In the current issue of the quarterly American Buddhist magazine Tricycle, contributing editor and former Zen monk Clark Strand makes a provocative claim: that American Buddhism must “change or die.”

American converts to Buddhism have focused on spiritual practice to the exclusion of concerns like creating rituals and passing along the tradition to the next generation. “With few exceptions, Buddhism is not being passed down in families by members of the convert community,” he writes in his article, “Dharma Family Values.”

Although Strand praises the American Buddhist group Soka Gakkai International for better incorporating children and families into their practice of Buddhism, he writes that even that group “still hasn’t solved the koan of how to get born, married and buried as a Buddhist.”

ReligionWriter called Strand at his home office in Woodstock, NY, to find out why he thinks American Buddhists have failed to develop their own religious culture, and how this gap might be filled.

RW: When you write that American Buddhism faces the possibility of extinction, are you exaggerating?

Strand: It’s not an exaggeration, though by “death” I mean that American Buddhism becomes so completely marginalized as to not exert any significant impact on society. Buddhism in this country has a good start, and it has developed a fair amount of vitality and visibility; words like karma and nirvana are part of the popular lexicon now.

But if American Buddhism doesn’t come to see itself as a religion, or at least as addressing religious needs, sometime over the next generation or two, it’s going to run afoul of the generational bias of Baby Boomers, who tend to think that anything they embrace in numbers is here to stay. In fact their large numbers create an illusion, and as they begin to die off, what seemed like a significant movement may go back to a baseline number. I think that’s what’s going to happen, unless American Buddhist wake up and approach Buddhism as a whole life enterprise.

RW: One often hears American Buddhists say things like, “You can be a Christian or Jew and be a Buddhist. It’s not a religion.” Do you think that idea, appealing to many, that Buddhism is not a religion has also caused these problems you’re outlining?

Strand: When you hear statements like that, keep in mind that Buddhism entered the American scene when the traditional moral and spiritual authority of the Christian and Jewish communities were being called into question. Buddhism came to this country through the Academy, through people like [Buddhist author] D.T. Suzuki and [philosophy professor] Paul Carus, so from the word go, Buddhism was in slightly disembodied state. Ethnic Buddhism had been here for a while, of course; Chinese railroad workers, Japanese sugar cane cutters and others brought the religion with them but they didn’t proselytize. Americans were interested in meditation or philosophy or other aspects of the Buddhist experience, but they didn’t get the whole cloth.

This happened right about the time modern life was going ballistic, becoming very stressful. People were starting to think about the relaxation response and meditation and how to slow down. Buddhism fed into the craze for self actualization and self help. Now American Buddhists have to figure out a way of appropriating it on a more significant level. They can’t call it a religion because it doesn’t feel like a religion to them. As an alternative, American Buddhists tend to say they are “spiritual:” That seems to express the middle ground between religion and self-help.

RW: How many Buddhists are there in the U.S., and what percentage of that number are converts like yourself?

Strand: The numbers are notoriously unreliable. The numbers tossed out there over the last few years range from six million to 600,000. The percentage of converts is hard to judge. Is a convert a person who has a few books by the Dalai Lama on his or her night stand? If you ask them what religion they are, they might say, “I’m more Buddhist than anything.” Buddhism has become a kind of default religion for American seekers.

RW: Do those people with a casual involvement in Buddhism matter in the larger scope of American Buddhism?

Strand: A lot of people will deemphasize that as a trend, but I don’t. [Academic] Thomas Tweed used the term nightstand Buddhists to describe people he felt weren’t Buddhist at all but liked to keep Buddhist books as an inoculation against anxiety, or to have some contact with spiritual tradition in their lives. Tweed didn’t take such people seriously as Buddhists, and his term reflects that. But I think when people say, “If you held a gun to my head, I’d say I’m Buddhist,” they are expressing their dissatisfaction with existing religious models. They know enough about Buddhism to know it doesn’t have the congenital defects of their own religious traditions, but they don’t know enough about it to see that Buddhism has its own congenital defects. Embracing Buddhism becomes a way for people to project their hopes for a sane, global religion for 21st century.

RW: It seems like there’s a conflict here. You want American Buddhism to be more like a religion, with child care on Sunday mornings. But one of the main attractions to Buddhism for many Americans is that it is not a religion. Can you explain?

Strand: That conflict has been there before. The oldest Buddhist organization in the U.S. is the Buddhist Churches of America. It was formed mostly by Japanese field workers who first came to California and Hawaii almost 100 years ago. It is faith-based, rather than meditation-based. When the group started in the U.S., it still had many earmarks of being culturally Japanese or Asian. But after Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II, they tried to assimilate more quickly; they adopted American customs like having pews and wearing suits and calling their priests “ministers.” When a lot of Americans were looking for alternative religious experiences in the 1960s and 70s, the Buddhist Churches of America had the best infrastructure and the most feet on the ground, but nobody was interested in them because “they look too much like us.” And they were — the religion was very Americanized.

