April 11, 2012

Scholar-Practitioners in American Buddhism

This is part two of a three-part guest blog series by Charles Prebish, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Utah State University. In the current issue of Tricycle, Prebish is interviewed by Linda Heuman (Read "Pursuing an American Buddhism" here), however, they had so many topics to cover in such a short time there were many items Prebish would have liked to discuss more fully. Last week we featured "Precepts as Practice in American Buddhism." Join the discussion of this blog post, and the two others, on the interview page.

Scholar-Practitioners in American Buddhism
To this point, what has been lacking in most discussions of Buddhist practice in American communities is a consideration of that portion of the community of American Buddhists which falls into a category that is most properly labeled “scholar-practitioner.” According to two surveys conducted in the 1990s and published in Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America, at least 25 percent of Buddhist Studies scholars are openly Buddhist. It is also likely that at least another 25 percent remain silent about their Buddhist practice, for reasons which will become apparent. In many respects, these “silent Buddhists” are known to each other, but not to the larger community.

In fact, in most universities there are far fewer Buddhist faculty members in Buddhist Studies than their Christian or Jewish counterparts. José Cabezón has suggested that one of the key contributing factors in this circumstance is that of “critical distance,” and that Buddhists, as a result of their personal commitment to the religion, are presumed to lack the proper critical distance, and therefore never make good Buddhist Studies scholars. In other words, they presumably allow their personal beliefs to affect their scholarship. Of course this begs the question regarding why Christian and Jewish scholars are not presumed to experience the same problem. Unfortunately, there is another dilemma as well. Another Buddhist Studies scholar, Luis Gómez, has argued that Buddhism isn’t just an object that we study, but a religious tradition that may make serious demands upon us. He says that some of us can identify times in which Buddhism has been a “biographic presence” in our lives, and “especially on those of us who can remember moments in our life narratives in which we have ‘felt Buddhists’ or ‘have been Buddhists’ or have ‘practiced,’ as the contemporary English expression has it.” The problems described above place the contemporary Buddhist Studies scholar between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If one acknowledges a personal commitment to the tradition being studied, the suspicion Cabezón cites so clearly is immediately voiced; but if one remains silent, how can the demands Gómez outlines be fairly confronted? These are issues not confronted by American scholars of Judaism or Christianity, and they are a powerful impetus for the silence among Buddhist Studies scholars who happen to also be practicing American Buddhists.

Is there some alternative whereby American Buddhist “scholar-practitioners” can play a vital role in the ongoing development of the American Buddhist tradition? And why is that role so critically important? In the entire history of traditional Asian Buddhism, the monastic community members have been almost exclusively responsible for the religious education of the entire lay community. On the other hand, American Buddhism is almost exclusively a lay movement, lacking a significant monastic component. In the absence of the traditional “scholar-monks” who were so prevalent in Asia, it may well be that the “scholar-practitioners” of today’s American Buddhism will fulfill the role of “quasi-monastics,” or at least serve as treasure-troves of Buddhist literacy and information, functioning as guides through whom one’s understanding of American Buddhist practice and doctrine may be sharpened. In this way, one’s individual practice might be balanced with individual study so that Buddhist study deepens one’s practice, while Buddhist practice informs one’s study. Obviously, such a suggestion gives rise to two further questions: (1) Are there sufficient scholar-practitioners currently active in American Buddhism to make such an impact? and (2) Are they actually making that impact?

With regard to the former question, much of the information reported above is necessarily anecdotal. By simply making mental notes at the various conferences attended by American Buddhist Studies scholars, and listening to the discussions about individuals’ Buddhist practices, one can develop a kind of makeshift roster of scholar-practitioners who are openly Buddhist; and while such a roster is not publishable, the number is quite clearly at least 25 percent. My best estimate is that at least another 25 percent of scholars are almost certainly Buddhist, but very careful not to make public expressions of their religiosity, for fear of professional reprisal, keenly felt or perceived.

The second question is perhaps not so difficult to assess as the first. As one examines the publicity information that surrounds the academic programs sponsored by numerous American Buddhist groups, the names of academic scholars of Buddhism have begun to dominate the roster of invited presenters, and these individuals are almost exclusively American Buddhist scholar-practitioners. At the Buddhism in America conference, held in Boston in January 1997, I playfully confided that I wondered if such occasions as this might be thought of as a “Pro Tour for Buddhist Studies scholars,” as I rushed off to hear Professor Robert Thurman deliver a Keynote Address titled “Toward American Buddhism.” In other words, many American Buddhist masters have come to acknowledge and incorporate the professional contributions of these American Buddhist scholar-practitioners into the religious life of their communities, recognizing the unique and vital role they fulfill.

The issue of the role of scholar-practitioners in American Buddhism is a new and emerging phenomenon as well. In 1977, an interesting and well-planned conference was held at Syracuse University, devoted to the ambitious theme of “The Flowering of Buddhism in America.” Nearly all of the papers were prepared by non-academic Buddhist practitioners. Seventeen years later, when the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California sponsored a semester long symposium called “Buddhisms in America: An Expanding Frontier,” every single participant had impressive academic credentials, and more than two-thirds of the nearly twenty presenters were American Buddhism scholar-practitioners.

Read "Pursuing an American Buddhism," an interview with Charles Prebish here. Discussion of this blog series will take place on the interview page.

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