We’re joined this week by Ph.D Candidate and Buddhist blogger Brooke Schedneck, to explore her research into several emerging patterns in Western Buddhist communities. We begin with how, as a training academic, she got into Buddhism and how she ended up combining both 1st and 3rd person observation into her research. We also explore her current research at International meditation centers in Thailand, and how this research highlights larger trends in how Buddhism is interacting with modernity.
She goes into several broad trends that she is tracking including 1) The ongoing relationship between lay and monastic forms 2) the pragmatic dharma movement 3) practitioners having a strong interest in the future of Western Buddhism & 4) an overall sense of a movement toward greater balance in Buddhist communities.
- Wandering Dhamma
- Cambridge Insight Meditation Center
- The Hardcore Dharma Movement
- The Blogisattva Awards
- Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha’s First Teaching
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks, this is Vincent Horn. And I’m joined today over the phone with Brooke Schedneck. She’s coming live from Chiang Mai, Thailand, so this is probably the farthest non-local interview we’ve done. But it’s great to have you on the show, Brooke.
Brooke: Great, thanks.
Vincent: You’re a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University. You’re doing Buddhist studies, and you’re in Thailand right now doing research, for just over a year. So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your research and also about some of the trends you’ve been noticing in modern Buddhism.
You also are a blogger at Wandering Dhamma—that’s dhamma like the Pali version of Dharma. Before we jump into that though, I kind of was interested in getting a little bit of your personal background with Buddhism. A lot of times academics don’t like to talk about their personal relationship to a particular religion. But I figured since you’re on Buddhist Geeks and since you’re a listener, I figured I’d hit you with that question anyway.
Brooke: Oh, yeah, it’s true. A lot of academics have a little bit of a difficult relationship with the whole scholar-practitioner thing. It’s a good thing, but by some it could be considered not so good for your career. But I think for me in what I do in my blog and in my research it’s kind of a natural question because I do so much practice for my research that I write about in my blog.
But I became interested in Buddhist studies in college. I think it’s a time when a lot of people become interested in Buddhism. It’s hard to learn about it before then. I was always interested in learning about religion and about Asia because in my earlier education we were only learning about America and European history. I just thought Asia is the opposite of this, and this is what I want to learn about. I was mostly focusing on religion, and so I thought it was the most interesting part of it. From there I took one seminar at Boston University where I went to undergraduate, and it was a seminar on meditation. The teacher made us go to a meditation center in the Boston area once a week and keep a meditation journal.
Brooke: We could choose any one, and there were so many different ones there. But I chose the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center…
Vincent: Oh, yeah.
Brooke: …mostly because I knew where that was. I knew it would be easy for me to get there because I used to live in that area. But I had never been there before. I didn’t know about that type of meditation. But I really like it there. I like the teachers. After that class was over I would go there on and off. I wasn’t a member or regular person, but I would go there and do the under 30 nights with Michael and Narayan Liebenson Grady. They were my teachers for the introduction meditation class, and so that’s how I, kind of, got into practicing meditation.
But in this class, the seminar on meditation, there was also a component of field research where you would go to the center. I chose to compare contemporary meditation practices with early Buddhist communities. So I think that this early experience made me think about connecting meditation with research, and how you can look at contemporary meditation and religion, modernity through practice at the same time.
So that’s kind of how I’ve always approached my interest in Buddhism. I’ve always had a, kind of, academic bent to it. This whole idea of a scholar-practitioner—I’m definitely a scholar and the practitioner part, I think, is what’s interesting about studying Buddhism. And when I’m studying these questions around conversion and Buddhist identity, it just shows the new changes and ideas that are being brought up with representations of Buddhism in modernity and with religious pluralism, makes it this complex issue of what does it mean to self-identify as a Buddhist.
I’ve been doing a lot of research about these questions: Is Buddhism a religion even, so how can I identify with it? If you practice meditation, does this make you a Buddhist or can you just be a meditator? So I’m interested in looking at these questions, not necessarily answering them for everyone or even for myself; but that these questions are a possibility in people’s religious lives. Buddhism is such an interesting example of this because it blurs these lines between conversion and exploration of a tradition or religion and secularism.
So because my research involved so much meditation I think I’m definitely sympathetic to the tradition. I know a lot of colleagues that would not go into this type of research that I do that involves so much practice. This would be hard for them to endure, but I went to Thailand—I cam here about two years ago, and I did a meditation retreat for 10 days. Because I hadn’t done any retreats before, when I was in America practicing, and in the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center—just day retreats, no long-term ones.
