Say It Like It Is

A couple of recentposts talked about Western Buddhism without any reference to Asians… or did they? On Progressive Buddhism, Kyle discusses “urban white liberal converts”, “rural converts, who tend to be white or black” and the “traditional” Buddhists. Provided in context:

the traditional Buddhists, who have been somewhat marginalized in the mainstream community

the local traditional population, which obviously only offers its one tradition

Over on Sweep the dust, Push the dirt, Jack Daw remarks:

Western Convert Buddhists insist that they are not taken seriously by other culture-based traditions and those Culture-Based Buddhists (I have no better term) insist that they are not well-represented in the mainstream media.

The authors of both articles frame the terms traditional and culture-basedwith regard to representation within the mainstream. Perhaps coincidentally, I have only read complaints of a lack of representation within the mainstream Buddhist media specifically in terms of Asian (American) Buddhists. Indeed, I wrote most of them. Are Kyle and Jack Daw euphemistically avoiding using the word Asian to talk about Asians?

To be clear, not all Asians identify as “traditional” or “culture-based”—but how many of those “traditional” or “culture-based” Buddhists who “insist that they are not well-represented in the mainstream media” are not Asian? When it comes to the cultural affinities of their Asian writers, The BigThree prefer to publish those who are more “traditional” and “culture-based” (and dead). It is precisely the less “traditional” and “culture-based” of the Asian American Buddhist community who are speaking out on this issue.

I’m well aware that, ironically, when race is obvious, white people will go out of their way to avoid explicitly mentioning race so that they don’t appear to take race into account. This inanity only highlights their racialized judgment. Let me be explicit: I prefer to be identified as Asianthan by some inept euphemism for it.

Update: I deleted a comment I reposted here from Kyle on Progressive Buddhism. He explains more in his comments at the bottom of this post. Someone or some people have identified themselves as myself and another blogger, and harassed Kyle with personally abusive emails. His furious reaction is little different than I would have reacted in the same shoes (and probably even more restrained than I would have been). It is a very sad state when others stoop to this level of depravity—apparently some people enjoy nothing more than watching the world burn.

One thought on “Say It Like It Is

  1. Archivist’s Note: Comments have been preserved from the original website for archival purposes; however, comments are now closed.

    Jack DawAugust 27, 2009 at 4:47 AM
    Culture-based Buddhists (a clunky term) simply includes anyone that was raised into a Buddhist culture just like I was raised in a Christian one (I am a cultural Christian). I am not avoiding using the term Asian, I just want to include everyone that was raised in a religion rather than converted to it.

    It is a impossible task and I realize that not all Asians identify themselves as “traditional” or “cultural-based”

    I have been in several conversations with white and very traditional Buddhists over the fact that they are not represented in the Big Three. Mostly over the fact that they feel that the Dharma is being twisted into pop-psychology.

    That being said, I am identifying you as a part of a group of practicitioners that include Asians, Indians, African-Americans, Whites, etc. that utilize the Dharma and Buddhism as a cultural-base. If I said Asian, my point would not be made since I am not solely refering to Asians in my definition.

    Western Convert Buddhists actually includes Asians just as much as Cultural-Based or Traditional Buddhists.

    So I am saying it as it is. Inclusive and I am not framing my conversation by race instead by how Buddhism interacts with their daily life. It differs dependent on whether you are a converst or born into it, not whether you are Asian or white.

    ArunAugust 27, 2009 at 8:13 AM
    Thank you, Jack, especially for your consideration in emphasizing inclusivity. I am sensing three different definitions in your response.

    What do you mean by: “raised into a Buddhist culture just like I was raised in a Christian one”? Indeed my first reading, as is my wont, is one that deals an ethnic contrast. Your elaboration would help, especially for what this means for people like me, who were also raised in a Judeo-Christian culture.

    What does it mean to “utilize the Dharma and Buddhism as a cultural-base”? Whereas the former description is presented in more passive terms of upbringing, this latter one emphasizes an active and ongoing situation.

