Scott A. Mitchell, "Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts" (Bloomsbury, 2016)


Scott A. Mitchell's recent monograph, Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts (Bloomsbury, 2016), provides a much-needed up-to-date overview of Buddhism in the United States. To tackle such a large topic, Mitchell draws on Thomas Tweeds work and approaches American Buddhism as comprising worldviews and sets of practices that are born of local circumstances but which can be firmly located within global cultural networks that extend far beyond the local and beyond America.

The book is usefully divided into three sections. In the first, Mitchell provides a short introduction to Buddhism and then discusses the history of Buddhism in the US up to around the 1960s. Here he also touches on the nineteenth-century European interest in Buddhism, on the ways in which US immigration policy influenced Buddhist demographics, and on the Zen boom of the 1950s. The second section presents a rich overview of Buddhism in the US, organized according to a tripartite distinction between Theravada traditions, East Asian Mahayana traditions, and Vajrayana traditions, including Japanese esoteric Buddhism. For anyone who wants to know who established what temple or group and when, this is essential reading. A third section then addresses a handful of themes or developments through which to examine American Buddhism more broadly. Here Mitchell sheds fresh light on a number of issues that will be familiar to anyone involved with Buddhism in the US. For example, he examines commercial uses of Buddhist ideas and imagery, but goes beyond characterizing such use as mere cultural appropriation for monetary ends by providing examples in which it is practicing Buddhists themselves who are behind the commercial use. Here he also looks at visual art and literature that straddles the border between Buddhist and non-Buddhist, thus bringing our attention to the gray areas in which readers notions of what is and is not Buddhism are challenged. Other topics addressed in this third section include issues around identity, pan-Buddhist and secular Buddhist movements, and various forms of socially-engaged Buddhism. In the interview we only touch on a few of these topics, and readers will have to pick up a copy for themselves to appreciate the full scope of this volume.

The book is in part designed to be used in the classroom, and each chapter is accompanied by a useful chapter overview, discussion questions, and a list for further reading. That being said, the book offers a wealth of information, and is thus a must-read for any scholar wanting to know about the history and current state of American Buddhism. Furthermore, written in clear prose as it is, the book can also be enjoyed by those without a prior understanding of Buddhism, and it will provide anyone who is interested with the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of American Buddhism currently available.

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Luke Thompson

Luke Thompson's research focuses on medieval Japanese Buddhist intellectual history, though he has interests in Buddhism beyond Japan, and particularly in anthropological approaches to Buddhism.

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