Are Only Asians in the Pure Land?

Perusing a paragraph brimming with parochial perspectives on Buddhist Asian Americans, my attention was drawn to a single question pointed at those of Japanese heritage:

So would a Jodo Shinshu sangha in a Japanese neighborhood alter their appearance or layout easily because a few White folk (or any person of color) don’t feel comfortable?

A general problem with rhetorical questions, such as the title of this post, is that in practice they are often more fatuous than illuminating. This homespun musing suffers from several questionable premises. For example, there is the tacit lumping of Japanese American cultural groups, regardless of the stark cultural differences, say, from issei all the way down through yonsei. This point is pertinent as the mores of yonsei+ are often characterized as more in tune with the average non-Japanese American. And exactly which hypothetical Japanese neighborhood are we talking about? Keep in mind I live in one of the most Japanese neighborhoods in North America, and there really aren’t that many Japanese here. As for what the Shin temples here would do—they have done what just about every Shin temple in America has done. They have brought up the issue of accepting more non-Japanese into their congregations and wrestled with what that entails. In fact, I’d love to know if there’s any American Shin temple that’s managed through the past ten years without confronting the issue of expanding membership diversity. I won’t deny that there are individuals who have resisted Shin Buddhism becoming less “Japanese”—but they still have taken on the issue of diversity, albeit reluctantly. And there aren’t just “a few” white folk involved or interested in Shin Buddhism. That’s a whole ’nother post. Underneath all my nitpicking with the terminological inexactitude, my real gripe is with an even more troubling premise: that the comparison between Asian and white American sanghas is even a fair one. I’m talking about white privilege. When we start making the claim that white sanghas and white Buddhist publications are no more segregated than Asian temples and Asian-language Buddhist newsletters, we are jumping straight into the camp of separate-but-equal. You might as well have your white Buddhist country club while you’re at it.

One thought on “Are Only Asians in the Pure Land?

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

    atlasienSeptember 16, 2009 at 9:44 AM
    Oh my… this is too depressing to even follow the original link.

    You know what? The answer is yes. Some Jodo Shinshu temples are bending over backwards to accomodate non-Japanese-Americans. Some have even ADDED MEDITATION SESSIONS. And I think adding meditation means breaking with a 700-year-old tradition. I’d call that a pretty major accomodation.

    I’m a non-typical Japanese-American. My father is a full Japanese citizen, my mother is a white American citizen, so I’m not even an issei or a yonsei or anything between. I have very little in common with most Japanese-Americans who grew up in a Japanese-American community, because I didn’t. So I feel like I benefit from outreach efforts just as much as other non-Japanese-Americans. I’m an outsider too. I felt very, very nervous and out of place when I walked into a Hawaiian betsuin.

    The only other thing I wanted to mention is that the Japanese-American community is fairly unique among Asian-American communities in that it probably isn’t even going to exist within a few generations in the mainland USA. Birth rates are very low, intermarriage very high. Japan is a rich country now so there’s little impetus for new immigration. It makes me a bit sad to contemplate, but it’s just a fact of life and history. I suppose it’s a lesson in attachment. The little group I’m on the outskirts of will soon dissolve, but it will have enriched the life of the nation immeasurably.

    A lot of other Japanese-Americans realize this too. So I think very few of us have a “jealously hold on to what is ours and keep everyone else away” attitude. There is no point to it.

    atlasienSeptember 16, 2009 at 9:57 AM
    Oh and one more thing… sometimes Asian-Americans just can’t win. This is a general point, not just in the area of Buddhism. If we don’t change things and actively welcome outsiders, then we’re being parochial and insular and clannish. If we DO change things, we’re being inauthentic, and not as cool as the “real” Asians.

    Jack DawSeptember 16, 2009 at 10:11 AM
    Thanks, I knew that some Jodo Shin Shu temples were adding meditative practices. I agree it is a MAJOR accomondation to attract(?) or placate (?) newcomers. I never infered that Asian temples did not do these things but the only one I was aware of was the one that Atlasien pointed out.

    What it lacking is an understanding of how HARD it was to make that change. That some resisted it (like many white sanghas resist change) or were frightened of it (like many white sanghas).

    I do take a bit of offense at the “White Buddhist Country Club” idea though. Nothing would be further from my wishes that that.

    I think the steps we take to diversify are difficult one for some people but even when sanghas wish to present itself to a wider culture base the problem is how to do it. Nathan had some ideas but they were just that…ideas. Concrete is needed.

