Filed in History

Pursuing an American Buddhism

Linda Heuman interviews pioneering scholar Charles Prebish

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Charles Prebish has probably visited more American dharma centers than anyone else on the continent. For those familiar with his work, this should be no surprise, as Prebish pioneered the scholarly study of American Buddhism as a subdiscipline of Buddhist studies. In the late sixties and early seventies, when Prebish was beginning his career, the academic study of Buddhism meant largely its study as an artifact of “Oriental” culture. As a young scholar Prebish focused on early Indian Buddhism: the development of the monastic system and the disciplinary literature known as Vinaya, topics well within the range of traditional Buddhist studies scholarship. But by the seventies, Prebish was among the first academics to observe that the burgeoning importation of Buddhism to the United States was developing its own cultural face, one that itself was worthy of observation and study. He taught the first course on American Buddhism in 1974 and published the first scholarly book on the topic in 1979. In the decades since, as Buddhism’s popularity in the West has soared, Prebish has been tracking its rapidly evolving course, recording its progress, and chronicling its milestones. Now Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Utah State University, Prebish has recounted the experience of practicing and studying Buddhism in America for four decades in his recent memoir, An American Buddhist Life.

—Linda Heuman

Do we really have an American Buddhism yet? Many people don’t like to use the phrase “American Buddhism.” Last weekend [the Buddhist scholar] Jan Willis said, “I don’t think we’re quite there yet.” I’ve been using that phrase since 1975, but she is probably right; we’re probably not there yet. First we need all the Buddhist traditions to come to America in their integrity—with their traditions and their lineages and their rituals and so forth. Then it will take time for them to become distinctly American, to factor into American culture, for Buddhists to communicate with other Buddhists. We need patience. Eventually, something that we could call “American Buddhism” will emerge. And that doesn’t mean that there will be one vehicle. We will still have the same sects and so forth, but they will be much more interpenetrating, I think.

Americans tend to be impatient. We think if Buddhism has been here for a hundred and fifty years, of course it should be totally American. But that ignores the fact that in Asia it took centuries for Buddhism to become fully acculturated when it moved to a new cultural region. When it moved from India to China, it took at least 500 years before it became sinicized. And we’re expecting it to happen so quickly. It will take time.

What is distinctly American about United States Buddhism? It reflects democratic principles, the sense of “liberty and justice for all.” These are uniting principles within sanghas—equality in the best sense of the word. Understanding the way of the bodhisattva in an American context involves social engagement— things like hospice work, environmentalism, and prison ministries.

American Buddhism reflects the kinds of values that we find in our culture, but that’s not always positive. Americans are very much concerned with personal attainment; in American Buddhism, people often overemphasize the role of meditation above all else in Buddhism, even above being part of a Buddhist community. So American Buddhism might include people who self-identify as Buddhist but don’t really connect with the Buddhist community or sangha. And I find that problematic.

For example, if you look at me, I took refuge at a Theravada center, I talked regularly with the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and I had a personal Buddhist teacher in my Buddhist Studies mentor, Richard Robinson. But at Penn State, I never had a community to be a part of, so for the 36 years I was here, my meditation was solitary, my practice was alone; I was a sangha of one. For me, that was and is a very difficult circumstance, because you miss the sense of community that really helps to define the tradition. There’s no place where you can go and share with other Buddhists. There is something you don’t get that you might find in a Tibetan refugee community somewhere, or if you went for a weekend at, say, Zen Mountain Monastery and hung out and participated in the programs and sat in the zendo with everybody and just ate your meals together. And that is hard, because that sort of communal behavior is very reinforcing.

The Buddhist studies scholar Michael Carrithers wrote something that has always stuck in my mind. He said, “There is no Buddhism without the sangha and no sangha without the discipline.” So we could say we’re still wanting in American Buddhism because we really don’t have a full development of the sangha, even though it’s significantly better now than it was, say, in 1975, when I started studying it.

A full development of the sangha is not quite as easy as it sounds, because the word sangha is a lot more complicated than one would think. In the earliest tradition of Buddhism, when Buddha used the word sangha he meant monks. But eventually the sangha became known as the sangha of the four quarters and included everybody: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. So you could say we do have that here, but it’s not fully developed.

What would be the criteria for saying “Now the sangha is fully developed”?
We would need a more complete and structured Buddhist literacy. Buddhist tradition always emphasized that study and practice go together; they interpenetrate. And because they interpenetrate, the more you study and the more you understand the intricacy and nuances of Buddhist doctrine, the more sophisticated and deepened your practice will become. And as your practice deepens you gain ability to understand the doctrine in a more subtle way. So they work back and forth. I think in many Buddhist communities here we don’t have that. And we also would need more of a complete Buddhist practice that emphasized more than simply the meditative tradition.

Why do you think Americans’ focus on meditation is an overemphasis? When people talk about practicing the buddhadharma, I think they sometimes fail to realize that the buddhadharma is a comprehensive religious system. It doesn’t just mean sitting on your meditation cushion and focusing on your breath. Buddhism is a practice for your whole life.

When I took refuge in 1965, I didn’t know much about Buddhism, but I knew that I wanted to learn meditation. My teacher said, “If you want me to be your meditation teacher, you will have to sit for four hours a day and all day on Sunday.” I started doing that in 1965, and I did it until 1974, when I met Trungpa. I was doing what I thought was the best of the Buddhist tradition that I could find in America. But in my very first meeting with Trungpa, within 30 seconds he said, “I have something I need to tell you about your practice.” To this day I don’t know how he knew, because there was no way he could have known. But he said to me, “I know that you’ve been sitting for four hours a day. And I know that during those hours you basically withdraw from the world into the quiet of your head and deal with the issues that you think are Buddhist. I want you to stop sitting.” It knocked me on my rear.