    These next contrasts I find unburdened by ambiguity (though I am open to clarification):

    “I just want to include everyone that was raised in a religion rather than converted to it”

    “It differs dependent on whether you are a convert or born into it, not whether you are Asian or white”

    There are high-profile Buddhist writers such as Waylon Lewis, Ethan Nichtern, Sumi Loundon, Lodro Rinzler, who were born into and raised in Buddhism—and who are also welcomed by the Buddhist media establishment as one of their own.

    It’s hard for me to piece together these three definitions, especially with the notion of people who insist “that they are not represented in the Big Three.” Your elucidation would be much appreciated, especially since the two of us come from very different perspectives.

    Jack DawAugust 27, 2009 at 8:50 AM
    I tried to explain it more fully on my blog comments (I had more time at hand and it may make more sense). My main point is that the issue of contention in Western Buddhism is a complex one and many different issues are inter-related (including race) so finding an exact term to help group the “sides” is difficult.

    But I can say that drawing the line directly on terms of race is an over-simplification of the larger issues. That is not to direguard the issue of race completely, I just think that it is a part of a larger tangle.

    I also wrote that after a day long airport to airport to airport flight and have plently of other things to organize…and no coffee. I actually explained that in a follow-up comment but it got lost in the shuffle as I tried to post it.

    As far as the Christian comment. There are aspects of Christianity that are well-established in my upbringing that will be there till I die since it was a strong part of my upbringing. A convert would not have these aspects. These are not positive or negative aspects but they do pepper our views of the world, religion and everything else.

    The same would be true of Buddhist that have a strong cultural connection. These would be Cultural-Based Buddhists (or whatever term you want to create) and many are Asian but NOT ALL OF THEM. So I can’t define it as Asian Buddhist vs. Non-Asian Buddhists.

    I hope that clears it up. You can probably ignore most of it since I do really do not write all that well. I am more of a face to face guy when discussing issues like this. I am also of Italian and Greek ancestry so I talk with my hands waving and gesticulating, not typing.

    I would actually love to discuss these with you one day. Perhaps if the Buddhist Geeks have a Buddha Dharma 2.0 in Boulder we can sit around with a couple of beers (or near beer, if you prefer. Another big issue is that sneaky 5th precept) as hash this stuff out. I think we are of a similar mind…a Buddha Mind.

    Take Home Message once again -> Traditional or Fundamental Buddhists vs. Reformist Buddhists are not classified by race, especially Asians are represented on both sides.


    KyleAugust 27, 2009 at 8:59 AM
    Oh, I’m sorry, did I just upset the apple cart. Are the virgin ears around this community to gentle to hear what kind of sick obsession you have with me??

    Well, hey don’t you worry your pretty little head Arun, I’m done blogging for awhile. You can stop your emails to me, you can stop your posting about me every other day, you can stop obsessing about me. God damn, you are weird.

    I’ll tell ya what, I’ll delete my blogger profile today if you stop emailing me and delete all your postings about me. Sound fair?

    atlasienAugust 27, 2009 at 9:43 AM
    I appreciate the good intentions of the terminology in Jack Daw’s post. However, I have to agree that it strikes me as somewhat confusing and unnecessarily avoids the issue of race.

    If I try to type myself, am I a “Western convert” Buddhist or a “culture-based” Buddhist? I don’t know. Maybe both. But I have no doubt that I’m an Asian-American.

    I think where the typology breaks down is assuming that cultural Buddhism is a direct analog of cultural Christianity. I don’t think it is. The situation is a lot more complicated.

    I’ve got a Buddhist background, and Buddhist ancestry, but I’m also a cultural Christian.

    A lot of Asian-Americans are assumed to be closer and more connected to Buddhism than we really are.

    @Arun: You ask simple questions. So why is it so hard for some people to answer them? Keep on asking… I’m so glad you’re doing it.

    Jack DawAugust 27, 2009 at 10:19 AM

    Thanks. I didn’t avoid the topic of race in my post. It just wasn’t the point of the post – I was trying to get at something larger – If I knew so many people would be confused or angry, I would have spent some more time on it.

