Race and Religion in American Buddhism

For those of you who feel I should write a book, let me say that the job has already been done. Just arrived in the mail is Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Fr. Joseph Cheah. Below is the opening paragraph.

When the first wave of Burmese immigrant Buddhists set foot on American soil in the late 1960s, they came into contact with a variety of forms of Buddhism not found in their native Burma. One of these forms was a white or convert Buddhism, whose legacy includes the specter of an Orientalist and racist past, often hardly acknowledged, yet rarely if ever entirely absent from the discourse within Euro-American Buddhism. The legacy of Orientalism in convert Buddhism can be traced to the works of Western Orientalists in the middle and late Victorian era. Stemming in part from Orientalist racial projects, vestiges of white supremacy ideology can still be detected today in the controversy surrounding who represents “American Buddhism” and the smorgasbord of approaches in Buddhist practices that have been taken for granted in many meditation centers, hospitals, and other institutions. The prevailing ideology of white supremacy operative in these and other contexts influences the ways in which Buddhist practices have been adapted by both convert and ethnic Buddhist communities. Within the scope of Buddhism as both a religion and a practice, focusing primarily on the Theravada tradition, this book examines rearticulations of Asian Buddhist practices through the lens of race and racialization.

I can’t wait to read the whole book!

One thought on “Race and Religion in American Buddhism

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

    david@theendlessfurther.comFebruary 2, 2012 at 11:04 AM
    I think there is a sliver of truth in this, but just that – a sliver. I thought all the white convert Buddhists in the 60s were beatniks and hippies, hardly folks you’d imagine promoting white supremacist ideology. Or, so say some self-proclaimed experts on this subject. The author of this book is Asian but he’s not a Buddhist: he’s a Catholic priest for goodness sakes!

    I’m waiting for the book that show both sides of the picture, one that includes a discussion on Asian Buddhists’ own complicity in the current situation (which I don’t think is as bad as some would make out) by being elitist, cliquish, and sometimes downright unfriendly to non-Asians interested in what many Asian Buddhists see as their exclusive property, the philosophy and practice of Buddha-dharma.

    ArunFebruary 2, 2012 at 1:25 PM
    Three points, David.

    First, I’m going to have to assume you were so turned off by the term “white supremacy” that you stopped reading because your comment indicates you didn’t pay much attention to what Fr. Cheah wrote. Here’s an example of a vestige of white supremacy ideology: the notion that white people are more American than Asians. This prevailing ideology continues to influence Western Buddhism. Fr. Cheah said nothing about white converts “promoting white supremacist ideology” for goodness’ sakes!

    Second, so what that the author is a Servite friar? Talk about prejudice for goodness’ sakes!

    Third, both sides of what picture? From what it sounds like, you’re really looking for a book that validates the disappointment of certain white Buddhists who visit predominantly Asian congregations. I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at, but before you explain, please do make sure to compare apples to apples and show me the numbers for goodness’ sakes!

    david@theendlessfurther.comFebruary 2, 2012 at 5:57 PM
    I’ve been around quite a while, with experience in a number of different traditions from various countries and I have not seen any real evidence of white supremacy in “American Buddhism.” I doubt there are many white Buddhists who feel that they are more American than Asians. Folks who harbor such notions don’t seem to be attracted to Buddhism very much. The author of this book in his introduction talks about “the appropriation of Asian Buddhists practices (for example, interpreting Buddhist texts and the emphasis on meditation) by white Buddhists and sympathizers.” I’ve seen this “appropriation” stuff before and I have to ask, just who owns Buddhism? I never realized that practicing meditation was appropriating anything or encroaching on someone’s domain. As far as I’m concerned, Buddhism is open to everyone. When you find a passage in the sutras where the Buddha said only Asians can practice (or understand) Buddhism, you let me know.

    This notion of white colonialism in Western Buddhist is a slap in the face of history. I have lived through a good portion of the history of Buddhism in America and as I recall things, there have been quite a few Asian Buddhists who reached out to White Americans and said, here, read these texts, adopt these practices. Maybe in Burmese Buddhism and Vipassana circles they might feel that whites came over to Asia and stole their philosophy, but I don’t think it went down quite like that, and even if it did, it is only a small part of the picture anyway.

