On White Women and Buddhism

What’s gender got to do with Buddhism? How are women—and men—working with the challenges of sexism in Buddhist institutions? What opportunities present themselves when women pursue the path of dharma outside of traditional institutions and organizations? With these questions—and more—we are welcomed into Buddhadharma’s Winter 2010 feature, “Our Way.”

Brought together to discuss these questions are the brilliant minds of Grace Schireson, Christina Feldman, Lama Palden Drolma, Rita Gross, Lama Tsultrim Allione, and Joan Sutherland. These authors delve into the history of women bringing balance to the Buddhist community, current forward-moving trends and the outlines of a more equitable future for us all. But apart from these great women and their compelling discussion, I found something missing.

Namely, Asians.

In fact, no People of Color were included in this list—but here I prefer to underline the most blatant omission. For a feature that focuses “on women and Buddhism”—the editors chose none to represent Buddhism’s largest demographic: Asian women. Even when we narrow our purview to the Buddhist community in the “West,” Buddhists of Asian heritage are still an obvious part of the picture. Our voices are Western voices. Our mothers, sisters and daughters also reside in these lands, attend Western schools, live by Western rules, embrace Western values and grapple with the pernicious challenges of patriarchy that so regrettably pervade time and border. Asian American Buddhist women even represent the State of Hawai‘i in the U.S. House. By charting “Our Way” with the voices of white women, Buddhadharma has chosen to displace Asian women from “our” discussion.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of Asian Buddhist women capable of delving into these questions. The editors could easily have contacted Mushim Ikeda-NashRev. Patti UsukiVen. Tenzin Kacho or Anchalee Kurutach, women of varied backgrounds who are engaged Buddhists and also Asian American. (In fact, you can even listen right now to two of them talk about Buddhism in the United States—in an all-Asian American broadcast to boot!) All that said, when it comes to Shambhala Sun’s track record at bringing Asians into the conversation, they’ve made it clear that, well, we’ve just about got a Chinaman’s chance.

My laments have become so frequent that they are banal. Only last month I admonished Shambhala Sun Space (among others) for covering white non-Buddhist politicians, while completely ignoring non-white politicians who are actually Buddhist. Two years ago, I excoriated Buddhadharma for deliberately excluding Asian Americans from a forum on “the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world.” We can even look back to Beneath a Single Moon, Shambhala Publication’s anthology of contemporary Buddhist poetry, which failed to include a single Asian American Buddhist poet. Keep it up, and I’ll be able to publish an anthology of my own—a record of Asian Americans’ marginalization by the white Buddhist establishment.

If any of this is news to you, welcome to the discussion. Concerning the key actors involved, however, no new ground has been covered. We all know this dance. Angry Asian Buddhists castigate the white-privileged editors—who in turn acknowledge their faux pas, bemoan their obliviousness and profess their love for equality. Who knows, they may even ask for a letter to the editor. How grand!

But what would it take to have real change? How do we get consideration for a seat on that next panel—and how do we avoid being Chinatowned into a group of Asians talking about some “Asian” topic? I assure you, we Asian Buddhists can do a lot more than iron your clothes, paint your nails and serve you our “ethnic” food. We can talk about individual struggles, community institutions and transformative frameworks. I work with white Buddhists (and other Buddhists of color) all the time out here in the field, but I wonder what it takes to hang with the white kids in the big leagues.

Many of the divisions in the Buddhist community cannot be healed overnight. As one simple step, publications like Buddhadharma could simply recognize the broader diversity that exists. There are few starker lines of the so-called “ethnic divide” than the refusal of white Buddhists to even acknowledge the voices of the Asian Buddhist majority in the West.

One thought on “On White Women and Buddhism

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

    @tishushuDecember 11, 2010 at 8:31 AM
    I say publish your arguments… Not having a woman of Asian descent, or other POC, represented in this discussion is yet another reason why I don’t support these periodicals… I would buy your published work, too!