    And I hope your depression passes, Atlasien, it can be quite pervasive.

    I will say though that my main point of that sentence is that I am sometimes uncomfortable with primarily Asian sanghas. I feel self-conscious and unsure of how my practice will hold up to others that have practiced (sometimes) for most of their lives. But mostly I am scared of messing up and insulting my hosts. Those that welcomed me to practice for a day or week or month or however long I am in that area.

    I don’t expect any sangha to change because I am uncomfortable. I need the changing and not the group. This is not to say that I believe that White sanghas (or primarily white sanghas) don’t need to be more approachable or diverse. It is only to say that I don’t expect anyone to change for me.

    Oh and one more thing… sometimes whites just can’t win. This is a general point, not just in the area of Buddhism. If we don’t change things and actively welcome outsiders, then we’re being parochial and insular and clannish. If we DO change things, we’re being inauthentic, and not as cool as the Asians.

    That last paragraph was just alittle tongue and cheek. Seriously, sometimes I do feel that way though.

    It would be nice for some constructive ideas on how to make a sangha more diverse rather than insults.


    atlasienSeptember 16, 2009 at 10:59 AM
    Then perhaps you could use your feeling in the service of empathy with others, instead of in the service of saying what essentially amounts to “I know you are, but what am I”.

    That’s one major concrete suggestion… if you feel a moral imperative to diversify, ASK people how they would want to have outreach done for them. For example, if you want to invite more Asian-Americans to your sangha, ask some Asian-Americans how they would want to be invited. If you want to invite single mothers, ask single mothers. Then listen to what they say, using your experience to establish empathy, not as a yardstick to judge their different needs.

    What’s more important to you… learning how to make sanghas more diverse, or establishing the validity of reverse racism? Because doing both at the same time is just not going to happen.

    AnonymousSeptember 16, 2009 at 2:21 PM
    Heh, the temple I used to go to in Seattle was interesting use-case of this. We were a pretty large temple, and resisted changes for quite sometime until this last year (I was not in Seattle during this time, so I only know this from our own congregation whom I keep in touch with).

    The “meditation” issue definitely has gone back and forth. One minister, a progressive convert fellow, added it in for a time. Another minister, a more conservative fellow and the elder minister, eventually ‘nixed it as not real Jodo Shinshu.

    I have to admit I see both sides of the argument. I even feel kind of bad for going sometimes because I know that as some pointed out the community will have to compromise or just die out. It sounds like a no-win situation in a way. I think this is what Atlasien is getting at.

    I still think the compromise approach is still the best in the long-run, even if it does mean the loss of the community as it currently exists. As long as the BCA continues to be open and progressive, then people will somehow benefit from it in a way that they may not from other cliquish Buddhist groups.

    Speaking from my own congregation in Seattle, there were people there, Japanese-American and non, who just really “got” Buddhism somehow, and they were really profound people. Others, both Japanese-American and non, were in it for the social experience.

    I think somehow some folks will always carry the message even if the temples don’t really resemble what they once did. I am still optimistic about the future. Easy for me to say that, I know, but well… 🙂

    AlSeptember 16, 2009 at 3:32 PM
    I’m not sure why I need to go out of way to diversify any sangha that I am in. I’m happy to practice with anyone who shows up with any of the Zen groups with whom I sit. If they are Asian (whatever that means), great! If they are not, that’s great too. It makes no difference to me.

    Probably just another example of white privilege but the driving issue for my practice or any group that I am involved in is not “are we ethnically diverse enough?” I’m here to practice the Dharma.

    I don’t go to Jodo Shin temples specifically because I’m a meditator. There is nothing really for me there and it is not my faith community. I don’t expect them to do anything to accommodate me against their own wishes or history.

    Jack DawSeptember 17, 2009 at 8:42 AM
    Just a quicky – Work needs to be done today.

    @ Arun – I changed the language of my post to include “community” rather than “neighborhood”. I agree that the wording was poor and I do appreciate you pointing that out. My point still being that the temple/church/whatever is always a cultural beacon for any ethnicty and this is never a negative.

    @ Atlasien – Ahhh. Outreach. Actually my profession. I do outreach for many organizations (including a bit for my small, meager, homespun sangha) and unfortunately, I do not live in an area with a significant Asian population (I used to but now I am in South Dakota). I do however promote our sangha to Native American, African Americans, college students, whites and anyone else that would care to listen.

