The Faces of Buddhism in America.
Edited by Charles S. Prebish and Kenneth K. Tanaka. Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1998, viii + 370 pages, ISBN 0-520-21301-7, US $50 (cloth), $22 (paper).
Franz Aubrey Metcalf
California State University
Buddhism in America: what is it? This indispensable volume revolves around that
question. Revolving, it sees varied forms of American Buddhism, and sees them from varied
perspectives. It is that variety which makes the book so revolutionary. For readers in a
rush, let me say right now this book may be the keystone of the nascent literature on
American Buddhism. Whether a Buddhist scholar or a Buddhist practitioner, whether a member
of the cultural elite or a struggling ethnicity, whether your Buddhism is an exotic import
you have just discovered or a cultural institution you take for granted, you will gain
from this book. And if, like mine, your own life crosses these borders, you will gain even
more from the book. It deserves a place in Dharma center libraries and on practitioners'
bookshelves as well as in college libraries and scholars' bookshelves.
Co-editor Charles Prebish makes clear in his introduction that the acculturating
religious forms of Asia on the one hand, and the religion or interest which is
"literate, urban, upwardly mobile, perhaps even elite in its life orientation"
(p. 7) on the other, are quite different. This "bifurcation" in American
Buddhism needs study alongside the traditions of American Buddhism. Voilą the
shape and greatest contribution of The Faces of Buddhism in America. I want to
begin by addressing that shape.
The book's first part (a bit more than half), entitled "American Buddhist
Traditions in Transition," treats the several main forms of Buddhism present in
America now: Chinese, Pure Land, Japanese Zen, Nichiren, Korean, Vietnamese, and
Theravaada Buddhism, and insight meditation (evidently the Buddhism that dared not speak
The book's second part, "Issues in American Buddhism," explores questions
raised by this myriad of Buddhist forms and practices. The chapters here cover who is a
Buddhist, "White" versus "Ethnic" Buddhism, the roots of Buddhist
Americanization, Buddhism and psychology, women and power in Buddhism, queer Buddhism, and
socially engaged Buddhism. Quite a variety pack.
Most of these chapters grow out of a conference on Buddhism held at the Graduate
Theological Union in Berkeley, California, in the fall of 1994, and the divergent chapters
retain the diffuse feeling of a conference. But this fits the field, after all. Despite
the intervening years, the issues the book raises remain lively -- even acrimonious -- and
vital to the rooting of the Dharma in America. The editors and the University of
California Press have given a great gift to scholars and practitioners alike: a book that
contains within it the energy, the contradictions, and the sincerity of religion on a new
frontier. In a sense it is not just the cutting edge of scholarship on Buddhism in
America, it is the cutting edge of that Buddhism itself.
Stuart Chandler sets the book moving briskly with his chapter on Chinese Buddhism in
America. He points out the variety of this Buddhism and does us a service by showing how
Chinese Buddhism problematizes Prebish and Nattier's distinctions (see below) of
ethnic/baggage and elite/import Buddhism. Indeed, Chandler problematizes the very notion
of being Chinese American, effectively integrating Buddhist identity into larger questions
of Americanness and Chineseness.
Next comes Alfred Bloom's chapter detailing the history of Shin Buddhism in America and
calling on the tradition to modernize lest it fail and fade. In his American Buddhism
(1979), Prebish observed that Shin Buddhism was the oldest continuously existing Buddhist
tradition in America. Following this up after another twenty years, Bloom writes that Shin
is also "the best organized, and endowed with human and financial resources. Yet it
has not been able to make the transition to America easily" (p. 45).
Victor Soogen Hori's chapter on Japanese Zen ends up focusing mostly on exactly that:
Zen in Japan. Hori defends Rinzai traditions of Zen in Japan against perceived antagonism
in the West, but this tells us little about Zen as actually practiced here. Indeed, while
Hori's take on the prejudices of American Zen practitioners may be correct, his
description of actual practice in this country is so far from my own experience and
research it made me question how he has come to his conclusions. Still, the chapter raises
provocative questions about mutual training, hierarchy, and ritual.
In contrast, both Jane Hurst's chapter on Nichiren Shooshuu and Soka Gakkai, and Amy
Levine's chapter on Vajrayaana, strike a nice balance between questioning the adaptations
of the traditions in the West and questioning the rigidity of the traditions in the East.
Hurst's chapter is particularly good on history, including the divisive conflict and final
split between Nichiren Shooshuu and Soka Gakkai. In contrast, Levine is best on the
difficulties of establishing new institutions of Vajrayaana authority in this country.
These will have to be both instructional and spiritual forms of authority, but in true
Vajrayaana form they will reside in geshes and tulkus, living persons who
embody the tradition. Levine sees that this transition from Asian to Western figures is
going to be difficult.
Mu Soeng's chapter on Korean Buddhism concentrates on the charismatic monk Seung Sahn.