    What picture? The one you are painting. In fact, there are more than two sides.

    And yes, I question the competency of a Catholic priest to write about race and religion in Buddhism, just as I hope someone would question my qualifications to write a book on race and religion in Catholicism.

    Apples and Oranges: I’ve practiced in the Vietnamese American Buddhist Community. In fact, I used to teach meditation and dharma at a Vietnamese temple here in Los Angeles. The weekly class was open to everyone but no Vietnamese Buddhists ever attended. We were welcome to attend their activities but they were not in English so we didn’t. Two camps at the same temple with no real interaction between them, separated by language and culture, both feeling that the other somehow resented them. It’s a damn shame the wall between us couldn’t have come down. And I think that is more the real story, and not this white colonial business which I think has as much validity as Gingrich’s claim that President Obama follows a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.

    ArunFebruary 2, 2012 at 11:26 PM
    I didn’t realize you had such an axe to grind. There is nothing in what either Fr. Cheah or I wrote that conveys the notion that “only Asians can practice (or understand Buddhism).” That said, it’s not worth defending Fr. Cheah’s text any more in this comment space if you have closed your mind to anything he has to say and even his right to say it. You give no evidence of the nature of the Buddhist community, your only evidence being what you “doubt,” what you “recall,” or what “seem to be,” and exhorting me to listen to you because you’re old. Who needs facts when you have opinions! All you give me are cherry-picked memories. I’m glad that you’ve been part of the Buddhist community for so long, but I can tell you as someone from the inside of the Asian American community—even as someone who’s for many years been a member of the Vietnamese Buddhist temple in downtown Los Angeles—you’ve missed out on so much.

    I’ll be sure to write about “vestiges of white supremacy” and “appropriation” in later posts, so you should have many opportunities respond then as well.

    david@theendlessfurther.comFebruary 3, 2012 at 8:29 AM
    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now, and I have seen dammed little in the way of any evidence to back up most of your contentions. Indeed, I could point out some instances where you have misconstrued a situation or taken someone’s words out of context. And I’ve seen a lot about what you think is wrong and precious little about what can be done to fix it. Seems to me that like many people these days, you just want to whine.

    ArunFebruary 4, 2012 at 9:59 AM
    David, it’s hard to have this discussion because there is a lot of miscommunication, which you evince little inclination to either recognize or remedy. Beyond that, this has gotten personal, and I apologize for my part in that.

    I would be more than happy for you to demonstrate the “dammed [sic] little in the way of evidence” for my contentions, but the problem is that you fail to do so. For those instances where I misconstrue situations and take words out of context, I implore you to show me—for my own benefit and the benefit of my readers. (That said, please put those comments on the pertinent posts and not here—it’s part of my comments policy.)

    In the case of this post, I have been attempting to show you where you yourself have misconstrued Fr. Cheah’s views and taken his words out of context. But you resist any acknowledgment that you have done so. I can only surmise you cling to your guns either because you believe you maintain a superior understanding of what Fr. Cheah intends to convey or because you don’t really care what he has to say.

    Your first comment makes it overwhelmingly evident that you failed to understand Fr. Cheah’s thesis. But perhaps that doesn’t matter because, in your opinion, whatever he has to say is based on patently false assumptions. I would be glad to have a discussion with you about those assumptions, but it’s simply a waste of my time so long as you refuse to either admit you might have jumped to a mistaken conclusion or show me how I have done so.

