Friday, December 21, 2007

Buddhism In America

Buddhism In America Cover

Book: Buddhism In America by Richard Hughes Seager

This "road map to the American Buddhist landscape" succeeds in being both "engaging and informative," as the author intended. While it could be used as a text for a college class, it will also be of interest to American practitioners of Buddhism (like me) who want to know more about our roots and about the variety of forms of Buddhism in America.

Part One provides background material on the history of Buddhism and its transmission to America and includes a short chapter on "Very Basic Buddhism" for those new to the subject or wanting a refresher. Part Two, the largest part, discusses the various forms of Buddhism in America, with chapters on Jodo Shinshu, Soka Gakkai, Zen, Tibetan, Theravada, and "other Pacific Rim migrations." And Part Three explores some "Selected Issues": gender equity, social engagement, intra-Buddhist and interreligious dialogue, and the Americanization of Buddhism.

Richard Seager marks out a magnificent road map, directing us to important people, places, and issues in multifaceted Buddhist America at the turn of the millennium. . . . Under Seager?s guidance we discover a great deal about the Buddhists of America, but also a great deal about the Americanization of Buddhism.

Seager does a great job of providing a thorough and detailed history while managing to stay accessible to readers who may be new to the topic. His goal is to show and explain how Buddhism has been Americanized since its arrival, and how it is now its own entity, different from the Buddhist sects around the world. He has example after example to support his statements; when talking about the "flower power" 60s, he quotes several different people and gives specific details about times and places such as "Storlie recalls finding himself at Sokoji for the first time in 1964, after an LSD trip on Mount Tamalpais" (Seager 99). There is no room for generalizations in his work, and this book represents a wealth of knowledge that could probably not be equaled in five other books on the subject.

The only problem with this book is that he spends so much time detailing events and the lives of the people involved in them, that he neglects to really discuss the practices and thoughts driving the Americanization. There are points where the reader is so caught up in keeping track of people, places, and events that when he makes a statement such as, "Some Buddhists are also concerned that Americanization will lead to a decline in the dharma if the aspiration to realize Buddha mind becomes overidentified with psychotherapy, or if practice becomes too accomodating to the economic and emotional needs of the American" (Seager 112), that the reader is too surprised to really pay attention to the point of the statement. These few ideological statements are usually posited at the very end of chapters, probably because he feels he needs to say something conclusive before moving on to the next sections. These would be much more interesting if he actually gave them attention in the bulk of the text, instead of as afterthoughts related to the history. The reader reaches the end of the work having gained a multitude of knowledge regarding specific information about Buddhist American history, but having no knowledge of the ideas and actual practices that were at the heart of Buddhist Americanization.

Find Richard Hughes Seager's book in
Buddhism In America

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