September 17, 2009

Asian-free Buddhism

Thanks to Barbara’s Buddhism Blog, I was pointed to a Beliefnet post by Jerry Kolber, where he explicitly argues for stripping Buddhism of its Asian features.

Image is everything, and unless we figure out a way to make the image of the Buddha hip and cool, we’d be better off figuring out some other way to present the techniques without the awesome smiling face of our Eastern inspiration.
Bless his non-soul for proposing a sincere and unequivocal argument for whitewashing Buddhism. He has no compunction whatsoever about smugly proclaiming that Buddhism in America is far better off if only we can ditch the Asian guy. And he is like a gift that keeps on giving, except that I really don’t care for this narishkeyt…
Buddhism in America is at the long end of the initial boom sparked in the 60’s among intellectuals and artists who craved that elite connection with the east.
With a single sentence, he dons the hat of a historical revisionist and wipes American Buddhist history clean of its Asian affliction. The author disregards the basic fact that Buddhism in America enjoys an unbroken history that stretches back over 100 years. For all those years, it is Asian Americans who have constituted the outright numerical majority of Buddhist Americans—even today, we are still the majority. Plain and simple, Buddhism in America wouldn’t be half of what it is without its Asian American members, and for Jerry Kolber to patently neglect our contributions with utter impunity smacks entirely of excessive hegemonic privilege.


  1. Hi Arun,

    Though I agree entirely with the thrust of your post (as I do with your whole argument for a greater voice for Asian-American Buddhists in American Buddhism), I'm also aware of Master Thich Nhat Hahn's words on first visiting US Buddhist communities:

    "Please show me your Buddha, your American Buddha..... Where is your bodhisattva, show me an American bodhisattva" ... "I think we can learn from other Buddhist traditions, but you have to create your own Buddhism" (TNH, 'Being Peace')

    Of course, the Buddhism that will eventually be created in the US must include all Buddhists - espcially, as you say, those who form not just the first, but also the majority, but - at the same time - it will probably not look much like 'Asian' Buddhism at all.

    (For me, a traditionalist and a religious Buddhist resident in Asia for most of the last ten years that's a pity, but then again, I'm not American, have never been to America, and am even now wondering why I'm writing this comment! LOL!!!)

    Be well,


  2. Hi Arun,

    This is the same guy who argued that Buddhism requires that everyone have a high IQ because it's such a "difficult" practice. After all the comments questioning that position, he still basically makes the same argument in the current post. The post also sounds like a radio advertisement, complete with ready made enlightenment.

  3. Wow. That guy was way off base.

  4. "People love getting amazing returns on their time and money. Buddhism is free, takes only 10 to 30 minutes a day depending on the depth of your practice, and delivers benefits far beyond anything you can imagine."

    Since when did Buddhism need an infomercial?????

    I get what his goal is, kind of. But he's getting dangerously close to "Super Sizing" Buddhism.

  5. Kolber goes wrong because he believes "Image is everything". That isn't Buddhism of any variety, West or Asian. Its consumerism.

  6. some of us are fighting the good fight against this nonsense. I for one have been, if not single-handedly, then at the least spearheading the defense of Buddhism against their attempts to claim that Buddhism isn't a religion, and that it doesn't need Asians or Asian concepts because it is "just sitting" with some spiritual concepts maybe, but NOT a religion.


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