June 28, 2011

It's not about Richard Gere

A recent post by Tassja at Womanist Musings stirred up some controversy in the Buddhist blogosphere around the themes of culture, race, privilege, and appropriation. More importantly, this maelstrom pulled in the voice of a frequent commenter with whom I coauthored a letter to Buddhadharma, inspiring her to write in solidarity with Tassja. She frequently comments as Liriel.

My name is Wisdom. Specifically, Prajña. As in Prajñaparamita. My legal name. I never changed it. It is the name my parents gave me at birth, encompassing all their hopes for how I would deal with the myriad array of choices in my future.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is written on our bodies.

Chinese school at the Chan temple is where I learned to dance from the first Chinese Disneyland music box ballerina, fold origami cranes—the last one I folded is now part of an art installation for the victims of the Japan quake—and chant sutras before lunchtime. I still never waste a single grain of rice. The temple library is where my mother would go to borrow cartoons starring the 15th century Zen monk Ikkyu for me to watch. We have a youth orchestra and our own version of the boy scouts that marches under the Buddhist flag. Fifteen years after I was a student there, I attended the funeral of my favorite teacher.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is moulded on our skin.

I would like to tell you how Buddhism influences my father’s treatment of his patients, every one of whom are criminally insane. I would like to tell you how Buddhism plays a role in the way my mother lends the money she doesn’t have to spare. I would like to tell you of how Buddhism sustained my aunt through the famine and my uncle through the war—I would like to tell you how it gave some measure of peace to those who did not survive.

Because this is what we mean when we say that Buddhism flows in our blood.

I would like to tell you, but I am afraid. I am afraid of you Barbara O’Brien, Kyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother. I am terrified because I can see my future in what you are presently doing to Tassja.

You might tell me that Buddhism belongs in the meditation center and not the hospital. You might tell me that the war is over so what does it matter. You might tell me famine is a state of mind or any number of other things equally indicative of never having helplessly watched a child starve to death. You could discount all my family’s blood, sweat, and tears and the way they flow into and out of the Buddhism I live everyday.

Or perhaps what I say will not matter in the least. You could disregard everything I say in favor of ad feminam attacks about my being an angry person of color with a chipped shoulder. Or about my being young, in my early twenties, and thus uninformed. Or about my being an illogical woman, a “silly cow.”

All these barbs will likely be pointed at me as they are being used against Tassja, and I am afraid. But I am still here, still non-white, still young, still female, still Buddhist, still speaking out in order to tell you that this fear you strike in my heart that makes my fingers numb as I type is the issue. Not Richard Gere. Every time I want to express my differing perspective, I’m silenced by the shitstorm I know is waiting to demean my person and mock my loved ones, rather than engage with the logic of my thesis.

And so I take refuge in the non-white, non-English-speaking, immigrant sanghas I was raised in. And thus our bodies and our voices are absent from your conferences and self-congratulatory blogs. And consequently there are few to challenge your cocksure assertions of your own diversity and inclusiveness even as I stand here feeling alienated.

I retire to await your abuse with one last thought, the one that constantly plagues my mind as I read your vitriolic reactions to Tassja and Arun: there is always so much talk of detachment and transience and samsara in your cavalier dismissal of these writers, but where is your consideration for the other great pillar of Buddhism? Compassion. Where is your loving-kindness and empathy for your fellow sentient beings who suffer? Beings whose suffering is as real as yours? Beings whose suffering you should feel as you own rather than mocking as ridiculous or dismissing as inconsequential?

Na Mo Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa.

15 comments :

  1. wow - very powerful... thank you...

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  2. Some of us Western appropriators do try, but it is a big thing, this Buddhadharma we practice. We are still so new at it, as a culture. Forgive us our Big Minds, our Richard Gere's, our celebrities holding on the hokekyo and not quite getting exactly what Nichiren was all about.