    Race, for me, is not a determining factor as to whether or not you are a Traditional of Reformist Buddhist. It is your expression and understanding of the Dharma. For me to make a statement that race determines your viewpoint of Buddhism )or anything else for that matter) would, I think, belittle all of us.

    My labels are not meant to be static but you do help me with my point. Being Asian or Asian American does not preclude one to be a traditional Buddhist. It annoys me that people do consider Asian Buddhist as “Traditional or “Fundamental” they are a varied as any other racial group that happens to be practicing Buddhism.

    I disagree with the comment about Christianity. It isn’t a direct analog (but then again what is?) but converts do tend to be more fundamental (getting back to the roots) in both Buddhist and Christian traditions. While those born into the religion have much more cultural inclusions.

    “Alot of Asian Americans are assumed to be closer and more connected to Buddhism than we really are”

    That is my point exactly and why I didn’t group anyone in terms of race.

    Lastly, Arun does not ask simple questions. Questions about race and religion are never simple; they are a tangled mess half the time.

    Please don’t assume that my classifications are meant to do anything then to help me to work some of that religion/cultural/racial tangle for myself. I am in no position to be categorizing individuals.

    @ Arun

    I too am glad that you ask questions. I assume that you are just as good at listening.

    @ everyone else

    Confused still? Please feel free to give me some better groupings on my blog.


    However, please DO NOT curse on my blog. Family, friends, co-workers and supervisors pop in and out on it. But most importantly, so do those interested in Buddhism that don’t practice. So, if you can, please refrain.

    On twitter you can say whatever you want at me 140 characters of pure sailor talk.

    atlasienAugust 27, 2009 at 11:26 AM
    “For me to make a statement that race determines your viewpoint of Buddhism )or anything else for that matter) would, I think, belittle all of us.”

    Yes. But there’s a big difference between “determines” and “influences”. Saying that race determines everything is unsupportable; saying race has no influence and can be left out of the discussion entirely is also unsupportable. In an effort to avoid the first extreme, it’s quite easy to end up full circle in the second extreme. Race does have a huge influence on my life, whether I like or not.

    I don’t disagree with your points. I just disagree with the terminology.

    Jack DawAugust 27, 2009 at 11:45 AM

    No doubt. Race does influence things and I never said that race had no affect. I was just focusing on something else that I think is more pervasive (as far as Buddhism).

    I do admit that the terminology I utilized was clunky and didn’t hit the mark (arrow misses again).

    But as long as we are on the topic of race. How do you think being Asian influences your views of Buddhism (rather than being another ethinicity)? Understanding that it is a tough question and not one likely to be summed up quickly or considered a universal stance for all Asian Americans.

    Don’t think that you need to respond if it is too personal a question. If I have the time I may post something on how being white affects my view of Buddhism.


    atlasienAugust 27, 2009 at 12:43 PM
    Actually, I’ve been tossing over a piece for Racialicious trying to answer that question. It’s a tough one. As contrasted with a white Buddhist, I suppose it would involve a complicated mixture of pride and nervousness. I think Asian-American Buddhists tend to cover up their religion and not talk about it as much because of fears of being stigmatized by outsiders. And I think Asian-American Christians are a lot more open about their religion than Buddhists are. We’re already a minority and having a minority religion on top of that can bring an added sense of vulnerability.

    As another contrast, African-American Buddhists often come under a lot of pressure from friends and family because of the idea that blackness is connected to Christianity, and if they’re converting to Buddhism they have to fight back against the idea that they’re also rejecting their ethnic and racial identity. It’s harder for them to “cover” their religion because it’s almost like they’re “outed” by force.

    Asian-Americans don’t have that same issue and it’s easier for us to keep quiet about it, unless we come from very Christian families/communities.

    To illustrate this general sense of nervousness, take the fact that BCA is still called Buddhist Churches of America. Even though anti-Asian racism is much better than it was 50 or 100 years ago, there’s a long shadow.

    Jack DawAugust 27, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    Your first paragraph actually gave me some willies since I practically wrote down the same thing for my post of being a white Buddhist.

