Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Key American Buddhist innovator dies; media ignore his role in shaping religious landscape

Globalization has scrambled just about everything, for better AND worse.

Technology has compressed physical space and time, forcing the myriad human tribes to deal more directly with each other. Nor is there any going back — no matter how isolationist, anti-immigrant or simply anti-change some current political rhetoric may be.

This means that ethnic and religious groups many of our parents, and certainly our grandparents, had little chance of meeting in their neighborhoods can now be encountered in any large American city, and also in our nation’s rural heartland.

Buddhism is one such example.

But it's not just that Asian Buddhists — be they Thai, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese or others — have come to North America, where their beliefs and practices have attracted considerable interest.

What’s also happened is that some Western Buddhists — formal converts and the larger number of individuals with no interest in converting but who have been influenced by Buddhist philosophy and meditative techniques (myself included) — have melded broad concerns for Western social justice issues with traditional, inner-oriented Buddhist beliefs.

These Western Buddhists certainly did not single-handily start this trend. Vietnamese Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest severe discrimination against their co-religionists by the Roman Catholic South Vietnam government in the early 1960s preceded them.

But these Westerners — many of them marinated in 1960s American liberal anti-war and anti-discrimination activism — pushed the envelope far enough to create a uniquely Western Buddhist path now generally referred to as Engaged Buddhism.

A key figure in this movement died earlier this month. His name was Bernie Glassman and he was 79.

The elite mainstream media, as near as I can ascertain via an online search, totally ignored his death. An error in editorial judgement, I think — certainly for the coverage of how American religion has and continues to change. His contribution to this change was monumental.

Western Buddhist publications reacted otherwise, as you would expect.

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Was Buddha God or human? Small 'g'? Capital 'G'? One of many?

 Was Buddha God or human? Small 'g'? Capital 'G'? One of many?


It's a headline at the Website of Tricycle, a U.S. Buddhist magazine.


Tricycle magazine is “unaffiliated with any particular teacher, sect, or lineage” and spans all forms of Buddhism with authority and style. The question above that it poses is quite pertinent since the online buddhanet, among others, states that Buddhists do not believe in any god because the Buddha “did not believe in a god” and he himself “was not, nor did he claim to be,” a god.

This agnostic or atheistic version of Buddhism is popular among seekers in western countries. But is it authentic?

Tricycle turned to two noted authors to jointly address this important question: Professors Robert E. Buswell Jr., director of UCLA’s Center for Buddhist Studies, and Donald S. Lopez Jr. at the University of Michigan. The article was part of their online series about the top 10 “misconceptions about Buddhism.” What follows is largely based on their explanations.

Without question, Buddhism does not believe in the capital-G God, that is, the one unique and all-powerful Creator of the universe who is worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

However, the two scholars assert that it’s wrong to say “Buddhism has no gods” because “it has not one but many.” The religion believes in an elaborate pantheon of celestial beings designated by the same root word as the English “divinities.” Also, hosts of advanced spiritual beings called “bodhisattvas” and “buddhas” exist in the 27 sectors within the realm of rebirth.

Buddhist divinities lack the attributes of those other three religions’ one God, and are not regarded as eternal. But, importantly, they exercise powers beyond those of mere humans, are beseeched for favors, and “respond to the prayers of the devout.”

Turning to the Buddha himself, he was a human being named Siddhartha Gautama.

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Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

It’s no where near as widespread as the vicious attacks against Buddhist Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, but a similar inter-religious clash is currently roiling Sri Lanka.

If you're not current with the breaking situation, this Reuters news piece will help. So will this analysis from Britain’s The Independent.

There are two takeaways here that journalists need to understand.

First, some majority Buddhist nations -- all of them in Asia -- are reacting to the growth of Islam in their midst in similar fashion to the reaction of some European countries, not to mention a large number of American Christians (religious and cultural) and others.

That is to say, with much alarm; fear of Islamic terrorism being a prime motivator. A second motivator is cultural in nature; the fear of losing one’s historical national dominance as global demographics shift. Call this the tribal component.

This New York Times analysis explains what I mean in far greater detail. Its’s headlined: “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” Here’s a taste of it.

Most adherents of the world’s religions claim that their traditions place a premium on virtues like love, compassion and forgiveness, and that the state toward which they aim is one of universal peace. History has shown us, however, that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious. This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar. How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?

I know this is on the longish side, but allow me to also quote this part of the Times essay. It's illuminating, as is the entire article.

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Washington Post hints at big changes afoot for Tibetan Buddhism. Is there a local story in that?

Washington Post hints at big changes afoot for Tibetan Buddhism. Is there a local story in that?

Tibet ceased to be an independent nation nearly six decades ago. Moreover, the likelihood is that Tibet — birthplace of the Dalai Lama and home to a unique and dramatic form of Buddhist practice — will remain under Chinese domination for the foreseeable future.

In short, the Dalai Lama’s immense international popularity (primarily in Western democracies) and the good deal of advocacy on behalf of Tibet by Western supporters over the decades has, politically speaking, achieved virtually nothing.

