By Danny Fisher
Last month, a rather extraordinary, four-day, academic conference was held in Berkeley, CA, at the Institute of Buddhist Studies—one of only four fully accredited Buddhist institutions of higher education in the United States (the others three are Naropa University, University of the West, and Soka University).
Entitled Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Buddhism in the West, the conference was and is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it addressed the important questions, “How has Buddhism outside Asia been shaped by diaspora and immigration? How has the increase in global tourism, communication, and capitalism affected the way Buddhism is understood, taught, and practiced?” Second, it brought together many of the preeminent scholars of Buddhism in the West, including Galen Amstutz, Franz Metcalf, Charles Prebish, Richard Hughes Seager, Duncan Ryuken Williams, Jeff Wilson, Thomas Tweed, and others.
I spoke with conference organizers Natalie Quli and Dr. Scott A. Mitchell via email. Natalie, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate Theological Union, is also assistant editor of Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Scott, who serves on the adjunct faculty of the Institute of Buddhist Studies (among many other things), is perhaps best known to readers as the author of the blog the buddha is my dj and co-host (with Rev. Harry Bridge) of the DharmaRealm podcast.
In the literature for the conference, you asked, “How has Buddhism outside Asia been shaped by diaspora and immigration? How has the increase in global tourism, communication, and capitalism affected the way Buddhism is understood, taught, and practiced?” So, what did you two learn as a result of the conference?
NATALIE QULI: I’m not sure we ended up addressing those issues directly. It was meant as more of a catalyst to get people thinking about the kinds of issues that are raised in the study of Buddhism in the West. I was pleasantly surprised that the presentations were about issues beyond those we raised in the call for papers, many of which were issues I had never even considered, and most people presented much more sophisticated analyses than I’d even hoped for.
SCOTT A. MITCHELL: One of the recurring themes was the sense that there are, and have been for a very long time, many points of contact between Buddhists (and non-Buddhists) around the world that have affected the way Buddhism is taught, practiced, and represented outside Asia. But for me, as something of a history geek, I appreciated the historical stories. Todd Perreira, for example, had some amazing historical accounts of early contact between Thai Buddhists and the United States going back to before the U.S. Civil War. And Michihiro Ama is doing some great work on the early American Shin community — his paper focused on Sunya Pratt, the so-called “First White Buddhist Priestess,” ordained in Tacoma, Washington, back in 1936. It’s these untold stories that always make me excited.
You gathered an incredibly prestigious group of scholars for this conference. At the center was Thomas Tweed, who gave the keynote. Would you tell us about the decision to invite him to do this? Also, what did he talk about?
NATALIE QULI: I think inviting Professor Tweed was Scott’s idea. It was a fantastic one. Tom Tweed really understands the pliability of religious traditions and is able to address continuity and change with the recognition that religions are not static and without becoming embroiled in issues of authenticity. His work shows a very deep respect for his subjects, and he is able to offer honest observations and descriptions without all the commentary on traditions being “lost” that accompanies much of the Buddhist studies literature. He’s also done fantastic research into the history of Buddhism in the United States in his book The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912.
As he outlined in his more recent book Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion, Tweed basically offers an aquatic metaphor as a means of visualizing religious traditions. Imagining a religious tradition as a flowing body of water, we can see that the content of a tradition (the water) changes over time. From larger rivers flow smaller ones; a rainstorm may cause new offshoots, which then may join with other, nearby streams and rivers. In other words, there is no essence to religious traditions, and they flow into and out of one another. Looking at religions this way, the question of who is “really” a Buddhist is less about orthodoxy as determined by a set of doctrinal assumptions and more about placing a person or group within one of the many streams that have flowed out of that big Buddhist river—in the case of Western Buddhisms, those are streams that are perhaps also fed by Western Romanticism or other traditions. This water metaphor also can be used to describe the content of culture itself, and in this regard is quite useful for talking about the transnational flow of a particular culture. Tweed contends (and I agree) that his metaphor not only doesn’t fall prey to essentialist ways of defining religion and culture, it also avoids the more questionable term “hybridity” with its allusion to race theory (the clean combination of two “distinct” peoples). I found his talk totally refreshing and exciting.
What were some of the most interesting panels or conversations or moments for each of you personally?