    …as well as your second paragraph.


    I do dislike the “church” part of the BCA. I believe it was an attmept to make Buddhism more Western on the surface, at least, and more accaptable to Americans in general. I think.

    NathanAugust 27, 2009 at 4:06 PM
    Hi Everyone,

    I’ve been enjoying this conversation – lots of points to pay attention to and remember.

    Just wanted to say about the BCA issue, having done some reading about the history of the west coast, and particularly the period between the beginning of the trans-continental railroad and 1900, what I’ve seen is that the choice to use the phrase “church” was done in an effort to survive. Following the 1873 depression, which was felt especially hard along the west coast, anti-Asian sentiment went through the roof. Many Chinese and Japanese immigrants either moved east, to Canada, or returned to their native countries. It was also no coincidence that the first real immigration laws in the U.S. came out of this period – and were specifically designed to exclude Asian immigrants. (The first two laws, in 1875, and 1881-2 applied to Chinese immigrants, but eventually were extended to include anyone from Asia.) It was just after these laws went into effect that the Buddhist Churches of America formed.

    So, those Buddhists who stayed along the coast decided to call their organizations churches in an effort to at least lessen some of the pressure, and maybe gain some acceptance at some point.

    Of course, things have changed a fair amount since then, but as atlasien says, there is a long shadow – and I believe this bit of history points to that.

    Jack DawAugust 27, 2009 at 4:43 PM
    @ Nathan

    Thanks for the info. I was assuming that it was something along those lines but did not have the specifics. I recall reading somewhere as well that the BCA had an organization similar to the YMCA for similar reasons.


    AlAugust 27, 2009 at 9:49 PM
    I’m confused here. What race is “Asian?”

    I don’t refer to “Asians” when I post things about Buddhism. I might discuss Japanese, Chinese, Thai, etc. but I’ve seen people critisized before for referring to “Asians” and stripping people of their ethnic identity. Now we get people critisizing people for not doing so? Which is it, folks?

    This is the same reason I don’t refer to people as “Asian-Americans” but as “Japanese Americans” or “Chinese Americans” (or, preferaby, just Americans if they were born here).

    Of course, I’m just some white convert Buddhist so I have to do this tipey-toe dance at times, it seems.

    I’m going against my own rules at this point to even comment on this. After the last few shit-storms, I unsubscribed from a few blogs and gave up commenting on race on the others because I don’t need the grief, generally, and there is no plus side to white convert Buddhists participating in a lot of these discussions based on the reactions that I’ve seen.

    ArunAugust 27, 2009 at 11:24 PM
    @Kyle: You can stop your emails to me, you can stop your posting about me every other day, you can stop obsessing about me. I have only ever sent you four emails (July 4, 5, 12 and 14) all of which were in response to emails you wrote to me. I also believe I have only posted about you on five occasions here on Angry Asian Buddhist: on July 20 & 28, where I mentioned your posts in blog summaries, and then on August 15, 26 and 27. I will not delete these posts. You raised issues worth addressing, and I addressed them. As for your posted comment, I placed it here so that others have the opportunity to view that my words caused you frustration, that I am seen as bigoted, that it is felt by at least you that I enjoy widespread support, that my posts are self-centered, and that you wrote very crassly. I have never intended to silence you, only to challenge viewpoints which I feel deserve to be challenged. I can sincerely say that it would be a genuine loss to the Buddhist blogging community should you choose to quit blogging. Whatever you decide, may your path bring you happiness.

    @Jack Daw: The issue which your words are getting bogged down in, and which I have myself tread through, involves specifying an opposition between two groups and providing them with epithets for some collective and descriptive quality. My objection is with the boundaries you are drawing, but the solution isn’t a better name for these boundaries—which seems to be what I suggest above. Another take on the Buddhist community is that we are composed of a spectrum of communities, some of which sometimes work perfectly in concert, and others which at other times are very much at odds. Race, class, culture, privilege, geography, gender and many other factors define these non-mutually exclusive social networks. On top of all this, the issues of race and culture cannot be easily teased apart when discussing Asian America. When I feel that a community I identify with is being misrepresented, I am more than happy to speak out about it.

