What does an American Buddha look like?
I realized this week that Joseph Campbell was the one responsible for bringing me into Buddhism. His “Power of Myth” series of books and recorded lectures compared world religions and discussed their commonality. Among these were was the Origin of The Buddha. Like Batman, Buddha is born to power and wealth. Unlike Batman, the Budda chooses his own path to greatness, no parental trauma needed here! Like Batman, Buddha studies hard and becomes the master of many mental and physical techniques. Unlike the Batman, the Buddha did not prey upon the criminal class switfly striking with firece vengence upon them from above. Buddha mostly talked. Batman doesn’t talk much. I like comparing the ‘Hero’s Journey’ of Batman with Buddha, as it illustrates the complicated journey a religious teacher like Buddha might have here in the dark Gotham alleys of The United States.
What would an American Buddha look like? As the Buddhist faith travelled out of India, his story and image altered from culture to culture. For the first two hundred years, hell, there were no picture or images of Buddha at all! The common symbol was an eight spoke wheel, until some Greek inspired Pashtun tribesmen started making statues that looked a little like Apollo. But these days, if you go to a Buddhist supply store–one of my favorite oxymorons–you will see a Pantheon of Buddhas, Gods, Demi Gods, Spirits and Boddhisattvas ( people who have gained enlightenment and hang around to help others, like Saints). But all these are born of Asian and East Asian cultures. What would it be like if these Asian icons had been born in the United States? What would an American Buddha’s Journey look like?
The mind boggles. A Texan Buddha? A Manhattanite Buddha? A Californian or a Budddha from New Orleans? And would he be white? Or Asian? Or Black or Latino? Suburbs? Inner city? Could he be from a potato farm in Provo? It would all work! There were so many possibllities, so many “Americas” an American Buddha could spring from. So, I stuck to the music. Swing music it turned out was the best to tell the story; an easy proven sound, simple to follow and toe tappingly fun. But for the story in between the snappy tunes, modern English sounded clunky, pretentious and fake. So, again, I stuck to the music. As I researched the culture that surrounded the early jazz and Swing movements I found a world of language that expressed complex ideas in simple, beautiful ways, completely rooted in the art form of music, dance, film and the literature (pulp and proper) of the Swing Era. Cab Calloway called it a ‘Hep Cat’ language. So, I will too.
The truth is I didn’t write this to be an “American” Buddhist story. I wrote it because Swing music and Hep Cat slang does a good job of explaining Buddhism. But when expressing other people’s religions through American culture, you have to be sure the medium doesn’t kill the message. For me, it did the opposite. Every Buddha is an American Buddha. And here, now, in this place at this moments, here is our Buddha. Hope you can dig it!