December 24, 2012

Stereotypes of Asian Buddhists in Canada

I knew the article was going to be bad when I saw the first word misspelled: A-mi-tha-ba. Google could have helped on that one.

This careless misrendering of an Asian name of the Pure Land Buddha is but one of the myriad problems in Douglas Todd’s Vancouver Sun piece on Canadian Buddhism (“As Buddhism grows, two ‘solitudes’ emerge”). Todd attempts to stuff Metro Vancouver’s Buddhist diversity into a Two Buddhisms framework, and in so doing he misrepresents both Asian Buddhists and Pure Land Buddhist traditions by perpetuating common racist stereotypes and sectarian aspersions.

Todd’s Two Buddhisms are dubbed “ethnic Buddhism” and “Westernized Buddhism,” and he describes each group by their usual stereotypes. Ethnic Buddhism, for example, is “practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English.” This assertion is incredible. According to the Canadian Census, the vast majority of Asians in British Columbia speak English, so why does Todd propose that Asian Buddhists are so much more unlikely to speak English than their non-Buddhist counterparts?

Of course, these überforeign ethnic Buddhists “generally meet in large extravagant-looking temples throughout the city.” Another cavalier assertion that can be inspected a little more closely. I went to British Columbia’s listing on the BuddhaNet World Buddhist Directory and ran Google Street View on the addresses of “ethnic” temples listed in Metro Vancouver. Mostly residential and office buildings turned up. I have a hunch that most Asian Buddhist congregants in Vancouver regularly attend services in buildings on the same order of “ordinary-looking” as the Gold Buddha Monastery that Todd described visiting.

Let’s not forget the claim that “‘ethnic Buddhists’ have a more supernatural bent.” I can’t imagine how many Asian Buddhists Todd must have interviewed to find that out, but as I demonstrated previously based on Pew Forum research, non-Asian Buddhists are more likely to believe in Nirvana than Asian Buddhists are. (The Pew Forum surveyed the United States, but Todd has separately stated that his “experience covering diversity issues suggests its findings can be comfortably extrapolated to Canada and Metro Vancouver.”) So perhaps Asian Buddhists are more likely than non-Asian Buddhists to believe in the supernatural, while being less likely to believe in Nirvana. I find that hard to believe, especially when Todd has no surveys to back him up.

Last, but not least offensive, is Todd’s depiction of Pure Land Buddhism in Vancouver as basically a bunch of Asians praying to get to Buddha heaven. The forms of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Vancouver involve much more than just Pure Land practice. They even include meditation—just like those white Buddhists! Even congregations which identify primarily as Pure Land, such as the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada, would probably surprise Todd with their approach to Pure Land philosophy. That’s worth a whole post on its own.

If by chance Todd cares to amend any of the numerous errors in his article, it may be best to start with a spell check. For example, the largest Buddhist school is called Mahayana—not Mayahana. Wow. My iPad’s autocorrect just tried to fix that one.

10 comments:

  1. I hope you also left a comment for the Vancouver Sun.

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  2. As a Pure Land Buddhist in a predominantly Western Buddhist environment I often note the dismissal of "faith." The article seems to once again show that Western Buddhism is somehow more "modern" than other traditions. Namo

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  3. As a Zen Buddhist, I still find the functional difference between "Heaven" and a "Pure Land" to be fuzzy.

    This is a shitty article though.

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  4. Hi Arun,

    When I read the article the first time, I gather that it was well-intentioned, but definitely a little shallow in some places. The sort of thing busy reports who have no time or experience to delve into something fire off and forget. But yeah, I don't think it's really contributing much to the general Buddhist dialogue.

    @Al: It should be noted that Pure Land Buddhism finds its way into a lot of other Buddhist sects. The late Ven. Yin-Shun wrote a lot about it, despite being the modern patriarch of Chan Buddhism in Taiwan.

    Only in Japan is there an overt doctrinal distinction between the two.

    With that said, Prof. Hattori's book "Raft from the Other Shore" is recommended reading if you wish to read more. If not, no worries. :)

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    1. I'm well aware of it showing up all over the place. Doesn't really change my issues with it, though.

      I don't pray for someone to rescue me or to be reborn in a future heaven where *then* I can really practice. I just do it now.

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    2. I agree with your post and think you did a good job of pointing out the article's many flaws. Much better insights into Buddhist practice on the left coast of Canada can be had from the Lower Mainland Buddhism blog, the Sumeru Books blog and www.canadianbuddhism.info for sure.

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  5. It's disappointing but not very surprising to see this superficial reporting about religion in the Vancouver press. 'Visible minorities' are now a majority in Vancouver. On the streets and public transit in Vancouver there is a wonder feeling of the blending of the world but the backlash from the Caucasian population is negative racial and ethnic stereotyping.

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  6. Hi Arun,

    I appreciate your concern with stereotyping and I am not denying what you say. May I also mention a few exciting points on the whole situation. Many in Hollywood feel that any coverage is good coverage and within bounds this can apply to Buddhism.I am glad that anyone cares enough about Buddhism to read about it and maybe they will investigate and get to the truth.

    I myself, who am a Vajrayana Buddhist, but love all branches, would take anything the articles says about believing in the supernatural as a compliment,even if it was not meant as such.My master in China was very much into gods and Buddha manifestations and he talked frequently with ghosts who were pestering him for this or that.

    I personally hope that all the Buddhists deal with the supernatural and with having great faith.And as for the misspellings, any news is better than none, and we should write to the reporter to correct misspellings.

    All of this letter is just designed to put your heart at rest. Maybe the Buddhas work through whoever they can and the reporter will someday come to be a great Buddhist.

    I recall the story,told by Thich Naht Hanh of the Bodhisattava Never Despising who bowed down to every man, woman and child,saying, "I dare not disagree with you.You are a Future Buddha." Some were overjoyed and got great faith and some threw stones. Yet he continued this practice all his life.

    May I finally suggest that you feed this reporter stories so that his point of view will become more correct. And if you wish me to see your response, could you please also email me a copy at bochehaggah@gmail.com

    Darwida

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  7. Arun,

    I recently discovered your blog through my friend Dolma - who I know has guest blogged here before. I'm a white girl from California. Despite my recent interest in Buddhism and the slow digesting of many many books, my knowledge of Buddhism is still sadly less grand than my knowledge of bad 70's television shows. That being said, I thought your post was brilliant.

    As a race activist and a seminarian working in the Interfaith world, I believe that you simply can't be too careful when you are talking about - especially publicly and gods-forbid professionally - the experiences of other cultures and other religions. I don't even know why this guy would consider writing about a topic he is clearly so ignorant about. He should be embarrassed. Hell, I'm a little embarrassed and I don't even know the guy. Thanks for calling him out on this blatant religious and racial stereotyping. We can't move forward until we see what we are doing wrong (and some of us are doing things that are so very very wrong).

    Stay Angry,
    Katie*

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