April 7, 2011

Will the real American Buddhists please stand up?

One of the frustrations of being an Asian American Buddhist arises when people routinely exclude us from “American Buddhism.” We are American and we are Buddhist. No less, the vast majority of us practice Buddhism differently here than the way it’s practiced in Asia—in ways that are uniquely American. But when it comes to talking about “American Buddhists”—or just simply “Americans”—time and again, we are left out. This attitude was evident in a comment on yesterday’s post, which responded to a question by Barbara O’Brien on the number of Asians at the upcoming Buddhist Geeks conference:

How many Indian’s [sic] were at the monasteries in Tibet at the time of Atisha? Or in Japan at the time of the 3rd Patriarch? This US event is bound to be dominated by American faces…

This sort of slip is not confined to White Buddhists; you’ll frequently hear Asian Buddhists make these same sorts of assumptions too. I’ve even had a commenter use the words of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh to suggest that Asians recognize that “American” excludes the Asian, “Please show me your Buddha, your American Buddha. […] Show me an American bodhisattva. […] Show me an American monk, an American nun, or an American Buddhist Center.”

This exclusion of Asian Americans is often termed “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” Even when we act completely American, our basic “Asianness” casts us as foreign. It’s the sort of attitude that underlies statements by those such as Tricycle founder Helen Tworkov that Asian American Buddhists “have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.”

Just for good measure, I’d like to remind you why we are American Buddhists.

Let me reframe the credentials of Asian American Buddhists. We are Buddhist because that’s what we call ourselves, because that’s how we practice, because that’s the religion we choose to follow and identify with. We are American because we were born here, we went to American schools, we salute Old Glory, we pay American taxes, we speak American English, we vote in American elections and because we fought, bled and died for American freedoms. We are as American as chop suey, fortune cookies, competitive team taiko and home-baked apple pie. And our Buddhism is American Buddhism because no matter how superficially similar our local practice may seem to the way that Buddhism is practiced in Asia, we have had to significantly adapt and alter our traditions to fit our American community and context here in North America.

The exclusion of Asians from “American” is an abhorrent trope in American society. When it comes to American Buddhism, this is one piece of American cultural baggage that’s better off checked at the door. Please don’t exclude us from our own community.

4 comments :

  1. That same comment raised my hackles too. And what is really galling to me is how the speakers don't even understand in the least how their thinking is so ethno-centric, so racially biased. It's so automatic they don't even know they do it.

    As I understand the nature of the Buddha's teaching, that IS the essence of delusion. And as the Buddha taught time and again, of the three taints, delusion is the most difficult to rid ourselves of because of its very nature: we don't see it there.

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  2. I assume the comment Richard is referring to is the one that was posted on the O'Brien blog. It was news to be that the 3rd Patriarch was Japanese. I always thought he was Chinese.

    I am amazed at Tworkov's comment, too. I guess the only contribution Asian Buddhists have made was only to bring Buddhism to America, but maybe that's not important.

    Of course, the real question is why does anyone have to be an Asian American Buddhist. Can't we all just be American Buddhists? Or better yet, just Buddhists?

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  3. "We are American because we were born here, we went to American schools, we salute Old Glory, we pay American taxes, we speak American English, we vote in American elections and because we fought, bled and died for American freedoms. We are as American as chop suey, fortune cookies, competitive team taiko and home-baked apple pie."

    If one makes such a statement, then they are American and not Asian. "Asia" itself is a western construct and this is clearly so because "Asia" in most East Asian languages is a foreign loanword.

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  4. nationality and religion are both in the same a poisonous pill.

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