What Marginalization?

After reviewing my interview with Maia Duerr, I noticed in the comment section an unanswered question, which I hadn’t read before.

Arun: can you provide specific examples of the marginalization and denigration of which you speak — and I don’t mean examples from 30 years ago, but current. I am partly wondering if there’s a mis-attribution occurring. Having spent quite a bit of time with Korean American Buddhists, it strikes me that their form of Buddhism really is very, very different than that which Westerners have been in the process of adapting for themselves, but just because each is different and each are drawn to different forms, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s marginalization or denigration.

The most prominent examples of the marginalization of Asian Americans from the Western Buddhist narrative are found in high-profile Western Buddhist magazines, namely Shambhala SunTricycle and Buddhadharma (the three largest by distribution). The paucity of Asian writers in these publications is well documented. A perfect recent example is Buddhadharma’s winter 2010 issue on women in Buddhism, “Our Way”, which completely left out the voices of Asian Buddhist women.

Another good example of our marginalization comes from the 2010 election, when the highest profile of the American Buddhist media swarmed around White candidates who didn’t identify as Buddhist, while ignoring the non-White candidates who did. It may have been twenty years ago that Tricycle founder Helen Tworkov wrote that Asian Americans “have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism,” but for many White Buddhists today, Asian Americans are still little more than an afterthought when “American Buddhism” comes to mind.

More subtle forms of marginalization include the ways that Asians are caged into stereotypes by the types of topics that Western Buddhist media choose to discuss with us. I recently demonstrated that while Buddhadharma typically allots just one or two spots for Asians on feature discussion panels, they make an exception for stereotypically Asian topics. The editors clearly know how to reach out to Asian Buddhists when they want to, but it seems that most of the time they are content with their almost exclusively White lineup of feature panelists.

Examples of our denigration are less frequent in published media these days, but abound online. During the firestorm over the Australian bhikkhuni ordination, Bhante Shravasti Dhammika lambasted Theravada Buddhists in Asia as “spiritually moribund, tradition-bound and retrograde.” I am still endlessly grateful to Bhante Sujato for standing upagainst accusations that misogyny in Western Buddhism is some by-product of Asian influence.

You need not dig too deep into the Buddhist blogosphere to find White-savior rhetoric or proposals to whitewash the face of Buddhism or White Buddhists who poke fun at Asian names. Beyond blogs, online forums host much franker assessments of “ethnic” Buddhists. (“They’re not really in the business of spreading the dharma.”) These words are far from the usual statements from Western Buddhist institutions, but they are part and parcel of the Western Buddhism that we Asians in the West must deal with.

When we complain about our marginalization, our complaints are repeatedly dismissed as invalid, divisive or even thrown back at us as examples of how we are lesser Buddhists. When the blogger Tassja wrote about White privilege in Western Buddhism, she was ripped apart with abusive language that I will not copy here. When my partner-in-crime Liriel wrote to Tassja’s defense by sharing her own personal story of growing up Buddhist in the West, she was called a racist and told that “it might be better to be a convert to Buddhism than to be born in to it.”

The examples here speak to the way that self-styled Western Buddhists use both online and print publications to craft a narrative of Buddhism in the West that marginalizes the voices of Asian Buddhists, who continue to constitute Western Buddhism’s largest demographic. Often, Asian voices are omitted altogether. The marginalization of our stories and perspectives results in a Western Buddhist media landscape where we are deprived of an effective rhetorical counterweight to the denigration of our communities, culture and Buddhist practice.

Our community is broad, including everyone from recent refugees to fifth-generation practitioners, from monastic teachers to social activists, and I would like to think that our lives are not so alien to those of Western Buddhism’s non-Asian practitioners that their publications are better off when we are pushed to the side.