He explained that I was very effectively shutting down the world. I thought I was becoming aware of my breathing, my body, and my feelings. That might have been true, but I was doing it in a complete vacuum that didn’t engage the part of me who was Buddhist within the world at all. He told me to take what I learned in my practice, to take Buddhist values, and to get off my cushion and out into the world. And he said to me, very distinctly, “You will occasionally lose faith. And when you lose faith, that’s when you need to sit down on the cushion again and make some space and reaffirm your commitment to the dharma.” That was a turning point for me.

I wish I could have understood and gotten involved earlier in what Stephen Batchelor has called “precepts as practice,” because the basic precepts for lay practitioners—not to kill, not to lie, not to steal, not to take intoxicants, and not to have illicit sex—are not something you just do for 30 minutes or an hour on your cushion. They are something you do all of the time as a Buddhist living in modern America. And if you take that into your life with the awareness that comes from your practice, then you’re getting a balanced and comprehensive Buddhist experience that I think provides a religious maturity and focus for your life. Put into that mix sometimes going to Buddhist communities where they do ritual. I think many people undervalue ritual. They don’t want to have anything to do with it. But if you do ritual properly, you are really creating a meditative focus. It preserves the tradition in a way that really comes into your heart.

Can you describe the progression of American Buddhism over the last four decades? What new trends are you seeing? When I first started, we were talking about American Buddhism and whether there was such a thing at all. That’s clearly developed to the point where we are starting to see a distinctly Western form of Buddhism. Now even that is almost passé. When I first started studying American Buddhism, we used the telephone. Today there is the internet. Buddhist communities everywhere in North America and the world are so networked that I started using the phrase “global Buddhist dialogue” to talk about a worldwide Buddhism rather than just an Asian, European, or American one. Western Buddhism is increasingly only one part of global Buddhism.

In the seventies and even into the eighties and early nineties, groups were distinctly one tradition or another. Today lots of communities combine bits and pieces of various Buddhist traditions into something that works for them. For example, you might have a group that picks up bits and pieces of doctrine and practice from Zen and also from Theravada. Some scholars have called this “hybridity.”

How did hybridity develop? By the end of the 20th century, we had every sectarian affiliation from every Buddhist tradition and every Buddhist ethnic culture all present in America. They invariably encountered each other, and as they did so they began to respect each other as sharing the Buddha’s tradition. There were some very explicit ecumenical groups that developed to do just that—like the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California or the American Buddhist Congress. And while they weren’t altogether successful, they at least started the ball rolling to get Buddhists to talk together.

There was a very explicit example of hybridity I saw about three years ago when I went back to Cleveland, Ohio, for a reunion of my college fraternity. When I first started studying American Buddhism, the Buddhist Churches of America organization— Jodo Shinshu Buddhism—was an organization that was predominantly Asian American. And there were a few Zen groups with centers in Cleveland that had little to do with the Asian American population. When I went back to Cleveland, I found that those two groups actually shared a temple together, called the Cleveland Buddhist Temple. In parentheses they call it the Zen Shin Sangha. When they list their denomination, they say “Japanese Zen/Shin Buddhism.” The main teacher is Japanese and is affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America. So they are beginning to talk together. And as a result, hybridity is suggesting to Buddhists that even though they have their own distinct sectarian affiliation, Zen Buddhists aren’t necessarily totally separate from Shin Buddhists and they can learn something from each other and share as Buddhists, even though their sectarian affiliation, ethnicity, and membership may be different. As a result Buddhists are learning more and more about each other.

As American Buddhism develops, do you see a tension between traditions maintaining the integrity of their lineages and this movement toward hybridity? We all should remember that one of the three marks of existence is impermanence. Everything is changing all the time. If you look at the history of the development of Buddhism from early India on, you find that in the early traditions, sometimes known collectively as Nikaya Buddhism, there were as many as 18 different sects. So there were a lot of different ideas about what Buddhism was. Why? Because as Buddhism moved from community to community, teachers lived in different areas where the customs were different: people dressed differently; they acted differently; they ate differently; and they thought differently. And so some of these sects that developed reflected not so much a doctrinal difference between Buddhist communities (although that was the case too sometimes) as they reflected differing lifestyles and values in different communities. And that’s why Buddhists split off. Of course out of all those 18 Nikaya sects, only one survives today—Theravada. But the same could be true with Mahayana. When Mahayana developed, it split up into other sects too. Obviously the sects that survived into the modern world are very resilient. When they came to the United States, it was certainly not unreasonable to think that they would change again. It may be that in this coming century we will see some sects that become distinctly North American.

When you pour these lineages that have come from such different histories and backgrounds into an American melting pot, isn’t there a risk that they will get fused into a lump? Isn’t there some integrity in maintaining the distinctiveness? In a personal way, I would like to see the integrity of the individual traditions maintained, but I also understand that we need to consider what, after all, is the point of Buddhism—to eliminate human suffering. And I think if some of these traditions come together in a way that lead people to realization, that makes them whole human beings, that enables them to escape from suffering, that enables them to factor out of the cycle of samsara [if they are Theravadins] or [if they are Mahayanists] to maintain their involvement as bodhisattvas until all beings are saved, then I think that would be valuable. What sometimes gets lost in various debates is that the point of Buddhism is to bring all people out of suffering and to bring them to realization.

What is the importance of academic Buddhist studies for the practice of Buddhism? The early Buddhist tradition generally identified two kinds of monks. One was called the vipassana dhura monk. These were monks that were basically meditating monks; they pretty much lived and wandered in the forest. And then there was another kind called the gantha dhura monk. Gantha dura means “the vocation of books.” These were literate monks who generally tended to gravitate more toward villages and settled areas. You might consider them scholar-monks rather than practitioner-monks. In many respects, they were the individuals who conveyed the Buddhist tradition to the laity in the villages. And when Buddhists were asked which of the two was most important, surprisingly it was the vocation of books that was more important, because the presumption was if the tradition died out there would be no meditation and there would be no monks.