    Not for nothing, in the Diamond Sutra, when asked how to go forth as a Bodhisattva, the Buddha doesn't say to sit. He doesn't say to meditate. He says, first, to give. Give completely. Plenty of jakata stories tell us how.

    For this reminder, I thank you, as a white, priveledged, male Buddhist. Keep helping us. Remind us all when we fall off the edges, and hit that narcissism point. And I'll fold a paper crane with you.

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  3. "I am afraid of you Barbara O’Brien, Kyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother."

    While I can't speak for them, I don't think you should be afraid of Barbara O'Brien or Kyle Lovett. I doubt that either of them would ever have anything dispariging to say about your family, or yourself. Their issues were not about silencing the anger of the poster, but rather towards the language used, equating white Buddhists as racist theieves.

    As for the anonymous commentors that did nothing more than hurl insults, that's another story altogether. And unless comment moderation is enforced, something we all have to (unfortunately) deal with on the internet, even within 'Buddhist' sites.

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  4. Actually, Adam, I think she should be afraid of Kyle Lovett.

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  5. @Adam: The problem is that the author didn’t actually “equat[e] white Buddhists as racist theieves.” Tassja wrote about the excessive hegemonic privilege involved in “cultural appropriation and the erasure of cultural context,” and how this situation is infused with racism and cultural violence. She wrote about many things that I choose not to write about or engage with simply because I have many of the same trepidations which Liriel expresses here. When Tassja wrote about White privilege, she was in turn called a racist—and that was one of the kinder responses. One lesson that Liriel (and I) took from this encounter is that any time we talk about the White privilege, we can expect certain writers to come out attacking us, not what we say, all guns blazing.

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  6. Thank you for this post. I can understand the fears and anxieties that you describe and I'm glad that you decided to remain engaged and share your views.

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  7. @Arun - she equates cultural appropriation with racism as stated when she says "But, cultural appropriation is real, it’s happening, and it’s RACIST." She then goes on to say that cultural appropriation is "just plain stealing". And the part of her post where she says "I'm alternately befuddled and angered by white appropriation of Buddhism."

    So, if appropriation = racism, and theft, then to me it seems fair to conclude that her sentiments lean toward my earlier statement, that she feels that white convert Buddhists are racist (probably not overtly - I don't get that she feels this way) theives. That, however, is not the only thing I gathered from this post, but I do believe that these are the general sentiments to which there was such an outcry over. I have no further interest in speaking for others though. This is just what I felt as I read the posts and comments.

    "any time we talk about the White privilege, we can expect certain writers to come out attacking us, not what we say, all guns blazing."

    I won't disagree with you on this, although I don't see any of that in the post above, which is why I offered my comments about Barbara and Kyle.

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  8. Adam: You made two huge logical leaps, which are completely unreasonable based on what Tassja wrote.

    Writing that “cultural appropriation is … RACIST” is to assert that there is a racist quality to cultural appropriation, not that racism and cultural appropriation are equivalent. In the same way, if I write that you are wise, then I’m specifying that there is a wise quality about you, but certainly not that you and wisdom are equivalent.

    But it is entirely unfair to “to conclude that [Tassja’s] sentiments lean toward [your] earlier statement, that she feels that white convert Buddhists are racist.” Such a judgement is the imposition of your beliefs. It borders on slander to write that she called White people racist, when she never actually wrote this. Just because one feels this doesn’t make it true.

    Both O’Brien and Lovett contend that Tassja said things she did not in fact say. Their erroneous conclusions are based on the same sort of false logic that would lead someone to jump from “cultural appropriation is racist” to “cultural appropriation = racism” to “White Buddhists are racists.” I saw little evidence that they took issue with Tassja’s actual thesis, instead clashing with what she never actually wrote.

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  9. Hi Arun,
    I wrote "=" for breveity's sake, when it probably wasn't warranted. So, to follow what you have said here, is that the author believes that there is a racist quality to white people taking up (appropriating) Buddhism, and that to do so amounts to cultural theft.

