Recently I read a really good Buddhist Book: Richard Madsen’s Democracy’s Dharma. I don’t read a lot of really good Buddhist books, because most Buddhist books are dreadful. This is because so many of them fly too close to New Age and self-help and are more concerned with making the reader feel good than communicating something new and vital.
Democracy’s Dharma has something to say. It is a study of four major religious groups in Taiwan: Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, Dharma Drum, and a predominantly Daoist group called Xingtian. The three former groups, all very active in the United States, are often underrepresented in English Buddhist writing, and they each receive in-depth treatment in Madsen’s book. A study and analysis of each of these groups’ founders, culture, and history would be valuable in its own right, but the book is more ambitious: Madsen looks at how each group was fostered by the democractizing and industrializing forces of Taiwan over the last few decades, and how the culture and character of each group serves a specific segment of Taiwan’s changing society.
Each Buddhist group’s representation of a different aspect of Taiwanese society is not central to Madsen’s argument, but it was what I found most interesting. For example, the book argues that Tzu Chi’s ability to offer swift, organized relief around the world has as much to do with the founder Chengyen’s vision as it did with the emerging class of university-educated Taiwanese women living in a society with pronounced gender discrimination who were ready to fulfill it.
Great religious teachers surely do shape the world around them, but a greater part of their success is the ability to tap into something that is already present in the population: a need for something, be it answers to life’s big questions, community, service, peace, or whatever else. Though they are all Buddhist groups, Tzu Chi, Fo Guang Shan, and Dharma Drum are about very different things. And while these organizations may not have been designed for different kinds of people, they bring together different kinds of people based on their group culture and principles.
The whole method of analysis got me thinking about the unifying concerns of my own Buddhist community, and the similar stratification in the wider, American Buddhist community.
It is a gross oversimplification, but generally Madsen shows the Taiwanese organizations breaking down along occupational and socioeconomic lines: Tzu Chi for service workers, Fo Guang Shan for managers and entrepreneurs, and Dharma Drum for artists and academics. I’m not really done thinking through it yet, but it makes me wonder if these distinctions are more or less real than the assertion of “Two Buddhisms” in the United States, as it is variously defined. And if I find the socioeconomic distinctions in Democracy’s Dharma less problematic than the racial divisions among the Buddhist community in the United States, why is that? Should I?