We’re Not Who You Think We Are

There is so much to say and share about this piece on the Lion’s Roarwebsite. These thoughts by author Chenxing Han resonated with me particularly.

It saddens me that many Asian Americans—myself included—are reluctant to “come out” as Buddhist. Sometimes this reluctance arises from a fear of being discriminated against or stereotyped. Sometimes it comes from a sense of inadequacy and inauthenticity when comparing ourselves to the white Buddhists who seem to be doing most of the defining in American Buddhism. Yet I am also reassured by a reminder from Alyssa, an interviewee whose Buddhist journey has taken her from a college meditation group on the East Coast to a Buddhist nunnery in China to various sanghas in her native Bay Area: even if they aren’t a trending topic on social media, Asian American Buddhists are everywhere.

You can read the full piece here.

Making Our Way without Asians

There is little new to say that I didn’t already say five years ago.

Let me start out, as I normally do, by noting that there are many virtues to the Buddhadharma discussion, “Making Our Way: On Women and Buddhism.” Sandy Boucher, Grace Schireson, Christina Feldman, Lama Palden Drolma and Rita Gross are individuals with considerable experience examining and debating the topic of women and Buddhism. They have wonderful insights to share, many of which I highlighted and jotted down in my notebook. But as you might have guessed, I noticed something missing.

Namely, Asians.

What makes this conversation so dangerous is that it easily leaves readers with the belief that Asian women, be they in Asia or the West, don’t even think about this topic, never mind do anything about it. Several years ago I posted Cheng Wei-Yi’s essay, “Rethinking Western Feminist Critiques on Buddhism,” and one of the comments came from someone with this very impression:

The critique is that we’re not listening to Asian women’s input here; well, then let’s have more of it. What developments towards the equality and dignity of women have taken place in Buddhism, apart from “western” feminist influence?

It is in response to challenges like these that Rev. Patti Usuki wrote Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu. If you read the blog of Rev. Patti Nakai, you can find yet another Asian American Buddhist woman’s thoughts. Or you can read other publications by Cheng Wei-Yi. In a previous letter to Buddhadharma, I included a list of several Asian Buddhist women, including published authors, who could speak to this topic. Not only can you find their thoughts in books and on websites—these women are alive. You can send them email.

I have spent my whole life around Asian Buddhist women in the West. They are the reason I am Buddhist. They have taught me how to bow, how to chant, how to apply Buddhist teachings, how to walk mindfully, how to meditate and delve into deep concentration. These amazing women don’t fit any of the stereotypes of Asian Buddhists. I have known Asian American nuns ordained in the Tibetan, Mahayana and Theravada traditions—women who have had unthinkable struggles, incredible stories and strong opinions on the role of women in Buddhism.

Just imagine how different a conversation you would have if you gathered these women together for a discussion on Buddhist patriarchy. It’s something that’s never before appeared in Buddhadharma or Tricycle. Imagine what it would be like if they wer犀利士 e in the room, so that you couldn’t so easily refer to Asian Buddhists as “them.”

Why is American Buddhism so White?

Shambhala Sun Foundation Staff

The provocative title of this post comes not from one of my sleep deprivation induced paroxysms of self-righteous indignation, but rather from a beautifully selected forum discussion in the current issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

You can read the forward by Charles Johnson online, but you’ll have to buy a copy of Buddhadharma to read the entire discussion with Larry Yang, Amanda Rivera, angel Kyodo Williams and Bob Agoglia. You’ll also find a great piece by Jan Willis, “Yes, We’re Buddhists Too!” I couldn’t recommend this issue enough.

The forum discussion is one that readers of this blog really shouldn’t ingore. Read it and let me know: what did you think?

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.

Letter to BuddhaDharma

It took more than two years for me to finally take up Barry Boyce’s invitation and, with my partner in crime, submit a letter to Buddhadharma. If you’re curious, you can find similar thoughts in the post “On White Women and Buddhism.” The editors reprinted our letter word-for-word, as far as I could tell, except for the last two paragraphs. The omission was a good call. Aside from taking up space, those lines were not as clear as they could have been. Here they are, unedited…

This year is just one example of a well established pattern. In a previous forum on “the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world,” Asians were again excluded from the conversation entirely. In fact, of the 34 panel discussions since Buddhadharma’s launch in 2002, Asian Buddhists landed a spot in less than half, averaging one or two participants per year. The only two exceptions involve a panel on prayer and a forum on Buddhism’s ethnic divide.

