New Book is Out: American Dharma by Ann Gleig [2019]

The central thesis is that American Buddhism has left its modernist roots and has entered into a distinctly post-modernist phase.

Most fun for me were the anecdotes that give a picture of American Buddhism today. Chapter two, for example, opens with a protest at the Wisdom 2.0 conference and chapter five is “The Dukkha of Racism”! Fun times!

The biggest question I take away from it is: what should engaged Buddhism look like in the 21st century?

On one hand, it seems like the current variety is a good thing but it does come at a cost to the community. Is this merely a reflection of the deep rifts in American society (race and class) or is there something uniquely Buddhist too in the various directions the dhamma is going in America?

Personally, I’m rooting for what Ann calls the “unusual bedfellows of religious conservatives and critical theorists.” I think these bedfellows aren’t so unusual, in that the truth is the truth whether worded in Pāḷi or Marxist Dialogue. Seems to me there’s a real chance here for a “Buddhist Liberation Theology” (for lack of a better phrase) to emerge in America that merges social critique and civic religion with authentic (ie EBT) Buddhist Theology.

But social engagement is always tricky, and especially in Buddhism, which heavily stresses equanimity and non-contention.

What do y’all think engaged Buddhism in America should / can / will look like in e.g. 10 years?


Hmmm could you elaborate more on what she means by this? I don’t have the book.

Ah, great to know it’s out! I’ve looked forward to reading for quite some time.

Of course, I have my own horse in the race, having posted a different article about American Buddhist landscape… but I am eager to hear what she says about these developments in the IMS / Spirit Rock / mindfulness scene. I’ve heard really good things about her depth of knowledge and engagement with the community.

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Since I have little interest in postmodernism, I have come to different conclusions.

Buddhist practice and teachings inform, and continue to transform, my social, economic and political outlook in powerful ways. One of those ways has most to do with a deepinging awareness of the all-pervading role of greed, aggression and lust for ephemeral worldly attainments in human life, and an understanding of how our society is structured around the pursuit of those phantasmic defilements. Another has to do with dismantling one’s overestimation of the importance of the individual ego, and the tendency to treat one’s own self as the fulcrum of history.

A lot of American Buddhism strikes me as too steeped in the powerful individualism of American culture: it is obsessed with personal achievement and megalomaniacal self-aggrandizement, either in the crass worldly sense of looking for “spiritual” assistance in the pursuit of worldly individual attainments, or with being “saved”, or achieving levels of attainment or other kinds of acquisition, or with the Faustian desire for spiritual power, whether supernormal or otherwise.


Sure. Here’s the full quote:

Responses to the success of mindfulness in mainstream North America suggest that in fact many do want the whole story. Articles heralding its scientifically proven benefits have been followed by other commentaries expressing concern at various aspects of its secularization. Critiques range from traditionalist laments over the richness and complexity of a twenty-five-hundred-year-old tradition being reduced to one component of the Noble Eightfold Path to Marxist-inspired analyses of the elite hijacking of mindfulness and its complicity in neoliberal ideology and global capitalism. Critics draw on distinctions between right and wrong mindfulness as decreed by the Pali Canon and differentiate between sincere individual intentions and the institutionalization of self-disciplines as informed by Michel Foucault. These unusual bedfellows of religious conservatives and critical theorists, premodern and poststructuralist perspectives, are united by a suspicion of the distinctively modern discourses that have overtaken Buddhism.


@sgns - Yeah!

Having lived in both the Bay Area and New York, I am familiar with a lot of the communities and even some of the events discussed and I was impressed by her fair and accurate portraits. I was disappointed, though, that my favorite communities (Karuna Buddhist Vihara and Buddhist Insights) didn’t get any coverage, especially since I think they represent the right mix of fidelity to tradition and novelty of form. Perhaps they’re still too small to get on an academic’s radar, but I fear there’s a bit of loudness bias at work too: It’s easy to ignore or dismiss the work of humble monastics.


Not to mention a pervasive sense, and in Western adaptations in general, that they now “own” Buddhism.