So then fast-forward to the Western world. The United States has never been a very monastic culture, even in other religious traditions. Americans tend not to be willing to renounce the world, and there are very few monks and nuns now in modern America. So who fulfills that role of scholar-monks for practitioners and potential practitioners? I’ve argued since the early nineties that it’s scholar-practitioners who fulfill that role, because they have a personal commitment to the tradition. They have a practice in the tradition, but they also have the intellectual knowledge that comes from having gotten a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies.

In 1978 you referred to “two Buddhisms”—one practiced in “American convert Buddhist communities” and the other in Asian immigrant communities. Do you still see it that way? When I first coined the “two Buddhisms” term, it was very accurate; now it’s not. A young scholar, Jeff Wilson, recently pointed out that we haven’t really studied the differences in American Buddhist communities based on their locations. Rural Buddhists in North Carolina who are Zen practitioners might be very different from Zen practitioners in San Francisco. It’s absolutely true, and nobody has really investigated that. About a year ago, when he first gave a paper on this idea, which he calls “regionalism,” I said to him, I think you’re dead-on right, but what happens ten years down the road? What with Facebook and YouTube and Skype, maybe people in New York City are going to be savvier about rural Buddhism than they are now, and people living in Iowa are going to understand big-city people a lot differently than they do now. Regionalism may become passé. And I related this to my “two Buddhism” theory, because this is what has happened with it.

Would you say, then, that convert Buddhists have something to learn from Asian immigrant Buddhist communities? Yes. As opposed to the American convert communities, who are cherry-picking the meditation parts or the parts that they think are going to get them enlightened quickly, the Asian immigrant communities better understand that this is a practice we do as part of our life experience. It’s a practice we share with our children. It’s a practice we take with us out of the temple. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meditate; it means we need to understand the context in which to do it in consonance with the tradition that we’ve chosen and the lineage that we’ve followed. And this isn’t suggesting that all convert Buddhists should immediately jump into what have traditionally been Asian sectarian affiliations. It means that you make a good decision about what works for you, but then you do it in a full and comprehensive way.

Linda Heuman is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Photography by Andrew Dunheimer

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Chill's picture

"So American Buddhism might include people who self-identify as Buddhist but don’t really connect with the Buddhist community or sangha. And I find that problematic."

We shouldn't be so hard on ourselves. This can be said about most Buddhists around the world. I look at the Taiwanese side of my family, all of whom identify as Buddhist. Though they identify as Pure Land, they neither sit or chant with, nor belong to any particular temple. Conversely, they will stop at any temple they see: Pure Land, Zen, Tibetan, Thai, and pray and light incense. They simply don't feel the need to belong in the sense that we do in the west.

ph0kin's picture

This was a great article to read. Professor Prebish has articulated a lot of insights that I've come to realize in my experiences with various charms, but was only dimly aware of. I live somewhere that has a fairly good variety of sanghas of various sects and branches, but definitely things have evolved only so much. Convert communities are still cherry-picking Buddhist teachings to suit their often "protestant" view of the world, while the immigrant communities hum along to a different tune.

I've been to a mix of both convert (mostly Zen) communities and Asian ones mostly centered around Pure Land Buddhism or Lotus Sutra teachings. I really wanted to follow Zen more, but in the end I found the Asian communities more "complete" somehow because, as Professor Pebish stated, the practices and teachings fit within a larger Buddhist context. Somehow the whole thing feels more complete. It may disappoint some who don't like the old "churchy" kind of feel, but if you fast-forward 20 years or so, you begin to see the difference. As others have said, existing convert communities and even some well-known teachers have obvious personality issues, and the whole thing just seems "half-baked".

There's a lot more to Buddhism than lay-meditation practice, and it can't be explained easily in words. It's just one of those things you have to immerse in long enough to see. But I digress.

The story about Trungpa was also quite intriguing. I'd be curious to know how he was able to perceive Prebish's problem too. But he had a good point: there's a time for meditation or intense practice, and there's a time to engage the world.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism opens the door for many Americans to alternatives to the Judeo-Christian belief system. Especially in times of social turmoil and war, Buddhism offers more solid footing in the reality of causes people create and the effects they engender.

Migwell's picture

American Buddhism, what’s for?
All we need is maybe “modern and lay” Buddhism, and that’s all.
Sorry for this reaction, but I’m not American. You have blues, rock & roll, rodeo and “country” way of life; there’re all American.
But Dharma Buddhism is for the whole humanity.

laurad's picture

Mr Prebish, Warm thanks! I'd like to respond to your point that a teacher told you to sit 4 hours/day while another advised that you move from the cushion into the world.

As self-reliance is key to the endeavour, I am interested rather in how wisdom arises from one's intelligent engagement with the path factors. This is as different for everybody now as it was in the Buddha's day, as all the stories suggest.

I think that the development of any kind of Buddhism, American, Australian or secular, should place self-reliance at its heart. Did not the Buddha say, 'No two go as one?' This might go some way to counteract the very natural but potentially dangerous tendency of human beings to gather into groups and project wisdom onto those perceived as special, whether scholar-monks or scholar-practitioners.

I think it is important not to substitute one elite for another, but rather accept that while scholarship is vital to the enduring life and vitality of Buddhism wherever it arises, how wisdom arises in any one human being is as much a mystery as ever, and should remain so.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that wisdom can't be taught. This places responsibility for the endeavour smack-bang in the heart and mind of the practitioner and mitigates against any unwholesome and problematic reliance on others conceived as better, superior, or wiser which must be deleterious to the path. Wisdom grows then like a beautiful flower in the brightest PhD, as in the dirtiest garbage collector.

John Haspel's picture

As an overall scholarly look at “American” and other culturally-influenced Buddhist schools an important point is missed in the desire to actually define yet another type of Buddhism. Of course it is obvious that all of the later-developed schools developed their own form of “Buddhism.” A scholarly study is not needed to see the significant embellishments that have been attached to the original teachings of the Buddha.