    Until then, you know where to find me. 🙂

    david@theendlessfurther.comFebruary 4, 2012 at 10:08 AM
    I don’t think I am misconstruing Cheah, I am disagreeing with him. I find the idea that there is a legacy of White Supremacy in “American” Buddhism to be dubious at best. I think his presentation of the history of Buddhism in the United States is faulty. I doubt seriously that the handful of Burmese Buddhist who landed on these shores prior to the 1970’s had much “contact with a variety of forms of Buddhism not found in their native Burma.” I don’t think these Burmese Buddhist sought out many Chinese Buddhists, for instance, or vice versa, nor do I think there existed much of a “white or convert Buddhism” in those days, and certainly not one “whose legacy includes the specter of an Orientalist and racist past.” The vast majority of whites practicing Buddhism in the 1960’s were involved with Japanese Buddhism (Zen and Nichiren), whose numbers were actually rather small, and again, I doubt there was much interaction with the Burmese.

    I also don’t believe the work of the so-called “Western Orientalists” has had as much of an impact on the growth of Buddhism in America as many people think, but even if it has, I can’t for the life of me figure out how their interest in Buddhism qualifies as a “Oriental racial project”, whatever that means. That’s not to say that these “founding fathers” didn’t have some nutty ideas about race. There were many nutty ideas floating around the turn of the century (20th), just check out Jack London or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

    Anyway, all this is from his opening paragraph and if he has that wrong straight from the beginning, the hopes of it improving throughout the book seem slim. I also find it curious that a person interested in these issues would use a term like “queer white” (as he does on page 6), which some folks would find offensive.

    Finally, I have commented on a few of your previous posts, and you can find those remarks on the pertinent posts and not here, since it’s part of your comments policy.


    From Lama RangdrolFebruary 5, 2012 at 3:35 AM
    The issue is larger than an individual, book, ethnic or racial group. It’s larger than America. There is a concern that pervades the world about American Buddhism’s racial ethos. I’ve had discussions about this in the SF Bay Area, the jungles of Cambodia, London, Amsterdam, and the heart of Maharashtra India with Buddhist Untouchables. It will not go away, nor will it be argued or ignored into oblivion. In my view, Buddhism gives us the strength and perhaps the responsibility to deal with human perceptions, regardless of their validity or lack thereof. If I’m wrong I stand corrected. I celebrate this new voice on the global Buddhist landscape. His Holiness has said on a number of occasions that the role of non-Buddhist traditions is to make sure that we, the Buddhist Community, are living up to what we say we believe. Cheah is the reality of what has been taught whether his views are welcomed or not.

    MM_McGeeAugust 15, 2012 at 7:28 PM
    What I guess we can call “mainline” American Buddhism came to the U.S. via Japanese nationalists (i.e., Japanese supremacists) like D.T. Suzuki. So, picture this: a few forward thinking white people in post Word War II America, where anti-Japanese propaganda was actually white supremacist, start bowing in front of the image of a Japanese master that was introduced to them by a teacher who believed that Japan was the apex of world civilization and that Western civilization was too rational. That’s how the swans came to the lake in real life. Cheah is just attacking white people because there are academic jobs devoted to attacking white people. See The Zen of Anarchy here: http://tinyurl.com/8bf8awl. Cheah says he hates whiteness but doesn’t hate white people. Change the color in that sentence and see how it sounds. See? Bigotry is bigotry.

    It’s amazing how many more people are going to college nowadays given how little they learn and how much of what they learn is racist and bigoted against their own parents.

    MM_McGeeAugust 15, 2012 at 7:37 PM
    “Fr. Cheah said nothing about white converts ‘promoting white supremacist ideology’ for goodness’ sakes!”

    Let’s get this straight: White supremacists by definition believe in and promote a white supremacist ideology. Have you never looked at a white supremacist website. Trying to turn genuine conversions into daytime TV circa 1988–with implicit images of white sheets in the term itself–tells us more about the kind of TV Cheah watched growing up than it does about Buddhism in America. He uses the term for the same reason other academics do: because it suggests burning sheets, pro-white propaganda, and violent racism. Otherwise, he would have used another term (which is equally false): cultural imperialism. But that argument has been made (thank you Judith Snodgrass), so Cheah did what all good academic self-promoters do: he made the headline more sensational.

    “White supremacy” is a terms that gets used to shut white people up in the classroom and keep them out of academic work. That’s all it is.

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