Buddhism in America

Global Religion, Local Contexts

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Scott A. Mitchell
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     2016.
     288 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781472581938.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Scott Mitchell’s Buddhism in America is likely to become the standard textbook for the field. With his focus on both Asian/Asian-American Buddhists and non-Asian American Buddhists, Mitchell strikes a balance rarely achieved in other introductions to American Buddhism. Writing in clear, concise prose, Mitchell manages to cover an impressive breadth of material, situating American Buddhist trends in relation to developments in Asia and within the broader American religious landscape. The result is a book that manages to speak to both specialists and non-specialists. 

Mitchell rejects the structure of assimilation, acculturation, and Americanization one finds in other books on Buddhism in America in favor of a translocative analysis, which he adopts from Thomas Tweed’s 2006 book, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Harvard University Press). Mitchell notes that Tweed defines religions “as confluences of cultural flows that cross boundaries and construct homes” (3). A translocative approach, explored through the themes of convergence and divergence, serves Mitchell well in supporting his argument that we should “approach US Buddhism as a set of practices and traditions that emerge as a result of local circumstances within global cultural networks” (3). 

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Histories,” provides a short introduction to Buddhism and traces the transmission of Buddhism from Asia to the United States from the 19th century to the 21st century. Chapter 1 introduces the Buddha’s life story, relevant Buddhist teachings, and the development of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism. Chapters 2 through 4 follow the themes of divergence and convergence. Mitchell opens his chapters with a case study before tracing a history of how divergent cultural trends, one Western and the other Asian, converge in a particular historical moment. Chapter 2 examines the convergence of 19th-century European discourses (the Enlightenment and Romantic eras and Orientalism) with Asian Buddhist reform movements. Chapter 3, “From Acculturation to the Counterculture,” explores the theme of divergence and convergence through the history of Japanese American Buddhism and the Buddhism of the Beat Generation. One of the stronger chapters in the book, Mitchell argues that after internment during World War II, Japanese Buddhists endeavored to portray their Buddhist identity as conforming to American values. Beat Buddhists, on the other hand, used Buddhism as a countercultural movement. These divergent histories converge in Cold War America, evidenced by the chapter’s opening case study of the 1952 seminar at the Jodo Shinshu Berkeley Buddhist Temple. This seminar brought together speakers from the broader Buddhist community in the US and Canada, including Alan Watts (49-50). Chapter 4, “Diversity and Pluralism at Century’s End,” examines the social changes accompanying the diversification of the US Buddhist landscape after the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. 

Part 2, “Traditions,” lays out the histories of Theravada (chapter 5), Mahāyāna (chapter 6), Vajrayāna (chapter 7), and “Postmodern” traditions (chapter 8). Chapters 5, 6, and 7 briefly outline the history of their respective traditions in Asia, their core doctrines and practices, important communities, and their establishment in the United States. Chapter 8 covers non- and pan-sectarian forms of Buddhism, including the mindfulness movement, Buddhist secularism, and online Buddhist communities. Chapter 8 brings together a larger conversation about the tension between tradition and adaptation that runs through part 2. As Mitchell himself notes, these chapters are “intended to paint in broad strokes the variety of US Buddhist experiences as a foundation for further exploration” (4). 

Part 3, “Frames,” addresses theoretical and developmental issues that frame the study of US Buddhism. “These frames can be understood as both methods or disciplinary fields (e.g., media studies) and issues US Buddhists wrestle with as they build homes in their new American contexts” (5). Topics include Buddhist media and representation (chapter 9), race, gender, and sexuality (chapter 10), social and environmental engagement (chapter 11), and Buddhist modernity in a global context (chapter 12). Chapter 12’s discussion of globalization and modernity draws on the translocative thread running through this book, which shows how globalization allows persons and cultures to cross temporal and spatial boundaries while constantly being shaped by local contexts.

Buddhism in America has been designed with undergraduate teaching in mind. Each chapter includes an outline, summary, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and small case studies and breakout text. Mitchell also includes numerous appendices with a timeline, lineage outline, and a glossary of Buddhist terms. While the book’s structure has its own logic, each chapter can easily act as a stand-alone reading. By separating “History” from “Traditions,” Mitchell intervenes in approaches to American Buddhist history that tend to view communities in isolation from one other. Some people, however, may find the separation of “History” from “Traditions” to be disjointed. 

It is also possible to question some of Mitchell’s curatorial choices. Buddhism in the southern United States receives little attention compared to the Northeast and California, especially the Bay Area. Mitchell might have also cited black Buddhist critiques of white supremacy in chapter 10’s discussion of Buddhist identities. While some prominent black Buddhists receive brief mention in other chapters, the exclusion of non-Asian people of color from this chapter inadvertently reinforces the “Two Buddhisms” model (White/Asian) he critiques. Finally, while Mitchell purposely limits his discussion to the borders of the United States, given his translocative focus one might question why he did not include a discussion of cross-border influences with Buddhists in Canada and Latin America. However, these issues represent gaps in the field of American Buddhism in general, and do not detract from the superb qualities of this book. Mitchell has crafted an excellent resource which deserves a place in undergraduate syllabi for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adeana McNicholl is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott A. Mitchell is the Dean of Students and Faculty Affairs and holds the Yoshitaka Tamai Professorial Chair at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley, California, USA.

Keywords: 

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