August 12, 2010

White Buddhist for Asians


Over on Dharma Folk, kudos posts about largely Vietnamese immigrants in Orange County who have “hired a white American man to teach Buddhism to their kids.” This man is a Buddhist monk, Ven. Kusala Bhikshu.

There are a number of white Buddhist teachers who have ordained and now minister to multicultural communities, especially here in the United States. There’s Ven. Heng Sure and Thanissaro Bhikkhu to name just two. What sets Kusala Bhikhsu apart, in my opinion, is that he has not made the same effort to thoroughly immerse himself in another culture. While Ven. Heng Sure speaks flawless Mandarin and Thanissaro Bhikkhu speaks fluent Thai with a mastery of slang that would make my own mother blush, Kusala Bhikshu is a happily monolingual American Midwesterner—who also happens to reach out to Asian American Buddhist communities.

In my opinion, this is a most beautiful manifestation of Western Buddhism, where Western Buddhists of different stripes and colors come together in spite of—even because of—their differences. Here are people who are leveraging their community’s diversity to strengthen it! Kusala Bhikshu’s not the only white guy working in this vein. For example, I often talk of Richard’s assistance to a local Lao temple. My hope is that, one day, self-styled Western Buddhist institutions can outgrow their cultural insularity and follow in the steps of these multiculturally-minded individuals.

You can listen to the full story at PRI’s The World. (Photo credit to PRI’s The World.)

11 comments:

  1. Thanks Arun, I didn't realize my rather clumsy efforts at that Lao temple made such an impression. And with this post, you have renewed in me a desire to reach out a bit more. I need to get out of my Buddhist shell.

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  2. Curious: Is the Buddhism of the Vietnamese parents more filled with prayers for prosperity and health than the Buddhism of their White American Teacher. Will the kids walk away hearing a bit of a different Buddhism?

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  3. @Sabio Lantz: I hope your curiosity was satisfied by both my response and kudos’. There must be no doubt that the kids will walk away hearing a bit of a different Buddhism—it’s entirely in English, after all. I certainly cannot talk for the parents, as I do not know them (all). Nevertheless, I feel I can safely say that Vietnamese Buddhists pray for prosperity and health no more than white American men perpetuate racist stereotypes against them.

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  4. Arun, I responded to your reflexive labeling me as a racist over at the other site. I did not realize that "Arun" is the handle you use here while you use "arunlikhati" over at the other site -- though now it is obvious. Kudo's response to my comment was much more level-headed and inviting of dialogue. I will copy my response to him below:

    ________

    BTW, the implied racism toward me by the honorable Arunlikhati is unfounded but I guess understandable.

    My observation was purely sociological. Buddhism by westerners in this country tends to have much less prayer, petitions, adoration, and much more than present in Asia (I lived there for 12 years: Pakistan, India, China, Taiwan and Japan). So I am really curious from an anthropological perspective what that interaction will be like.

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  5. @Sabio Lantz: For the record, I did not label you as racist, nor do I have any reason to believe you to be so. My comment is both unfair and harsh—and deliberately so. I chose my words with care, as I felt my response to be proportionately as objectionable as the prejudiced comments directed towards Vietnamese. You may not feel so—it is simply my gamble that you now might understand how I felt. May you be well.

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  6. @ Arun
    Your comment makes no sense to me. You certainly did imply I was a racist. You sound like you are trying to both back-paddle and re-affirm how intentional your words of chastisement are.

    You obviously have much anger (no surprise -> given your post name) and you don't care where you direct your anger as long as someone hears your self-righteous words. Your discrimination skills could use some honing.

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  7. @Sabio Lantz: One might consider me to be splitting hairs, but I honestly try to make a point of neither calling people racist nor assuming that they are racist. Now, you asserted that I implied that you were a racist. To be fair, I can’t completely disagree that my words cast you in that light. But here is what I intended to convey.

