. The same thing is happening in the western world for Buddhism. Neo-Buddhists are making Buddhism a thing of their own, and that is something positive, as long as this does not foster rejection of the traditionall forms of Buddhism.

    • Charles Prebish says:

      Thanks to Iskander for a very thoughtful, helpful, and lucid post that raises many interesting issues. I’m glad our discussion has prompted such a creative response.

      What I would like to say, first, is that I wholeheartedly understand his comment about the use of the word “Hinayana.” I suspect Iskander had no way of knowing that I was one of the very first Buddhist Studies scholars to suggest, along with Jan Nattier, that we stop using that term. Jan and I wrote what we felt was a very important article in the late 1970s that traced the historical beginnings of the early Indian Buddhist sectarian movement. We felt that the leading scholars of the time were wrong in many of their assumptions about the initial sectarian split between the Sthaviras and Mahasamghikas. In fact, there were more than 18 early Indian Buddhist sects and we began using the phrase “Nikaya Buddhist Groups” as an antidote to the negatively tinged phrase “Hinayana.” Eventually, as most scholars know, all but the Theravada school disappeared…so there is only one surviving Nikaya Buddhist School.

      That being said, my early work was very sensitive regarding the issue of how to refer to various Buddhist communities. My work in my first book on the topic “American Buddhism” (published in 1979) was very careful NOT to hang inappropriate labels on any Buddhist community. The “two Buddhisms” I identified then reflected forms of practice rather than countries of origin or ethnicity. I did NOT use the phrase ethnicity often in the text, and instead frequently wrote about the need for an “American Buddhism” that included all Buddhist communities under one proverbial umbrella. I shared my agreement with Emma Layman, who earlier had argued for the need for cooperation and ecumenicity amongst American Buddhist groups.

      By the mid 1990s, and in the aftermath of the disconnect that followed from Helen Tworkov’s now infamous “Tricycle” editorial, new terminologies began to appear. And that’s when I wrote my article “Two Buddhisms Reconsidered.” Quite simply, as I said in my 1999 book “Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America,” I tried to clarify this –calmly– by saying: “My intention was to find a way for Asian immigrant Buddhists and American Buddhist converts (mostly, but not exclusively, of European American descent) to find a respectful and mutually enhancing way of relating, and to find a way for scholars interested in studying these communities to properly and accurately refer to these communities.” This built on Paul Numrich’s conciliatory delineation of these general groups into two categories: “Asian immigrants” and “American converts.” I think where the discussion may have gone wrong is that, by the mid-1990s, we had Buddhist groups in America from virtually every Asian culture and sectarian affiliation, and the phrase “Asian immigrant Buddhist” became perhaps too non-specific…prompting scholars to simply slide backwards into using the collective phrase “ethnic” Buddhists. Of course that phrase is indeed problematic too because many of the so-called American converts –like Jewish American Buddhists– were ethnic communities as well.

      Now, as we discussed, the entire issue has been muddied further by the growing concern for hybridity in American Buddhism, with Buddhist communities from differing Buddhist cultures and sectarian practices sharing teachings and even sometimes sharing the same center (as we see in Jeff Wilson’s recent book “Dixie Dharma”). We also find regionalism impacting Buddhist communities of the same culture and sectarian practices differing from each other because of their location. As I have repeatedly said, I think the best solution suggested to date has come from a young scholar named Christine Walters who argues for identifying Buddhist communities by denominationalism, focusing on each group’s identification, where possible, with a particular form of Buddhist practice, and within that denomination, Buddhist including communities from all Asian American and American convert communities. Doing that, I think, would limit use of the work “ethnic.”

      I concluded my 1999 “Luminous Passage” book, with a suggestion that Lama Surya Das’ 10-fold plan for American Buddhism of the future made the most sense to me as a means for moving beyond difficult labels. And I still think that. He argued for (1) Dharma without dogma; (2) a lay-oriented sangha; (3) a meditation-based and experiential sangha; (4) gender equality; (5) a nonsectarian tradition; (6) an essentialized and simplified tradition; (7) an egalitarian, democratic, and nonhierarchical tradition; (8) a pscyhologically astute and rational traditional; (9) an experimental, innovating, inquiry-based tradition; and (10) a socially informed and engaged tradition. Yes, I don’t agree that all American Buddhism should be meditation based, nor do I agree that American Buddhism can be non-sectarian, but I surely agree on the other eight points. And it proposed a “start” that seems to have been largely ignored.

      I also still believe, as I said in 1979, that a Buddhist is someone who says “I am a Buddhist,” and that all Buddhist communities, from all cultures and sectarian affiliations, need to stop wasting time criticizing my OLD typology that is NOT set in stone or even accurate any longer, and working on ways for all Buddhists to communicate effectively in an ecumenical and respectful fashion.

