American Buddhism’s “Ethnic” Problem

I wish people would stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists.” Lewis Richmond did it again today when he referred to Asian Buddhists as “ethnic Buddhists” in his Huffington Post article. His categorization of the Buddhist community into “ethnic and non-ethnic Buddhists” is a crude version of Charles Prebish’s already crude “two Buddhisms” model. Prebish himself is no stranger to the term “ethnic,” which he recently used to refer to Asian Buddhist communities in a Tricycle blog piece.

My gripe is not with the word “ethnic” itself, but with how this bare form is used in expressions like ethnic food, ethnic music, ethnic neighborhoods… or ethnic Buddhism.

When Americans use “ethnic” in this way, rarely do we refer to the cranberry sauce with the Thanksgiving turkey, Mozart concertos, or Scarsdale’s Quaker Ridge neighborhood. “Ethnic” is the term we assign to people of strange and foreign cultural backgrounds. It would not surprise me if Charles Prebish, an ethnic Ashkenazi, has himself had the (mis)fortune of being deemed “ethnic,” thus labelled by those who saw Jews as somehow less “American” than their WASPish counterparts. “Ethnic” is the term that “we” use to refer to “them.”

So what would be the alternative to calling us “ethnic Buddhists”?

Call us Asian Buddhists. It’s the term which by and large we use to refer to ourselves. You may not remember, but there was once a time when Asian Americans were referred to as Orientals or Asiatics — even Mongolians! — and it was a coalition of Asian American activists in the late 1960s who successfully brought the term “Asian American” into common currency. We have never encouraged others to label us as “ethnics,” so please: don’t.

* * *

My parents are from the generation which spearheaded the Asian American movement, the movement which fought for the term “Asian,” for an apology for wartime internment, for recognition of the grave injustice that was the murder of Vincent Chin. Even so, my parents occasionally slip and say, “Oriental.” It’s an annoying slip, albeit unintentional, which probably stems from my parents’ ages (both pre-Boomers) and the linguistic habits they formed in their youth. I would like to imagine that for Charles Prebish, a great friend and supporter of Asian American Buddhist communities for decades, his use of the term “ethnic” is likewise a reflex of his youth during another era of American history.

I hope both Prebish and Richmond understand that I address them with nearly the same respect and compassion that I hold for my own dear parents when I say:

Please stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists”!

One thought on “American Buddhism’s “Ethnic” Problem

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

    mendelMay 2, 2012 at 9:49 PM
    So this might sound like a silly question or trolling but I’m asking in good faith.

    I’m a white guy who’s a convert Buddhist. My sangha is a mostly-white, mostly-convert Zen sangha in Philip Kapleau’s lineage.

    So sometimes in a conversation I want to make a distinction between a sangha like the one I’m a part of, and the kind that (I think) you’re referring to as Asian Buddhists. But there are converts in our sangha who are Asian, so unless I’m talking to someone who already knows about the “two Buddhisms” thing, I need to disclaim — “I don’t mean people that happen to be Asian, but people whose culture is Buddhist, who were raised Buddhist…”.

    Maybe I just have to do that! But I was wondering your thoughts on it.

    (Not that “ethnic” helps there either, of course.)

    Petteri SulonenMay 2, 2012 at 10:19 PM
    I’ve generally just called you guys Buddhists, with no qualifiers. If I need to make the distinction, I add the qualifier ‘convert’ for that other kind of Buddhist. How do you feel about this usage?

    AnonymousMay 2, 2012 at 10:46 PM
    @mendel: I think you’re right. It’s probably most accurate to just say “people who were raised Buddhist.” I converted, but my daughter (who’s bi-racial) has grown up Buddhist. Most of my Buddhism I learned through my wife who grew up in Asia and Buddhist.

    So, yeah, when people like Mr. Prebish start dividing Buddhists between “ethinic” and “non-ethnic”, it creates an artificial and false divide. The picture isn’t so black and white.