    Our sangha operates in a fashion (since it is so small, 25 practitioners at the most) that is largely democratic. Any person that is sitting with us can request a form of practice from any tradition. We are primarily Zen but we are open to incorporate Native American rituals in with ours (the burning of sage directly comes to mind along with incense) or any other for that manner.

    We also offer secular meditation classes once a week for free at a local community Education Center as well as offer a scholarship to any individual that can’t afford the retreats we
    sponser to Denver (the closest large zendo).

    I speak to groups just out of jail and those that are homeless regardless of race about the possible benefits of Buddhist practice. We also are completely fine with any religion that just wants to “sit-in” and skip the chanting and prostrations.

    No dues and no fees and no cost so there is little barrier in that arena. We work damned hard at making our sangha open for all and we welcome everyone that wants to come and sit or watch.

    No paid positions and no paid monks. Everything is on a sliding scale. Which honestly helps me out since I am only slightly more than poor myself.

    Bottom line. You know exactly jack about my empathy. I work daily with my own difficulties in understanding where others come from and why. Sometimes I get it and sometimes I don’t but I STRIVE daily. But I can’t ASK every subset of humanity in our community but I do my best.

    But you know what, my best will never be good enough. There will always be someone classifying us as a white country club b/c we are a primarily white sangha.

    My last comment on this.

    ArunSeptember 19, 2009 at 9:42 AM
    @atlasien: Perhaps asking questions and listening is half the solution. We often don’t know what we want, so part of being effective is identifying different outreach methods and seeing what works for your sangha. I attend a meditation group that currently consists only of young Asian American professionals; we’re trying a number of different ways to reach out to a broader community. But especially for people of color, having a space where we can express our feelings is key.

    @Al: I don’t think I asked you to diversify your sangha here. I do appreciate your openness, though.

    @Jack Daw: I take issue with your assumptions more than your arguments, and so I’ll rehash below the points I failed to convey above.

    First, the fact is that you have only the faintest idea of what actually was and has been going on in those sanghas. Let me make it clear that you are completely entitled to employ your limited understanding of the Japanese American community, the Shin Buddhist community and their histories in North America as rhetorical strawmen for your discussion of diversity and the lack thereof. And when you do so, I will call you on it. If you feel it is absolutely essential to refer to the internal dynamics of Asian American communities in your posts (not to mention the Shin Buddhist community), please do us the favor of doing your research.

    Second, the experiences of Japanese Buddhist immigrants have much in common with those of European immigrant communities simply by virtue of being immigrants to a foreign land. That’s where the similarities end. Your argument complacently neglects that even after five generations in North America, Japanese Americans must still deal with being treated as “foreign” simply due to looking different. When it comes to assimilation into American society, the racial heritage of Asian Americans works as an ever present obstacle to full acceptance – a barrier that white Americans do not have to deal with simply by virtue of the color of their skin. What a privilege.

    To assert that Asian American sanghas are simply cultural institutions in the same vein as European American sanghas is to likewise assert that they are separate but equal. The trivializing and outright denial of our adversity is half the reason why this blog exists. Nevertheless, it was most uncivil, uncharitable and disingenuous of me to suggest that you were promoting racial segregation, as I unambiguously did in my indignant “white country club” line. My apologies.

    To paraphrase some words you might find familiar: I was insulted by your post. Not enough to go crying in a corner but I think you framed your post poorly. If your post required as detailed an explanation as you had to provide then I think you could have worded it better.

    AlSeptember 19, 2009 at 9:50 AM
    You didn’t ask me to diversify my sangha specifically but your white country club remarks (and many others that you have made) leave the strong implication that if those of us who are white are not actively and regularly trying to recruit non-white members to our sangha, we’re simply perpetuating a problem and residing in “white privilege” land, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Unfortunately, this sort of rhetoric pretty much alienates any potential white allies in what you seem to be trying to do, overall. I can only be called an implicit (if not explicit) racist for so long before I simply quit engaging in *any* conversation on racial issues. After all, as you keep pointing out, I don’t have to engage in these issues because of my inherent whiteness.

    So, how do you promote your cause while recruiting us as allies instead of people that you are talking down to all the time? Perhaps a bit less anger and a bit more dialogue and understanding of what the viewpoint of whites (how I loathe the term) here actually is?

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