June 24, 2011

A Brown Buddhist and a Handful of Mustard Seeds

There is a very compelling post by another Asian Buddhist on the Womanist Musings blog on the topics of Buddhism, cultural appropriation and identity. Check it out.

I have plenty to be angry about in this world, and my anger at injustice does not make me a lesser Buddhist. Because I don’t visit meditation centers doesn’t mean I don’t live and practice the principles of Buddhism in everyday acts like sharing food and water, or nurturing community. I believe that ‘inner serenity’ as enjoyed by the privileged, is an illusion that insults Buddhism’s legacy of advocating for the poor and marginalized. There are many ways to practice Buddhism, but humility is the foremost of all practices: a trait that global North citizens never seem to have much use for.

Hat-tip to the Madhushala blog for bringing this piece to my attention. Naturally, this post ruffled some feathers; the Reformed Buddhist blog turns around and calls the author’s own attitude racist. The reaction I found most moving was in a comment on the original post.

Thank you so much for writing this.

I too am a Buddhist Woman of Color in the global North who sees Buddhism as something “inseparable from my culture and experience as a woman...from the Third World.” I am constantly frustrated by the invalidation of my Buddhist experience by the mainstream American Buddhist powers as so much “cultural baggage” that “modern,” “rational” Buddhism needs to be cleansed of.

But every time I dip my toes into the waters of the US mainstream to try to put forth another perspective, I am inundated with comments like “The west has a lot to offer to the stagnate, codified Asian practices” and “We in the west offer hope of rejuvenation” and perhaps my all-time favorite by a well-respected white American convert Buddhist about feminism in Buddhism “If we had not spoken up, the Buddhist women’s movement, which started less than twenty years ago, would not even exist. Things might not have changed for another 2,500 years.” And reading things like that, I don’t know how I should open myself up to more abuse and silencing.

I am hurt, and more than that, I am angry, but even more than that, I am tired. Nothing I say as a woman of color ever seems to be of any consequence to the all-knowing white Buddhist establishment, who remain determined as ever to tell me how I’m “doing Buddhism wrong.”

So I wanted to let you know that your words here were of consequence to this Buddhist woman of color. That your words spoke to a beaten-down, fatigued part of me and inspired me. Your words make me want to write my own Buddhism, out of solidarity rather than out of anger because you have reminded me that as white as Buddhism sometimes feels, MY Buddhism is not monochromatic and I am not alone.

Sometimes it feels as though I’m the only Asian American Buddhist blogger out there, but it’s times like these that remind me I’m not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of Asian American Buddhists in this country, and we are ready to speak out and stand up for our inclusion, dignity and respect.


  1. You provide a great service through your journalling; please do know you are having an effect and, as we say in chinese, "加油 (keep up the fight)". I have been following your and others' insights on these issues for several weeks now. Not being Buddhist, I'm inclined to be reticent, but would appreciate your feedback on a few points.

    You do seem to be one of the few (non-celeb teacher) Asian and Asian-American voices interacting on the Euro-American Buddhist front. I'm honoured to have several sengha monks and nuns, and lay parisa, both Euro and Asian (mostly Thai) as friends, and I can't say as I've seen them reading these "famous" Buddhist authors of the White American ilk, nor even the "famous" Asian teachers. Though one of them forwarded me to this issue with the Maha Council with some concern, these circles don't seem to impact them much. People, Asian or Euro, go to temple and chant and offer dana and meditate and eat and read from the typical suttras and inspirational "good books" written in Thailand or Taiwan... I've seen "good books" by big Asian authors on the literature tables and shelves, in many languages including English, but not once a copy of these "Zen and motorcycles", Bodhidhamma magazine, etc. type authors. No Trungpa Rinpoche. Not even Alan Watts.

    What I'm getting at is that in the years I've been hanging out with Buddhists, in temples and out, this whole "Reformed", cool, capitalist white Buddhist world just doesn't seem to be noticable on the ground, much less have an impact. So if this is how MOST American Buddhism is, the "Hollywood" White Buddhism seems very parochial and insular, not the other way round. You've documented that such traditional Buddhism (derided as "ethnic baggage") forms the majority systems in America, and I'm inclined to agree from personal observation. Do you have any recent statistical research on this? And if this is so, that the whole "American Buddhism" culture barely impacts Buddhism on the ground, is there really any cause for concern if it dies off? That is, can one pretty much say that these lineages are an ethnic phenomenon among some rich White urban Americans and as such it might be a hindrance to actually endorse that they (ought to) represent American Buddhism? Isn't neglect from most American Buddhists, already what's going on, a "loudly silent" rejection of the White Buddhist presumption to speak as the mainstream?)