Mr. Prebish states “as Buddhism moved from community to community, teachers lived in different areas where the customs were different: people dressed differently; they acted differently; they ate differently; and they thought differently. And so some of these sects that developed reflected not so much a doctrinal difference between Buddhist communities (although that was the case too sometimes) as they reflected differing lifestyles and values in different communities. And that’s why Buddhists split off.”

Buddhists split off from the original teachings because of the cultural differences that had conditioned these early individuals and groups. From their conditioned view, the original teachings of the Buddha were adapted to accommodate these conditioned views. Maintaining integrity with the Buddha’s teachings was lost to the need to maintain a culturally and individually influenced conditioned view of Buddhism. Significant doctrinal differences have certainly ensued.

This was the beginning of the “minimizing” of the importance of the original teachings of the Buddha and a disregard for the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Many of the later-developed schools, while claiming a lineage to the Buddha, will dismiss his teachings as archaic. Right View does not accommodate conditioned views. Right View as one factor of the cohesive Eightfold Path leads to the development of insight into views that would create more “I” making.

These accommodations create clinging to a view that is itself a separation from the Buddha’s teaching leading to a continuing embellishment to the Dhamma.

The later-developed schools of Buddhism have had a significant impact on the well-being of people in the cultures which Buddhism developed but the cultural and individual impact has clouded and in many instances obliterated a teaching that could bring the Buddha’s stated purpose, the end of suffering.

Westerners hoping to develop an understanding of the teachings of the Buddha have had to develop that understanding through the culturally and individual views foreign to the more pragmatic western mind. This has made a teaching meant for all human beings to access and understand clouded with culturally and individually influenced dogma, ritual, empowerments and special practices, and special lineages, never taught by the Buddha.

Mr. Prebish’s own experience mirrors the experience of most “Buddhist” practitioners today. There appeared to be great legitimacy in his first teacher who instructed him to meditate for four hours every day and all day on Sunday. He believed this was “Buddhist” teachings. Then he encountered Mr. Trungpa and was told to stop meditating. This he believed was “Buddhist” teachings.

If Mr. Prebish had encountered a teacher grounded in the original teachings, free of cultural influences or their own confusion, he would have learned the importance of developing a meditation practice within the framework of the Eightfold Path.

Mr. Prebish and many others could avoid the confusion of these culturally and individually embellished teachings by avoiding the nearly limitless contradictions in modern Buddhism and study and practice the Dhamma as presented by the Buddha. Modern Buddhism is a thicket of views and the practice of taking bits of this school and mixing with bits of that school may create an interesting scholarly study, and an always accommodating “Buddhism,” but has done little in developing unbinding.

If “American Buddhism” is to fulfill its stated purpose, Americans would do well use the innate pragmatism inherent in western culture and develop an understanding based on the original teachings of the Buddha and avoid the need for using “Buddhist” practice for continual “I” making.

The Four Noble Truths including the path to liberation and freedom, the Eightfold Path, is still available, free of cultural and individual influences. “Buddhism” does not need to be democratized or Americanized to be effective for Americans. It simply needs to be engaged with as presented.

John Haspel

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism accords with the times. If not, it ossifies into dead religiosity.

John Haspel's picture

Dear Dominic,

Categorizing the direct teachings of the Buddha as “ossified dead religiosity” does not diminish or negate the Buddha’s teachings in any manner. Categorizing the original teachings of the Buddha in this manner certainly brings into question the legitimacy of any practice that labels itself “Buddhist” but holds such disdain and dismissiveness on the teachings that Buddhism is founded on.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Decline of Buddhism in India set in during the later Gupta era and under the Pala Empire. Chinese monks traveling through the region between the 5th and 8th centuries CE...speak of a decline of the Buddhist sangha. Decline the 12th century CE. By that time, Buddhism had become especially vulnerable...because it lacked strong roots in society as most of its adherents were ascetic communities."
Buddhism itself undergoes the 4 conditions of origin, maturity, decline and extinction (AKA birth, aging, illness and death), exacerbated by practitioners distancing themselves from the realities of their society.

Rocket's picture

Dominic finally you said something that makes sense to me.

Russosharon's picture

Well, the Buddha had a sangha of one. Although your article is thought-provoking, in my experience each sangha I've experienced has some real immaturity and personality issues going on within it. Personally, I am much more comfortable being a sangha of one and studying Buddhism on my own. I strongly disagree that we need to put more "institutional" structure around the practice of Buddhism. In my opinion, this is where so many religions have gone wrong: the institutions become more important than the practice of a particular path. Once that happens, the path is wrong. I see Buddhism as a quite solitary path, one that can be travelled only on one's own. And of course, Buddhism is much more than "sitting." If you don't practice mindfulness and lovingkindness in your everyday life and actions, then you are wasting your time sitting! Thank you for the article!

baptistamc's picture

I couldn't agree more!

maryft's picture

Thank you for your words. I don't call myself a Buddhist, because -ists and -isms seem to me to imply dogma and institutional structure which, as you say, so easily begin to seem more important than compassion and lovingkindness. If anyone is, Thich Nhat Hanh is my teacher. He, too, emphasizes the paramount importance of participating in a sangha, and my heart always answers, "The world is my sangha whether it knows it or not." Before I die, I hope to be fully at peace with this response ... or have changed it.

D. Anderson's picture

Thanks to all for the article and discussions which resonate with me. I participate in three Sangas in the Denver/Boulder area. Two of them have Dharma teachers but in the third the Dharma teachings are given by the members on a voluntary rotating basis so I can readily relate to "immaturity and personality issues" in this third Sanga; a group within the UU Church to which I belong. Because the Sanga is part of my church I have been reluctant to abandon it in favor of the other two and I am trying to figure out how to strengthen it and increase attendance. A regular competent Dharma teacher would be great but the "catch 22" is that the group is small and funding a teacher via a Dana Bowl impractical. I would love to hear suggestions from any of you wise fellow Buddhists.

