Resolution 2014

My New Year’s resolution for this blog is to read Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism. I’ve listened to a podcast interview with Iwamura on New Books in Religion (thanks, Danny!), and I’ve read an article by her in Hyphen Magazine (thanks, Barbara!). I’m intrigued with how Iwamura writes about the “Oriental monk” icon. I would even argue that one cannot properly understand Buddhism in America without understanding this icon.

Note that my resolution is to read this book, not necessarily to write about it. My writing has trailed off over the past few months. I don’t expect ever to publish as frequently as once a month. But if you are inspired to read, question and discuss this book, then I hope you share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. (Just remember the comments policy.)

Best Buddhist Writing Back to Normal

If last year’s edition of The Best Buddhist Writing was the most Asian volume published to date, then this year’s volume is a return to normal.

For the past nine years, Melvin McLeod and the other Shambhala Sun editors have gathered into a single book “a thought-provoking mix of the most notable and insightful Buddhism-inspired writing published in the last year.” On average, six or seven Asian writers make it into the volume, which translates to a ratio of about one in five. This year is perfectly typical with six Asian writers at a ratio of exactly one in five. That’s not many when you consider that more than three-in-five American Buddhists are Asian.

I had hoped that last year’s exceptional number of Asian writers would mark the start of a new normal. Compared to The Big Three print magazines, The Best Buddhist Writing historically includes a higher proportion of Asian authors. The editors even highlighted their awareness of diversity issues last year when they organized a Buddhadharma forum titled, “Why is American Buddhism so White?” Maybe there wasn’t much good Asian writing to be found this year. Maybe 2011 was a fluke.

The editors at least managed to find new Asian writers, unlike the two years when the only Asian authors included where those who had been published in previous volumes.

If Asian Buddhist writers are to be better represented in The Best Buddhist Writing, then the yearly number of new Asian authors will have to grow. This shift will be reflected in the measure of “Best Asian Writers”—those who have ever been published in The Best Buddhist Writing—as a proportion of the total lot of “Best Buddhist Writers.” Since the series’ inception in 2004, this proportion has declined from less than one in five to now just one in seven.

In other words, new non-Asian writers have been included in The Best Buddhist Writing at a greater frequency than Asians have been.

For The Best Buddhist Writing to meaningfully include more Asian writers, the editors could include in each volume the writing of four Asians who had not been included in any previous edition. That’s just one more than the three new writers who are currently added on average each year. Of course it means that more work would need to be done to find that worthy piece of writing. My hunch is that as the Shambhala Sun editors get more used to seeking out good writing by Asian authors, they will develop sharper intuitions on where to look and they’ll find some more promising work along the way.

We’ll see how The Best Buddhist Writing turns out next year. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy The Best Buddhist Writing 2012.

The Buddha in the Attic

I’m too time-crunched this morning to write my own thought-out post on this, so I’ll just quote the Angry Asian Man (to whom I owe a hat tip).

This week, finalists were announced for the 60th annual National Book Awards, the prestigious literary prize presented to exceptional American books written and published in the last year: Finalists Named for National Book Awards.

There are five finalists in four categories: fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. What’s noteworthy is that the short list for fiction includes Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, a fictional retelling of the postwar Japanese American experience.

And from the Amazon book description

In eight incantatory sections, The Buddha in the Attic traces their extraordinary lives, from their arduous journey by boat, where they exchange photographs of their husbands, imagining uncertain futures in an unknown land; to their arrival in San Francisco and their tremulous first nights as new wives; to their backbreaking work picking fruit in the fields and scrubbing the floors of white women; to their struggles to master a new language and a new culture; to their experiences in childbirth, and then as mothers, raising children who will ultimately reject their heritage and their history; to the deracinating arrival of war.

This book sounds like one to definitely consider adding to your reading list. And congrats to Julie Otsuka!

Best Buddhist Writing 2011

This year’s The Best Buddhist Writing 2011 has made positive strides across the board in the inclusion of Asian Buddhist writers. Nine of the 32 contributors are Asian. That’s more Asians than ever before. They also make up a larger proportion of the authors than ever before. You could say that this year’s volume is in fact the “most Asian” volume published so far. This increase in representation boosts the entire series’ overall quotient to 20.3 percent (compared to 19.2 percent as of last year’s publication). As usual, I’ve included an Asian Meter chart to illustrate the comparison with previous years.