So, I came here and I did that, and then I knew that I could do the research the next year when I got funding. That’s why I chose to do this type of fieldwork. Because of my interest in meditation, but also because these questions about Buddhism and modernity are so interesting, I think that this is a way to illuminate these aspects.
Vincent: Ok. So, maybe another question just around your research: When you’re going in to do field research, you’re calling it, where you’re going to meditate or do a retreat, how are you conceptualizing that? Because on the one hand, I could see approaching something like that as research, but then on the other hand I can see, as a practitioner myself, approaching it with some aim in mind for myself, that I’ll get something personally out of it. Do you have to deal with both of those as competing or complementary motives, or are you primarily focused on one over the other?
Brooke: Yeah, I think in a way that they are competing, but I think of them as both for myself. The research, I think is important for me as a scholar and also as part of my interest in trying to answer some of these questions that I have about Buddhism and modernity.
It’s tough sometimes to balance with meditation, and if I was just going into a meditation retreat without thinking about any type of research questions, it would probably be a different experience. But even if I was just doing a meditation retreat, I’m such an academic and so interested in these questions that those questions would come up for me anyway, and I would be still kind of observing what was going on rather than just focusing on this type of practice only. But I do think of them as both beneficial for me in learning about Buddhism and learning about myself.
Brooke: In some cases I was able to not be so concerned about the research because I had already done an interview with the meditation teacher, or I knew that everything was set and I had already done a large portion of observation. I could just for a lot of the time, just focus on meditation. In some cases I was able to balance it better than others.
Vincent: Interesting. And when you’re going at this particular type of fieldwork, the first-person exploration fieldwork, what kinds of things are you looking for, are you paying attention to, exploring, researching, for instance, on a meditation retreat? It just seems so interesting to me to be coming at it from an academic perspective. It’d be cool to hear what kinds of things you do.
Brooke: Mostly I do participant observation, so looking around and seeing what’s going on, and what I’m looking at in these meditation retreats—I go to places where there are foreigners, where there’s international meditators, so always an international meditation retreat center or monastery. I look at the ways that foreigners are being presented with the tradition, and the degrees to which they’re being taught about meditation, taught about Buddhist culture, mixed with the Thai meditators. If this is a place that has foreigners and Thai Buddhists laity meditating together, to what degree are they integrated through the teachings or separated?
And so that’s just the observation of it, because language is obviously a difference. They’re separated through groups where some monks teach in English and the other monks teach in Thai, but in some cases there’s no teaching involved. It’s just an individual retreat where you just go and meditate. So in those cases it’s about the interviews for the English speakers with their teacher, the orientation practices of entering the retreat and leaving the retreat, and how are these similar or different to the baseline of the Thai meditators? The degree to which they are taken to the other aspects of the retreat besides meditation, like chanting—the chanting periods with the monks in the morning and the evening. Some places, they lead you in a yoga practice, and some places you receive the precepts—the Eight Precepts to live in a temple—and in some places they don’t need foreigners to do those practices, because they think that foreigners are non-Buddhist so they don’t have to take these formal vows while living in the monastery.
So there’s a lot of those kind of differences that I look at in the representations of Buddhism, meditation, and Buddhist culture. And then, while observing this, I create questions for the meditation teachers, for the foreigners. And usually at the end I ask them some of these questions, and their opinions about what has that served, and what they think of the foreign meditators, how they’ve adapted the teachings for them, and how they feel that the international meditators are receiving the teachings—their teacher that has been there for a long time—how they have seen the international meditators change over time, their ideas about meditation and Buddhism.
So, it depends on each site, but usually a lot of issues come up, and so along with meditating I do the looking around at everything and then do the interview with the meditation teacher. I usually can’t talk with international meditators so much if it’s a silent retreat, but sometimes I try to before or afterwards, or if we’re allowed to talk a little bit during a mealtime, just to see who’s there and why, how they heard about it, just to get some kind of small background information, some anecdotes.
Vincent: And I know besides just the trends from your own research, one of the things you blog a lot about are trends just in modern Buddhism in general, and I know you stay really in touch with a lot of different things that are going on.
That’s one of the things we wanted to speak with you about, because that’s kind of the space in which Buddhist Geeks exist to explore. So I figured it’d be cool to get your sense of, what are some of the interesting trends that you see going on in modern Buddhism?