Janejenn's picture

I am part of an explicitly leaderless and nameless sangha in Narberth, Pa ( suburb of Phila). Our teachers are our books. We choose a book, by consensus, to read aloud during the group meeting. (Some choices have been works by Pema Chodren, Norman Fisher, Thich Naht Hanh, Joseph Goldstein) It might take us 6 months to a year to finish one book in this way. Someone reads aloud for maybe 10-15 min. We determine when to pause by consensus. We then have a rich discussion sparked by the reading. So both the book and each person's personal response to it are our teachers. A deep feeling of connection has arisen in the group from these discussions. The format is : 30 min of meditation, 45 min of reading and discussion, 15 min of meditation. This works very well for us. There are several very regular attendees, and some who come on an occasional basis. We welcome people of all levels of knowledge and commitment. For me, this group is the center of my life and practice, and I'm so grateful for it. I hope this gives you some useful ideas. Good luck!

oliverhow's picture

Bravo, love this post, thank you..... richard

jjwalker7730's picture

Greetings, I would like to introduce myself and look forward to sharing in the blog. Regarding Buddhism, I was honored by my Sifu and Zen Masters for their generous allowances for our lack of training in the west. I am a 72 year old ready to put out a collection of free practices and Buddhist teachings as used at the Internal School since 1968, please share these and go to (type or paste at the top of the web page, not in a search box for now).
The emphasis of the practice is achieving singleness of mind thru the cultivation of the force (chi). This factor is raised to a level of mind and body harmony on account of the directive intention exercised during the practice. It is thru this that the Master Hand moves, that creative quality when the art is not a mere display of technical skill patiently learned under the tutorship of a good master, but an original and creative intelligence.
There is a section on practices for wounded veterans and as a former peacetime marine I want to share these.
My credentials are on this site.
Jim Walker, (Son Hae)
Dharma Master, Il Bung Chan Buddhist Order,
Martial Arts Master, Korean National Martial Arts Order
Patriarchal successor of Dr Seo, Kyung-bo, 76th Zen Patriarch)

petert's picture

Sincere thanks. Very much appreciate the framework from which you are approaching this earliest history and analysis of American Buddhism, and the value you have underscored for the role of the scholar-practitioner. Your responses to the comments above have provided added dimensions to the interview which had always been very present for me during my academic study and later engaged practice. I had not been aware that Roger Corless had passed away, he was my thesis adviser but we lost touch when he moved -- what a great perspective he provided and I will always be thankful for his insistence that I practice as a requirement for understanding what I was studying academically. A few years later as a practitioner I actively sought teachers who blended feminist perspective with that of multiple lineages. For some a single lineage is the path, for others a broader approach may prove more fruitful.

I'm resonating also with the comments above regarding the global aspect to Buddhism's expansion (Americas North and South), and being as inclusive as we can be in our approach to study and practice (class, ethnicity, gender, ability). As I age that latter has become absolutely apparent to me!

jackelope65's picture

My 5 year old grandson hurt himself at preschool. When offered medication, he remarked: " Meditate not medicate. " He is a young American Buddhist. I am a physician and I fully agree with him. Westerners too long have been seeking magic pills. When we eat, exercise, meditate, and maintain mindfulness, the need for magic potions will be greatly reduced and Buddhism may flourish. However, as he matures I am sure his practice will develop and although respecting older traditions, it will grow to be meaningful in his own culture.

Charles Prebish's picture

I don't know of any sanghas that work with young war veterans, but I will certainly try to find out, and if I learn anything, I'll post it here. Thanks for pointing this out, as I haven't seen this issue discussed anywhere else.

Philip Ryan's picture

The Coming Home Project with Dr. Joseph Bobrow, Roshi is one organization doing this kind of work.

Anonysattva's picture

I greatly appreciate your answer! It sounds from your note as though we "Dharma brats" have got the vital support of our elders in making a truly inclusive Buddhism. Perhaps the sitting-position issue is merely a matter of mistaking the finger for the moon, as it were, on the part of people like the assistant you mentioned.

Ableism (or "disablism" as it is frequently called in the UK) is a vitally important issue now that we have got a generation of quite young war veterans (and Dharmacakras appearing on military grave markers). Do you know of any sanghas which work to address the special needs of the severely traumatized? If you have not got an answer off the top of your head, that is perfectly fine and I can talk to my old pal Google! It just seems that prison ministries have been of such benefit that groups such as the Buddhist Peace Fellowship might have a way to address the spiritual needs of survivors of war and other severe traumas, which is something that secular psychotherapy has yet to address. (What a society, in which there is stigma for having a mood disorder, including PTSD, and then there is a stigma for seeking help! Double-bind or what?)

108 bows, Anony (my area is severely homophobic and I don't wish to "out" myself or bring stigma upon my sangha by my presence in it)

Charles Prebish's picture

Thanks for your wonderful and utterly important note. In my short blog I wasn't able to address any of the issues you mentioned in much detail. I do, however, write about them in my memoir entitled "An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer" (Sumeru Press, 2011).

I think that the "institutionalized sexism" you mentioned is disappearing, albeit not rapidly enough, amongst Buddhist practitioners and scholars alike. I suspect there are just as many authorized female Buddhist teachers in North America today as males, and the number of brilliant women scholars of Buddhism has risen rapidly over the past decades. Of course Jan Nattier is an absolutely magnificent scholar, and I have frequently suggested that she may be the most brilliant Buddhist mind of the past half-century, but she is not the only great female Buddhist scholar out there. We cannot and should not omit acknowledging women like Jackie Stone, Anne Klein, Jan Willis, Judith Simmer-Brown, Collett Cox and a host of others. Nor should we ignore Rita Gross' important book "Buddhism After Patriarchy."

Again, I think heterosexism is also disappearing. Although I see heterosexism still prevalent in the sanghas I visit, it is rapidly becoming absent in the community of scholar-practitioners (and hopefully, they will help shape the future of American sanghas). Through the work of my old friend Roger Corless (who died recently), Jose Cabezon, Jeffrey Hopkins and others, a whole new literature is emerging that supports what they routinely call the "Queer Sangha." I can only hope that learning will overcome prejudice.

