"modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Christian Calamus, modified 11 Years ago at 2/18/11 10:04 AM
Created 11 Years ago at 2/18/11 10:04 AM

"modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
Dear all,

during the last six months or so I have been reading this forum very frequently and have benefited very much from all the inspiring discussions; my practice has become really stable and is now firmly integrated into my daily life. So I thought about how I cold contribute to this movement - lets call it "modern buddhism" - of which the DhO seems to be a vital part. Being a sociologist, I naturally think about studying phenomena like this from a social scientific point of view. Now I would like to hear some opinions about that idea and maybe some suggestions, where to start and for what to look.

To illustrate, I'd like to try to explain why I think a sociological study could be helpful: In buddhist philosophy, social relationships and forces are mostly discussed with reference to morality. I think this is a very helpful, but maybe slightly incomplete approach, because if we want to be able to deal with our social environment in a moral way, we first have to know the working of this environment, our part in it, the extent of our influence on it, the way it affects us, the forces at work and so on. If we are to "disentangle an be free", one thing we have to do is figure out how social forces shape our lives and influence the things we want, believe, fear etc. Moral conduct seems to be only possible as far as we recognize and know about the social forces we are part of and are affected by. And because a minimum of morality seems to be a prerequisite for insight and concentration practices as well, knowing about the social side of things can even be helpful for practice, if only in an indirect way.

From this perspective, studying "modern buddhism" could provide insight into the social side of the movement. An example starting question could be: Which kind of buddhist tradition attracts which kind of people? For example, the radically down-to-earth style of this forum seems to attract especially men between 25 and 40 (I am guessing here), while other styles of teaching and practice may attract a very different population. Another question could be: What social aspects shape the relative success/popularity of buddhist writers/teachers? I think this would be a good starting place for the study I have in mind, the goal being to try to map the contemporary social landscape of modern buddhism and determine the relative importance of traditions, teachings, backgrounds, personal attributes, distribution and popularization techniques etc. for their respective success.

Most of all I'd like to hear some opinions about the idea and suggestions how to do it. Also I'd very much appreciate if some of you could give suggestions about who should be included in the category of "prominent/influential contemporary buddhist teacher/writer in the US". I'm thinking about making a list of 20 to 30 people and then start gathering some information to see if this is going anywhere.

Beoman Claudiu Dragon Emu Fire Golem, modified 11 Years ago at 2/18/11 12:21 PM
Created 11 Years ago at 2/18/11 12:21 PM

RE: "modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Posts: 2227 Join Date: 10/27/10 Recent Posts
Hey Chris, glad to hear you're finding benefit from the DhO! I only have a minor contribution:

Chris B:
So I thought about how I cold contribute to this movement - lets call it "modern buddhism" - of which the DhO seems to be a vital part.

I've heard it described as the "Hardcore Dharma Movement, spearheaded by the book MCTB". I think "modern buddhism" is a bit too broad.

Besides that, I'm not sure what the benefits of doing the study would be, but I don't have the time now to articulate exactly why in a helpful manner, so I'll post later when I can post something more well-thought-out.
Christian Calamus, modified 11 Years ago at 2/19/11 6:47 AM
Created 11 Years ago at 2/19/11 6:47 AM

RE: "modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
I'll elaborate a little to make it clearer what I'm after.

Consider three little case studies:
First, if one thinks of influential buddhist teachers, Sasaki Roshi comes to mind. He is one of the most senior
Rinzai Zen teachers in the US and I think it is safe to say that his popularity and influence stem mostly
from this seniority and the fact that he was trained an ordained in Japan and is therefore considered to be more
"original" than others. He has not published any books or audio material (at least to my
knowledge), he isn't very present in the media, his website doesn't offer much besides most basic
information and he doesn't seem to have an academic background.

Compare this to Shinzen Young: He is also a very popular teacher who incorporates many traditions, from
Shingon, Zen and (most prominently) Vipassana to Kabbala and Native American traditions. Like Sasaki
Roshi, he was trained in Japan and other Asian countries, but doesn't seem to have a formal rank or
position in any of the traditions he is involved in. His distribution style is rather innovative: He is
very present on the internet, especially on youtube, he offers free and commercial study material on his
website, he published extensive audio lectures and he offers personal long-distance teaching based on
conference-calls. Also, Shinzen Young frequently refers to western science and its relation to Vipassana
practice. He seems to have an academic background in mathematics.

Now let's look at what we find here at the DhO: The most important difference to the other cases seems to
be the absence of a central teacher figure. Of course, Daniel Ingram and some of the more senior members
regularly offer advice and guidance as teachers would do, bus still there is an explicit commitment to a
"spirit of mutual, supportive adventurers on the path rather than rigid student-teacher relationships". As
far as traditions are concerned, although the forum is open for everything there is a clear prominence of
Vipassana and related practices. The distribution of teachings seems to rely almost exclusively on the
internet and, more importantly, everything, especially the MCTB is available for free. Many people on this forum seem to have an academic background and seem to be very familiar with systematic, algorithmic thinking.

What can we learn from this? I'd say that there seems to exist a systematic
interrelation between the type of teacher figure, the prominent practices and teachings, and the
distribution style.

On the one hand you have Sasaki Roshi, a perfect model of a traditional teacher, who proposes a rather
complex style of Zen that is hard to learn without close personal guidance. Fittingly, the distribution of
his teachings seems to take place mainly in face-to-face situations, outside of books, websites and other
On the other end of the continuum you have the DhO, where the absence of explicit teacher is combined with
vipassana practice, one of the most accessible meditation styles that can be learned and practiced with a
minimum of personal instruction. Distribution seems to take place mainly through the forum itself and
through the MCTB.
Then you have Shinzen Young who combines both approaches: personal and mediated distribution, more complex
and more down-to-earth practices, presence of a central teacher figure, but still a lot of emphasis on
algorithmic approaches to meditation that can easily be popularized without intense face-to-face contact.