Those last two exceptions amply demonstrate that Buddhadharmacan achieve diversity—if it chooses to. One more forum or article on diversity will not remedy the problem. The solution to exclusion is inclusion. Rather than just report on diversity, Buddhadharmashould lead the way.

These thoughts might need some elaboration. In a typical year, Buddhadharma has four discussion panels (one for each issue), averaging about 14 panel spots a year (that’s three-to-four panel spots times four issues). Last year was one such typical year, where just one of these spots was allocated to an Asian Buddhist (Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche). A diagram might illustrate the starkness of this disparity.

Illustrative diagram of racial diversity
in the 2010 
Buddhadharma forums.

When every Buddhadharma forum was dropped into a graph, it became clear that most years were not much different than 2010 (i.e. one or two Asian participants). But two exceptional years stand out; in 2003 and 2006, Asian Buddhists occupied an otherwise unheard of number of panel spots. Nearly 40 percent! What could possibly have made these years so exceptional?

A look into the details was revealing. The 2003 Buddhadharma forum focused on prayer (“Do Buddhists Pray?”), featuring three Asian Buddhist panelists. In 2006, a forum on ethnic diversity (“Diversity and Divisions in American Buddhism”) featured another three Asian Buddhists. These are the only two instances in the magazine’s history where Asian Buddhists comprised a forum’s majority.

Importantly, when an “ethnic” topic arose, the editors successfully sought out “ethnic” voices. (Is “prayer” a particularly Asian topic? It’s complicated.) My takeaway is that Buddhadharma knows how to reach out to Asian Buddhists—they managed it twice—but that for the most part, the editors don’t make the effort to do so. My simple advice is for them to invite Asian Buddhists to participate in more discussions, and particularly discussions that don’t necessarily have to do with “ethnic” themes. Welcoming in the true diversity of Western Buddhism is not quite this simple, but I’d like to think it’s a good place to start.

On White Women and Buddhism

What’s gender got to do with Buddhism? How are women—and men—working with the challenges of sexism in Buddhist institutions? What opportunities present themselves when women pursue the path of dharma outside of traditional institutions and organizations? With these questions—and more—we are welcomed into Buddhadharma’s Winter 2010 feature, “Our Way.”

Brought together to discuss these questions are the brilliant minds of Grace Schireson, Christina Feldman, Lama Palden Drolma, Rita Gross, Lama Tsultrim Allione, and Joan Sutherland. These authors delve into the history of women bringing balance to the Buddhist community, current forward-moving trends and the outlines of a more equitable future for us all. But apart from these great women and their compelling discussion, I found something missing.

Namely, Asians.

In fact, no People of Color were included in this list—but here I prefer to underline the most blatant omission. For a feature that focuses “on women and Buddhism”—the editors chose none to represent Buddhism’s largest demographic: Asian women. Even when we narrow our purview to the Buddhist community in the “West,” Buddhists of Asian heritage are still an obvious part of the picture. Our voices are Western voices. Our mothers, sisters and daughters also reside in these lands, attend Western schools, live by Western rules, embrace Western values and grapple with the pernicious challenges of patriarchy that so regrettably pervade time and border. Asian American Buddhist women even represent the State of Hawai‘i in the U.S. House. By charting “Our Way” with the voices of white women, Buddhadharma has chosen to displace Asian women from “our” discussion.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of Asian Buddhist women capable of delving into these questions. The editors could easily have contacted Mushim Ikeda-NashRev. Patti UsukiVen. Tenzin Kacho or Anchalee Kurutach, women of varied backgrounds who are engaged Buddhists and also Asian American. (In fact, you can even listen right now to two of them talk about Buddhism in the United States—in an all-Asian American broadcast to boot!) All that said, when it comes to Shambhala Sun’s track record at bringing Asians into the conversation, they’ve made it clear that, well, we’ve just about got a Chinaman’s chance.

My laments have become so frequent that they are banal. Only last month I admonished Shambhala Sun Space (among others) for covering white non-Buddhist politicians, while completely ignoring non-white politicians who are actually Buddhist. Two years ago, I excoriated Buddhadharma for deliberately excluding Asian Americans from a forum on “the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world.” We can even look back to Beneath a Single Moon, Shambhala Publication’s anthology of contemporary Buddhist poetry, which failed to include a single Asian American Buddhist poet. Keep it up, and I’ll be able to publish an anthology of my own—a record of Asian Americans’ marginalization by the white Buddhist establishment.