As a former "jock" I sympathize with your concern regarding sitting positions. After nearly a half-century of sitting, even the Burmese style is difficult for me because of old injuries and this often leads to funny, but encouraging situations. Once, while doing a weekend retreat at Zen Mountain Monastery on precepts for John Daido Loori, Roshi, one of his sangha members asked if I would like to sit with them in the Zendo. I said "sure," and then the person asked if I sat with my hands in the "cosmic mudra." I said, "No," and that my formal training was in the Theravada tradition known as satipatthana. The person immediately got upset, and said they would have to check with Roshi to see if that was OK. Shortly afterwards the person returned, blushed, and said "I asked Roshi if it was OK, and he said, he didn't care HOW I sat, and that his sangha should respect all traditions and styles." I presume that includes using I sometimes now do.

The last part of your posting is difficult because training takes time. The new, young, lay-ordained practitioners, won't always be young. Over time, they will hopefully mature into well trained, highly knowledgeable practitioners and teachers. Of course this means being trained properly by an now aging group on North American teachers. This is why I have argued, on the scholarly side, for preserving the teachings, memoirs, and reflections of brilliant scholar-practitioners such as Bob Thurman, Jeffrey Hopkins, Reggie Ray, Ken Tanaka and others. We have recently lost quite a significant number of older scholar-practitioners like Frank Cook and Leslie Kawamura, and the process will continue. By reading the works and reflections of current scholar-practitioners, new teachers will develop the same sort of Buddhist literacy previously maintained by monks and nuns in the monastic tradition. On the practical side, it is important to learn from old masters as well. I would hope that the various lineages in American Buddhist traditions are aware of this dilemma, and that aging teachers will work diligently to impart the proper training to the female and male Dharma heirs. Hopefully, in time, greed, hatred, and delusion will be replaced by wisdom and compassion.

To be sure, I think your wonderful note is a step in promoting the kind of awareness that is necessary for American Buddhism to grow and mature properly.

katemack's picture

Very interesting. I enjoyed my stay two years at the Zen Mountain Monastery but have not been back because I have physical disabilities that don't allow me to sit "properly". I need a small discrete block under my left knee to support a pretty serious injury and that was just not on. I made it through the weekend (and loved it!) but have always felt I couldn't partake any more until I was "fixed" or at least able to work within their very rigid definitions. For me, this has always felt like a loss because the Monastery is the closest place I have for a sangha and I would love to make it a more integral part of my life; however ... the bottom line is I'm not physically able to sit in the Zendo.

chujoe's picture

I don't speak for the sang, but I'm a student at ZMM and many people routinely sit in chairs, on benches, and, I think, with the sort of supports you speak of. Not sure when you were at ZMM, but I think you would find welcoming accommodation for your particular physical needs.

katemack's picture

I think it was 3 years ago that I was there. I did try to use the chairs but the nature of my injury makes the chair even more agonizing than sitting on the floor. At the time, the half yoga block supporting my left knee was what enabled me to sit and it was made very clear to me that I couldn't take that into the zendo with me. It's a moot point now. Unfortunately, my injury has worsened over the intervening years and navigating the stairs to the zendo would probably do me in.

I'm not upset or bitter about any of this. I'm grateful for the time I had to spend in the monastery. I would trade it for nothing. I felt welcomed and supported and I cherish my memories of the time I spent there.

maryft's picture

Just thought I'd mention: Two years ago I attended a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh (and about 1000 other people), and one of the first things he said when introducing meditation was to invite us all to sit in the full lotus position, the half-lotus position, or the chrysanthemum position -- by which he meant however we would be comfortable. I was grateful for his generosity.

Anonysattva's picture

Three aspects of an emerging younger Buddhism not discussed in this article are the following:

1. Women are increasingly not content to let our Buddhism be defined by men. In the 2,500 years in which you gentlemen, no disrespect, have held the top hierarchical and academic positions and those of greatest visibilities, how many Richard Bakers have we had -- how many Chogyam Trungpas have we had -- whose serial illicit sexual affairs (with respect again, this happens in academe too) never see the light of day because women are culturally shamed into thinking our participation happened in a vacuum? It doesn't. As long as our religion remains hierarchical, and bound to many world cultures steeped in institutionalized sexism, men with power will abuse it -- and the Darlene Cohens and Jan Nattiers of the practice and academic sanghas will remain undervalued.

2. Along with sexism, heterosexism remains a disturbing aspect of many small and large sanghas. The baby boomers at Shambhala Press will happily publish a fond biography of Issan Tommy Dorsey, because he was a genuinely awesome guy who is conveniently dead. But too many teachers, of whatever vehicle or sect, get to His Holiness's citation of medieval Tibetan prohibitions and stop there. The coming century needs to take a hard look at why Dharma and rainbow are inseparable.

3. Finally, ableism has got to go. Sitting positions other than some variant of lotus or Burmese are explicitly devalued by more than one teacher I have personally sat with; persons with movement disabilities get a grudging, "Well, I guess we have a chair in the back" or are enjoined not to let wheelchair tires mark the dharma hall's wooden floor. So much second-hand embarrassment on Sunim's behalf that day! Similarly, I have had friends enjoined to stop psychiatric medications because they must be "making [them] hallucinate," particularly with regard to points one and two above. (I sincerely hope that diabetics don't get this too.) This is a profound, to quote George W. Bush, misunderestimation of the actual help provided to PTSD sufferers, who might otherwise be suffering terrifying flashbacks from a car backfiring outside the dharma hall. More, it is not simply a prejudice like the other items I have outlined here; it is a profound misprision of the role of the practice teacher. If I want to pass my koan, I probably won't run it past my rheumatologist. (Yes, younguns have those too.) Likewise, if I want medical advice, I will humbly skip that provided by my elders in the sangha.