One of the big questions for converts to American Buddhism is: What happens when the exoticism wears off? When you’re like I am, and you’ve been at it for a while, and you’re married and you have kids, you are no longer going off for week-long or month-long meditation retreats. How do you work with that? How do you pass along your practice? If there is not some weekly gathering you can go to with your whole family, the chances you’re going to pass along Buddhism to your children is almost nil. If all you have to work with is a monastery and retreat system, and a leadership of celibate or semi-celibate monks and nuns, not much is going to happen with the next generation.

RW: Why are ethnic Buddhist and convert Buddhist communities so separate?

Strand: The communities have different needs and different values. Ethnic religious communities are hugely interested in two things: They want the rights and opportunities and protections of being members of American society — assimilation — and at the same time, they want to conserve their religious tradition and density. American converts are interested in appropriating religious teaching and fashion and ideas, but they’re usually not so interested in conserving traditional ethnicity and ritual. There is a fair amount of incompatibility there.

RW: Given that many Americans came to Buddhism as young people in the 1960s and 70s, why wasn’t there a gradual, organic growth of American Buddhist culture as those people, like yourself, matured and had families?

Strand: My most honest response is that you cannot import a religion the way you import a product. Religion purports to connect us to the deepest level of our beings. You can’t just go to another country, meet a teacher, go on a retreat, buy some cushions, bring it all back and suddenly the religion is here. It takes a long time to transmit teachings and adapt rituals. It takes a long time to develop a culture to support a religion. That’s the big problem: When you import a religious teaching to a country, you get the teaching but not the culture, and a lot of Asian culture doesn’t work in the U.S. without being adapted.

RW: What would you like to see American Buddhists doing more of?

Strand: I think Buddhists need to hold weekly or, at the very least, monthly discussion groups. They need to get together and talk to one another, not just practice together or listen to a teacher, but just talk to one another about their lives. Buddhists need to ask honestly: “What kind of Buddhism addresses the questions and needs of my life?” If I’m a Zen Buddhist, and therefore spend long periods in meditation, I should ask myself: “Is this meditation really helping me? Is it addressing the issues of my whole life? Or only part of my life?” If you have kids or a stressful job or a difficult marriage or financial problems, Buddhism should be able to address those issues. If it can’t, then it’s not functioning.

The second thing Buddhists have to ask themselves is: “Do I compartmentalize Buddhism in my life?” Very few observant, devout Catholics would dream, for example, of being married in a secular service. Yet Buddhists routinely get married by justices of the peace, because the culture is not there to support them in being Buddhist; it has not yet evolved. I wrote my article to point out that Buddhists in this country aren’t as concerned about developing this culture as they should be. I’m afraid they won’t see the need until the numbers go way down.

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In the last post, ReligionWriter was speaking with video and text blogger Amar Bakshi about the religious ideas he found while traveling in Britain.

In this segment, Bakshi shares the insights he gained as a roving blogger in Pakistan to explain why Osama bin Laden is so popular there, and how differing perceptions of his own religiosity affected his reporting.

ReligionWriter: A poll this month found that Osama bin Laden has a 46% approval rating in Pakistan, making him more popular than Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (38% approval rating among Pakistanis) and U.S. President Bush (9%.) To most Americans, those numbers for Bin Laden seem absolutely horrifying. What would you say to help Americans make sense of them?

Amar Bakshi: It’s surprisingly easy from a distance to separate human tragedy from political spectacle. Just as numbers of casualties can blur in the minds of people who are far away, so the human tragedy of 9/11 can blur for people who are far away, especially if they are spoken to in a certain way about it. I think very few Pakistanis actually advocate the suffering that 9/11 represented for Americans.

To some of the people I spoke with, Osama bin Laden represents slap in the face of U.S. power and prestige and invincibility. That as political gesture appeals to people who feel America has undermined their right to self-determination, their economic prosperity — whatever their grievance is.

In Pakistan, as in many countries besides the U.S., historical memory, and the mythologization of that memory, is very powerful; Pakistanis well-remember America’s involvement in the rule of [former military leader] Zia ul Haqq. Ironically, they are objecting to the radicalization of Islam and the loss of liberty that his rule entailed — in a convoluted way, that is associated with America in the minds of Pakistanis. There are similar analogies in Iran.

