Cosmopolitan Dharma

Race, Sexuality, and Gender in British Buddhism

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Sally R. Munt, Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip, Sharon Smith
Numen Book Series, vol. 152
  • Boston, MA: 
    , April
     292 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Cosmopolitan Dharma is a trailblazing work that helps bring Buddhist studies into engagement with the fields of globalization, transnationalism, critical race theory, and gender theory. Building on previous works on Orientalism in Buddhist studies, Cosmopolitan Dharma acts as a corrective to previous studies of Buddhism in the West that represent the West as monolithic and racially white. In addition to being one of a handful of works that critically address the ways that Buddhism is racialized, gendered, sexed, and classed, Cosmopolitan Dharma is also the only academic monograph that seriously investigates black Buddhist discourse. Sharon Smith, Sally Munt, and Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip’s careful analysis of the operation of discourses that privilege the white, middle class, heteronormative self is paired with rich anthropological description of the ways Buddhists of color navigate racialized and gendered teachings and spaces. This book paves the way for the further exploration of counter-discourses to hegemonic narratives of Buddhism.

The circumstances that brought this book to fruition are unusual. After Smith’s passing in 2011, Munt and Yip fulfilled Smith’s wish that they publish her 2008 dissertation, Buddhism, Diversity and “Race.” While Munt and Yip are not scholars of Buddhism, their work on race, gender studies, and sexuality in contemporary religions brings a unique perspective to Smith’s dissertation, which focused on the operation of race and class within Buddhist communities. The end result is a book that combines Smith’s dissertation on Buddhists of color in the UK, her post-dissertation research on the Queer Spiritual Spaces (QSS) project, and Munt’s and Yip’s own insights on gender and queer theory. Cosmopolitan Dharma is informed by fieldwork with two Buddhist communities in London: the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), now known as the Triratna Buddhist Community, and Soka Gakkai International in the UK (SGI-UK). This fieldwork was carried out by Smith during her doctoral research, and by Smith, Munt, and Yip as part of their QSS project.

Munt’s and Yip’s efforts to combine a variety of projects into a single book while remaining faithful to the original dissertation is admirable, but has yielded a book that lacks a clear focus and trajectory until the final chapter. The book can be divided into three sections, with the first (chapters 1-2) being a literature review and overview of methodology; the second (chapters 3-6) an anthropological survey of the FWBO and SGI-UK; and the third (chapter 7) tying up the themes of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism—which at times reads like a normative argument. Chapter 1’s literature review of Buddhism and race, sexuality, gender, and class is at times disorganized and not clearly connected to the anthropological analysis or the overall argument of the book.

It is the heart of the book, which contains thick anthropological descriptions and careful attention to the voices of Buddhists of color—especially to black Buddhists—that makes Cosmopolitan Dharma a compelling read for those interested in the dynamics of race, gender, and sexuality within Buddhist communities. These middle chapters explore the operation of discourses of race, gender, and sexuality on the teachings, leaders, and community members within the FWBO and SGI-UK. In chapter 3, we see how academic discourses that privilege male, heteronormative whiteness are reflected within Buddhist communities. Smith investigated the teachings of the FWBO’s founder, Sangharakshita, and the interpretation of these teachings by leaders of the FWBO in London. She concludes that the FWBO employs a discourse that privileges heteronormative whiteness as the marker of a “raceless” universal West, while representing people of color as Others and spiritually inferior. This is apparent in Sangharakshita’s model of the development of consciousness, which equates the “Lower Evolution” of consciousness with “ethnic religion,” and “Higher Evolution” with “universal religion” (80-81). Chapter 4 employs Michel Foucault’s theory of “technologies of the self” to examine the ways people of color interpret the FWBO’s teachings, navigate racialized and gendered spaces, and understand themselves as racialized subjects.

The environment of the FWBO is contrasted to that of SGI-UK in chapter 5, which argues that although SGI-UK is strongly gendered and heteronormative, its comparatively diverse membership can be partly explained by its more cosmopolitan and multicultural approach to Buddhist teachings and practice, and the greater effort SGI makes towards addressing questions of race and ethnicity. Chapter 6 provides insight into how Buddhists of color in SGI-UK use Buddhist teachings to navigate racialized societies, as a number of practitioners report being able to better manage racism through Buddhist practice. In chapter 7 it becomes clear that the example of SGI-UK is being used for a theological argument for cosmopolitan approaches within Western Buddhist communities. While Smith frequently employed the terms “cosmopolitan” and “multiculturalism” in her dissertation, Munt and Yip flesh out the two terms. Identifying two aspects of cosmopolitanism—its emphasis on diversity, and its relationship with the “Other”—Munt and Yip define cosmopolitanism as “the belief that all human groups can share a morality and think of themselves as one community” (249). They argue that it is by listening to minority Buddhists and paying attention to micropolitics that “we participate in the future-oriented, affective cosmopolitanism that seeks to connect to one another” (258). The authors advocate a “cosmopolitan identity” that “de-centers whiteness and heteronormativity,” and that “can become the norm in a Western convert Buddhist movement, and perhaps as a result attract and recruit more people of minorities” (225). The discourse of cosmopolitanism employed by Smith, Munt, and Yip is one example of how Buddhists engage the teachings of nonself in ways that deprivilege whiteness and heteronormativity.

Cosmopolitan Dharma lays the groundwork for future investigations into the agency of Buddhists of color in the formation of Western Buddhism. How have black Buddhists and other Buddhists of color historically envisioned themselves within transnational networks of racialization? How are ideas of shared community forged among Buddhists of color? Cosmopolitan Dharma challenges scholars to build on its foundation and to investigate these, and other, questions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adeana McNicholl is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sharon E. Smith, Ph.D. (2008), Goldsmith’s College, London, was Research Fellow on the Queer Spiritual Spaces project. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes, and journals such as Theology & Sexuality, and Fieldwork in Religion. She passed away in 2011.

Sally R Munt, DPhil. (1991), Sussex University, is Professor and Director of the Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies. She has published widely on cultures of otherness and social justice, and is the author of Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame (Ashgate 2007).

Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip, Ph.D. (1995), University of Surrey, is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He has published numerous monographs, edited volumes, and journal articles on religion and sexuality, including Religious & Sexual Identities: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Adults (Ashgate, 2013).



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