Dr. Prebish, would you kindly comment as to how younger lay-ordained practitioners, who by definition do not have the same length or type of practice as our monastic elders, may eliminate these three categories of the poison of ignorance in our sanghas as the century evolves?

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhisms based on sutras that deny the enlightenment of women (that they too are Buddhas) are problematic. Ditto those that believe enlightenment is comprehensible to only members of certain elite classes. Your last issue is addressed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990 (amended in 2008), at least in this country. Equal access is a right not a privilege.

awalts's picture

As a "sangha of one" for the most part, I have been more careful in mediatating (given lack of personal instruction) than in trying to follow my own understanding of the precepts and of how to bring compassion and an understanding of reality into my daily life. So I found it very thought-provoking to consider the need for collective or institutional efforts to interpret precepts for modern life. My gratitude to Prof. Prebish and others for this discussion. What strikes me here are 2 related things. First, as a non-institutional person who takes refuge in the 3 jewels, I am interested in what others have to say about the precepts but I can't see treating these interpretations as authoritative. Perhaps this is a bit of American individualism, but it is influenced by my understanding that following precepts is part of the scaffolding that holds steady a renegade heart and mind so they can be released in the precise discipline of one-pointedness combined with insight. Unless the ethics are deeply mine, they won't help tame me. Second (and I hope this isn't apples and oranges), I am deeply moved by Shantideva's explanation of how the 6 perfections are intentions more than actions (summarized in Bodhicharyavatara ch 5 verse 18: "Therefore I will take in hand/ And well protect this mind of mine./ What use to me are many disciplines, / If I can't guard and discipline my mind?). Isn't this also true of precepts? I could certainly benefit from guidance, but taking precepts in a way that it focused mainly on word and deed means I would need to become a scholastic parser of nuanced intellectual distinctions. The same basic precepts, taken as intentions to avoid specific kinds of injury to myself and others, seem like they're a lot more effective in supporting mindfulness in the moment because then I must stay alive to the subtle implications that moment embodies (rather than imposing prepackaged, learned interpretations that start to age as soon as they've been stated).

Charles Prebish's picture

Thank you for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I think it states very well precisely why we must continually evaluate both the precepts and our intentions as we act in a world that is constantly changing. And of course it really does drive home the notion that our mindfulness practices (whatever the specifics may be) and our efforts to become the precepts, rather than just follow them, truly interpenetrate. Since I too live mostly as a "sangha of one," I especially appreciate your kind thoughts.

awalts's picture

Thank you for your very kind and encouraging response. As I continue to think about this topic, I can also see an important and beautiful interpenetration between collective efforts to rearticulate and carry out the precepts for this time (Thich Nhat Hanh's work comes to mind); and of personal efforts to enact them in this very moment, with this very body, voice and mind. I am grateful to be an American Buddhist, with access to the thinking of such diverse schools of Buddhist thought, precisely because this varierty does so much to help me triangulate and find my own heartfelt enactment of truth and compassion. Thinking about it this way means that I can be less hung up about the collective authority to define right and wrong (my resistance to manipulative ethics); and more open to these collective statements as mapping out the shared moral experience of a given sangha. Since we all travel together in the end, any guidepost along the way is worth respectful consideration.

mahabarbara's picture

I came here from the "Precepts as Practice" article, and I would like to hear some specific examples of what precepts ought to be changed. The precepts seem to me to be general enough to accommodate themselves to changes in culture without having to revise them. So I'm baffled as to what Prebish is talking about.

Also I find it odd that the idea of practicing the Precepts is attributed to Stephen Batchelor. He is at least a couple of millennia behind the originator of that idea. Of course the precepts are to be practiced moment to moment. Whoever said otherwise?

Charles Prebish's picture

I did not suggest that precepts should be changed, but rather that we need new commentaries which explain how the existing precepts can be applied to modern circumstances in the West. With changing times, and new issues in ethics (such as bio-ethical issues not considered in ancient times) coming to the forefront, we simply need to consider how we can manifest the existing precepts in a new context.

I also did not say that Stephen Batchelor was the first to suggest that we should practice the precepts. That would be rather silly. Rather, in the midst of the West's overwhelming focus on, and interest in, meditative practice as the primary function for convert Buddhists, he suggested that we should not overlook practicing the precepts...which is something we do all the time. I have been visiting North American Buddhist centers for more than forty years, and alas, in many of them, all I hear is talk about meditation, and of course its practice. Sometimes precepts are never even mentioned.

I appreciate your comments, but I think you have misunderstood what I said.

mahabarbara's picture

Again, please provide an example of what you are talking about. How are the traditional precepts not applicable to 21st century life? What is the issue? I honestly don't see it.

Some years ago I received Precepts instruction from my teacher in preparation for Jukai, and my class had some great discussions. about practicing the Precepts in our lives, and at no time did we ever say, well, that's archaic. I don't see how that applies. And after all this time it's simply never been a problem. The context you are talking about already exists; it doesn't need to be created.

Perhaps this is a sectarian issue. Several American Zen teachers have written extensively about the Precepts in contemporary Western life. Two books that pop into my head are Aitken's Mind of Clover and Andersen's Being Upright, but there are others. Perhaps western Zen is approaching the Precepts in some unique way, but I've had discussions about the Precepts with people who practice in other schools, and I assure you they are alive and vitally important in the lives of many Western Buddhist.

I realize many people interested in Buddhism in the West often are exposed only to a very watered-down version. They aren't just missing the Precepts; they are also missing the Perfections and big chunks of the Eightfold Path and many other things. The larger issue is that too much of western Buddhism is diluting itself to be more palatable to the western cultural palate. But since part of the practice is to show you the limitations of your own cultural conditioning so you can break out of it, too much of that is a big mistake, IMO.