The Future of American Buddhsim

While searching for inspiration for our temple’s summer camp next year, I came across some videos of other temples’ summer programs. These compositions reminded me that our “traditional Asian enclaves” are doing lots of work to nurture the next generation of American Buddhism. Much of what you read about Buddhist Asian America online comes from members of the Buddhist commentariat who are not part of these communities, and so I thought it would be good for you to see our backward, retrograde, traditional and insulated communities speak for themselves.

My favorite clip comes from the Sacramento Obon festival, where Socho Ogui, Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, danced to Taio Cruzalong with other Buddhist ministers and youth leaders.

The next generation of American Buddhism will come from many quarters, but it looks like some temples are already giving their kids a head start in community involvement.

Lessons from Our Elders

Here’s another piece that’s been sitting in my draft box, waiting to be published. I was happy to see an interview by Jeff Wilson with Rev. Patti Usuki in this summer’s issue of Tricycle.

Rev. Usuki is a well-known Shin writer, and I was personally impressed by her book Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu, which documents the attitudes of Shin Buddhist women who don’t quite fit the stereotypes of “insular ethnic Buddhists.” You can get a taste of her writing with this excerpt from the Tricycle interview.

Converts and newcomers to Buddhism outside of Asia sometimes have a tendency to dismiss Asian-Americans as “ethnic Buddhists” or “baggage Buddhists”—as people who do not seriously practice Buddhism. However, we have much to learn from many of these women who still reflect a generations-long internalization of the buddhadharma through their thoughts, words, and deeds. They themselves are often the first to humbly profess that they know nothing about the dharma, and yet many of them display an innate understanding of such tenets as dana [the practice of cultivating generosity] and interdependence in all that they do—and many show, through their outlook, a profound grasp of the spirit of the nembutsu. They have often made huge sacrifices so that the temples will prosper, enabling others to experience the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. And yet they have embraced change without stridency. We have to remember that through their life experiences—such as racial and religious discrimination and being put into internment camps during World War II—they understand suffering and impermanence, and they know the value of finding joy in whatever life dishes out. They keep moving forward, and their positive perspectives alone are a lesson to us all. Certainly, they know what it is to be marginalized by those with dualistic minds, but they know that the light of immeasurable wisdom and compassion shines on all without discrimination.

If you have a copy of the summer issue, you can find this paragraph tucked away in the back, across pages 105–106. I am a big fan of Rev. Patti’s writing, and I hope to be able to post more from her here in the future.

Charges Dismissed Against Buddhist Nun

Venerable Hong Yuan came to New York to raise money for her fire-damaged temple, but found herself arrested for handing out prayer beads, charged with a misdemeanor for acting as an unlicensed vendor and offered a day of community service in exchange for a guilty plea. Last week the nun refused to plea guilty to any wrongdoing, and now DNAinfo reports“[p]rosecutors said that they will effectively dismiss the charges when she appears in Manhattan Criminal Court on Monday.”

Phew! (Update: charges dismissed!)

You can read Shayna Jacobs’ full story at DNAinfo—it seems the prosecution sees its mistake. Ven. Hong Yuan should now have no more need to worry about these ridiculous charges. Many thanks to Ms. Jacobs for her reporting on this incident, highlighting a situation that could easily have disappeared under the radar.

Thanks also to Jack Daw for spearheading a Twitter campaign to persuade the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to reconsider this case. We may never know how much the Twitterverse shaped the prosecutors’ ultimate decision, but it was no less breathtaking to see Buddhists rally online for one humble Chinese nun far away from home in New York City.

Of course, you can still support Ven. Hong Yuan’s cause to raise funds to restore her temple. You can make checks payable to the Atlanta Pu Xian Buddhist Association, Inc., 3140 Shallowford Pl., Atlanta, GA 30341. The association can also be reached by telephone at 678-436-3607.

Previous Singtao Daily articles by Li Xiaomi on Ven. Hong Yuan can be read here and here (in Chinese). Previous posts on this blog about Ven. Hong Yuan are here and here.

Photo credit to Singtao Daily.

