Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Some Thoughts on American Buddhism

alms bowl

A Laosian monk on a begging round with his alms bowl.

RECENTLY, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the state of Buddhist communities (sanghas) in the United States. This is, in large part, due to the fact that I graduated from Harvard University this past May and am now looking for a non-chaplaincy job where I can use my Master of Divinity in Buddhist Studies. (There isn’t one.) Still, I think that some of these ruminations extend beyond personal frustration into genuine insight.

More to the point, now that four schools—Naropa Univeristy, the Institute of Buddhist Studies, University of the West, and my own alma mater, Harvard Divinity School— are offering graduate-level programs for people interested in professional Buddhist ministry, it is important for us to pay attention to the shape of Buddhist institutions in the United States.

In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few constructive suggestions for American Buddhist institutions, with two caveats. First, I have almost no experience in ethnically Buddhist communities, despite the fact that they form the vast majority (75 to 80 percent) of American Buddhists. So, this applies only to non-immigrant sanghas. Second, most of my experience is with Tibetan Buddhism, though I think that some of this will apply across the board. Keeping that in mind, here are my rough, initial suggestions:

  • Invest in people. Many American Buddhist communities have invested a lot of their resources in buildings, sacred objects, texts, translations, and publications. There is good reason for this, and it is important that this sort of work continue to receive support; however, institutions are more than just these. We need to make sure that we have people with the sort of administrative and organizational skills, academic and language training, or spiritual realization to make our institutions sustainable. This means more scholarships, fellowships, and training programs. If the 629,000 Unitarian-Universalists in the United States can manage to scrape up a small stipend for all of their seminarians every semester, then surely the 1,000,000 or so American Buddhists can find the resources to help support the much fewer people training to serve it as future translators, chaplains, administrators, or teachers.
  • Get professionals and pay them accordingly. Most dharma centers, monasteries, and retreat centers in the United States are run largely, if not entirely, on volunteer labor. This helps cash-strapped centers and gives cash-strapped students a chance to gain both skills and merit while studying and practicing the dharma. It also ensures that work is unprofessional, turnover is high, and knowledge is not passed on when one person leaves and another takes over. Most sangha work, like most church work and most synagogue work, will always be volunteer. That is as it should be; but, like churches and synagogues, there ought to be some positions that are staffed by paid professionals, even if that pay is very modest.
  • Learn from churches and synagogues. American churches and synagogues have an awful lot of experience in the day-to-day nuts-and-bolts of administering a religious nonprofit, be it a local congregation, a retreat center, or even something as exotic as a monastery. There’s absolutely no reason why we ought to go about re-inventing the wheel when it comes to matters of administration or finance. Running a library at your retreat center? Take a look at the National Church Library Association or the Church and Synagogue Library Association. Wondering how to make your dharma center more welcoming to minorities? More than a couple of churches have struggled with that problem, as well, and probably have some useful advice. Fundraising? There are more Google results for “church capital campaign” than I can even begin to list here. It’s not as if there is a Christian way to do these things and a Buddhist one. We ought to learn from our more experienced Christian, Jewish, and Unitarian-Universalist neighbors.
  • Join interfaith organizations. There are countless national and local interfaith organizations that do everything from providing for the needy, to serving their member organizations, to fighting various social injustices. Even if a sangha doesn’t want to join a service or social justice group like the Interfaith Hospitality Network or the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, there are thousands of local ministerial associates in cities and counties across the country that help their ministers network and support local charities. It is important that American Buddhists visibly reach out to their local communities. Not only does it increase the likelihood of the sort of skill-sharing that I advocate above, but it helps others see us as normal members of the community, just like themselves, instead of something strange or foreign. The benefits are countless, and mutual.
  • Meet other Buddhist and share with them. There’s been an awful lot of academic squabbling over whether the different schools and sects of Buddhism share any common, overarching characteristic. What is certain is that very different Buddhist communities in the United States share very similar problems when it comes to administration, structure, funding, etc. There ought to be more forums for us to meet—online, in print, and in-person—to share these common concerns and share our best practices.
  • Make meetings accessible. When we do have inter-Buddhist meetings or conferences to discuss important issues, we need to make sure that their timing, location, and cost of attendance don’t shut out the low-income students, meditators, and, especially, monastics who will be our future leaders. Building them up is building our institutions up and ensuring their longevity. Conversely, by neglecting them, we neglect our institutions. We need to make sure we include these people.

These thoughts aren’t very organized, and they certainly aren’t systematic. It is entirely possible that I’ve misread how things or going or else proposed an impractical or immodest solution. Still, I hope that these suggestions will generate some thought on what, if anything, is needed for Buddhism to continue to grow and flourish in this country. I hope, also, that they will be taken in the spirit in which they are given—one of care and appreciation.

Note: This post is also syndicated at the Zen Peacemakers Order’s Bearing Witness Blog, and has been featured at Rev. Danny Fisher’s blog.

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2 Comments

  1. Joshua,

    Not an expert on these matters, and glad you are looking at them. Would refer you to this pair of interviews with Judith Simmer-Brown, should you not have seen them:

    http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2009/11/bg-145-the-survival-of-american-buddhism/
    http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2009/11/bg-146-investing-in-the-future-of-american-buddhism/

    Cheers,

    Marcos

  2. There is a huge danger in the Western Buddhist community in that many, if not most, of it’s practitioners are older, and when that baby boomer demographic passes on, then what? There was an excellent scholarly article a few years ago in one of the Buddhist magazines (unfortunately I can’t find it at the moment) about the huge rise in people who called themselves Buddhists in the West in the early 1900’s, which caused many cultural changes, especially in the arts, but that by the mid-20th century that interest had all but died out because the older Buddhists didn’t actively seek to create a lasting, self-renewing community of younger Buddhists. It was given as a cautionary tale, and one that I’m afraid hasn’t been learned from. Most of the retreats, symposiums, etc. I attend are all filled with people in their fifties and older. My college religion professor (I graduated in the early 80’s) is still teaching and tells me there is almost no interest in Eastern spirituality any more on his campus, when there was much interest thirty years ago (that’s how I became interested). Food for thought.

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