American Dharma

Buddhism Beyond Modernity

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Ann Gleig
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , February
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ann Gleig’s American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity is a significant contribution to the critical literature on Buddhism in the United States. By way of interviews, discourse analysis, and multi-sited ethnographies, Gleig advances the conversation both in theoretical terms and in concrete discussions of emergent trends within 21st century communities. To set her argument, she begins by outlining major patterns in the historiography produced over the last thirty or so years with particular attention to its interpretive binaries such as immigrant/convert, secular/religious, and spiritual/psychological. She then takes a sustained look at how these binaries are undergoing complex recombination, as forces ranging from generational change to systematic efforts to achieve racial and gender equity, reshape Buddhist communities. The modernist/traditional binary is of particular importance to her central, spacious thesis that American dharma—by which she means the Buddhism of meditation-based convert communities—“cannot be contained within the paradigm of Buddhist modernism” (12). After detailed discussions of how selected practitioners are breaking new ground on both philosophical and cultural-political fronts, Gleig concludes by considering a number of concepts that might best characterize the variegated landscape of Buddhism in the United States today.

A self-described researcher and long-time, if sporadic, participant in meditation-based Buddhist groups, Gleig has an even hand as she moves through the nuanced positions being staked out by various partisans, even as she clearly writes as an advocate for progressive change. However, she consistently subordinates her insights into the positions articulated by gen X’ers, millennials, and others, moving into leadership spots increasingly vacated by baby-boomer pioneers, to her overriding argument about the decentered, post-modern character of 21st century American Buddhism. As the author proceeds, she both critiques and reconsiders the meaning and import of Buddhist modernism as it bears on shifting understandings of meditation, devotionalism, Buddhism’s soteriological goals, the impact of the Buddhist blogosphere, and the intersectional sensibilities of academic post-modernism and its preoccupation with post-coloniality, gender, and race. Throughout her analyses, Gleig brings the accomplishments of 19th and 20th century Asian Buddhist innovators into meaningful play with challenges that face practitioners today, as they work to create forms of the dharma that balance American humanist norms with authentic practice and reshape communities in ways that embody genuine diversity. In short, Gleig brings the discussion of the state of the Americanization process up to date, while implicitly underscoring how far Euro-American Buddhists have traveled from the 1990s, when they could celebrate the Americanization of dharma as a sui generis expression of the nation’s democratic genius.

Much of the strength of Gleig’s argument comes from its focus on a limited number of important communities and the cast of characters within them who are engaged in the ongoing debates. She takes communities related to Zen and Vipassana as her primary dataset, which gives her both fertile ground for a reconsideration of the strengths and weaknesses of Buddhist modernism and a range of articulate leaders who care deeply and have thought long and hard about the future of American Buddhism. As a result, her chapters on the controversies over secularized mindfulness, sexual misconduct among teachers and students, the goals of Buddhist practice, implicit and explicit racism in the community, and the aspirations of post-boomer practitioners give readers a powerful sense of the forces at work in the community. Throughout, Gleig manages to present her complex material with analytic precision and intellectual clarity, her arguments often circling back to the mixed legacies of Buddhist modernisms originally forged between forces East and West in the colonial-imperial heyday. 

The highly focused quality of Gleig’s argument does, however, generate lacunae in her discussion. For reasons she never makes clear, Gleig pays little attention to Tibetan Buddhism, a nexus of communities of great significance to boomer Buddhists in which modernism, traditionalism, and post-colonialism are interwoven in exquisitely complex ways. She never mentions the Soka Gakkai, chanting Buddhists in the Japanese Nichiren tradition who, though certainly modernist, have never been accorded parity with meditators by Americanizing theoreticians. Predictably, the substantial communities associated with immigrants and refugees from South, Southeastern, and East Asia do not factor into Gleig’s thoughts about in what an American dharma consists, although the numerous intersectional positions to be found in these communities must certainly strengthen her general post-modernist thesis. Such exclusions reflect a historiographic fixation on Euro-American/convert meditating communities that has characterized the critical discourse about American dharma since its inception—a hermeneutical blind spot that severely hampers a synoptic understanding of Buddhism in the U.S. That said, it is not this reviewer’s intention to criticize a book for not accomplishing something it did not set out to do. Such concerns aside, Gleig’s excellent book will bring readers up to speed on fascinating developments in the important Zen and Vipassana sectors of the larger American Buddhist community, while setting a new standard for critical commentary about the ongoing evolution of modernism, traditionalism, and dharma in the United States.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard Hughes Seager is Professor Emeritus in Religious Studies at Hamilton College.