I think lay engagement is the most difficult challenge. Lay support for monastics requires substantial and stable communities. The challenge is that a good many and perhaps the majority of our modern social connections are distributed, even distributed to the widest global extent possible as evidenced by the reach of D&D itself. However, one cannot walk for alms food online.

Therefore, I think engaged Buddhism in the West (note that I avoid the ambiguity of “America”) will need to find a way to help such communities arise naturally. I think this means that we need to take a closer look at understanding the needs of Western laity. We need to understand where and how laity would naturally come together to support monastics. I believe this coming together has to be local, with a physical proximity capable of supporting alms rounds. The difficulty of such congregation is that there are few activities in modern times that require congregation. In older, farming times, resources and efforts were physically shared, especially during harvest. Physical congregation happened naturally.

In the Western world today, one of the ways that people congregate naturally is because of need. The homeless congregate where they are least unwanted. And the suffering in homeless camps is vast. Therefore I see an opportunity here for proactive social support of the currently homeless, many of whom also do have jobs (!). If Western society can support such congregations officially by providing cost effective security, lodging and food for all, then I think progress can be made. In other words, engaged Buddhism has to actually solve social problems.

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Speaking of which , in 2015 Ann Gleig aptly wrote of postmoderism:

The notoriously slippery and multivalent signifier “postmodernity” has been the source of much confusion and dissent and it is understandable why Buddhist scholars might want to steer clear of it.
(PDF) Buddhism Beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States A volume in the SUNY Series in Buddhism and American Culture | Ann Gleig -

I post the quote as a way of recommending a path towards equanimity. The practice: when one hears the phrase “post-modern” assume one is faced with a thicket of various views, one or more of which may resemble the view(s) the speaker is attempting to refer to.

FYI: I consider myself a post-modernist. And perhaps post post-modern, roughly in the sense as described by Ken Wilber.
:face_with_raised_eyebrow: I figure I must be a bit post-modern because of the pleasure I often get from contact with those multivalent signifiers!

My take was that this “thicket of views” (or, as she more politely called it, “plurality of epistemologies”) was exactly what she intended to evoke by describing American Buddhism as post-modernist.

Did you get a different impression from the book?

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To make headway on solving the world’s most complex problems, scholars and policy makers must deploy the best ideas. This typically requires consulting a wide range of perspectives. In contrast I observe few western Buddhists who engage seriously in the question of how one obtains or approximates a “right view” in engaged Buddhism. A inquiry into the practices and precepts for recognizing “right view” in a given historical situation seem to have gone missing. Yet that missing inquiry is what encourages epistemic humility and breaks down polarization and divisiveness.

I am rooting for a Buddhist movement somewhat modeled after That is, I propose that the western concept of liberal education with it’s exposure to a diversity of thought is consistent with, and perhaps hinted at, the teachings of the EBT. The notion of intellectual blind spots also seems to fit in comfortably with the general notion of the Second Noble Truth.

In the meantime politically active practitioners should feel free to critique dharma teachers and monastics when they privilege ideology and social theory over dharma. Partisan oriented, politically motivated activism should be confronted even when the activist in question wears a robe.


So you’re imagining a very old-school “living among the poorest” kind of missionary aesthetic? I can dig that, though, interestingly (both as a matter of history and personal experience) it seems that poor people are the least receptive to Buddhism.

There’s a lot of reasons for this, but most poor people don’t see craving as their problem, they see a lack of money, housing, medicine, etc as their problem. Rich people already know that money can’t buy happiness and are more willing to look in a counterintuitive direction.

Furthermore, the way I see it, the world’s problems aren’t really caused by poor people, but by the greed of the rich. So, oddly, it’s not the upper-middle class demographic of Western Buddhism that bothers me, it’s that the teachers don’t problematize their selfishness / privelege.

So perhaps the right approach is a bit of a combination: having a community space that is open to the poor and provides much needed support, while also being welcoming yet slightly provocative to the affluent. … Much like BI in NYC come to think of it :thinking: Gio is a genius! :joy:


Or is it people trying to ground their political beliefs in both an ancient tradition and a grand spiritual narrative?