    @atlasien: Thank you for your support. It’s also worth noting that Buddhists comprise a minority of Asian Americans, and often in the Asian community are characterized as “backward”—especially by Asian Christians. And as you explain, we often act accordingly.

    @Nathan: Thank you for the historical perspective. Ongoing racial discrimination stems from biases that are still nurtured in individuals, it’s not just some historical relic that we as the inheritors have nothing to do with or no control over.

    ArunAugust 27, 2009 at 11:26 PM
    @Al: Thank you for your comments, incisive as usual. “Asian” is the race that I selected when I applied for schools. When I accepted my current job, I checked the box “Asian” so that my company could report diversity measures to the federal government. When I registered as a bone marrow donor, I responded to the call for “Asian” bone marrow donors, who are underrepresented in the bone marrow database. When I’m at work in a room full of “Asian” colleagues, we actually talk differently than when there’s a non-Asian person in the room (I was surprised). Race and ethnicity are of course not the same thing, as is evident to anyone who’s bothered to fill out a United States Census form. But you get at a more important point in your comment. If you refuse to talk about Asian Americans when it is pertinent, then I’ll likely kvetch about it. Now if you talk about Asian Americans when I feel it’s impertinent, then I’ll be likely to kvetch about that too. It’s not fair, I must admit. I hope that at the very least, other Asian American Buddhists who might happen to share these sentiments know that they’re not alone. In turn, I find your reactions quite reasonable—I certainly don’t view this blog as essential reading.

    KyleAugust 28, 2009 at 4:16 AM
    Someone with your name has been emailing me with racial slurs and extremely insensitive comments about my son. I just put 1 + 1 together since you seem so fascinated with posting about me here.

    Shall I post them all over at Progressive?

    ArunAugust 28, 2009 at 7:44 AM
    @Kyle: I certainly wouldn’t mind, as I’d definitely like to know what they’ve been sending you. What email address are they using?

    Jack DawAugust 28, 2009 at 8:47 AM
    @ Arun

    To be honest my post was not specifically about race. From my point of view Asians are equally distributed throughout many subcategories of Buddhism. For the sake of brevity, I will just go ahead and group everybody into Traditional and Reformist, understanding fully well that Buddhism in the west can’t be easily categorized.

    You seemed to suggest in your post that I was avoiding the term Asian in my groupings.

    “Are Kyle and Jack Daw euphemistically avoiding using the word Asian to talk about Asians?”

    The simple answer is no I was not doing that because Asians are well represented in both my groupings (as faulty as those groupings, or any groupings, are in the long run). My comments were on how people (any race) view the Dharma and I don’t think that it falls into a Asian vs. Non-Asian view.

    “When I feel that a community I identify with is being misrepresented, I am more than happy to speak out about it.”

    So which community did you think I misrepresented? Asian or Buddhist? If Buddhist then I can easily go with that…seriously, I misrepresent Buddhists all the time. But if you think that I was misrepresenting Asians or Asian Buddhists then I am confused since I was never specifically discussing race at all in my post.

    Anyway, my two cents. I enjoy these discussions, I really do but they always seem to go back to wording. Maybe my wording was poor but I feel that the spirit of my post was fine.

    People, of course, are free to disagree.

    Also if you are going to bring up my stuff at least list me on your blog roll. 😛


    djbuddhaAugust 28, 2009 at 8:56 AM
    @Nathan (and everyone else, really): My inner historian is coming out and I must add a slight corrective to you comments which, of course, are important and valid and should be acknowledged as such since you’re real point seems to be about the long shadow of racial discrimination. Having said that, here goes:

    The BCA became the BCA only during the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. Prior to that, it was the Buddhist Mission of North America where “Mission” was a direct translation of a Japanese term (which escapes me now) because the organization was seen as an explicitly evangelistic one, albeit evangelizing to Japanese nationals living abroad. To this day, on paper, the BCA remains an “missionary” arm of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha lineage based in Kyoto, though in practice the BCA has significant autonomy.