    Instead, as you suggested some people grew up in Buddhism, some didn’t. It’s easiest to leave it at that.

    david@theendlessfurther.comMay 3, 2012 at 12:15 AM
    “Convert” is problematic, too. My parents raised me as a Christian, but I never had faith in it, I never really believed. So I don’t feel that I converted from anything, I just became a Buddhist.

    But “convert,” “ethnic, “non-ethic” are just words, and in most cases the motivation behind using the words is simply to communicate, for the sake of clarity. I really think we should try to beyond this kind of stuff.

    NellaLouMay 3, 2012 at 9:45 AM
    Language may be just “words” but when it is used in an exclusionary, oppressive or divisive manner it has many real world consequences. It builds or more aptly reinforces barriers to participation and understanding. Those wielding language, especially in large public forums set the conditions for social narrative. Those conditions are often followed without much questioning or thought, particularly if the speaker is deemed authoritative. This authority can be by virtue of position, age, gender, race or, such as with the Huffington Post, media visibility.

    Language can have a lot of unintended or unimagined consequences. It’s certainly a topic that merits some attention and discussion despite it being uncomfortable for some people.

    david@theendlessfurther.comMay 3, 2012 at 12:32 PM
    I agree that ethnic and non-ethnic are not great adjectives to use. We’re all “ethnic.” So Arun’s point about the use of the word overall is valid. On the other hand, in today’s culture as soon as someone comes up with something that on the surface seems better, someone else will come along and take exception to it.

    We’ve all made mistakes in the language department. I’m trying to learn from mine and get past objecting to everything I don’t care for, because it’s not constructive. I have problems with Prebish’s Two Buddhisms and there were things in Richmond’s article I disagreed with, still I don’t believe either is intentionally trying to be exclusionary, oppressive or divisive. What about Hispanic and Black Buddhists? They are almost always excluded from these discussions, and that’s not right. We need to get past objecting to words that are ultimately empty and find ways to make Buddhism more diverse and inclusive. How do we get from Two Buddhisms to One Buddhism? That’s the discussion I feel we should be having.


    AnonymousMay 5, 2012 at 8:33 AM
    Right on. It’s a huge problem in US Buddhism that us white practitioners seem only able to juggle two balls at a time: Asian practitioners (as the post notes, often called “ethnic”) and white practitioners. People of color who practice and come to what may be different procedural conclusions about how we might go forward are often seen as “missing the point” or having some obstacle in practice. Nonsense.

    I am not sure, however, that we should aim to have One Buddhism. I agree that we want a more diverse Buddhism, but that precludes the notion of One Buddhism. Let me qualify that: I don’t think that in 2012 we are anywhere near a point where anything universal (probably outside fairly simple technical matters) is desirable. Universality in this country–I’m in the US–tends to mean “what white people think and want.”

    Last: your reservations about Prebish and Richmond’s ideas are right on, but I don’t think you need to bring intent into it. I find that discussions of intent are almost always a waste of time, if they go well, and damaging if done poorly. My experience with intent is that it’s almost always “good.” So, no need to discuss it. What is more interesting and useful is a technical discussion of what actually happens. We have idea x, what is its practical effect? This way, one doesn’t need to either let a person off the hook or put them on the hook for an idea. We can just look at what it means for actually-existing people.

    david@theendlessfurther.comMay 5, 2012 at 3:11 PM
    Well, not “One” Buddhism really, but being less attached to labels and group identity. We may be Zen or Theravadin or Jodo, but in the end we are all Buddhists. It’s all meat on the same bone.

    To clarify, my problem is not so much with Prebish, whose concept of “Two Buddhisms” is more nuanced than many realize (I also took it the wrong way when first exposed), rather my concern is with the way it’s been misunderstood and used as a wedge issue. As far as Lewis Richmond goes, it’s just nitpicking about how crucial meditation is to Buddhism.