RW: Is anyone who supports Osama bin Laden necessarily a violent enemy of America? Is it possible to humanize that bin Laden supporter? Is there any common ground to work with?

Bakshi: The whole pursuit of “How The World Sees America” — and for some people, I’ve learned, my approach is quite controversial — is to humanize these guys. How are you going to say 46 percent of a country of 160 million are fundamental enemies? That’s ridiculous. If you go to other countries, the numbers are just as staggering, if not more so.

To make an enemy, in our minds, of 300 or 500 million dispersed people is ludicrous. So you’re going to have to humanize. I can see the headline: ‘Humanizing Bin Laden Lovers.” Put that way, you can just dismiss the idea, but that’s far too simplistic.

There is a huge spectrum of what that support actually means. Would any of these guys lay down their lives for him? If you ask that in a poll question, I don’t think the number would be high. So what does it mean to them to support someone like bin Laden? And what is it they are searching for? These types of questions usually have very personal answers. That’s very much what this project is about: what are those personal answers?

RW: Do you mean everyone has a story like “a CIA agent killed my brother?”

Bakshi: Each act that takes place affects 100 people around that act. Social networking thought might help here. When one person dies in Afghanistan, 100 people are vividly seared by that event, and that affect ripples outward. What look from here like small mistakes can multiple quite rapidly in people’s psyches. So, sure, “the CIA agent killed my brother” is not a very likely or common scenario, but one act can have more impact than you think.

Then, of course, anti-Americanism is very much exploited by political parties, by imams wanting more power or prestige, or in organizations where anti-Americanism is a way of expressing belonging. So you might start with a rational reason for disliking America — maybe a CIA agent really did kill your brother — but this drumming up of hype can quickly lead things to spiral into the irrational.

There are two things at work here. First, we have got to figure out what policies of ours might be dangerous for us in terms of perceptions in the long term. I think that’s an important consideration, and one that we can control. Then we have to see some things for what they are: for example, political infighting in which orthodox people attack moderates by claiming they are pro-America. Really that has nothing to do with America, it’s really about moderates and extremists battling each other within their own society.


RW: Tell us a little about your own religious and cultural background. What sort of Hinduism were you raised with?

Bakshi: I went to Episcopal school, St. Albans, where I was on the vestry. My mother is a spiritual woman, but no one in my family is particularly religious. To me, religion is a way of ordering your spirituality, of disciplining it. The idea is a certain practice gets your spirituality richer or better.

I have been free to dabble in a lot of different things and read a lot of books, both as literature and for teasing out how to live life. In terms of what practice I want to use to discipline my spirituality, I haven’t decided yet, but I’m not opposed to picking one eventually.

If anything, my family is Hindu, but there are Muslim influences as well, and of course I went to Christian school, and my mother tried to send me to Hebrew school -

RW: Hebrew school?

Bakshi: I was young, and at the time, my mother thought it was a just beautiful language, with beautiful stories, and she always dreamed of going to Jerusalem. She still does.

RW: You were born and raised in Washington D.C. Before you went to India for your blog, had you been to there before?

Bakshi: Growing up my mother never really wanted me to see India or learn Hindi. My parents had just recently migrated to the U.S., they were struggling to fit in, and my mother was fighting her own gender war to define herself as a physician, and she thought Indian culture didn’t help her in that. But when I was 15 I went back to India when my mother set up a local scholarship for a girl in Mysore, where she was from. I got really interested in local crafts people and set up something called Aina Arts, which links crafts people up with art markets.

RW: You are often mistaken for a Muslim. How has that experience affected you and your reporting?

Bakshi: One reason I don’t want to talk much about my religion online is that I love being mistaken for any number of things. In Latin America, I’m taken for Latin American. When I introduce myself to Muslims, I’m assumed to be Muslim, and Hindus assume I’m Hindu; I know enough about each to hold my own.

I go to a lot of Muslim services around the world, wherever I am. It’s a great way to connect and meet people, and I don’t feel badly doing it.

RW: You mean you would go to Friday prayer at a mosque and pray yourself? As part of your reporting for the blog?

Bakshi: Yes. (Laughs.) I have gone to Friday prayer and prayed, often out of sign of respect; I would be with a bunch of people who were going to pray, and it seemed rude to say, “I’ll wait outside.” In high school, I said the prayers every day, and I wasn’t Christian. I was head prefect of my school for a while, and at every ceremony I had to give a prayer, which I ended with “Amen.” One teacher told me it was just a sign of respect.

So that’s how I interpret it. [Blending in] helps me meet a lot of people, and I earn a lot of trust as a result of being ambiguous. I have no hesitation about that, because ultimately I think it’s foolish for there to be divides on the basis of religion, and I’m perfectly happy moving between them.