And my issue with Batchelor is that he has contributed to the dilution of the dharma in many respects. He's part of the problem, as far as I'm concerned.

poetess1966's picture

It's NOT about saying the Precepts are archaic. But what we need is a commentary on how they relate to modern day problems, like the current political election for example. Or how they relate to things like the Occupy Movement or to dealing with a horrible, angry Boss. It is nothing more than applying them to today's world, but the Commentaries we have are about applying them to the times in which they were written. It's not any different than a Christian book on what the Mosaic Law means today or Jewish Commentary on the way the Torah should be practiced in modern times. What does it mean to refrain from Sexual Misconduct in a world of divorce and co-habitation? What does it mean to refrain from intoxicants in today's medicine with it's narcotic pain pills or antihistamines? That's what Mr. Prebish was talking about.

Sam Mowe's picture

I don't think anybody is saying that the precepts are archaic and need to be modified. What Prof. Prebish says in his post is that we need new commentaries on the traditional precepts because there are ethical dilemmas in modern times that our ancestors couldn't possibly have predicted. Prebish mentioned bio-ethical issues, for example.

Actually, with you mentioning Mind of Clover and Being Upright, it appears that you and Prebish agree that contemporary commentary on traditional precepts is a healthy thing.

oliverhow's picture

Thanks, Sam, very clear.

Charles Prebish's picture

Absolutely! Thanks Sam, for your comment. Additionally, I think that scholar-practitioners, who are academically schooled in the Buddhist tradition while maintaining their own personal practice of Buddhism, can add much to this dialogue. That will be the topic of next week's guest blog. Many of the invitations I receive to do Dharma talks and seminars focus on explaining precepts in a comprehensive way for modern American Buddhists. One of my most memorable seminars was doing a weekend retreat on precepts for John Daido Loori Roshi at Zen Mountain Monastery just before he did a Jukai ceremony.

phreest's picture

This comes a bit late, but I totally agree. A PhD in philosophy, (AOC phenomenology), I studied Western philosophy to find a parallel with earlier studies in Eastern philosophy. Only cosmetic similarities presented themselves as the East had an integrative approach perhaps comparable to existentialist psychology and few other aspects of Western reflection on metaphysics. As I teach segments in Buddhism now, after 17 years of trying different approaches that seemed to cast Buddhism as too exotic for materialist cultures, I start with the 4 noble truths, eight-fold path, and paramitas as a method of discussing ethical paths to create more harmonious communities.

For Americans, the issue seems to be functional approaches that enrich daily life. The utility of philosophy comes to the fore whether Eastern or Western. Thus, even though it sounds contrary, presenting the precepts as a way to cultivate mindfulness (qua its value as a skill; e.g., skillful action) appeals to so many of my young students growing up in a materialist, violent, ADHD world that values instant gratification. In feedback, students ask for more "practical wisdom" from the East.

Chill's picture

Realizing this is an old post, I'm still curious why a disorder like ADHD is lumped with 'materialist,' 'violent,' and 'instant gratification,' and the negative connotations they carry.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You bring up a salient point regarding American acceptance of Buddhism. Our philosophical/religious foundation is Protestant pragmatism. If the shoe fits, we wear it, or at least the parts of it we can utilize. But as far as the eternal cycle of life and death, karma, the work of the bodhisattva amongst the suffering masses goes...fuggedaboutit.

Sareen's picture

I agree that modern interpretations of the precepts are helpful. Many buddhist communities are struggling with ethical issues raised within their own communities by the actions of their own teachers and students due to a lack of clarity about how to apply the precepts. The problems coming up are naturally stimulating more focus on ethics and precepts.

We often hear critiques of our western lay emphasis on meditation over other aspects of practice. To balance these comments, I think this emphasis is a powerful reflection of westerners capacity for effort. People are working, having families and making significant progress on the path. Let's celebrate our efforts and the results they are bringing for ourselves, our families and our communities!

Dominic Gomez's picture

Methinks American discomfort with precepts stems from negative experiences with Commandments. Rather than strict codes of moral conduct precepts can be seen more as common sense guides for the pursuit of happiness, not just for oneself but also for the sake of others.

oliverhow's picture

You've hit the nail right on the head here!

mahabarbara's picture

I believe every commentary on the Precepts I have ever heard or read has begun with the admonition "These are not like the Ten Commandments ..." If students are not being taught this, then the fault lies with whoever is teaching.

My first teacher, the late John Daido Loori, said, "To practice the Precepts is to be in harmony with your life and the universe. To practice the Precepts means to be conscious of what they are about—not just on the surface, but on many levels, plummeting the depths of the Precepts. It means being deeply honest with yourself." (

Part of the problem may be that Precepts practice may be a bit much for someone who just walked through the door, so it's not uncommon for teachers to hold back the Precepts until the student has some inkling of what practice really means. And it's sadly the case that the West is well stocked with dharma dilettantes who never get past the surface. But again, most of the problem is that people aren't being taught properly. That's a much bigger issue than just the Precepts.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The teachings embedded in cultures of those new to Buddhism should be taken into account. People carry baggage from their former religions whether they are conscious of it or not. I've found it effective to take this into consideration when I discuss Buddhism with others. Some notions segue seamlessly with the Law, others so foreign they need to be addressed directly.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism is sometimes called the 84,000 teachings. That many sutras is bound to lead to that many interpretations (schools or sects) of the one original Law, i.e. vehicle.

678sonia's picture

Being Hindu born, Indo pakistanwar Hindu killed Muslims ,after partition lived with Sikh community & their teaching & practice of compassionate feeding both Hindu & Muslim in war. Vedanta & Upanishads practice ,Budha gave a practical approach with mindfulness & of heart sutra. married to a christian , adopted & absorbed christian Jesus teaching. Immigrated 30 years ago develop healthy ego. Now I am learning Zen of different establishment. Arya Samge education in India & Hindu scripture are my cultural back ground .Each cell of my body is craving for all sects of Budhism to come together, so that American Budhism with diverse teaching will affect their community. Tricyle fill all by its teaching & mail.
At present Chan , Korean , Japanese zen centers have different methods to reach the self. I they can unite once a year to broadcast Budha's teaching to all America wether south or north.
Thank you.