    Sometimes in the heat of comment writing, one forgets to dot every “I” and cross every “t.”

    AnonymousMay 5, 2012 at 6:23 PM
    I actually think that we ought to be more attached to group identity at this point, because the reality of life in this country–I am working on the assumption that you’re in the US–is that group identity is hugely important. If we ignore group identity, you’ll get a leadership cadre that’s likely to be entirely white and upper-middle class, regardless of intent. Some people will speak in groups a little more than their share, because they’re used to it, others will get the sense that all this nonsense is playing out in the Sangha, too, and pull back, and voila, US racial inequality replicated in Buddhist form. That’s my concern, at least. I’ve seen it happen more than once, and I’m not particularly old (though not particularly young either).

    Anyway, by being very clear about group identity, we can actually start to deal with it. I actually think a rigorous rule of white guys hanging back in meetings until people of color and women put in their two cents is a good idea. For us white guys, learning to shut up and listen is liberating as all get out.

    I appreciate the discussion for sure.

    Buddhist_philosopherMay 3, 2012 at 12:45 PM
    Hia Arun and everyone. Charles Prebish has emailed me asking if I could post this message from him on his behalf:

    I am quite content to use the term “Asian Buddhists,” and I would also be quite happy when people stop referring to my old Two Buddhisms model as “crude” or “racist.” It was never intended to be either, and if anyone actually read the original article called “Two Buddhisms Reconsidered” and published in the 1993 edition of the journal Buddhist Studies Review, they would see that. Equally, if they actually read my 1979 book “American Buddhism” they would, again, see that the original usage had nothing to do with crudeness or racism. The “two Buddhisms” I identified were simply what one saw when they did fieldwork as scholars or visited Buddhist communities as practitioners in the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s when there was virtually no hybridity of sanghas. If most of the people who have attacked this theory actually followed my volume of writings on American Buddhism, they would discover that I have respected ALL American Buddhists throughout my travels and practices. It was very difficult being the first person to write scholarly articles and books on American Buddhism, and I am thoroughly disappointed that many who came after me have failed to recognize what it was like to be working amongst colleagues who routinely said, “There is no such thing as American Buddhism.” I have indeed supported Asian American Buddhist Communities from the outset of my work. I have waited patiently for those who are most critical of my work, and feel the need to write revisionist history, accusing me of things I never said or intended, to offer some better terminology to describe the complex Buddhism that continues to develop on American soil. So far they have found it much easier to complain and criticize than to find a way for us all to communicate together as Buddhists…something I will continue to do.


    AnonymousMay 5, 2012 at 8:45 AM
    Thin skin, thy name is academic.

    Where does one go with this? I’ll try.

    If one gets a response to one’s intent and actions that runs contrary to one’s hopes and expectations, one might do well to re-examine one’s intent and actions.

    Prebish, you’re off the hook. Nobody always gets the results they intend, so you’re not worse than anyone else. The interesting question would be, why might people think your framework of that moment was “crude” or “racist”? White people–I’m guessing you’re white–don’t have the luxury if we were raised in this country of not doing racism–doing, rather than being–so we can ease up on ourselves and others. We don’t need to deal with if we do racism, but how we do it. You can’t not do racism in a racist system. Prebish, you stepped into it yourself. Obviously unitentionally, because you’re not a fool, but stepped into it for real nonetheless.

    Terminology? Speak of the communities that are there as the communities they are. Understand what community is, which is a means through which people manifest themselves socially. I for my part do not want to live in a world without Black Buddhists as Black Buddhists, and Native Buddhists, and Latino Buddhists, and Asian Buddhists, too. To boot, I don’t want to not be white. There’s good work for me to do in my skin.

    Mushim Patricia Ikeda-NashMay 3, 2012 at 6:04 PM
    Lew Richmond has posted an apology in the blog comments following his HuffPost article, and has asked people to help him by writing to him with more accurate and compassionate terminology, and also by giving more accurate information about people of color practicing Buddhism in the U.S.


