Making Buddhism and Its Various Forms Accessible to Newcomers and Skeptics
March 24, 2022
A Q&A with C. Pierce Salguero
Are you curious about Buddhism but find yourself met with scholarly texts or high-minded moralizing every time you try to pick up a book about it? Well, if so, relax. Dr. C. Pierce Salguero has written an engaging, accessible, streamlined overview of Buddhism with you in mind.
In Buddhish: A Guide to the 20 Most Important Buddhist Ideas for the Curious and Skeptical, Dr. Salguero analyzes the ideas and philosophy of the complex tradition through the eyes of both a critic and an admirer—without the saccharine platitudes and dense pontification that you may have come to expect. For those who have already dipped their toes into the tradition through the practice of mindfulness or meditation, this guide will help you create a more well-rounded and informed experience by delving into the history of the Buddhist traditions that shape a mindful practice. Readers will have the opportunity to develop an approach to practice that is not quite Buddhist but Buddhish. We caught up with him to chat about it.
Beacon Press: Why did you decide to write the book?
C. Pierce Salguero: I had been teaching Introduction to Buddhism courses for over a decade to both college students and the general public and felt that there was a real need for a better introductory book. I couldn’t find a text for my students that provided an objective introduction to the various forms of Buddhism without being overly scholastic. I needed something that imparted a sense of what this tradition has to offer in an accessible way, without focusing on indoctrination or teaching the reader how to practice the religion. In the end, I gave up looking for that book and decided to write it myself.
BP: What first drew you to studying Buddhism?
CPS: Funnily enough, it may have been movies like Star Wars and The Karate Kid that I grew up on that planted the first seeds. By the time I was in high school, I was voraciously consuming books on Asian religions, even though I didn’t really understand what I was reading. In college, I minored in East Asian Studies partly so I could continue exploring Buddhism and Daoism. But it wasn’t until after graduation, when I travelled to Asia and connected with the living traditions in places like Thailand and China, that I realized that studying this topic would be my career.
BP: What is a common misconception that skeptics or people unfamiliar with Buddhism have about it?
CPS: I think the biggest misconception is that Buddhism is one thing. I joke in the book about how wine lovers would be appalled seeing someone indiscriminately mixing different vintages together and chugging it down without appreciating their nuances. That’s a little how I feel when people unfamiliar with Buddhism conflate very different forms of this religion together. In contrast, many experts on Buddhism think that the major sects—Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana—are different enough that we should consider them separate religions. To me, it’s actually all the local customs, varying interpretations, and other differences between the different traditions that make this topic interesting to study.
BP: What does it mean to be Buddhish and how can people who identify as secular or agnostic incorporate Buddhism into their lives?
CPS: I wouldn’t want to propose “Buddhish” as a new identity. In the book, I introduce this word in a joking way, as a shorthand for talking about how I am a student, friend, and fan of Buddhism, but also a skeptic and a critic. That’s not meant as an endorsement of cultural appropriation, or the superficial practice of one aspect of the tradition without appreciating or understanding the whole. Nevertheless, I do think it’s possible to really appreciate what Buddhism has to offer—and even to take on board certain ideas and practices—while being critical of other aspects and not identifying as Buddhist.
BP: What do you hope readers take away from Buddhish?
CPS: In today’s global spiritual marketplace, certain aspects of Buddhism have become quite popular. Mindfulness is everywhere; Dalai Lama quotes are all over social media; Karma is a household word. I feel like these popular aspects are often decontextualized or disconnected from any larger understanding about Buddhism. I wanted to write a book that could educate people about the broader Buddhist tradition without having to slog through scholarly prose or being pressured to accept Buddhist teachings as true. If this book can serve to turn someone’s curiosity about mindfulness, or some other aspect of Buddhism they’ve heard about, into a bit more awareness about the richness and diversity of Buddhism as a whole, then my mission has been accomplished.
About C. Pierce Salguero
C. Pierce Salguero is a transdisciplinary humanities scholar who is fascinated by the historical and contemporary intersections between Buddhism, medicine, and cross-cultural exchange. He has a PhD in the history of medicine from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine (2010) and teaches Asian history, medicine, and religion at Penn State University’s Abington College, located near Philadelphia. He is the author of many books on the history and practice of Buddhism and Asian medicine. Connect with him online at piercesalguero.com or on Twitter at @piercesalguero.