When people are trying to create an engaged Buddhism, progressive Buddhism, conservative Buddhims, etc. it seems to me more that people are trying to escape post-modernism by finding a foundation for their beliefs rather than being critical of grand narratives, universalist ideas, etc.

This isn’t necessarily wrong or bad, but it’s not post-modern.

IMO a better approach would be to ask ‘how can I make my engagement/progressivism/conservatism more Buddhist?’ instead of trying to make new Buddhisms.

What is critical theory bounded by right speech? What does activism without anger or ill-will look like? These would be innovations IMO.

For example, can ideas that highlight a certain group of people as ‘the problem’ ever be reconciled with right speech? (speaking words that promote harmony)

Is it possible to promote any such view without it giving rise to ill-will towards the people who are ‘the problem’? (for oneself and the people who take up the view after hearing it)

I think these are the type of questions that pop up if one wants to take the teachings of the Buddha seriously in the context of politics :slight_smile:


Here is a rough first approximation – somewhat exaggerated for dramatic effect – of what I think a more mature engaged Buddhism would sound like:

My political choices have nothing at all to do with Buddhism.
They’re not informed by Buddhist ideals, they don’t reflect the values of the Buddhist lineage. I’m not voting as I think the Buddha would. Why would anyone imagine that just because someone’s a Buddhist they have a superior view on who or what to vote for?

A very famous Buddhist leader recently wrote, “As Buddhists we have much to offer. We must contribute our clear insights, special contemplative tools, and compelling moral convictions in the task of transforming and uplifting our society and the world.”

Ugh! Trying to massage the egos of self-identified Buddhists in the hopes that they’ll vote the way you want them to is such an ugly and crass thing to do. It makes me ashamed to even be involved with Buddhism at all. Educate yourself about what those you oppose politically are really saying instead of listening to one-sided arguments that try to make you feel like a hero against a world of drooling cartoon villains.

That’s my advice anyway.

But don’t forget my other piece of advice, which is, don’t take the political advice of Buddhist teachers.

Plagiarized from: Who Would Buddha Vote For? Who Cares? | Hardcore Zen


I sometimes wonder whether I should write a memoir of my 40 years in UK Buddhism - but I’d probably need to a lot of stuff out… :laughing:

Agreed. I was just mulling this over myself.

However, It’s not just so much a focus on the homeless, but that there is an odd correlation between the vastly rich and the vastly poor.

Recently a friend told us a horror story about a newly hired engineer who had just been hired at the company of his dreams. This software engineer was head over heels in excitement at his acceptance and he promptly broke up with his girlfriend by text message saying that he basically wanted to keep company with his new engineer peers and that she, being only a teacher, wasn’t the company he wished to keep. So you can see this ghastly and cruel mindset that splits society in half through greed, aversion and delusion.

Another example is the city of San Francisco. San Francisco used to be a city that took pride in progressive openness and inclusion. Yet today, we have the homeless defecating in the streets will the rich smart kids labor obliviously in their startups. San Francisco teachers can no longer afford to live in San Francisco unless they are the lucky few with benevolent landlords.

I guess what I am suggesting is that we cannot just focus on chanting the suttas with the wealthy having spare time. I think we also need to help engage them in works that heal the ghastly rich/poor divide.


Sure that’s the direction I would love too. :heart: The how will be the tricky part! :joy:


:laughing: indeed.

Yet I am recently heartened by the news that SF is paying the homeless to clean up the streets. This is a start and truly in the spirit of the old SF. Perhaps we can find other bridges and build them together.


Some Precepts for engaged Buddhism – short form.

  • The opinions expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Buddha, the dharma or the sangha.
  • The how is the tricky part.
  • Advocacy is designed to limit the range of policy choices . An honest broker educates about the range of options available.
  • It’s almost impossible to be an honest broker without the help of a politically, ideologically diverse team.

I’m not American but do you Americans know what Buddhism is…? I think it’s just too early to pin anything down.