    AnonymousMay 5, 2012 at 8:47 AM
    Now, that’s a good start. He’ll be happier, for sure.

    From Lama RangdrolMay 3, 2012 at 9:04 PM

    You raise a good point. Ethnic Buddhists–the term is used widely without thinking of its colonial inference and colonizing effect. If we take the next step to deconstruct “Dominant Culture” we can uncover the one problem that has caused two Americas to become two Buddhisms. Stay strong. Keep the voice alive…LR

    MumonMay 7, 2012 at 5:57 AM
    I really appreciate this post, as I sit where I sit. But you get that already.

    But now I want to read that Charles Prebish article, if only because – despite what I think are [title?] Prebish’s good intentions, the age of the material which is being referred to probably means it’s a victim of “our ideas about inclusion have changed, and…”

    Hongyang ShiNovember 16, 2012 at 10:46 AM
    Yes, I too don’t like the term “ethnic Buddhist” it’s offensive to me as I have mixed race. I never heard Chinese Buddhists describe whites in that way either. To my knowledge it is just “Buddhist” and a note if your from China or the US or Thailand or from a certain mountain, a city, or state or province.

    I am from Iowa and returned there 6 years ago and so remain at the moment. I am a bhikshuni trained and ordained through the Chinese Buddhist temples in NY and in Taiwan.

    I have an affinity for China.. it always feels like home to me when I go there upon stepping on the ground. I miss her. I get her, I live easier when I am there because I know how to operate culturally and where my limits are as ‘waiguoren’. But fear not (joking.. here), I’m not intending to magically turned into overseas Chinese woman because of that affinity. My cultural influence is Iowan. Personally I believe I am largely undefined culturally in my immediate family… the reason follows in the next paragraph. To note: My family cousins picked one country over the other to follow culturally and identify themselves by one country outside USA for their expressions and ancestry.

    Nobody here believes me to be white, I am dumbfounded, my skin is ivory and my eyes brown-olive. I just was at my dentist. They had my college age daughter in for a checkup on the same day and she definitely is outwardly Chinese (her dad, my ex, is from China). I am in full Chinese Buddhist nun robes, thus I guess I am Chinese in their eyes – they argued it. I gave up trying to clarify, as there is uncertainty of my racial lineage.

    My documented ancestry- Dad: Irish, Scots, German, English, Dutch, loosely rumored Chinese (It prob came from the randy open minded should say 🙂 yikes) and Mom: Irish, German, English, Dutch… whispered rumors Native American). I am a woman but if I wear a baseball cap on my bald head to me it seems I pass for German dutch man looking like my uncle (not happy with that!). I am feminine looking without a cap.

    An Australian white Thai monk said after I talked in a conference that I was taking after the Irish side. Hmm.. I don’t know what that means to this day.

    My main website is from my blogger site and my other blog is buddhafolk on

    Thank you Arun for your efforts you write with skill that I lack and with a sincere effort to educate. Keep it up for you raise important matters to others so important that they help others to have words to express what we really experience in our lives.

    My adult daughter was called a ‘chink’ by some guy in a red pickup who sped off having shouted at her, telling her to ‘go home!’ It threw her whole day off; there are some here in Iowa are afraid of being attacked for being Asian… with some degree of justification.

    Keep writing, you help many of us have words to say.

    John SwindleDecember 2, 2012 at 12:01 AM
    There’s no need to misunderstand “ethnic Buddhist” as referring to the Buddhism of, you know, Ethnics. Surely the point of “ethnic Buddhist” is the assumption that Buddhists of Asian ancestry got their religion at home, part of their ancestral heritage, rather than by conversion. It’s like assuming that Jews of Polish ancestry, Eastern Orthodox of Russian ancestry, or Quakers of English ancestry got their religion with their ethnicity. The assumption should be challenged, but not by misconstruing what’s meant by “ethnic.” John

Comments are closed.