Brooke: Yeah, I think my research also… because I’m in Thailand but I’m looking at international travelers, it’s kind of like still looking at Buddhism in English-speaking countries because it’s these same people that come here and create communities and engage with the tradition. So it’s kind of just looking at it from a different angle and different perspective. So I think that keeps me related to Buddhism in the West, and trends as well.
But yeah, I think that what I’m seeing in Thailand are these people who are so… this diversity of engagement with Buddhism is also what you see in Buddhism in the West. It’s one of the trends of people becoming interested in meditation as something secular, as something for mundane benefits like stress relief, and then people who are really committed to meditation and interested in monasticism.
One of the things I think might be becoming more popular is monasticism, as like I’m seeing in Thailand, there are these temporary monastic programs that a lot of people are interested in. Again, it’s just for the experience of being a monk for a small period of time, like a week or a month, and learning about the tradition in that way, or about the culture, being in Thailand. But I think that it still sparks an interest in people for the monastic tradition, and a lot of times Buddhism in the West has been talked about as being more of a lay tradition. That’s one of the ways that it has adapted to the West, that it has more lay teachers. A lot of people are arguing for lay teachers and practitioners as being, in some ways, higher than monastics because they live in this real world and not this supposed artificial monastic environment. I wrote an article about this for an academic journal and I used some of the Buddhist Geeks interviews for that, which was great. So that was talking about the trend of laicization and how monastics were arguing for their place in Buddhism in the West, and I think that it is becoming a little bit more accepted to have monasticism rather than only lay practitioners, lay teachers. I think people are starting to see that, especially with the Thai forest tradition coming to America, and how it’s even more rooted in England, how they are the ones that are really putting forward this idea of monasticism as important for the development of Buddhism in the West.
The other thing that I wrote about on my blog that was very interesting and revealing as a trend for modern Buddhism, was something that you’re involved with Vince, what I called the “hardcore Dhamma movement,” but I think we’re just calling it more “Pragmatic Dharma,” which is this small group of teachers, mainly Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram that you’ve talked about on Buddhist Geeks a lot. They’re openly calling themselves enlightened and arhants. So on my blog I just wrote about the features of this movement and how it’s something kind of different and new for Buddhism in the West.
The comments I got on it, I think, show the kind of division that’s still present in America Buddhist community. Some people were very positive about it and behind these teachers coming out of the closet, and calling themselves enlightened and other people were very challenged by this idea. And that was the main point of contention that teachers are calling themselves enlightened. And also showed some ideas of Monasticism and lay practitioners to that a lot of people think the Monastics are the ones who become enlightened. So that showed this division as well. And I just was calling it The Hardcore Dharma Movement just because that was Daniel Ingram’s title of his book, that it was an Unusually Hardcore Dharma book because no one had really talked about so I didn’t know what to call it. But now it seems like it’s being called Pragmatic Dharma.
Another thing I wanted to talk about for trends in American Buddhist communities is how practitioners are becoming so involved in the direction of Buddhism in the West. Wow they really have an investment in it’s future and in its direction. And I think you can see this in the many blogs about Buddhism and the many readers. Even with the awards coming out, I think there were many votes for the Blogisattva awards. So, I think you see it there, that people are trying to debate about Buddhism in the West and its adaptation here, and how to create its future. And how people want to be informed about this.
And also in the books that are written now about Buddhism, a lot of books that are written recently are about the traditional Buddhist teachings and they are kind of modern commentaries on it. Like, most recently Ajahn Sucitto’s “Turning the Wheel of Truth,” which is about the Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment. And then books on meditation that go back to the Visshudimagga and the Satipatthana Sutta, they go back to the Pali Cannon and the early commentaries of it.
And there’s a desire for this, because people don’t necessarily want to go back and read the Sutras but that they have access to the direct teaching of the Buddha through these teachers. It still gives them kind of a pathway to learning about the tradition, not just from what this teacher says but they know that it’s from… it has lineage to the Buddha. So they have this kind of authority that they can see. And, of course, the teacher who’s writing the book has a certain slant and omits things perhaps, and emphasizes others. But the fact that practitioners want to learn about these older teachers, these ancient teachings that come from the Buddha or the early disciples, I think shows practitioners are trying to really get a handle on Buddhism, the tradition itself in America, not just meditation as has been the case.
So, I think a lot of the trends for American Buddhism, at least, shows a kind of balancing, whereas before it was more leaning towards secularism, laicization. From what I’m seeing, we’re coming to a little bit more of a balance now.