    Either way you slice the pie, the author calls out an entire race of practitioners, and I believe there is where the root of the reaction to her words lies. But that's for them to defend. I only offered my opinion on it here because that was one of the first reactions I had to it all, and was trying to express that I thought I understood why those reactions were taking place. Thankfully, I sat with that reaction and the words whe wrote and the ones swirling inside me, and crafted what I felt was a response where maybe some dialogue could take place. I walked away when it was made clear that there was no interest in discussion on that blog.

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  10. @Adam: I’m glad we’ve had this exchange, and I thank you for your patience. From Tassja “equating white Buddhists as racist theieves” to “she feels that white convert Buddhists are racist” to “the author calls out an entire race of practitioners,” you must be aware of how each subsequent revision entails different sets of propositions. The differences may seem marginal, but they are in fact quite significant. I hope you are able to appreciate these distinctions enough to be able to explore on your own the difference between “talking about White privilege” and “talking about White people.” Fundamentally, that is the difference between the role of “Whiteness” in Tassja’s piece and in those of O’Brien and Lovett. I understand that you are not attempting to advocate or defend what are ultimately other’s arguments and opinions; my stubborn persistence here serves only to highlight a crucial miscommunication—that O’Brien and Lovett’s arguments counter attacks on White people, when in fact the piece in question is attacking White privilege.

    There is yet another issue—that unfair and untruthful remarks are made about the author and her argument—but this dilemma cannot be properly dealt with until the writers in question accept the miscommunication that has taken place.

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  11. Liriel, thank you for your courage in writing this. I just read the O'Brien and Lovett articles and I'm just reeling. WOW. I always knew Whiteness had a hard time hearing about cultural appropriation, but some of the responses to my piece have been just outrageously racist. It's been a tough few days since I wrote the post, trying to convince myself that I did the right thing by speaking out. Thank you for speaking out with me.

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  12. Liriel,

    I have the advantage of having missed the boat on why Richard Gere is important or not important, and am able to enjoy your beautifully written, moving post for its own sake.

    I'm glad that you spoke out and risked suffering the barbs and criticism, if for no other reason than in inspiring others to speak out and in doing so to expose this simple fact: that the contingent of self-important, affluent white Buddhists who would deign to criticize you is a teeny, weeny drop in the ocean of the larger global Buddhist community.

    Rock on!
    -- John

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  13. After reading these opinion pieces, it seems to me that it might be better to be a convert to Buddhism than to be born in to it. Buddhism is not in my blood, tattooed on my skin or written in my DNA. I mean no disrespect to you or your heritage, but what are you protecting - Buddhism or an inflated sense self?

    Take a sledge hammer to every Buddha Statue in the world, and tear down every temple. I could care less. As long as I can still practice the dharma, there is a way out of samsara. Once I am free from samsara, what do I need to bring Buddhism with me for?

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  14. You like anger, huh? Seems odd, considering your pathetic display of victimized patriotism and "woe is me" rhetoric. If you are trying to use buddhism to define your identity and mark your territory, you clearly missed the point entirely. "the logic of my thesis".. yeh, thats a good one. As in, a joke. As in, laughable.

    I'm running out of time to wait for people like you to get over yourself.

    And so I take refuge in the non-moron, non-poser sangha of people who actually give a shit about waking up.

    I retire to await your infantile wallowing in self-pity.

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  15. Hm, a lot of touchy people in the comments section. I actually liked that linked article despite my lack of affiliation. I think it was well stated, and the responses here and there only proves it was right: convert Buddhists and their fragile reality-distortion bubble feel threatened, so they drop the Buddhist facade to harass bloggers on the web. Way to go guys. You're making the rest of us look bad.

    Having a daughter of my own who's growing up Buddhist and bi-racial, I too worry that she'll get drowned out by the convert crowed and treated as something exotic, and have her own Buddhist religion dictated to her by folks who proudly state that they "read some books" and "meditate"."

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