    On Dharma Folk, I responded to your loaded question (“Do Vietnamese Buddhists pray for health and well-being and success from Bodhisattvas and/or Buddhas?”) with an equally loaded “Do white people promulgate racist stereotypes against Asians?” My point of asking a question of parallel “Do-Ns-V-X?” structure was to imply that the responses should likewise be parallel. I don’t believe it to be the general case that “Vietnamese Buddhists pray for health and well-being and success from Bodhisattvas and/or Buddhas” just as I don’t believe it to be the general case that “white people promulgate racist stereotypes against Asians.” The answers to both questions are in actuality more complex than a simple yes-or-no. I hoped your gut-reaction to the second question would be “WTF?”—just as I objected to your question.

    On the other hand, if one honestly feels that the answer to your question is a resounding “yes,” then one should have little doubt—mistaken though it be—that I intended the very same answer to my question. So back to intended implications, it did occur to me that if a reader both insisted on an affirmative answer to your question and also picked up on my parallel structure, then they might naturally assume I was calling all white people promulgators of racist stereotypes—although not necessarily racist. But if one should follow the disputable logic that someone who makes a racist statement must also be racist, then I would in that case be implying that all white people are racist—which would include you, if you happen to be white. I deemed this last scenario improbable, and I did not intend to convey that message. I furthermore do not believe that a racist statement entails that its utterer is racist—or that one is inherently prejudiced for making a statement of prejudice.

    I honestly did believe that you would understand why it was problematic to make the blanket statements that you did about Vietnamese Buddhists. It is precisely the perpetuation of those kinds of stereotypes which form a basis of the denigration of Buddhists of Asian heritage. I stand by what I wrote.

    As a response to your last comments, I disagree with your assertion that I’m angry, but this point is in my view immaterial to the subject at hand—as is the assertion that I’m self-righteous, which I feel is self-evident.

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  8. Let's try it again:

    (1) Do you feel that a significantly greater percent of people in Vietnam who consider themselves Buddhist practice with superstitious expectations of health, prosperity, due to their religious practices than is the case with people in America who consider themselves Buddhist?

    I think that most anthropologists of religion who say "yes" to number one but I may be mistaken. That then leads to question two.

    (2) Will kids of Vietnamese parents learning Buddhism from a white American potentially learn a substantially less superstitious Buddhism than their parents and perhaps surprise their parents?

    There, I tried to put all the careful caveats to avoid having racist undertones read into my words.

    Concerning my point: The same can happen with South American folks and their children with Catholicism when they come here.

    It is a phenomena and I was curious to discuss. And your reflexive sound-bite accusatory greeting for someone new to your site was counterproductive.

    But then this could be complicated by the fact that you don't like the word "superstitious" or implications of superstition in Buddhism or that any Asian could be considered superstitious. Any or all of those could have triggered you interpretation.

    I think we are all superstitious -- it is a matter of degree, awareness and hopes perhaps.

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  9. Oh wow! I used to work with Kusala Bhikshu in Los Angeles, after he invited me to do some campus ministry with him at UCLA. Fascinating fellow. It's nice to see a picture of him after a number of years. Thank you!

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  10. @Sabio Lantz: I understand the discussion that you’d like to have, but I hope you understand that I’m not willing to entertain some of the assumptions that you bring to the table. Take your first question, for example. I consider it practically impertinent. After all, the PRI piece is only about “people in America who consider themselves Buddhist.” Secondly, you seem to have witnessed “superstitious expectations of health, prosperity” on a greater scale from your experience in Asia than, say, among white folk in the Americas. Logically, if someone practices “prayer, petitions, adoration,” then simple probability based on the evidence would suggest they are an Asian Buddhist (even discounting the larger number of Buddhists in Asia to begin with). Neither your experience nor this logical extension are points I contest. But you seem to have taken the inference and flipped it around—if one is an Asian Buddhist, then they are likely to harbor superstitious practices. Consider the following analogy. Vietnamese are much more likely than white Americans to be of type B blood group. But that does not mean that if someone is Vietnamese, then they are also likely to be of type B—that would be a logical fallacy. As it happens, in the case of both Vietnamese and white Americans, any given individual is most likely to be of type O. I’m not willing to speak to the beliefs and practices of the parents of the children in the PRI story—and I certainly don’t believe you should either. As for Ven. Kusala Bhikshu, he speaks for himself.

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  11. Wow, you are responding a week after my comment.
    And then you called me "impertinent".
    Your way with words leaves me with a lack of desire for dialogue -- but perhaps that is your goal.

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