So, in the light of the three little examples one can maybe say that there is a systematic relation between the personal style of meditation teachers, the kind of teaching / practice they offer, and the means of distribution and communication that are employed. I guess that this is also related to success or popularity in some way.

I'm well aware that this comparison is far from complete or accurate, but I think it still captures an
interesting point. If it was done with more "cases" and with more detailed regard of their similarities
and differences, I think some interesting insights could emerge.
Florian, modified 11 Years ago at 2/20/11 11:17 AM
Created 11 Years ago at 2/20/11 11:17 AM

RE: "modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Posts: 1028 Join Date: 4/28/09 Recent Posts
Hi Chris,

There was a discussion over at KFD a few weeks ago, about some of the things (i.e. the Roshi side of the spectrum) you seem to have in mind:

Genpe Roshi's resignation, moralism, responsibility, and growing up.

Stuart Lachs has written extensively about this as well, for example: Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an /Zen Buddhism in America.

On the "Pragmatic/Hardcore/Online-Forum-Geek" side of the spectrum, there are a few indicative threads right here on DhO:

anyone else dealing with what appear to be squids, or spirits?

Taboos, Expectations

How I Achieved Actual Freedom, by Gardol Yack

A couple more on KFD:

Learning about Money

"Actual Freedom" within a larger context

I'm sure you will find plenty more if you poke around the archives.

BTW, you might want to extend your three-tier-model a bit to accomodate teachers like Richard Rose and Alfred Pulyan - and then there are the pseudonymous, but non-negligible writers like Jed McKenna and Wei Wu Wei and Lobsang what-was-his-name, who had (and have) quite an influence.

I'll be interested in anything you come up with.

Christian Calamus, modified 11 Years ago at 2/21/11 7:00 AM
Created 11 Years ago at 2/21/11 7:00 AM

RE: "modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
Hi Florian,

thanks, that's exactly the kind of input I was looking for. Especially the threads on KFD you pointed out are interesting, apparently they like discussing the social dynamics side of things more openly over there. Also the article by Stuart Lachs is a good starting point, I like the way he explicitly points toward symbolic power and hierarchy-building that seems to happen regularly in communtities with strong teacher figures.

I'd very much like to extend the "three-tier-model" - actually I think that building typologies like that one can only be the first step here, a good study should aim for the workings of the social logic behind these phenomena. Jed McKenna and the other authors you pointed out should certainly be included in a full study. More hints of this kind are very welcome!

Christian Calamus, modified 11 Years ago at 2/21/11 7:06 AM
Created 11 Years ago at 2/21/11 7:06 AM

RE: "modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Posts: 88 Join Date: 10/23/10 Recent Posts
Some more ideas:

I've been thinking about how to measure the popularity of a teacher/community in a more or less objective way. One thing that comes to mind is counting products like books, audio material, maybe even sesshins/retreats etc.

Maybe one could additionally use google statistics or web traffic measures as a proxy for one aspect of popularity. I've done that for some examples, using alexa's "traffic rank" (There are certainly more sophisticated ways to do this - any suggestions ?):

Sasaki's site:
# Alexa Traffic Rank: 11,480,732

Shinzen Youngs site:
# Alexa Traffic Rank: 1,525,127

The DhO:
# Alexa Traffic Rank: 1,117,866

# Alexa Traffic Rank: 2,847

The distribution seems to fit on the continuum suggested earlier - very low web traffic on the Roshi side of the spectrum, suggesting face-to-face encounters as the main mode of interaction with the audience; higher traffic in the hybrid case, and significantly more traffic on the hardcore/geek side. I think this confirms the idea that there are analytically separable distribution modes - face-to-face, books/audio, online - and I'd say that these are systematically linked to (1) the prevalent type of teacher-community-relation and (2) the prevalent traditions, teachings and practices.

A list of things I think a study like this should take into account:

Sources of authority / symbolic power, like:
- coming from a certain tradition/county/culture
- formal titles & attainments, dharma transmission ect.
- (conceptual) knowledge of the dharma: teachings, maps, models, theories, traditions etc.
- personal style, charisma (i.e. skilled presentation of self)

Sources of "worldly" power:
- affiliations to groups, centers, communities etc.
- money
- popularity outside spiritual circles (TV, papers etc.), popular students (Leonard Cohen in the case of Sasaki Roshi)

Ways of spreading the word:
- books
- audio
- seminars/retreats
- websites etc.

Range of teachings/practices:
- only one, maybe traditional/orthodox (Roshi side of the spectrum)
- blend of select ones
- total eclecticism / nothing specific

Type of teaching:
- emphasis on (face-to-face) teacher-student interaction
- emphasis on practicality / flexibility; algorithmic approach
- hybrid forms

Any ideas what else should be included?
Florian, modified 11 Years ago at 2/22/11 8:00 AM
Created 11 Years ago at 2/22/11 8:00 AM

RE: "modern buddhism" in the US as a social phenomenon

Posts: 1028 Join Date: 4/28/09 Recent Posts
Not much to add;

Maybe in the "ways of spreading the word" category, you could differentiate between online sound files/podcasts and things like tapes/cds; also free (as in beer) vs. subscription could be a useful distinction.

"type of teaching": things like skype sessions and skype conference calls come to mind, also, don't underestimate "student-student" (or more general "dharma companion") models - and the complexities of role-reversal.

Regarding the "sources of power" category - some more (old) DhO threads (we've settled on the "Enlightened Dictator Occasionally Herding Cats" model in the meantime).

Formal Teacher Designations

The Governance of the DhO, or Anarchy vs. Monarchy