‘Speaking for the Buddha’ Conference Wrap-up

I spent the past two afternoons at UC Berkeley, attending this conference on a variety of issues regarding the role of the media in depicting Buddhism to a Western audience. The conference was organized to coincide with the International Buddhist Film Festival, and included a panel on presentations of Buddhism in film.

A few highlights from the conference, from my perspective:

Day 1:

John Loudon, a former employee Harper Publications, San Francisco, talked a bit about what makes a commercially successful ‘Buddhist book’, and how this affects the quality and content of the majority of books on Buddhist topics published by major American publishers. American readers, it seems, are less interested in an authentic (much less challenging) presentation of Buddhist teachings than they are in immediately applicable self-help, often with a strong along psychotherapeutic bent. Mr. Loudon noted that most publishers have little in the way of in-house expertise in judging the quality of books on Buddhist topics, and are not really in a position to set themselves up as arbiters of what is or isn’t ‘true’ Buddhism. The result is that many published books on Buddhism have only tangential connections to historic Buddhist practices or teachings, and reflect instead the readers desire for a bit of helpful advice on life, with the writers Buddhist credentials (if any) serving primarily as an indicator of general authority over matters spiritual and psychological.

Richard Jaffe of Duke University gave a both humorous and sobering talk that he termed a view of Buddhism from a ‘Red State’. He looked at the presentation of Buddhism in non-sympathetic media, particularly the writings of conservative Christians. He mentioned the Pope’s claim in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope that Buddhism was a ‘negative soteriology’ that seeks to make one ‘indifferent to the world’ (read the Pope’s book here, if you’re so inclined). He also mentioned this stinker, by 700 Club Chief Mousekateer Pat Robertson, in which the appointment of a Buddhist monk to the position of Secretary of Education is taken to be a sign that the apocalypse is headed our way. Jaffe discussed the fact that for many Americans, drivel like Robertson’s (remember, this man sat by nodding while Jerry Falwell blamed homosexuals and the ACLU for 9/11) has more influence than the writings of Buddhist scholars and practitioners, and that the ‘balkanized’ state of our current media- more and more media sources, especially Internet based, that reflect the views and prejudices of their audience- means that there are many folks in the ‘Red States’ who will be unlikely to encounter a positive portrayal of Buddhism.

Babeth Van Loo of the Dutch Buddhist Broadcast Foundation gave an overview of the history and aims of the organization. The idea of a Buddhist television station is certainly intriguing, ; there were a number of programs and projects that the Foundation has created that I would be interested in seeing.

Robert Buswell of UCLA, a specialist in Korean Buddhism, talked a good deal about movies dealing with Buddhism, and in particular the adoption of Western modes by Eastern film-makers in depicting Buddhism and particularly Buddhist characters or archetypes. Unfortunately, in Buswell’s assessment, some film-makers in Korea and the rest of Asia have absorbed a number of Orientalist, quasi-Western assumptions and prejudices about Buddhist characters, depicting them as entirely other-worldly, aloof and disengaged, monocultural, and unable to answer even a simple question without staring into space for a while. He maintained that showing realistic views of Buddhist life (and particularly monastic life) was significant because it gave an idea of the context and reality of the Buddhist world, and thus provided viewers with an idea of the reality of Buddhist goals and techniques. Essentially, without knowing the reality of the life of a monk, it is difficult if not impossible to understand anything about what the culmination of that life (nirvana) would be.

Day 2:

For me, the first session of Day 2 was the most interesting of the entire conference. More than the contributions of any particular participant, what stood out to me was the interaction of the panelists and the crowd in really trying to tease out what was meant by some of the questions of authority that were being raised, including questioning and defending the premise of the conference itself. The conference organized, Robert Sharf, observed that among the gathered reporters, publishers, academics, and Dharma teachers, no one seemed to be particularly eager to claim the responsibility of critiquing or addressing the (often distorted) visions of Buddhism that were presented to the world. To Sharf, I think, this represents a sort of abdication of responsibility in comparison with the historical tradition of debate over what constituted the ‘true teachings’ of the Buddha, or at the very least an indication that the Buddhist institutions in North America are not yet matured to the point that this sort of debate is possible.

There was a certain amount of agreement, but I think also a feeling that it wasn’t really clear what form that such a critique would take, or how it would be presented. Furthermore, I would argue that this process of ‘vetting’ the authenticity of Buddhist traditions has never been an absolute one, even in traditional Buddhist societies. There have always been doctrinal and practical disputes in Buddhism, resulting in the proliferation of schools and sects that we see today in the Buddhist world. We also have the phenomena of cult-like structures that form within Buddhist institutions, or at the periphery of mainstream Buddhist society (the Sri Lankan cults described in Buddhism Transformed, for instance). In traditional societies, a role for media or academia as arbiters of Buddhist truth was not possible, much less conceived off, and clearly the degree to which the Sangha itself has been interested or empowered to do this sort of policing has varied a great deal. The state has also often taken a role in this sort of debate, often promoting religious teachings that (unsurprisingly) encourage social stability and cohesion, and obedience to the state.

The second session of Day 2 covered the use of Buddhist concepts and images in advertising. Mention was made of the controversial Buddha bikini that caused such a stir last year, as well as a variety of New-Agey or pop culture products that are marketed using vaguely Buddhist themes or images. The montage of U.S. TV commercials that played at the start of the session was good for a few laughs, and showed that the view of Buddhism held by most Americans seems to be shaped more by David Carradine than anything else.

A few speakers mentioned that they thought that Buddhism was perceived as an easy target because Buddhists are such a small minority in the U.S., or that because of Buddhist beliefs in non-violence, they would not attempt to ‘fight back’. Some hypothesized that ads poking fun of Christians, Jews, or Muslims would not be as acceptable to a U.S. audience as those that target Buddhist or vaguely New Age or Eastern images.

I’m not sure that that’s entirely true. Certainly, Christian monks and nuns have been a source of a variety of advertising pitches over the years, in one form or another. While not as prevalent in advertising, stereotypes of Jews (and particularly visibly identifiable religious Jews- Chasids and the ultra-Orthodox) turn up quite a bit in comedy, as does humor created at the expense of Christian priests or other figures. I think more than an attempt to denigrate or poke fun at Buddhism qua Buddhism, some of these ads represent instead a more broad American theme of anti-renunciation and practicality that runs strong in American society, likely an aspect of the broader Protestant ethos. The ideas of ‘nasal gazing’, ‘two-dollar words’, and ‘egghead experts’ are often subjects of derision in popular American media, and I think that the position of Buddhism in some of these ads may just reflect that it takes a particularly recognizable visual form.

Overall, an excellent couple of days. A few of the ideas that I hit on while listening and taking notes will hopefully eventually develop into longer pieces. My only regrets are that I missed both the special screening of Kundun
(due to a previous engagement), and Donald Lopez’s presentation on Wednesday (due to inexplicable mid-day traffic in Oakland, during which an errant motorcyclist nearly caused me to rear-end another car). Lopez was, for me, one of the most recognizable names on the bill, and so of course ended up being the one speaker that I never got to hear. Ah well, at least I got cheap Indian food in Berkeley.


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