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Buddhist-Christian Studies 22 (2002) 217-221

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Book Review

Buddhism in America

Luminous Passage:
The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America

Buddhism in America. By Richard Hughes Seager. Columbia Contemporary American Religion Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. By Charles S. Prebish. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

These two books are general overviews of Buddhist religion as practiced in America. 1 Buddhism in America is written for a general audience, even for readers unfamiliar with Buddhism, and would work well as a textbook. Luminous Passage presupposes some familiarity with the topic of Buddhism in America, and is addressed mainly to fellow scholars and supporters of Buddhism. Both books focus on Buddhist communities in America (leaders and institutions) and opt not to discuss Buddhist thought, [End Page 217] doctrine, or theology (margology). This review will describe each book in turn, and then raise some issues.

Seager characterizes Buddhism in America as "a road map to the American Buddhist landscape, in which histories, communities, institutions, and individuals are set in meaningful relationship to each other in order to make sense of developments that are often baffling in their complexity" (xii). Buddhism in America is divided into three parts and fourteen chapters. Part 1 (chapters 1-4) offers background information on basic Buddhist teachings, institutions, historical traditions, and a brief history of Buddhism in America. Part 1 is a useful primer for readers unfamiliar with Buddhism and adds to this book's value as a college textbook. Part 2 (chapters 5-10) is "the heart of the book," with chapters on the Japanese Pure Land sect Jodo Shinshu (Buddhist Churches of America), the proselytizing movement Soka Gakkai, Japanese Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism (including vipassana meditation groups), and "other" forms of Buddhism (Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese). Part 3 (chapters 11-14) discusses the themes of gender, social engagement, interreligious dialogue, and Americanization. The book concludes with seventeen profiles of prominent Buddhist figures, a chronology, glossary, resources, and an index. The glossary is superfluous (the index directs the reader to longer definitions in the text), and is misleading in several cases (e.g., "bodhisattva" should be defined as "enlightenment being," not "wisdom body"). The section of resources includes select annotated bibliographies of books, periodicals, videos, and Web sites (75 percent current). The list of videos is particularly valuable for teaching.

Chapter 13, "Intra-Buddhist and Interreligious Dialogue," will be of particular interest to readers of this journal. The section on Christian-Buddhist dialogue is very short (221-225), mostly on Thomas Merton and his legacy. In keeping with his focus on communities rather than doctrines, Seager approaches the topic of interreligious encounter by discussing recent dialogues rather than by discussing doctrinal or philosophical issues.

Luminous Passageis also a book about Buddhist communities. It is intended as a companion volume to The Faces of Buddhism in America, a collection edited by Prebish and Kenneth Tanaka and published simultaneously by University of California Press. Like Seager's book, Luminous Passage is based on recent fieldwork, but unlike the former book, Luminous Passage is also based on the author's encounters with Buddhist figures over the years and his career as a buddhologist. The author's personal approach to his topic is both a strength and a weakness. An advantage of writing such a personal book is the plethora of interesting anecdotes that the author is able to include. However, a disadvantage to writing such a personal book is that the book becomes strongly shaped by the author's personal concerns. The author identifies himself as a Buddhist academic, and the book expresses his own ideals and hopes for the future of "American Buddhism." As the title of the book suggests, the author is hopeful for a "luminous passage," an evolution of the Buddhist traditions in America into an identifiably American Buddhism.

Luminous Passage has six chapters, plus preface and appendix. Chapter 1 sketches [End Page 218] the history of Buddhism in America and...