      • Iskander says:

        I would like to thank Charles Prebish for the extensively detailed response to my comment, it adressed the questions I was left with after hearing the podcast.

        I was also very interested in knowing more about the history of the replacement of the label Hinayana by the term Theravada. I do think that Prebish’s suggestion of collecting material from elder academics and actors of 20th century American Buddhism is very relevant. Of course, such material should be collected among Asian and non Asian American Buddhists.

        I do think that this format (round table discussion in a podcast) is conductive to a productive discussion, which can be extended in the commentaries. It would nice if Ted could also enlist members of the Asian American Buddhist communities into future round tables, I think those discussions would be just as interesting, and probably a good idea to increase exchanges between historic and neo buddhists in America. Even if Ted does not manage to do it, that fact in itself would be interesting.

    • Candol says:

      The idea of calling myself or being called a born-again buddhist is utterly cringeworthy. I wouldn’t call myself a born-again anything. As a secular buddhist the idea of a born again buddhist has a paradoxical irony to it which surely couldn’t be applied to any secular buddhist. The convert is equally distasteful if applied personally even if its more factually accurate but this might still be a functional term from the academic’s point of view.

      • Iskander says:

        Well, I guess you would technically be a convert, unless your familial background is already seeped in traditional buddhist traditions.

        I know “convert” and “born-again” are provocative labels among secular buddhists, but I think that it’s sometimes good to change the vocabulary to realize the biases in one’s view (see the use of terms like “freedom fighters”, “insurgents” or “terrorists”, depending on the political agenda).

        Although technically correct, I think it would be fine to use terms that are also correct but that do not rub secular buddhists wrong, to indicate both instances.

  4. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Excellent suggestion, Iskander, I will try to continue with more round tables that are more inclusive — there are so many wonderful resources available!

  5. chuck13 chuck13 says:

    This was a great discussion. My practice often leads me to a Chinese monastery and even within the walls I have always had a feeling of “two Buddhisms”. From a cultural standpoint alone there is definitely a separation. In our practice and studies, we are always separated into two groups. The Chinese group and American group. Really the only time we spend together is liturgy and lunch. Many of the American Buddhists have never had a conversation with any of the Chinese practitioners. There are also very notable differences in these groups. For starters, the Americans tend to be younger where most of the Chinese group are older and probably native Chinese from Taiwan. from the conversations I’ve had, many of them have younger children but they have zero interest in Buddhist practice. You also don’t see very many Chinese lay people in meditation. I’ve been attending off and on for quite a few years now, with my whole family, so I’ve gotten to know quite a few of the Chinese Buddhists. What really strikes me as strange, is both groups are learning from the same monks, though in different languages, following the same course of study, and have been drawn to the same “religious” training. Yet I’ve come to find the Chinese group is typically very conservative, socially and politically, as the american group are almost all very liberal and progressive. I also don’t think the Chinese group, even the monastic, have any idea that Western Buddhism even exists. I think that might be a major factor in why they don’t reach out more than they do. They seem to be very isolated, and they also seem to be fine with it.

  6. Gatasaro Bhikku Gatasaro Bhikku says:

    I listened to this podcast at the suggestion of Justin Wittaker’s blog. I did not listen before because I have a brief history with Prof. Prebish and was not impressed. He does not do well with disagreement. He likes being right. So I did not listen, and found when I did, my previous opinion seems to be confirmed. I say this so everyone knows that I may be biased in my comments, despite my best efforts to be objective.

    I have no idea where to begin. First, I was in agreement with wishing this had not been a Prebish Fan Club meeting. Even then, it was certainly overly defensive.

    Second, four scholars sitting around discussing current Buddhism leads nowhere, unfortunately. Scholars study that which exists, not leading where it should go. They might be wrong, heaven forbid, risking credibility. While I am in sympathy with Lama Suriya Das’ suggestion of a layperson-led Sangha is good, this is why Buddhism has been stagnant for for twenty years. I am now working with a small meditation group that had disbanded some time before. I think it is very indicative of the problems of Buddhism in the US. Some of the members are quite educated and experienced, and others are new to Buddhism. It has come back together and gained some energy because they have a monk now. I would like to say not just any monk, but that is clearly the case. It’s not me. Maybe in six months it might be, but not yet. So having a monk is what is drawing them back together. They have a need for spiritual practice. Now they have a place to go for it.