Update: Finally a post on the topic from Our Chinatown! (Well, I suppose you could also count these two.)

Chinese Nun Refuses Plea Deal

I hope you remember about Ven. Hong Yuan (宏願法師), who police arrested on Canal Street last month for distributing prayer beads to supporters, including those who donated to help rebuild her burnt-down temple. DNAInfo reports that prosecutors are “charging her with a misdemeanor for acting as an unlicensed vendor.”

The DA offered a plea deal where Ven. Hong Yuan will serve “one day of community service in exchange for a disorderly conduct, non-criminal guilty plea,” but the nun has refused.

We should support Ven. Hong Yuan in her pursuit of justice, especially in encouraging the DA to drop the charges against her. This situation is a fantastic opportunity for Buddhists to reach out and support each other across racial, cultural and geographic lines. If you follow Ven. Hong Yuan’s story, it should be clear that she could definitely use the assistance of supporters to show the DA that this nun has the support of an entire community behind her.

You can read more background at this previous post with information from the earlier articles at DNAInfo and Singtao Daily.

Photo credits to DNAInfo/Shayna Jacobs.

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’BrienKyle 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.

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.

Buddhist Nun Arrested for Soliciting Donations

I was surprised that I couldn’t find this story in the Our Chinatown news blog. DNAInfo reports on a Chinese Buddhist nun who was arrested and detained without an interpreter for handing out malas to people who gave donations to help rebuild her temple, which had burnt down. The nun, Li Baojing Ven. Hong Yuan was “ordered to appear in Midtown Community Court on July 7. If convicted, she could face up to three months in jail and a $3,000 fine.” You can read more details about her situation at DNAInfo.

Hopefully DNAInfo won’t drop this issue (or maybe Our Chinatown will pick it up) because I would really like to know how this turns out. If anyone has any more information, please don’t hesitate to drop a note in the comments.

Update: Our Chinatown actually published news on Ven. Hong Yuan’s fundraising before her arrest. Apparently, the NYC police were unaware.

In the scorching heat or in the pouring rain, one Buddhist [nun] has appeared on the streets of Chinatown day after day, seeking donations to repair a temple in Atlanta, Ga., that was damaged after a fire.

Hong Yuan, who came to New York in 1996 and has been practicing as a Buddhist [nun] for more than 20 years, bought a house in Atlanta in 2007 that she turned into the Pu Xian Temple. On March 26, the temple caught fire while Hong was in China; no one was inside at the time.

Hong said that when she returned, she was informed by her insurance company that it would not settle her claims since her name and the name on the insurance documents did not match up. Hong said that when she filled out the insurance forms to transfer her residence over to the association, she forgot to make the necessary changes to the documents, adding that she did not realize such a small oversight would have such big consequences.

If you want to make a donation, you can make checks payable to the Atlanta Pu Xian Buddhist Association, Inc., 3140 Shallowford Pl., Atlanta, GA 30341. The association can also be reached by telephone at 678-436-3607. (Singtao Daily)

Photo credit to DNAInfo/Shayna Jacobs.

A Bit More than a Smattering?

The much anticipated 2011 Buddhist Teachers Council has finally concluded, in spite of all the griping. It was organized secretlyIt was exclusive. But I was more interested in how many Asian participants were invited to the party.

“Mostly, as might be expected,” Rev. James Ford writes, “folk of European descent. But a bit more than a smattering of [People of Color], African descent and Asian, as well as a few Tibetans and other Asians.”

Those terms are hard for an unskilled layperson like me to gauge. Fortunately, Rev. Ford posted a list of attendees, which I spent the last few days coding. The list falls short of the 230 mentioned in the press release, but I have to work with what I’ve got. After crunching the numbers, it turns out that “a bit more than a smattering” equates to about one in nine.

