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Lions Roar : May 2019
CELEBRATING YEARS Ann Gleig is an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Central Florida and author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press, 2019). thereby had access to higher levels of cultural currency. It’s essential, therefore, to consider how both economic and cultural class capital operates in meditation-based lineages. A major limitation economically is the central- ity of the retreat model. Most U.S. retreat centers work on a model in which there is a set cost for accommodation, food, and dana (donation) for the teachers. While many centers do offer scholar- ships to alleviate these costs, this overlooks the issue that many blue-collared jobs do not include paid leave. For working-class participants, it’s not just the cost of the retreat to consider but the wages lost while on retreat. Cultural currency also shows up in the aesthetics of meditation centers, in the type of food served, in how sangha members dress and speak, and in the cultural references given in dharma talks. All of these components are classed in ways that can make working-class people feel out of place. Recognizing what does work, as well as what doesn’t, is essential. Soka Gakkai International (SGI), a modern lay Nichiren-shu movement, has been successful in appealing to lower socioeco- nomic populations. In Cosmopolitan Dharma: Race, Sexuality, and Gender in British Buddhism, Sharon Smith found working-class SGI practitioners were attracted by the pragmatic focus of SGI practice, which helped them deal with both the material and psychological challenges of their daily lives. They were also drawn by a strong sense of social affirma- tion, community support, and an appreciation for leadership opportunities within the organization. Smith noted that SGI did not assume that its mem- bers were versed in high culture and incorporated popular culture into its education and events. While many dismiss conversations about privilege in Buddhism as progressive intrusions, it’s important to recognize that social hierarchies have always played a role in the tradition. The modern portrayal of the Buddha, which celebrates him as a radical who challenged the caste system, can easily mislead practitioners into assuming that, like caste, class is irrelevant to Buddhism, a social category that is transcended in practice. Scholars of Buddhism, however, have shown that both caste and class have played a major role on multiple levels in Buddhism: it can influence what type of Buddhism one is drawn to, what form of Buddhism one is able to access, and how one judges other Buddhist lineages. Jeffrey Samuels, for exam- ple, has demonstrated that from the thirteenth century to the present, caste has been a determina- tive factor in which monastic orders one can join in Sri Lanka. Similarly, Lori Meeks has shown that in Japanese Buddhism upper-class women were put on an advanced “bhikkhuni track” while lower- class women were confined to housekeeping. Pure Land Buddhism developed in large part as an alternative to the elitism in monastic and scho- lastic forms of Buddhism. Shinran (1173–1263), the founder of Shin Buddhism, a Japanese stream of Pure Land, taught a simple practice of nem- butsu (chanting the name of Amida Buddha), and elevated “ordinary” workers over scholars and monastics. A similar nonelitist rhetoric is found in his contemporary Nichiren (1222–1282), who believed that all people had the potential to attain buddhahood through chanting the daimoku, the seven-syllable title of the Lotus Sutra. Given that both Shin and Nichiren Buddhism promote a simple chanting practice, it is easy to assume that class divisions rest solely on practice forms. However, the situation is more complex, because not all Pure Land traditions are marked by class diversity. For instance, the Buddhist Churches of America, with a dominant middle- class demographic, is nearer to med- itation-based convert communities than to SGI. We are also seeing the emergence of more working-class offshoots of meditation-based lineages. One such space is the Tattooed Bud- dha, a growing online magazine and community, which reports it has had great success in reaching “the everyday blue-collar Buddhists or even just everyday blue-collar people looking for a little bit of mindfulness.” This highlights that it is not Buddhist meditation per se that is unappealing to the working classes, but rather the accessibility of practices, their relevance to daily life experience, and the social support available in the communi- ties in which they are taught. What can we learn going forward? First, centers need to start thinking about class more consciously and listening to the experiences of working-class practitioners. Brent Purple Oliver’s “White Trash LION’S ROAR | MAY 2019 73