    Six months ago I would have been in total agreement that the future will be in the hands of lay leadership, but now I’m not so sure. The reason that meditation group fell apart was because nobody was able to keep the focus on the dharma. Too often, I’m told, the meetings became a sort of group therapy. Who could have led the group through this? I don’t know, honestly. I’m not yet trained, but I can see easily how it can happen for good or bad. Most people desire to follow. They want to learn. I know I do. I want someone who can tell me something I don’t know. One of the things I’m doing with the group is asking each of them to bring something to the next meeting–something new they have learned. I doubt that having no leader could do something like this. I’m going to depend on their innate instincts to prod them in a direction. Nobody wants to disappoint their monk. lol

    For the future of Buddhism to take place, there will have to be some sort of organization. Good luck with that. The Thai Bhikkus of the US is trying to organization our monasteries, with some success. I’m going to be carefully watching our little corner to see how they are able to incorporate Americans (who aren’t married to Thais) into the Sangha. So far, they have completely accepted me and are welcoming, but I’m very aware of my pioneer status. I have to be careful to respect their traditions, while gently–very gently–showing them American ways. Maybe we will blend. Maybe not. Time will tell.

    Will the future of American Buddhism be people like me becoming traditional Buddhists, or will it be something new? Where will the training of teachers come? How will it be funded? Those are the two main questions. We can talk all we want about having lay leaders, but how will they spend double-digit hours, seven days a week, involved, as monks and professional clerics do? There is a reason we become monks besides being too lazy to work and too stupid to do any better. We are immersed in the religious life. I may be studying philosophy and evolutionary psychology and neurology, but I’m also studying Buddhism. I spend 16 hours a day at this. I have no other job, no wife, and very few distractions. Is this necessary? I’m beginning to believe it absolutely is. I don’t have enough hours in my day.

    I have not read the Angry Buddhist, but I betcha I can guess at his problems with white Americans. Some of it might even be legitimate, and some of it might be the prejudice all humans have with outsiders coming on to their turf. I have absolutely no answer for blending the two Buddhisms together. I don’t know that it can be done where both survive as recognizable. Perhaps the future of “buddhism” (little b) is incorporated into all areas of life, even churches, synagogues and mosques. I could see the possibility of “Sunday School” as being meditation practice before church services.

    Ted, ritual in human (group/social) evolution came before religion. The human mind depends upon patterns. It sees patterns where none exists. We crave order. Ritual began informally, then shamans started to take the rituals and build religion. This was the beginning of leadership. Religions bound the group. Shamans appeared even before headmen, believe it or not. Ritual is important to all humans. We all have them. I used ritual to build my meditation practice into a habit. I understood what I was doing, and used myself as a study subject. Ritual never grew into a need, thankfully. For some it does. This is how they fall into the religion trap, where, as Daniel Dennett says, they give up their ability to think.

    I wish at some point you and I could chat. I think you have a lot to say in your experience with starting a community. I could learn from you, while giving back some insight into what it is like to live a monastic life. Surely it would be more informative than having scholars on all the time who go home to their secular lives and give in to sense-pleasures. Believe me, until you live the acetic life, you have no idea how much of a hold they have on you. Until you study some of the stuff I’ve been studying, you have no idea how automatic all this is.

    In the end, only through mindfulness meditation practice can we break through the barriers in our mind. I believe that it will take qualified teachers to do it. Teachers who understand the science of the mind, and the human need for ethics, which is where a secular “religion” is going to have problems. With no “watchful God.”

    I’m glad this site exists, Ted. A lot can come out of it. I hope.


    Ajahn Don Gatasaro Lively

  7. Ted Meissner Ted Meissner says:

    Hi, Bhante. I would be delighted to speak with you sometime about a wide variety of things. You can email ted (at) secularbuddhism (dot) org and we’ll set up a Skype chat.

    I understand your response to this episode on a few levels, and of course this was a group of folks who are positively inclined towards Chuck, myself included. And I understand there are those with varying opinions, I find that one of the great things about life, the complexities of our existence. And you’re right, I also happen to agree with many of the views Angry Asian Buddhist has on his site, and couldn’t begin to understand them as that’s not at all my own context. That was one of the points here, that Chuck’s specific work on this topic was likewise taken out of context by being taken out of the time in which it was written. Things have changed, and as is often the case, become much more polychromatic than decades ago.

    You bring up one of the core difficulties in this evolutionary path of Buddhism in an increasingly secular West (for example), in that the continuity and depth of practice requirements may not be as easily addressed in our culture. We may lose something when we don’t have people dedicated entirely to the dhamma, and I think that’s something worth exploring. There are, for example, sanghas that have what we would consider lay practitioners as their leads, but that doesn’t mean they don’t spend their lives in the dhamma — they do. They have no other job than the work done in their communities, and some may spend more time in applying the practice to a contemporary student than a monastic who spends those same hours memorizing Pali texts.

    So, interesting ideas nonetheless, and I would be happy to chat with you about them sometime, please do email me!

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