If you break out the Asian participants, there were just fifteen of us (that’s one in twelve). Thus “a bit more than a smattering” falls short of the representation of Asian writers in The Best Buddhist Writing (one in five), but hangs a couple notches above the paucity of Asian contributors to Tricycle (one in fifteen). Maybe then a “smattering” is the handful of Asians you find in Tricycle.

On the other hand, if we look at the inclusion of women at the conference, their representation is much stronger. There were four women for every five men present. That’s a little better balanced.

So even as the White gatekeepers seemed to have no trouble finding spots for the female half of Western Buddhism, the share set aside for Buddhists of Color was obscenely low. We also make up about half of Western Buddhism, but we’re apparently not as important to the discussion of the future of Buddhism in the West. (I’m having flashbacks.)

That said, I’m glad for the Buddhists of Color who showed up, including one whom I interviewed on this blog. A strong contingent came from the East Bay Meditation Center, along with several others whose names were entirely new to me. Since this conference is scheduled to recur, I hope the organizers will make an effort to be more inclusive the next time around.

Lastly, as editors from both Shambhala Sun and Tricycle were in attendance, we might just be able to look forward to a few new contributors in the next few publication cycles. (Is that too much to expect?) Or at least Tricycle might be able to boost its Asian quotient to “a bit more than a smattering.”

For more on the conference from Rev. James Ford’s blog, see herehereherehere and here. Not to mention photos!

Update: This post has been revised to reflect corrections from a Tricycle editor in the comments below.

What Happened to the Chit Peace Accord?

The Tenth Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been underway for the past week. One conference development relevant to the Buddhist world was a study on the status of the implementation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts are a part of Bangladesh’s Chittagong division. The CHT indigenous population—collectively referred to as Jumma, of whom a plurality are Buddhist—has been subject to forced displacement by government-sponsored Bengali settlers, military occupation, systematic rape, killings and torture. Buddhist temples have been desecrated, set on fire and destroyed. Furthermore, this ongoing intimidation occurs with complete judicial impunity; Bangladesh’s courts have failed to take the initiative in support of the CHT indigenous groups, while Jumma are routinely excluded from joining the police forces.

In the words of Elsa Stamatopoulou, Chief of the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the CHT situation is “one of the most underreported human rights and humanitarian crises in the world.”

peace accord was signed between indigenous representatives and the Bangladeshi Government 14 years ago, but many of its central provisions have failed to be implemented by the government.

As described in the press conference on the implementation of the CHT Peace Accord, the intimidation of indigenous peoples continues. Systematic rape of indigenous women and girls has worsened in the past five years, while the police and judiciary have continued to turn a blind eye to the burning of villages, killings and torture—all amid the presence of the Bangladeshi army, ironically so as the army is the top or second top contributor of forces to UN peace keeping missions.

In response to the report and press conference, the Bangladeshi mission to the UN has attempted to divert any criticism of its policies by denying the Jumma’s indigenous status. “Bangladesh does not have any ‘indigenous population’,” stated Iqbal Ahmed, the first secretary of the Bangladesh mission to the United Nations. “The Accord has nothing to do with ‘indigenous issues’ and therefore, the government of Bangladesh reiterates its position that the forum, which is mandated to deal with ‘indigenous issues’, does not have any locus standi in discussing the issues related to the CHT Peace Accord.”

Raja Debasish Roy, a UNPFII member representing the indigenous peoples of the Asia region and also the traditional Chief of the Chakma people of CHT, was quoted by the Indpendent about the government’s reaction within the larger framework of international conflict resolution, “It is important to bear in mind the asymmetry in the status of the two parties to an accord—the state party and the non-state party. If the state reneges on its promises, what can the non-state party do but approach the United Nations? The Permanent Forum is mandated to deal with issues of indigenous peoples, irrespective of what term the governments use to refer to their indigenous peoples—‘tribes’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ or otherwise.”

If you wish to stay informed on the status of the CHT situation, I encourage you to follow the CHT news update blog.