  2. (Personally it seems even more odd, as I recall many instances of people at the local (outside a medium Southern town) SEAsian Therevada temple and the Vietnamese Chan/Mahayana temple getting together at each others' services, for Visak etc., but never did they do events with any White Buddhist group that I knew of. And both these groups had a few White congregants, so it wasn't purely a racial *exclusion*, they just had no direct contact in the area with what is apparently called "mainstream (White) Buddhism". Why is the White-Asian divide so much a higher wall than the SEAsian walls? It's not like there's no racism between those groups either!)

    The one time I personally encountered this White Buddhist culture was when driving a monk friend to a rich urban White lady's "meditation group". She was nice and welcoming, really... But being poor, rural, as well as used to "cultural baggage" of traditional Buddhism, it was quite an eye-opener and rather discomforting for me. (Very formal... Alot of old money... No meal for a lay meeting?!) I can't be the only one to feel the class divide. How much of this divide in Americna Buddhism is due to such class issues? Do you have a pertinent analysis, especially on the numbers regarding the late-capitalist, "New Agey" tenor of this Buddhism that appeals to the moneyed dilletante? Like I said, even the Euro-Americans at temples (mostly seemingly from lower and lower middle class) who I know don't read Tricycle, let alone can afford it... One White monk rolled his eyes when I asked about such publications. So it can't only be the immigrant/language/race divides here.

    Last blabby question, if you be so kind: It's often noted in the Chinese talking head press, at least, the divide between "individualist" and "communalist" cultures. Apropos, somewhere I read a recent study of a Buddhist meditation retreat in Ontario that showed different results for Chinese-Canadians after the course than their Euro- coretreatants (more repentence for sins against others and need for compassion in the former, more emphasis on "stress reduction" and "personal attainment" in the latter). So there's really deep differences not only before cultivation, but DURING cultivation and in results... Do you think this is an inevitable psychogenic difference? If so, given that White Buddhism often uses suttra exegisis to privalege the self, what exegetical argument can be made in a simliar way for communalist Buddhism? Can you please point ways in which such psychocultural divide might bridged in the teachings?

    Thank you very much for your effort, patience, and any thoughts you are willing to share.

  3. @曙霏: As for American Buddhist demographics, I did some naive and amateurish number crunching, but the only piece that’s really worth reading is my most recent piece on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. I believe the interaction between different American Buddhist communities is too complex to explore here, especially as there are a number of social and demographic shifts that will have a huge impact on Buddhism in America in the coming decades. Those shifts are too much to write about in this comment, but I’ll explore them in the future. Different communities approach Buddhism in different ways, as do individuals, but I would like to believe the practices are efficacious regardless of the initial “intent” or “attitude” of the practitioner. Even if we do not practice in the same way, my concern is that we are not eating at the same table, even when we would like to. This quick response may skirt around your questions; I mean no disrespect by doing so. I am attempting to limit myself to the questions I feel that I am best equipped to explore. Your comments and questions are much appreciated.

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  5. Wow, I don't know whether this comment thread is dead or not but I just stumbled upon the whole blog thread (Tassja's, Lianne's and your own) while looking up cultural appropriation through MBSR. Fantastic analysis, by both yourself and the previous commenter on this thread.

    I'm a white meditator, not self-identifying as a Buddhist but definitely having learned from them. It was really interesting to hear Tassja's comments since I spent 4 months last year living and learning at a Buddhist meditation centre in Sri Lanka. I've also spent 3 months last year at the Birken Theravadin monastery here in British Columbia.

    In both places there were residential monks and nuns, as well as short-term mostly-white meditation students. At both places there were regular puja offerings by Sinhalese and Thai Buddhists. It was bizarre to see and feel the differences between the two "types" of lay people (the short-term meditation students and the people offering puja). I have to say that the two types of laypeople didn't overlap at all. What I observed was that the devotional Buddhists very rarely stayed to meditate, and the meditators very rarely offered puja. The meditators, who in the Canadian monastery were almost entirely white, instead left dana almost exclusively in the form of monetary contributions. 

    Anyways, I'm just starting into the world of mental health care and am wanting to somehow integrate it with my meditation practice, while honouring the teachers and cultures it came from. One way that I'm looking to integrate my meditation practice with mental health care is the MBSR model started by Jon Kabat-Zinn. But I hesitate as it pays such small lip service to practices it was almost wholesale taken from. I'm not sure what this would be called, perhaps most simply plagiarism, and this un-acknowledgement was apparently done to make the MBSR system more palatable to western audiences. A link to the origins of MBSR is here (http://www.umassmed.edu/uploadedFiles/cfm2/training/JKZ_paper_Contemporary_Buddhism_2011.pdf)

    In my view, Jon Kabat-Zinn is definitely one of the people who is responsible for the secularization of Buddhist meditation. If he were to change the name of the practice from MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) to Buddhist-Meditation-Based-Stress-Reduction, would this be adequately respectful? I know this is slightly off-topic from what you usually write about, but I'd be interested to know your opinion. 

    Much thanks and appreciation,