Religion and Popular Culture in the U.S.
Oxford University Press 2011
In popular perception, a certain image arises when we imagine eastern religions. Perhaps, we envision a wise old Asian man in traditional clothing sitting in a meditative state (maybe not). But why does this image emerge? Jane Iwamura, Chair of The Department of Religious Studies at the University of the West, examines this “Oriental Monk” figure in Virtual Orientalism: Religion and Popular Culture in the U.S. (Oxford University Press, 2011). Iwamura outlines the history of popular representations of eastern religions within the American religious landscape of 1950s through 1980s. Over and over again she found that the East was imagined through a particular perception of what eastern spirituality was all about and how one could access it. She presents a short genealogy of this “Oriental Monk” icon through the public representations of D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese scholar and popularizer of Zen Buddhism in the west; Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the celebrity guru for the Beatles; and Kwai Chang Cain from the popular televisions show Kung Fu. In our conversation we discuss the Zen Boom, the hyperreality of images, Jack Kerouac and the Beats, Alan Watts, geographies of East and West, and what makes American Orientalism unique.