This progress is especially notable for the number of new Asian writers. Many of the writers in The Best Buddhist Writing also have been published in previous volumes; in the past three years, 42 (2008), 58 (2009) and 61 (2010) percent of writers in Best had also previously appeared in the series. In the last two years, none of the new writers were Asian; all Asians in those volumes also had work published in previous volumes of Best. In contrast, of the nine Asian writers included in this year’s volume, four are new.

Of course, the representation of Asian writers is still quite low compared to the proportion of Asian Buddhists in the North American Buddhist community. My count of nine authors is perhaps inflated by the fact that one of the pieces is co-authored by two Tibetan monks. (I count authors, not pieces.) Best also features fewer authors this year (32) than it usually does (34 on average). If we further take gender into account, we see that all of the Asian authors are male, even while this volume of Best is the closest yet to gender parity. (Women comprise 15 of the 32 writers.)

That said, progress is progress. Not only has the Asian quotient improved over last year, this year’s quotient is the highest yet. I hope with all my heart that they will keep up this good work.

(Thanks to the Tricycle blog for bringing this book to my attention!)

Beneath a Single Moon

Released in 1991, Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry was the first anthology to highlight the poetry of practicing American Buddhists. The reaction of the Asian American writing community was for the most part simple and straightforward. We were less than happy. Of the 45 American poets who appeared in Beneath a Single Moon, some were well-known poets, while others were quite obscure. None were Asian American.

Mushim Ikeda-Nash remembers “dropping the book as though it had burnt me.” In PREMONITIONS: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, editor Walter Lew provided half a dozen examples of accomplished Asian American poets whose work should have qualified. In 1997, Juliana Chang, Walter Lew, Tan Lin, Eileen Tabios, and John Yau together lambasted Beneath a Single Moon editor Kent Johnson in the Boston Review, arguing that his anthology “displaces Asian American poets from the practice of Buddhism.” They reprinted Lew’s most polemical paragraph from PREMONITIONS.

The 45 American poets whose essays and poetry on Buddhist practice comprise the anthology are all Caucasian, and the book only mentions Asians as distal teachers (ranging from Zen patriarchs to D.T. Suzuki), not as fellow members or poets of the sangha . . . When one considers the relative obscurity of some of the poets included in the book, one wonders how it was possible not to have known the Buddhistic poetry of such writers as [Lawson Fusao] Inada, Al Robles, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, Patricia Ikeda, and Russell Leong. . . . [Gary] Snyder’s introduction deliberates the question—‘Poetry is democratic, Zen is elite. No! Zen is democratic, poetry is elite. Which is it?’ . . . perhaps he should have also asked whether Zen and poetry, as reconfigured in American Orientalism, are racist.

Kent Johnson did little to help the situation when in a 1997 email response, he backhandedly disqualified all the writers Lew had mentioned.

Before reading this quote, I was quite certain that we had probably missed, out of ignorance, Asian-American poets who should have been included in the anthology. But now I am not as sure. If Mr. Lew (and the other co-signers of the BR response) had carefully considered the Shambhala anthology, they would have seen that a fundamental criteria for inclusion was a serious background in Buddhist study and practice. We were not interested, in the least, in poetry exhibiting the vague and stereotypical waft of the “Buddhistic.” If anything, our anthology begins to point to the fact that reductive notions of the “Buddhistic” are one of the by-products of the “Orientalism” that Mr. Lew denounces. There is simply no way of boiling down Buddhist artistic expression to any particular “Buddhistic” characteristics of tone, content, or style.

Now, I still suspect that there are publishing Asian-American poets who would have met the criteria we established for the anthology, but their absence was certainly not due to some underlying racist criteria of selection; we simply (and perhaps to our editorial discredit) were, and are, unaware of Asian-American poets who also happen to be Buddhists. Apparently, and unfortunately, so is Mr. Lew, as I assume he would have mentioned specific names if there were any.

Preoccupied with the word “Buddhistic,” Johnson failed to verify that most of the writers mentioned by Lew were, in fact, practicing Buddhists. One of these writers played a major role in getting me involved in the Buddhist community. Little did I know that, at the very time he advised me on Buddhist engagement, this literary controversy was storming in the background.