Date of Review: 
February 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ann Gleig is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Central Florida. She is co-editor of Homegrown Gurus: From Hinduism in America to American Hinduism and has published widely on contemporary Buddhism.


Ann Gleig

Dear Richard,

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful, fair, and generous review of my book. I agree with all your critiques but just wanted to give some extra context to the points you raise. 

First, in relationship to the absence of Tibetan Buddhism and Soka Gakkai: 

On page 7-8. 

“In order to enable a thicker description and a more nuanced analysis of the rethinking of Buddhist modernism, I pay attention exclusively to meditation-based convert lineages. In particular I focus attention on communities derived from Theravada and Zen Buddhist traditions, which McMahan notes are the two lineages that have been at the forefront of Buddhist modernism. Readers might be disappointed to find little direct consideration of Tibetan Buddhism, which Coleman correctly identifies as the third major tradition to make up American-mediation based convert lineages. Although I had initially planned to include a Tibetan Buddhist community in the project, fieldwork complications prevented this so I limit coverage to Gen X Tibetan Buddhist teachers only.

Finally, I must stress that I am not claiming meditation-based convert communities as exclusive iterations of Buddhist modernism in North America. Although the commonly employed convert-immigrant distinction between Buddhist groups in North America has positioned converts as “modern” and immigrants as “traditional,” as I discuss in more detail, this mapping is highly problematic on a number of counts including the fact that modernization processes characterize many Asian American heritage communities.”

So yes, I agree with you both that both Tibetan Buddhism and Soka Gakkai would have fit really nicely into the theoretical framework I develop in the book. Given the breadth of the book, covering so many meditation-based convert communities, I really did not want to stretch it further outside of my ethnographic network and have never worked with Soka Gakkai before. I do hope other scholars will apply my theoreical frameworks to these and other communities though. 

Second, in response to my focus on Euro-American convert groups and absence of heritage group case studies: 

Readers hopefully will find my treatment of heritage Buddhism tempers this. See my section on “White Privilege and Buddhist Modernism” (pp.43-47) which covers the work of Wakoh Hickey, Natalie Quli and Joseph Cheah in problematizing the erasure of heritage Buddhists and how the convert/heritage distinction has played out in scholarship and practice communities. See also pp. 292-295 where I discuss the impact of postcolonial thinking on American Buddhism and highlight the work of Funie Hsu on the erasure of Asian Americans in mainstream American Buddhist practice and scholarship.  I also draw attention to the excellent work of Chenxing Han with Asian American youth, which disrupts many of the problems around the "two" and "three" Buddhisms model.

I certainly agree that the title American Dharma does (1) give the impression that the focus is on American Buddhism broadly conceived and (2) following that impression, the exclusive focus on Insight and Zen then implies I am forwarding them as the true representatives of American Dharma.  However, as I say at the beginning, the focus of the book was not American Buddism but Buddhist modernism with American meditiation-based convert Buddhism providing a geographic focus for this. For these exact reasons, I actually did not want to use "American" in the title (or New!) but had to reach a compromise with Yale, which in short was they got the title they wanted and I got the subtitle I wanted. And, hopefully, on reading the book—and specifically sections like the ones I identify above-will demonstrate that I am not doing what is suggested in the title and in fact problematize (2) repeatedly.

Thank you for your kind qualifier of “That said, it is not this reviewer’s intention to criticize a book for not accomplishing something it did not set out to do.” And, perhaps it's not enough for the author (me) to set the intention or to even temper it with critiques of the absence of heritage Buddhists. Given the history that I problematize, perhaps a full inclusion of a heritage community as a case study was the only truly ethical thing to do. It's certainly something I continue to wrestle with as a white scholar of meditation-based convert groups even as I am focusing on racial justice work in those communites. 

Finally, for readers who are looking for a comprehensive and current look at the broad field of American Buddhism, I can highly recommend the work of my colleague Scott Mitchell, Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts (Bloomsbury, 2016). My book is best read as a conversation partner with David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism(Oxford University Press, 2008). 

At any rate, thank you very much for your insightful and careful review. I appreciate the chance to respond to your important points.

Very best,







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