    NathanDecember 11, 2010 at 10:12 AM
    I saw the same thing when I opened the issue. One woman of color on the front page and zero in the actual discussion. Buddhadharma is an excellent publication in many ways, but like Trike and Shambala, it’s mostly the same cast of mostly white writers and teachers over and over again, with a heavy seasoning of “celebrity” Asian teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama.

    I hate to say it, but I don’t think it will change until either a)the leadership changes at these pubs and/or b)rival publications with completely different approaches gain prominence and challenge the monopoly.

    The internet is already breaking some of this down, and print media is struggling to stay relevant, but there’s still too much unnecessary division being disseminated, whether in print or on-line. The white leadership (teachers, scholars, and prominent lay practitioners) of the “convert” Buddhist community need to wake up, grow up, and stop acting like they have discovered some “essence” of Buddhism that must trump all over views and approaches.

    Richard HarroldDecember 11, 2010 at 2:21 PM
    Despite the fact I am a white male, I would love to be involved in launching a Buddhist publication that is dominated by minority contributors and that would have an editorial board in which whites were a distinct minority. I have no money to invest in such a venture, but I have a strong background in both print and online media (I was an editor of a daily newspaper and currently I am the content director for a family of news websites). What do you think?

    thanissaraDecember 13, 2010 at 2:54 PM
    I think its a good idea…
    it’d be good to have perspectives from those ‘in the margins’ – To move the margins more central – one powerful way of doing this is through publication.

    thanissaraDecember 13, 2010 at 11:38 PM
    It’s taken a lot of hard work by some POC (People of Color) Dharma leaders and community – to make conscious some of the issues raised in this article.

    It takes a particular kind of focus to explore bringing accessibility to Dharma, and visibility, to those communities who are marginalized because of race, sexual orientation, class, economic income – At present in Western Buddhism, Dharma teachers, resources, power, narrative, tends to be very much in the white middle-upper class domain.

    As we can see from the dialog around gender equity in Buddhist monasticism, it takes a lot to educate about the impact of assumed entitlement – how that tends to exclude, dis-empower and undermine the growth of leadership in those who are not offered the same levels of support, encouragement, resources and respect. The same kind of ‘platform.’ Entitlement makes huge amounts of the lived reality, of those who struggle as a consequence of disparity, entirely invisible.

    I see Awakening not only a transcendence of our conditioned views about those who appear different – but Awakening is a process that directly uncovers and makes conscious our learned individual, cultural and collective prejudice’s. This is painful work and requires much inner honesty and reflection.

    Jeffrey KotykJanuary 6, 2011 at 2:16 AM
    On the reverse, I imagine if you look at Chinese language periodicals on Buddhism you’ll hardly find a photo of non-Asians.

    You complain that Asians are excluded from Buddhism in the west, but there are plenty of temples in western countries that cater specifically to a certain demographic and exclude everybody else. They operate in a foreign language and print their materials almost entirely in non-English languages.

    I read Chinese and Japanese and I’ve seldom if ever seen in Buddhist publications much interest taken in what white Buddhists are up to.

    Discrimination goes both ways unfortunately.

    ArunJanuary 6, 2011 at 8:01 AM
    @Jeffrey Kotyk: Your comment here compares apples to oranges. I’ll elaborate on this more in a separate post, but simply put—to what extent are white Chinese-speaking Buddhist voices underrepresented in Chinese-language Buddhist publications? I imagine reality is quite reflective of the numbers. On the other hand, I am looking at the underrepresentation of Asian English-speaking Buddhist voices in English-language Buddhist publications—that discrepancy is much larger. But even this is beside the point. Your comment amounts to little more than “I know what you are, but what am I?” So what if Chinese-language Buddhist publications deliberately exclude white Chinese speaking Buddhists? It would certainly be neither fair nor just—but this inequity in no way excuses the very same exclusion by a Western Buddhist publication whose editors do aim to promote fairness and justice.

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