This critical but nuanced portrayal of this pivotal figure is certainly the best I have
read. The chapter also briefly treats Samu Sunim, but suggests that the number of Korean
American Buddhists is "miniscule compared to those who consider themselves
Christian" (p. 128). Living in Los Angeles, a city with a least nine Korean temples
advertising in the yellow pages, I wish Soeng had further developed this crucial
Cuong Nguyen and A. W. Barber, on the other hand, peremptorily dismiss the careers of
Thich Nhat Hanh and Thich Tien An (p. 131) and spend their chapter discussing Vietnamese
Buddhism in the Vietnamese American community only. They call Vietnamese Buddhism the
least popular form among non-Vietnamese and worry that it might soon be reduced to a relic
(p. 146). While their coverage of this Buddhism seems well-researched, their dismissal of
the two Vietnamese monks who have reached out to non-Vietnamese is troubling to me.
Questioning Thich Nhat Hanh's Dharma transmission as they do (p. 309n) does not mean his
work is invalid, spiritually or politically. And wherever Thich Tien An got his training,
his memory has certainly not faded away in Los Angeles, where he is remembered at his
flourishing Dharma center, rightly or wrongly, as the first patriarch of American
Paul Numrich's rich chapter on Theravaada Buddhism and its prospects here, and Gil
Fronsdal's chapter on insight meditation, offer a marvelous contrast. Numrich, working
from his deep base of research, demonstrates the extreme difficulty of establishing an
American bhikkhu-sangha, and he reminds us that without that there has traditionally been
no Theravaada at all. Thus far, Numrich knows of not one American-born ethnically Asian
bhikkhu, and if Numrich doesn't know of one, well, they likely do not exist. Without such
persons, Numrich asks, how will the sangha be able to speak in meaningful ways to future
The book then switches chapters to talk about insight meditation. So far the book has
treated forms of Buddhism growing from one culture in one chapter. So, for example,
Chandler's chapter treats both the Hsi Lai Temple and Sheng Yen's Ch'an centers, both
"ethnic" and "elite" forms of Chinese Buddhism. But here, perhaps
because the gap between forms is so complete, the editors actually split them into
separate chapters, inscribing in the book's very structure the profound schism Prebish
referred to in the introduction.
Fronsdal's chapter illustrates this phenomenon by leading off with observations that
these meditators have "minimal connection to Theravaada" and as a result,
"many more Americans of European descent refer to themselves as vipassanaa students
than as students of Theravaada Buddhism" (p. 164). Just to repeat: many don't even
call themselves Buddhists, let alone Theravaada Buddhists. Fronsdal is sympathetic to the
practice, seeing it as inherently open and healthily adaptive, but he does wonder whether,
with only orthopraxy and no orthodoxy, the movement will be able to sustain itself.
The volume now turns to more theoretical views of American Buddhism. Appropriately
first is Jan Nattier's chapter on who is a Buddhist. Here Nattier updates her work on
providing terminology for the distinct types of American Buddhism. She moves from the dual
models earlier proposed by Prebish and herself to the tripartite model she now favors. In
addition to elite/import Buddhism (practiced mostly by the educated and affluent), and
ethnic/baggage Buddhism (practiced mostly by immigrants and their descendents), Nattier
adds export Buddhism (practiced by those here seeking to convert others to the practice).
While this does indeed help with classifying Soka Gakkai, the deep bifurcation remains.
Rick Fields furthers this discussion in his chapter, enticingly titled "Divided
Dharma: White Buddhists, Ethnic Buddhists, and Racism." Fields, clearly an especially
self-critical "White Buddhist," calls for openness and gratitude for all
Buddhist forms. Yet I wish he had made clearer the reasons for his continued adherence to
the (to my mind) divisive and embittering distinction between "White" and
"Ethnic" Buddhism. There is not yet a perfect solution to the terminology
problem, but I cannot accept an anachronistic highlighting of race as the best answer we
Martin Verhoeven provides a context for current issues of Americanization by describing
the work of Paul Carus of a century ago. Ironically, Carus's appropriation of Buddhism as
an exact analogue to his "Religion of Science" dovetailed with a Japanese effort
to assert superiority over the West in the field of religion. These two culturally
conditioned aims for a time coincided in work of Carus and D. T. Suzuki, but at what cost
to the transmission of genuine Buddhism, whatever that might be? A cautionary tale.
Returning to the present, the book gives us Ryo Imamura's chapter on Buddhist and
Western psychotherapies. I have wrestled with myself over how to treat such a chapter. Can
I simply maintain a "noble silence" and skip over it? Must I refute its
tendentious nonsense, point by point, as I certainly could? If I believe the chapter
"wrong speech," I may fall into wrong speech myself by writing of it, yet
sometimes severe critique is the duty of a reviewer. Imamura, a Shin priest and professor
of psychology, would seem a fine bridging figure between Buddhism and psychotherapy.
