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  • The Individual in Relation to the Sangha in American Buddhism:An Examination of "Privatized Religion"
  • Kenneth K. Tanaka

In his celebrated book Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam noted the increased level in the phenomenon of "privatized religion" within the previous thirty-five years. Many of the Baby Boomer generation left churches in the late 1960s and the 1970s. Some sought out new religious movements and religious therapies, but most simply "dropped out" of organized religion altogether. He cites Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, specialists in American religion, who describe the outcome of this trend in American religious behavior: "[The consequence was a] tendency toward highly individualized religious psychology without the benefits of strong supportive attachments to believing communities. A major impetus in this direction in the post-1960s was the thrust toward greater personal fulfillment and quest for the ideal self. . . . In this climate of expressive individualism, religion tends to become "privatized," or anchored in the personal realms."1 Putnam observes that although privatized religion may be "morally compelling and psychologically fulfilling," it involves less social capital than environments in which individuals are connected to other individuals in shared faith commitment.

Interestingly, American Buddhism may be one of the beneficiaries of this trend, for the recent growth of Buddhism in the United States is partly attributable to the climate of "privatized" religion. Nowhere is this symbolized more than by the so-called Nightstand Buddhists.2

The Nightstand Buddhists derive their name from their practice of placing a Buddhist meditation book on the nightstand after reading it before they go to sleep. They get up the next morning and practice to the best of their ability the meditation they had read about the night before. Further, they may frequently attend lectures at the local university and visit a Buddhist center's web-page or participate in an online Buddhist discussion group. And if we were to visit them, we might find their homes decorated with Buddhist artifacts.

But these Nightstand Buddhists do not show up in any statistics on the [End Page 115] American Buddhist population because they would not identify themselves as Buddhists. According to Thomas Tweed, who coined the term Nightstand Buddhists, "Sympathizers (= Nightstand Buddhists) are those who have some sympathy for Buddhism but do not embrace it exclusively or fully. When asked, they would not identify themselves as Buddhists. They would say they are Methodists, or Jewish, or unaffiliated."3 However, they have been an important part of the story of Buddhism in America from its beginning and continue to be so today.

Among the three million Buddhists currently estimated to be in the United States, I believe there are Buddhists who exhibit many of the same characteristics as the Nightstand Buddhists. And this number is significant, particularly among those converts to Buddhism whose main practice is meditation. This group of convert Buddhists is one segment of the larger Buddhist community in the United States, which I have categorized into four groups.4

  1. 1. New Asian American Buddhists (those who have mostly arrived in the United States since the 1960s: Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Cambodian, Myanmar, Laotian, and Sri Lankan).

  2. 2. Old-line Asian American Buddhists (those who were established before World War II: Chinese and Japanese).

  3. 3. Convert Buddhists whose main practice is meditation (predominately Euro-Americans practicing in the Zen, Vipassanā, and Tibetan traditions).

  4. 4. Convert Buddhists whose main practice is chanting (Sōkagakkai International–USA, a sizable percentage of whom are African and Hispanic Americans).

In this paper, I wish to focus on a Jōdo Shinshū temple from the second group (old-line Asian American Buddhists) and on several centers collectively that belong to the Zen, Vipassanā, and Tibetan traditions from the third group (convert Buddhists whose main practice is meditation), looking at the manner in which individuals relate to their respective institutions and traditions, with special attention given to the phenomenon of "privatized religion."

For purposes of this paper, my definition of "privatized religion" is based on the observation of Roof and McKinney, cited above, as "a tendency for individuals (1) to emphasize practicing at home over religious centers, and (2) to value the subjective and the inward." The homebound orientation is connected...


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