August 02, 2011
Justin Whitaker, author of the blog American Buddhist Perspective and a Buddhist Ethics Ph.D. student at the University of London, writes thoughtful posts about everything from Amy Winehouse to Buddhisttorrents (a website that directs visitors to free but illegal online copies of Buddhist books). As part of our new series of interviews with Buddhist bloggers (check out our first one here, with The Reformed Buddhist blogger Kyle Lovett), Tricycle caught up with Justin recently via email to talk about the community of Buddhist bloggers, Buddhism in the West, and his addiction to English peanut butter.
Why did you start your blog? I started American Buddhist Perspective to write about Buddhist things I was coming across, at first just to aggregate information and ideas for myself. It never really became “public”—to my mind at least—until Tom Armstrong came along and began writing weekly “round-ups” of Buddhist blogs, introducing me, virtually, to great bloggers like James Ure and Rev. Danny Fisher. It was only at that point that I began to realize I was writing for more than just myself and a few random people out there, and it’s in a very large part thanks to Tom that we have the sense of community amongst bloggers that we share today.
You have an MA in Buddhist Studies and are a Ph.D. student in Buddhist Ethics. Give us some reasons why Buddhist practitioners should be excited about what's going on in Buddhist scholarship nowadays. Well, to quote Rita Gross from a recent Tricycle article, “I am convinced that an accurate, nonsectarian study of Buddhist history can be of great benefit to dharma practitioners.”  There will always be practitioners who disagree with this, but contemporary scholarship has a great deal to offer practitioners of all traditions. For one thing, scholarly books are a great way to step out and “see the forest for the trees,” so to speak. Good books on Buddhism will give you greater context in which to understand why the Buddha or Dōgen or Tsongkhapa said or did certain things. One of the scholars I’m most interested in these days is Richard Gombrich, whose latest book is boldly titled, What the Buddha Thought. Through this book and others he helps readers understand important aspects of Brahmanism and Jainism, showing how Buddhism both borrowed from and influenced these other religions.
In addition to showing the rich interconnections between Buddhism and other religions, scholarship also helps burst some traditional bubbles. For some reason I believed for a long time that Tibet was a land of peace and total harmony ever since Buddhism came and “tamed” the people there. I also believed that Zen was only about sitting zazen. So I was a bit surprised to hear of the long-running sectarian wars of Tibet, as well as the many great scholars of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism—including Dōgen himself. While the myths and stories of traditions can be helpful in practice, they can also skew our understanding of history and promote a false sense of superiority. It’s kind of humbling to discover that all of the traditions are historically conditioned. Gombrich even claims that the Theravādan tradition misunderstood the Buddha’s teaching of the Brahmaviharas (Divine Abodes). People inside the traditions sometimes don’t like to hear these things, but to me they are wonderful challenges: to grow and accept a new understanding, or to prove them wrong.
Do you think that Buddhism in the West has gotten to a point where there is a cohesive culture or community that transcends each particular group? No, absolutely not. It is still a mess. And in many ways that is a good thing. It means that no sect or school of Buddhism in the West has been able to wage a war to eliminate or suppress other schools as they have in other countries. We all pretty much just do our own thing, largely in ignorance of what the Buddhists next door might be doing, often not even knowing they exist.
That’s what makes the Internet an exciting new aspect of Buddhist practice. Practitioners like Arun of Angry Asian Buddhist and Kyle Lovett from the Reformed Buddhist blog, two American Buddhists who in many ways live worlds apart, can read each other’s blogs and comment on them. And I have found it interesting that so many of my Buddhist friends—as well as many well known teachers—have jumped on to Google+ so quickly. But I still would be hesitant to consider the uses of the Internet to be a very strong or cohesive aspect of Buddhism in the West. Give it time, perhaps. But part of the excitement about Buddhism in the West at the moment is its very lack of cohesion.
All religious traditions, including Buddhism, must come to terms with three main cultural factors in contemporary life: science, history, and pluralism. How do you think Western Buddhism has been doing in this regard? This is an excellent question for showing some of the similarity of Buddhist groups in the West. Some, with an eye toward reform and relevance in the 21st century, have strongly embraced science, working hard to show that Buddhist philosophy is in sync with contemporary science. H.H. the Dalai Lama, for instance, has engaged with modern scientists like David Bohm and Carl Sagan, as well as the more recent work he’s done with Richie Davidson. And yet in many ways the Dalai Lama still holds very true to his monastic tradition and philosophy. As an apologist for both science and Buddhism perhaps, I’ll say that both exhibit a non-dogmatic nature. And so it’s little wonder that they would slowly but surely enter into some fruitful dialogue. Much of what we find in the West in terms of Theravāda and Zen has been heavily influenced by 19th and 20th century colonialism in South and S.E. Asia and has thus adapted to be more “in tune” with Western scientific and Enlightenment ideals. And while Buddhists in the West might not always be interested in everything being studied by scientists, when it comes to the brain and mind, Buddhism and science make for great friends.
So far there has been a great deal of emphasis in Western Buddhism on looking forward and reinvention of the tradition, so it might be fair to say that there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to history. However, some scholars and practitioners, such as Brian Daizen Victoria, have been vocal in demanding that certain Buddhist groups, in this case Japanese Zen Buddhists, take account of their past activities. Professor Victoria’s work served as a catalyst for a public apology by Myôshinji, the largest branch of Rinzai Zen, for its support of Japanese militarism in WWII.  In more recent and Western-oriented issues of history, Kobutsu Malone and others demanded that Eido Shimano step down after patterns of sexual abuse came to light last August. And more recently there have been sexual abuse cases revolving around a Thai (Theravāda) Temple in Chicago.  The story broke on July 24th and as of now (July 29) a Google search only turns up discussion of it on a science blog, with the apt title “It’s not just Catholics,” and a blog that discusses Buddhism amongst other topics.   Instances like this may not seem like issues of “history” but they do call on Buddhists in the West to look at the structures of the sangha and power relations between men and women, guru and disciple.
The question of pluralism is kind of a mix of the two above. Buddhism is inherently (we might say) a very open and pluralistic religion with no claims to be the only way to the truth. The Buddha, after all, just woke up to the dharma and taught it. Others can wake up to it too in their own ways. And I think we’ve seen a great deal of openness by leaders in Western Buddhism. The Dalai Lama again sets a wonderful example in this respect. Thich Nhat Hanh, Ven. Yifa, and scholars like Robert Thurman, John Makransky and others have also been active in strengthening bridges between Buddhism and other faiths. Yet as a still very small minority religion in the West, it is understandable that for many Buddhists and Buddhist groups, the focus is still somewhat inward-looking, “How do I manage my own daily practice with so many demands for my time and attention? How do we keep this group active and flourishing?”
You have written on your blog that you were once (and maybe still are?) a member of the Amateur Trapshooting Association... Tell us something else about you that's unexpected! I sometimes think that Buddhism has made me more of a hedonist. Amongst the many good things that meditation practice has done for me over the years, one has been a 10 or 20-fold increase in my attunement to pleasure and pleasurable states. Part of that might be that I was somewhat depressed as a teenager, so I didn’t really connect with life around me so much. But the result has been that I really have to be careful when I find things like good coffee, good wine, and good cheese, because I can go a bit overboard. Being a poor academic helps keep things in check, as does another of my little pleasures: running. My latest addictions are generic English peanut butter and dark chocolate (brain food and antioxidants, right?).