Why’s that? Because China’s massive economic and military power trumps, on the international stage, any sympathy for Tibet in Western capitals.

If that’s not enough, there’s now a new -- and surprising -- threat to Tibetan nationalism. The Washington Post wrote about it last month.

That threat is Indian citizenship.

India, home to some 122,000 Tibetan exiles, earlier this year decided to grant many of them Indian citizenship. Until now officially stateless, the Tibetans who accept Indian citizenship will gain a slew of government perks withheld from non-citizens. That includes an Indian passport, allowing them to leave India and travel the world with far greater ease than previously.

That raises at least three questions. One’s political, one’s religious and one’s journalistic. As usual, the three are interrelated. To begin:

* What does accepting Indian citizenship mean for the Tibetan national movement?

* What impact will this have on Tibetan Buddhism?

* Three, why did the Post story not address question two -- given how central Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is to Tibetan cultural and political identity?

Yes, we're talking about the possibility of a slow but eventual assimilation into Indian cultural identity.

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Spiritual but not religious? Leading Buddhist magazine takes a hard look at what that means

Spiritual but not religious? Leading Buddhist magazine takes a hard look at what that means

The other day here at GetReligion my colleague Bobby Ross Jr. parsed whether atheism canbe considered a "religious" movement. I'd say sometimes yes and sometimes no. But that's neither here or there. Maybe.

Am I clear?

Probably not. So let's try this.

Dictionary definitions sometimes fall short because living languages evolve constantly. That leaves the meaning of some words negotiable -- particularly when trying to convey elastic concepts.

Religion is one such concept. Of course, these days, so is journalism. And so is the term "spiritual but not religious," henceforth SBNR.

It's a handy shorthand we assume is equally understood by all because we -- meaning those of us in the religion journalism trade -- use the term so often. But is it? (Cue the sinister organ music!)

For example: American and other Western journalists who generally grew up in one of the Abrahamic traditions tend to lump their fellow westerners attracted to Buddhist concepts and practices among the SBNR if they don't also declare themselves practicing whatevers. (Did I just coin a new term, the "Whatevers"?)

But it seems many of those Western Christian, Jewish and (to a lesser extant) Muslim non-ethnic Buddhist fellow travelers -- the Whatevers -- have their own questions about the term SBNR.

So much so, it appears, that Tricycle, arguably the best chronicler of the Western Buddhist experience around, felt compelled to take a shot at explaining it. And in a big way.

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Public-school meditation? Buddhist magazine offers mindful approach on church-state issue

Public-school meditation? Buddhist magazine offers mindful approach on church-state issue

Globalization is a whole lot of give and take. It gives us cheap merchandise from Southeast Asian sweat shops and Facebook friends in Australia who we've never met, even as it takes away American blue-collar manufacturing jobs and the ease with which we could allow ourselves to feel safe if we stayed purposely oblivious to the suffering of the world at large.

Globalization has also put to rest the conceit that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation. Strictly speaking, it's not even an Abrahamic nation (the term of choice when adding Islam to the elite mix).

I'm referring to the growing presence in the U.S. of individuals who follow non-Abrahamic religious or philosophical beliefs. But even more so, to the growth of practices and ideas about living a meaningful life that originated in non-Abrahamic religious environments -- in particular, yoga and meditation that come from South and East Asia.

GetReligion writers have over the years published a slew of blog posts dissecting coverage of news reports about how yoga (by which I mean hatha yoga, as the the practice of stretches and postures is more accurately called) and various forms of meditation have become commonplace at fitness centers and in church basements across America. So have hundreds, if not thousands, of other print, broadcast and online news and life-style media.

We've also written about how some view the Westernization of these once-exotic practices as being culturally insensitive. And of course we've written time and again on how some more traditional Christian and Jewish voices have rejected ostensibly secularized yoga and meditation classes, insisting that they are religious activities.

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When iron birds fly and Chinese leaders ponder the politics of reincarnation ...

When iron birds fly and Chinese leaders ponder the politics of reincarnation ...

Its origin is much disputed, but an often-repeated Tibetan saying goes as follows: "When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the world, and the dharma (Buddhist teachings) will come to the land of the red-faced man."

Because of Chinese occupation, a Tibetan diaspora is indeed scattered across the globe. But are the iron-bird and horse-on-wheels images references to airplanes and automobiles? And what about red-faced men? Is that a reference to Native Americans? As noted, the authenticity of this supposedly ancient prophecy is much in doubt.

Authentic or not, it's undeniable that various Buddhist practices and traditions have found widespread acceptance in the West. The world's best-known Buddhist, Tenzin Gyatso, much better known as the Dalai Lama, a man of gentle demeanor and a contagious laugh, is in good measure responsible for this. He's also the subject of what may be the year's oddest religion news story.

China, in case you missed it, is upset that the Dalai Lama has threatened not to reincarnate. Ponder that for a minute.

While not an entirely new story, it is, on its face, an illogical one.

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