Book Review: American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity

Let’s cut to the chase: Ann Gleig, who is an associate professor of religion at the University of Central Florida, has written a splendid book that is an instant classic.  American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity is a ”must read” book for anyone interested in understanding what has been happening in the world of American ”convert” Buddhism over the past decade and where it is headed. The book is comprehensive in fairly covering the myriad trends, countertrends, and controversies that have roiled the convert Buddhist community in recent years—especially in the American Zen, Insight Meditation, mindfulness, Secular Buddhist, and on-line Buddhist communities. Gleig sees these trends as part of the larger narrative of the transition of Western culture from modernism to postmodernism, post-secularism, post-colonialism, and digital literacy. She sees ”boomer generation” Buddhist modernism as subject to a variety of critiques from millennials and Gen Xers, Asian heritage Buddhists, people of color, and queer and transgendered people. She also sees Buddhist modernism as subject to critiques from those who think it has modernized too far and those who think it hasn’t modernized enough. Finally, there are the hot button issues of the sexual scandals in Buddhist communities and the controversies over whether mindfulness is being commodified, taught outside of an ethical context, or being used as a handmaiden to economic interests. 

Gleig covers all of these issues with both scholarly thoroughness and a degree of personal acquaintance with many of the institutions and actors she writes about. Her participant-observer stance, writing from both inside and outside of the phenomena she describes, gives the book a genuine vitality. I am also happy to say that she really knows how to write—the book is a pleasure to read all the way through. 

That having been said, is there anything that bothered me about the book? Of course there is.  Gleig is writing from a specific point of view as a member of Generation X, as a political progressive, and as an LGBTQ feminist. I, on the other hand, am reading her book from the point of view as an aging, Ashkenazi, cisgender, straight, boomer Buddhist modernist who is politically liberal in the older sense of the word rather than progressive in the newer sense. This means that she reads almost all these critiques as positive steps to cheer about, whereas I belong to the generation on their receiving end. While they may be merited, it’s hard for me to be unabashedly happy about them. 

I still subscribe to the old-time liberal belief in inclusiveness, rather than the newer identity politics of anti-racism, call out culture, and intersectionality. Some of the progressive critique of liberalism is well-taken if it is seen as calling for a recognition and celebration of differences rather than a color-blind attempt to erase them, or is calling for lighter-skinned people to recognize the pervasive ways in which American culture has systematically disadvantaged and oppressed people of color, or an interrogation of how lighter skin carries advantages whether one wishes it to or not. We all can benefit from questioning the degree to which we are complicit in a culture that harms others, but there are ways in which I give these newer trends only one or two cheers rather than three. 

I recently attended a large progressive Buddhist gathering which broke up into smaller groups where I was asked to state ”what would make me feel safe” and what pronoun I would prefer being called by. I recognized the good intentions behind this, but personally experienced it as excessive and alienating. Maybe I was feeling the way minorities have always felt in alien contexts, but I–being a creature of privilege–was unaware of it?  Nevertheless,  I felt like a bit of a dinosaur in this brave new world.

Perhaps I was.


12 Replies to “Book Review: American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity”

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful review of what sounds like an invaluably useful book. As you said of the book itself, your review was also a pleasure to read all the way through.

  2. Thanks for this, Seth. I just saw it. I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but I know Ann and I like her and respect her. I am about her age (late Gen X) and am brown, but I feel similarly to you in a number of ways. There is a lot that is helpful and important in the new social-justice mentality, but I think some of it (call-out culture especially) does more harm than good.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to write yourself off as a dinosaur. I’ve certainly been among those saying unkind things about boomers and their sometimes unacknowledged privilege, but in past years I’ve grown a newfound appreciation for my elders’ approach to politics. The world right now could use a lot more peace and love.

  3. Thanks, Amod! BTW I have a new book coming out shortly on the influence of Aristotelian eudaimonia on Western Buddhist modernism that refers to your work both on qualitative individualism and on ascent and descent. I remain indebted to you!

  4. Thank you for the thoughtful review. The book sounds really interesting. I can empathize with a lot of what you are saying as a Gen-X from a rural (very ultra traditional) background and Buddhist practitioner since 1995. I also understand a bit about the point of view of the younger generations. As a Buddhist from an out of the way deep south area, I have felt the “otherness” from a regional point of view when seeking out teachings in places with better standards of living, more educational opportunities, etc. And it has always been something to push through in order to practice Buddhism. It is something that others in this area (other Buddhists) have also expressed. The Buddhist community does need to realize its own hypocrisy just as other religions do. My son is trans and my other son is autistic, so I see what they go through and it does make me more sensitive to what people go through inter personally when they do not fit the ‘criteria’ of prototypical ‘American’ success. There are subtle and not so subtle agressions on a daily basis. And even by Buddhists within the Buddhist community. I think it is a needed wake-up call to all of us who study and practice Buddhism. But, yes, sometimes misguided by youth and the ‘pendulum swing’ effect of social change. So I try to stay with it, like you and give cheers when I can.

    1. Carol, Thanks so much for sharing your experience as a Buddhist practitioner from a partiular region of the country, as a person from a particular generation, and as a mother of children who have had to cope with marginalization due to their uniquenesses. May these perspectives and experiences continue to enrich your practice and awareness, and may you help up all become more aware and sensitive.

  5. Thanks Seth, Nicely balanced review – I just read a rather damning one previously so I looked around and found yours. Another boomer here – yes that generation does cop it a bit – doesn’t bother me generally – I don’t think I had that that much control about exactly when I took rebirth – it just kinda happened :-)…..Have been most fortunate missing the SmartPhone excesses that the current generation are having to abide. I would have gone loopy with that much info on tap – browsing through ancient libraries was wonderful in my formative years….so karma was quite important eh? I will try to read this book – will see if I can find an extract first…

  6. Your review was heartening. I am a boomer and serious meditator, though with only a few years’ experience. I too am a “liberal” in the old sense of believing humans tend to flourish most in conditions of freedom. I recoil at the politicization of so much in our culture, of which the “call out” culture you mention is one manifestation. Personally I am saddened when I see creeping politicization in Buddhist/mindfulness/meditation circles. If American Buddhism becomes just another place (metaphorically) dominated by politically correct monothink, I for one, will be get increasingly alienated.

    1. Nick, I appreciate your comment. I think there is a fine line we need to walk between acknowledging the historically conditioned aspects of one’s view of Buddhism and how dependent that view is on one’s situatedness is a specific cultural context that includes race, class, and gender, and at the same time, not having one’s own point of view silenced or invalidated by the existence of other points of view. Let’s hope we can all chew gum and walk at the same time. I appreciate all these new voices within the Buddhist club, but I don’t appreciate having my voice being devalued because it happens to be the voice of an Askenazi cis-gendered male boomer. We all have a right to be respectfully heard in this ongoing dialogue.

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