Updated Dissertation Topic on Contemporary Buddhism

An example of Buddhist sectarian conflict

After the conference last week and becoming disheartened, I did some work on coming up with a new dissertation topic in Buddhist Studies. I was encouraged in this by my advisor, who also gave me excellent feedback at multiple points.

I really want to focus on contemporary Buddhism in America (if not the West as a whole). As a Zen priest, who is both a practitioner and a scholar, I’m very interested in where we (here in America) are going with our development of Buddhism. This isn’t about the call of a “Western” Buddhism or the like but just about the inevitable changes and adaptations that take place over time. America is both a new place for Buddhism during the last 100 or so years but the current time and culture is, in many ways, dramatically different than previous environments for Buddhism. Change is inevitable. This is a much more immediate and important area of interest than digging into old Japanese esoteric Buddhist rituals (as much as I find that sort of thing personally interesting and engaging).

Here is an excerpt from my current academic plan, which I will be further developing this term with a bibliography of various texts.

My focus for a dissertation topic is within contemporary Buddhism in North America. This contemporary Buddhism reflects both Asian American communities and Buddhism within them as well as well as the “convert Buddhism” of non-Asians who have adopted Buddhism but who are not grounded in it as part of their own cultural and ethnic experiences. Buddhism in America is present in a variety of schools or traditions that come from many different countries of origin. For example, there are Japanese schools such as Jodo Shin and Soto Zen, the Tibetan Gelug and Nyingma traditions, Thai Theravada, Vietnamese Zen, and Chinese Chan and Pure Land schools. These schools arrived with Asian immigrants but have been taken up by non-Asian converts during the last century, especially during the post-World War II era. With the variety of different Buddhist traditions currently presented, Buddhist practitioners are easily able to gain exposure to and instruction from multiple traditions of Buddhism if they choose to do so. These practitioners have joined institutions based in the traditional schools taught in Asia but there has also been the development of hybrid institutions combining multiple Buddhist traditions or the creation of new traditions that draw from the existing Asian traditions to create something new in American Buddhism. My dissertation question is: "How are some Buddhist institutions and traditions changing in America by combining elements of previously separate Buddhist traditions into new institutions utilizing hybrid bodies of doctrine and practice?" This question examines the practices of Buddhist institutions, whether ongoing or ephemeral (such as retreats or workshops) to see how Buddhist doctrine and practice is being purposefully changed by the availability of access to multiple traditions of Buddhism. The question of why this change is occurring in places, from the point of view of both teachers and practitioners, will be then be examined. Initial examples of these hybridized traditions are:
  • Zen Peacemaker Order
  • The Dharma Punx founded by Noah Levine
  • The Interdependence Project
  • The “Zen Heart, Vajra Heart” teachings of Lama Palden Drolma and Sensei Lew Richmond
  • The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), founded in the United Kingdom but active in the United States
I will examine the organization, presentation, teachings, practices, and demographics of three to six Buddhist organizations, both traditional and new, in order to compare and contrast these institutions. I will also interview Buddhist teachers teaching at, and practitioners participating in, these organizations to ascertain why they have chosen to make these changes (when applicable) and choose to participate in their chosen institutions.

Comments are appreciated (usually!).