RW: So you go to a madrassa in South Asia and act like a Muslim, salaam aleikum and all that, and later they find out you’re not officially a Muslim: What happens next?

Bakshi: I never lie. If someone asks me “what are you,” I say exactly what I told you: my parents are Hindu but they are spiritual; I have devout Muslim and Sikh ancestors not that far back; I went to a Christian school, and basically I haven’t decided for myself yet.

I’ll be around the most hard-core Muslim guys you can imagine, and all they’ll say to me is:”Look, brother, this is not a good way to be, you have to choose.” They won’t say, “You snuck into our mosque, how dare you.” I’m happy to have them present to me the values they find in their faith. If anything, that’s when their passion really comes out.

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Amar Bakshi has what for many people would be a dream job: the 23-year-old recent college graduate travels the world, capturing the thoughts of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people in word and image. Bakshi’s text and video blog, “How The World Sees America,” appears on Washington.Post.Newsweek.Interactive’s foreign affairs blog, Post Global. This summer, Bakshi traveled to England, Pakistan and India. He’s briefly back in his hometown of Washington D.C. before heading off to the Middle East, South East Asia and Latin America in October.

ReligionWriter caught up with Bakshi this week to ask him what role religion plays in perceptions of America and how he manages his own “ambiguous” religious identity while traveling. Part One of the interview appears today; Part Two will appear on Monday.

ReligionWriter: How did you manage to create this assignment for yourself?

Amar Bakshi: I always wanted to see more of what life was like in places where headlines were happening. CNN clips are nice, but they’re short, and I never could figure out, say, what the woman in the background’s life was all about. I was working on Post Global, and I first pitched the idea of doing something on ordinary lives through text and video. What the project needed, though, was an overriding question that would hold it all together.

At the time I was still wrestling with my experience in Zimbabwe, where I was jailed and then released while researching my senior thesis on media propaganda. One thing that haunted me from that experience was how consistently I was accused of crimes related to being American. After I left Zimbabwe, I read about how this rhetoric about America helps solidify controversial regimes around world, and also about the type of things America has done to develop that reputation. I just blurted that interest of mine out in a meeting one day, and the project clicked: it had a focus.

RW: When people overseas look at America, do they perceive it as a religious nation?

Bakshi: I’d have to say no. Religiosity in the U.S. is now embodied in Bush – he’s the symbol of religious America. Again and again I would hear from people: “I’m against the American government, and I’m for the American people.” But people tend to have more knowledge about the government than the micro-level faith of millions of Americans. A small town church doesn’t make headlines in Pakistan the way Bush’s use of the word “crusade” did. Comments like that really resonate. One of the YouTube clips I kept getting told about in England was a video from 1993 of one of our generals, General Boykin, saying about a battle with a Somali warlord, “I knew our God was bigger.”

RW: So when people overseas think of America in religious terms, they only think of the religious right?

Bakshi: Yes, but there is also a good sense of the religious diversity that America embodies. I heard from Muslims who are really opposed to U.S. government and what is happening right now to their brothers and sisters in the U.S. — there have been a lot of deportations of Pakistanis, for example. But at the same time, a taxi driver in Lahore must just as easily say, “In America Muslims do just fine. My cousins are there earning a lot of money, not being bothered.” So there is a sense of increasingly higher level of injustices, but that at root, America tolerates a lot of religious diversity.

RW: We hear that Europeans tend to see Americans as crazed religious fanatics. Did you get that sense from the British people you met?

Bakshi: In England I heard again and again a feeling of surprise at how overtly patriotic and outspokenly religious Americans seem to be. The two ideas were often conflated, especially when it comes to perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. But in England at least, people spoke with some nuance about different aspects of American religious life, rather than lumping everyone together.

RW: England is known for being much less religious than America; we hear about Anglican churches with only a handful of elderly ladies in the pews. Did you find that to be true?

Bakshi: Public display in general is much more of an American characteristic than a British one, and this applies both to patriotism and religion. England looks at America so demonstrative and crass and tacky and loud. And religiously, America often comes across in similar ways: it’s evangelical, it’s preachy.

There’s a sense around England, “If only we were less demonstrative of our beliefs, the better we could all fit into this polity.” When Jack Straw, the home minister, asked a woman to remove her face veil, there was a huge uproar, but his point was wanting to lessen those differences in public as much as possible.

RW: I have heard that British Muslims are more outwardly traditional-looking than American Muslims — that you’re more likely to see women with face veils or South Asian men in salwar khameez for example. Did you find that to be true?

