Memoir gives personal look at the journey of a Buddhist scholar

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A religious studies scholar and pioneer in the study of American Buddhism reflects in his newest book on a more than four-decade career that included controversies and insights that changed the field of Buddhist studies.

Charles Prebish said he chose to write his memoir, "An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer," (The Sumeru Press, 2011), to highlight the personalities of the people and scholars he met during his career.

"People in Buddhist studies typically don't write memoirs, so there's no reflection on the great people in the field," said Prebish. "I thought, why not go ahead and write it because the stories are so good."

While Buddhists have lived and worshipped in the United States for more than two centuries, by the 1970s, no comprehensive study about these complex, multi-ethnic communities existed, writes Prebish, professor emeritus of religious studies. Even the simplest information, such as the number of Buddhists in the U.S., was unavailable, Prebish said.

Buddhism was founded in India by Siddhartha Gautama -- the Buddha -- in the fourth or fifth century B.C.

Prebish conducted one of the first studies of American Buddhists, relying on file cabinets full of information he gathered over the years. At times, he even scanned yellow pages to locate Buddhist communities for such data as congregation sizes.

In 1979, he published the research in "American Buddhism" (Duxbury Press).

Prebish's insights about Buddhist communities during this period are a source of debate in Buddhist studies even today. Prebish coined the term, "two Buddhisms," to describe the separate groups of Buddhists in the U.S.: immigrants who are Buddhists and Americans who converted to the religion. Tensions often exist between ethnic and convert Buddhists regarding which groups are leading the development of American Buddhism.

Prebish, a runner and a husband and parent of athletes, took a controversial stand in his scholarship suggesting that sports, especially among Americans, could be considered a religion. He contended that athletes use rituals and routines that lead to a transcendent state -- much like religious adherents.

In 1975, Prebish worked with fellow Buddhist scholar Jan Nattier, associate professor of religious studies, Indiana University, to reevaluate how sectarian groups arose in Buddhism in India about a century after the Buddha's death. The Nattier-Prebish theory determined that the division between the Sthaviras and Mahasamghikas -- the two main schools of early Buddhism -- happened earlier than previously thought, and was a reaction against an attempt to expand the Buddhist Vinaya -- a code of conduct for Buddhist monks -- in an effort to further govern the behavior of monks and the status of spiritual attainment with new rules.

The standard explanation of the initial schism, supported by major Buddhist scholars like Andre Bareau, was that the break resulted from monastic laxity of the Mahasamghikas and disputes about various doctrines.

Prebish said that careful canonical study shows that the Mahasamghikas were not lax with the Vinaya code, and that the contested doctrinal disputes did not emerge until later.

Prebish began his journey as a Buddhist scholar and practitioner by accident as a dental student at the Case Western Reserve University.

"I actually took a class in Buddhism because my fraternity brothers were taking the class," Prebish said. "But I knew right away that I was home."

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Prebish began his studies under Richard H. Robinson, one of the preeminent Buddhist scholars at the time. Prebish would eventually collaborate with several leading figures in Buddhism, such as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, during his career.

While Buddhist scholar-practitioners are more common now, early in Prebish's career, Buddhist scholars who practiced the religion were uncommon.

"I was utterly and absolutely astounded to learn that a scholar of Buddhism might actually do anything Buddhist," Prebish said. "Now, only 40 or so years later, it is rather ordinary for individuals teaching Buddhist studies in universities throughout the world to be scholar-practitioners."

Prebish said that understanding the intellectual and ethical roots of Buddhism and practicing Buddhism are interpenetrating.

"The Buddha said that the more you understand the studies on an intellectual level the more you will understand the practice of meditation," said Prebish.

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Last Updated January 31, 2012