Instead, he plainly prefers burning bridges already built. In place of practicalities, he
puts polemic. He devotes most of the chapter to comparing the worst qualities and even
abuses of Western psychotherapies to an idealized and therefore unassailable vision of
Buddhism. Crucially, he effaces the gulf between behavioral and drug-based psychotherapies
on the one hand, and dynamic psychotherapies on the other. In this way he absurdly
attributes the faults of each to both. Correspondingly, he avoids all mention of
the ways Western psychotherapies compare favorably to Buddhist psychotherapy (the latter
so romanticized he cannot critique it in the slightest). When Imamura does say something
legitimately applicable to Western psychotherapy he is either misleadingly narrow (for
instance, when he asserts that psychotherapy is entirely rational and coercive, [p. 232])
or just plain wrong ("to be unhappy is to be abnormal" [p. 231]. How far from
Freud's famous dictum can one get?). After a sustained fusillade of this, the field is
sadly battered into unrecognizability. Equally sadly, Imamura distorts Buddhism. For
example, he asserts that "Buddhist psychotherapy is not a tool or agent of
culture,...the Gautama Buddha [sic] was quite clear in his disapproval of the Indian caste
system and his desire to expand the role of women in the religious life" (p. 233). To
correct Imamura on this issue, I simply direct the reader to Numrich's (pp. 152-153) and
David Rothberg's (pp. 271-272, 275) chapters in this very volume. I had thought scholars
had fully gone beyond the agonistic dichotomy of "East" and "West."
Imamura's chapter shows that even presumably sincere persons still cleave to that
polarizing and inadequate model. No doubt my outrage at Imamura grows partly from my
disappointment in us all. As Verhoeven might ask, how far have we really come since 1893?
But at least now one must critique the West and glorify the East; if anyone published the
inverse of this chapter, it would likely be the end of his public career.
That aberration dispensed with, we now come to Rita Gross's admirable chapter on women
and authority in American Buddhism. I do not agree with Gross' entire argument. In fact I
think she is deeply mistaken and strikingly without evidence in her contrast of therapy
and practice. Yet even in disagreement there is pleasure in watching her mind work and in
admiring the consistency of her thought and her action. Gross ringingly calls for
integrity and responsibility in sexual matters, addressing herself both to students and
teachers, both sides being moral actors. She ends by wisely advocating the use of what she
calls "natural hierarchy" in Dharma centers. As always, her thoughts warrant the
Continuing the theme of sexuality, Roger Corless's brief but vivid chapter on
homosexually-based Dharma centers provides vignettes of both lives and groups. More than
this, it concludes with a page of contacts for the mentioned persons and centers. A very
nice touch, in my opinion, underscoring this book's usefulness for practitioners. I should
also mention Corless's excellent notes (pp. 328-333). All this helps those who want to
follow up his admittedly preliminary work.
The last contributed chapter, by Donald Rothberg, treats the growing variety of
socially engaged Buddhism in North America. Rothberg covers quite a lot of ground,
including the genealogy of engaged Buddhism, its revisioning of traditional practice, and
the challenges and promise of such Buddhism today. The saving of society is an
overwhelming task -- perhaps an impossible one. Well then, as Rothberg writes, "Such
a work is no doubt as demanding as that which is required of the traditional
bodhisattva" (p. 284). A worthy thought. As does Corless, Rothberg provides excellent
notes; in fact they make up a kind of annotated bibliography on engaged Buddhism. I'm
certain I will consult them in the future.
Kenneth Tanaka concludes the book with an epilogue recapping the central themes of
ethnicity, democratization, practice, engagement, and adaptation. His final comments echo
Prebish's at the book's outset: in hopeful contrast to the failure of American Buddhism a
hundred years ago, Buddhism enters the next millennium with optimism and activism. It is
an exciting time for the tradition.
I might say the same for study of that tradition. Reading The Faces of Buddhism in
America, attending the lively session on Buddhism in America at the 1998 American
Academy of Religion's Annual Meeting, and knowing several other books on American Buddhism
are coming out this year, I have the feeling that -- at long last -- Buddhist studies has
awakened to the reality of the historic transmission and transformation of Buddhism going
on right before its eyes. Given the work of scholars who have labored so long to
understand the dynamics and importance of the transmission of Buddhism from India to
China, or China to Japan (and, more recently, to understand the transmissions from China
to Vietnam and Korea), I have always found it ironic how thoroughly the field has ignored
the vital and historical transmission going on right now, from so many Asian countries to
the West. Buddhists in America know how important this transmission is. As a senior Zen
student told me, his rooshi will one day be seen as "a mountain of Zen" because
he established his lineage in America. It is deeply gratifying to me (and must be even
more so to Professor Prebish, so long a voice crying in the wilderness) to see the scales
fall from the academy's eyes. The Faces of Buddhism in America -- powerful, flawed,
and vivid as its subject -- is only a beginning, but it is a delightful one. We all should
welcome it into our libraries, our Dharma centers, and our classes. I hope that the many
more books that will follow it will be as good.