    As to the practice of naming “temples” “churches,” this, too, is a complicated history. Technically (again, on paper), the only one with any authority to call a temple a temple (i.e., ji 字 in Japanese) is the Hongwanji and for a long time they have not allowed any building to be, officially, a temple (with a couple of notable exceptions).

    Now, I just had dinner last night with someone who claimed that he’d read in the historical documents that the idea to call the BCA “churches” was actually an idea advanced by a non-Japanese convert to Jodo Shinshu before the war. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that in my years of studying the history of the BCA, I’ve heard about fourteen different stories and reasons for why the organization changed it’s name from the BMNA to the BCA. Regardless of the reason or the players involved, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment that inter-racial politics and racism were factors that continue on with us to today.

    It’s also interesting to note that the Buddhist Churches of Canada (our friendly neighbors to the north) recently changed their name to “Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada” in an attempt to undo the “Christianization” of the past. I’ve heard rumors that the BCA has entertained a similar move. But, in addition to what I said above, if I’ve learned anything in these years of studying the BCA, getting things done around here is the very definition of herding cats!

    Anyway, sorry The Professor came out. And now back to our regularly scheduled programing.

    KyleAugust 28, 2009 at 12:55 PM
    The emails came from yahoo address’s using your name and Scott’s name, many times using numbers after the name, like No, it wasn’t from your gmail account. All but one of the emails is returning non-receipt now.

    Yea, I thought it was a hoax at first. The emails used the standard white racial slurs, then progressed into ‘die whitey’ stuff. For some reason most of them kept calling me yanno, whatever the hell that means.

    Then last week, they started talking about my son who has downs syndrome. “So your boy is a white retard? So he is growing up with 2 disabilities? LOL” Followed by, “look! I’m talking about you all the time and you don’t do anything.”

    There is other stuff, but it ain’t important, now. I knew you didn’t like me, but I didn’t think you’d stoop that low. I didn’t believe it was you and Scott until I saw you post about me like 3 days in one week, like you wanted some kind of reaction from me so you could post it and say LOOK!!, exactly like you did. But, I’m guessing you’re saying it wasn’t you?

    So, that’s why I reacted like I did. That’s why I’ve gone a bit extreme in my posts. I’m not going to post about it anymore, I’m done. But I dare anyone to take that kind of abuse and not snap. I love my son more than I love my life, and I would dare someone to say something like that to my face.

    And like I said before, traditionalists don’t always = Asians, the vast majority of ‘traditionalists’ I know are whites.

    I don’t blog for money, I’m not looking for some book deal, I do it because I enjoy writing. I never in a million years thought people would actually read my stuff the way they do now. That enjoyment is gone for now, I just feel sapped now.

    NathanAugust 28, 2009 at 4:35 PM
    @Arun “Thank you for the historical perspective. Ongoing racial discrimination stems from biases that are still nurtured in individuals, it’s not just some historical relic that we as the inheritors have nothing to do with or no control over.” Yes, I agree. The post I put up in my blog yesterday attempts to show some of this, while also address the languaging issues everyone has been talking about.

    @DjBuddha – thanks for the additional comments about the history of the BCA. What I find curious is that the histories I read were written by members of Jodo Shinshu, who never mentioned the earlier name of the organization.

    “I’ve heard about fourteen different stories and reasons for why the organization changed it’s name from the BMNA to the BCA.” It seems that the stories about the early days are all over the map, which I suppose given the nature of history – and how it’s written – shouldn’t be a surprise.

    KyleAugust 29, 2009 at 11:29 AM
    I just want to public say thank you to Scott and Arun for sending me very kind messages. I have no doubt in my mind that the messages came from someone just looking to antagonize me into making trouble where their was none, and solely for their sick entertainment.

    I apologize to both Arun and Scott that their names got dragged into this. And to the person who sent the messages to me, well, I wish you well to. I hope you find some peace, because if this is your idea of entertainment then you have many many issues my friend. You got what you wanted, do you feel good now?

    Be well all.

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