Bakshi: It’s one of the first things I noticed when I got to Walthamstow or Blackburn. You walk down the street and there are bearded guys everywhere; you could be on a street in Lahore or Malegaon in India. But at the same time, there are a tremendous number of British Muslims who look just like I do, and I’m not terribly religious at all. So it’s easy to get fixated on those strong outward displays of identity.

In Blackburn, what I heard is this: outward displays help to bind together a community that felt itself under seige; identifying marks help them remember what they are fighting for. Of course everyone has a different explanation of what that is.

RW: And why exactly do British Muslims feel under siege?



Bakshi: The grievances of most were largely not religious but civil liberties-oriented grievances. I heard again and again the idea that “our friends are getting jailed, we’re scared, we don’t have jobs, there’s crime.” It wasn’t “the West is too liberal” or “Christianity is at war with Islam.” Of course there is a small minority of extremists that do hold those views, but they are not held by anywhere near a majority of British Muslims.

RW: Do you think emphasizing America’s religiosity is a way to build bridges with Muslims or others worldwide who would otherwise be anti-American?

Bakshi: Absolutely. In London I met an American guy who converted to Islam in prison and later went to Saudi Arabia. He’s not exactly normal, as he was standing in Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner saying some pretty outrageous things, but he made the case that Muslims could common cause with the religious Christian right in America to defend values he felt were being badly blasted around the world by a growing ethos he nebulously defined as consumerist and sexual. He saw a strong ally in conservative Christian American for a political and religious agenda of combating abortion and stopping sex before marriage and any number of different things. He said that as he traveled around Saudi, he advocated this strategy.

On the other hand, the people who don’t want religion in public life, who think religious displays should be tamed down, for them America’s religious center is not really seen as an ally. It’s seen as a problem of religion growing into the public sphere. In England in particular, I heard the sentiment that religious expression needs to be reigned in.

Coming Monday: Bakshi offers explanations of why Osama bin Laden is more popular than President Musharraf in Pakistan, and how his own fluid religious identity has impacted his reporting.

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By Andrea Useem, Religion BookLine — Publishers Weekly, 5/16/2007 (reprinted here with permission.)

With a title like The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid’s new novel (Harcourt, April) invites readers to expect a story of religion gone bad. But instead of radical preaching or religious fervor, the book details the transformation of Changez, an Ivy League-educated Pakistani, whose love affair with a wealthy, troubled American and elite but morally questionable job lead him, in the aftermath of 9/11, to loath the country he once embraced.

The title, Hamid told RBL, is a “deliberate misnomer.” Changez, who drinks whiskey and never even thinks of attending a mosque, is not a devout Muslim but rather a “secular Western rationalist,” according to Hamid. But when America begins to bomb Afghanistan—a neighbor to his homeland—Changez “starts to think of himself ethnically, almost tribally, as a Muslim,” Hamid said, even as his dark skin and beard evoke fear and suspicion in the Americans around him.

The point, said Hamid, is that today’s violent conflicts are political, not religious. Post-9/11, Westerners tend to reduce Muslims to religious labels. “I am a man, a novelist, a husband, son, brother, a Londoner, a Pakistani, a guy who likes sushi—and I’m a Muslim. Today, it’s as if that last facet is the thing on which I must be judged,” said Hamid.

Taking the same time period—the months before and after 9/11—in Once in a Promised Land (Beacon, Jan.) Laila Halaby uses the story of Jassim and Salwa, Jordanian immigrants living a comfortable if empty existence in Tucson, Ariz., to show how in a world aflame with religious and patriotic sentiment, “most people are just trying to live,” she said to RBL.

Jassim, a hydrologist, is meticulous in his work and his early-morning swims, but emotionally absent as a husband. Salwa, who married Jassim in part for a chance to come to the U.S., lives her American dream by earning money she spends on pajamas at Victoria’s Secret.

When Salwa accidentally-on-purpose stops taking her birth control pills and gets pregnant, she begins a downward spiral. And when Jassim, disturbed by Salwa’s instability, is involved in a tragic road accident, he loses the self-control he so values.

Looming over these interior, domestic dramas, however, is the shadow of 9/11. As an Arab Muslim, Jassim’s personal distress is interpreted by others as suspicious behavior—with disastrous results—while Salwa realizes her American dream is only skin deep.

The two characters, said Halaby, “are just people with their own difficulties, which have nothing to do with being Arab and Muslim. Yet people are so quick to put others in a category.”

(This article appears under the headline “SPOTLIGHT ON…Muslims in Fiction: Post 9/11, It’s the Only Place to Transcend Labels,” in the May 16, 2007, issue of Religion BookLine from Publisher’s Weekly.)
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