SCOTT A. MITCHELL: I was particularly impressed by how much new research is going on. You’re right, we managed to gather together a prestigious group — including some heavy hitters and big names in the field like Charles Prebish and Richard Seager. And everyone is doing really interesting and new work that gives me great hope that the study of contemporary Buddhisms, of Buddhisms outside Asia, is being taken seriously, that folks are pushing the field in exciting new directions.
NATALIE QULI: I enjoyed the conversations that arose about the so-called two Buddhisms model (“convert” and “ethnic” or “immigrant” Buddhism in the West). Wakoh Shannon Hickey was able to really put her finger on some of the unfortunately racist undertones this dualism can take on, and the conversations that arose from her paper and others concerned with the two Buddhisms model showed that people were really working to come up with new ways of understanding and categorizing the identities of Buddhists in the West.
SCOTT A. MITCHELL: I could certainly rattle off a list of specific papers that I thought were interesting, but I think what was most impressive for me personally was that there was a real sense of community and collegiality at the conference. I think that this spirit of collegiality is very important in our sub field, and I think it’s going to serve a younger generation of scholars (like myself!) very well as we take this discipline into the future.
I understand one panelist presented on Buddhist blogs. I think that’s definitely something our readers might be interested in! Would you tell us a little bit about that one?
SCOTT A. MITCHELL: Actually we had two papers on Buddhism on the Internet. Our first panelist, Daniel Veidlinger, presented on Buddhism and social networks. He’s done a lot of really interesting fieldwork, and I expect that we’ll be hearing more form him in the future.
The paper by Mindy McAdams that focused specifically on blogs was good, too. She did a case-study of one specific incident (one that your readers will probably be familiar with) that revolved around the so-called “Angry Asian Buddhist.” She was really interested in how bloggers are using their blogs as spaces to express their Buddhist practices but also negotiate complex and contested identities.
NATALIE QULI: That was a fun paper by Mindy McAdams. It addressed some of the “two Buddhisms” critiques I mentioned above by following a blog that was focusing on this issue in particular.
I think blogs as well as social networking sites might be a fantastic new area of research in the near future, but it also raises some questions about the ethics of using material in the public domain. Should blogs be considered the same as, for example, articles in magazines in terms of the freedom we feel in citing them? Or should we look at these as more semi private, like private conversations in the context of a public place (e.g., eavesdropping on diners at a nearby table in a restaurant), and therefore in need of Human Subjects Protocols and special permission from the authors to use their work in a study? And what about those who offer written comments on blogs? What sort of anonymity should we offer them? Do we need their permission as well? If we can be aware of this ethical dimension and come up with strategies for addressing these issues, I think that Buddhist blogs could be a very useful way to keep in touch with what’s going on in certain Buddhist communities.
SCOTT A. MITCHELL: What seems important to me, though, is that it’s clear scholars take online religious activity seriously, that folks are doing research in this area and aren’t dismissing online technology or community as irrelevant.
Can we look forward to more Buddhism without Borders conferences in the future?
NATALIE QULI: Ha! There are no plans as of now. It was exhausting but fun to organize. Ask us again in a couple of months!
SCOTT A. MITCHELL: Anything possible! While Natalie and I don’t have any immediate plans to organize another one, we are meeting soon to see if we can’t do something with the papers and panelists who were in attendance at this conference. And I think this topic is certainly deserving of more conferences! So I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from us down the line.
But apart form this conference, the Institute of Buddhist Studies hosts public lectures and symposium throughout the year. There’s always something happening here, so if I can do some shameless advertising for my community, I’d like to direct your readers to our News and Events blog for more info.
Lastly, Scott, would you tell us something about your current project, Prapañca: a Buddhist Journal?
SCOTT A. MITCHELL: Prapañca: a Buddhist Journal is a new online Buddhist journal I’ve been working on with some good friends, and we’re set to launch our first issue this June. We’re all very committed to providing Buddhists another venue for their work, especially Buddhist writers and artists. So, while Prapañca will certainly have tons of helpful news and information, we’re also creating a space for original poetry, fiction, or art. We’re all pretty excited!
We’ve been getting a lot of great submissions already, so expect more information over the next couple of months. And feel free to check out our website and contact us if you’d like to submit anything!