It took me some time to piece this history together, emailing friends, hunting down references and reviewing email exchanges from, well, the last century. What you see here is a sample of a much more complex fabric of conversations being woven at the time. On the face of it, the recriminatory exchanges must have seemed futile, either side barely acknowledging the other’s argument. But these conversations were not entirely in vain. As discussed by Jonathan Stalling, subsequent anthologies of Buddhist poetry opened their pages to include Asian American authors, including those mentioned by Lew.

Reflection on this history brings me an even share of bitterness and comfort. The bitterness is in seeing that so little has changed—that two decades after the publication of Beneath a Single Moon, the nature of the controversy and the criticism it engendered could have happened just last month. In fact, it did. On the other hand, the comfort is in knowing that I’m not alone, that I’m following in the footsteps of many others who came before me. There is comfort too in the thought that, if history is any guide, change may indeed come.

Best Buddhist Writing 2010

One of my side projects includes tallying Asian writers. Specifically, I tally the bylines set aside to Asian writers in mainstream Buddhist publications. Early last year, I investigated The Best Buddhist Writing series and came away with the following three conclusions: Asians are underrepresented in the anthology (about 19 percent of authors), most of these Asian writers tended to be Tibetan, and the Asian authors reappear in the pages more frequently than their non-Asian counterparts (who make up a much larger, mostly white pool).

A few weeks back, I updated my “database” to include The Best Buddhist Writing for 2009 and 2010. Little surprise, the running average remains almost exactly the same, at 19.2 percent.

But I’ve been more interested in a different statistic. It turns out that the editors of The Best Buddhist Writing choose from a very small pool of Asian authors. Out of 163 authors who have ever appeared in its pages, a mere 21 have been Asian, accounting for 46 bylines. Now, the real shock came when I tried to answer the question: How many new Asian Authors join each year?

Over the past two years—none!

The number of Asian authors—those who had ever had their work published in The Best Buddhist Writing—increased each year until 2008, where it plateaued at 21. In 2009 and 2010, the Asian authors all had also been published in previous volumes. In contrast, the number of total writers keeps on growing, as new non-Asian authors continue to be added to the mix.

The Best Buddhist Writing 2010 is the newest edition and currently on the bookshelves. You can check out a very positive review at the Buddhist Blog.

Attention to the Little Things

Ven. Shravasti Dhammika points to a new book, Buddhist Animal Wisdom Stories, an illustrated retelling of 44 Jataka stories. Detail-oriented and a stickler for cultural accuracy, he is keen to note that “[a]lthough it would not detract from the value of this book if it were otherwise, McGinnis has done his research carefully and only depicted animals native to India.”

As a disclaimer, I don’t own this book, nor have I read it. I just feel it’s important to publicize these sorts of resources. Last year, Tricyclepublished a young writer’s short list of favorite Buddhist children’s books. I have found many more elsewhere using the usual tools.

There has been considerable recent discussion in the American Buddhist community about what the next generation will look like. Meditation centers, magazines, retreats and teachers must grow and adapt to relatively younger ranks of practitioners. But the essential future of the American Buddhist community is with those who are currently its youngest members. They are the ones who most deserve our attention.

Uncanonicalness of Interconnectedness

While reading the book Wings to Awakening this past weekend, the following sentence jumped out at me.

Although some non-Theravadin Buddhist texts insist that happiness can be found by abandoning one’s smaller, separate identity and embracing the interconnected identity of all interdependent things, this teaching cannot be found in the Pali canon.

To be fair, I’m taking Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s words out context. That quote stands here alone for its shock value to the Mahayanists. I encourage you to peruse his book to find the paragraph in question and understand that quote in its fuller context. You may still find your hair standing on end no less.

Buddhist Stuff

I’m trying to catch up on all the posting I neglected this weekend. This past Friday I got the chance to visit the Jodo Shinshu Center for the first time. Very cool indeed. Here are some highlights. It’s really hi-tech. Asian Americans abound! It’s a Buddhist resource right at the foot of UC Berkeley. Anglais se parle. They’ve got a huge bookstore with Buddhist stuff! On that last point by “Buddhist stuff” I mean to say that in addition to books, the bookstore has a great inventory of the sorts of things you’d need to set up your own shrine or to buy as a Dharma gift for a friend! If you happen to be in Berkeley, I strongly encourage checking it out.