If any of this is news to you, welcome to the discussion. Concerning the key actors involved, however, no new ground has been covered. We all know this dance. Angry Asian Buddhists castigate the white-privileged editors—who in turn acknowledge their faux pas, bemoan their obliviousness and profess their love for equality. Who knows, they may even ask for a letter to the editor. How grand!

But what would it take to have real change? How do we get consideration for a seat on that next panel—and how do we avoid being Chinatowned into a group of Asians talking about some “Asian” topic? I assure you, we Asian Buddhists can do a lot more than iron your clothes, paint your nails and serve you our “ethnic” food. We can talk about individual struggles, community institutions and transformative frameworks. I work with white Buddhists (and other Buddhists of color) all the time out here in the field, but I wonder what it takes to hang with the white kids in the big leagues.

Many of the divisions in the Buddhist community cannot be healed overnight. As one simple step, publications like Buddhadharma could simply recognize the broader diversity that exists. There are few starker lines of the so-called “ethnic divide” than the refusal of white Buddhists to even acknowledge the voices of the Asian Buddhist majority in the West.

Suggestions to the Editors

What can magazines like TheBigThree do to promote more Asian American writers? I have in the past provided some tentative suggestions, but my experience in the publishing world approaches nil. Fortunately, author 犀利士 g-their-work.html”>Claire Light today posted on her blog some very pertinent comments on the paucity of female and POC writers in literary magazines. (“Why Aren’t Women and POC Submitting Their Work?”) Claire Light has had a tremendous impact on how I see the world, from white privilege to use of the term hapa. Her thoughts here are, by and large, directly applicable to the editorial staffs of TheBigThree. Below are some suggestions from the end of her post about what these white folk can do to reach out effectively.

Archivist Note: Regrettably, the rest of this post was lost in transition to the new server.

Asian Meter 2009

How much things change in a year! A year ago this blog did not even exist. I was still wrapped up in the excitement of unleashing my inner Angry Asian Buddhist onto the blogosphere. Who knew the party would go on so long?

On the other hand, there are many things that barely change at all. For example, look at how few bylines continue to be set aside for Asians in the The Big Three publications. (And by Big, I’m talking about distribution.) Below I present the aggregate results for 2009.

The Asian Meter developed out of a play on the Buddhist community’s fascination with the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The Pew’s Buddhist numbers were questionable largely because of flawed assumptions about the Asian American community—like how many of us are out there. And without any attempt to validate the numbers, Buddhist publications chose to take them at face value.

I decided to run the numbers on the periodicals themselves. There’s no special magic behind the Asian Meter. The metric is a simple quotient of Asians. Originally I looked at the proportion of writers of Asian heritage in a given publication. These days, I focus on the proportion of bylines allocated to writers of Asian heritage. There are different benefits and drawbacks to this shift in methodology, but I don’t care to talk about it—that’s what the comments section is for! My precious few readers probably prefer the graph.

Tricycle remains the laggard, with nearly half as many Asians in its pages as the pack leader, Shambhala Sun. I’ve taken the liberty of combing back through several years of issues, only to find that Tricyclists stick to the habit of, on average, setting aside just one out of every ten bylines to an Asian brother—and sometimes an Asian sister.

To get an idea of what I see when I look at the authors in Tricycle, an area graph tells a better story. Consider that we probably make up at least half of the Buddhist community. We speak English! We are Americans! Let us in!

Here’s to positive changes in 2010! Sabbe satta abyapajjha hontu!

Take Two

Last year, I began a blog called Dharma Folk with a friend who goes by the online nom de plume John. I’ve had a great time writing on that blog and exploring issues in the Buddhist community. But Dharma Folk is a group blog, and I get the feeling that my posts have been drowning out the voices of my cobloggers, notably John, Oz and kudos. A couple of them would likely be much more happy to write on the blog if they knew their words weren’t going to be hidden between posts by the Angry Asian Buddhist.
So I’m moving all that rubbish over here.
As of today, I’ve got 27 Angry Asian Buddhist posts over at Dharma Folk. It all started when I was trying to find resources for Asian American Buddhists, followed by two periods when I lashed out against the hegemony of white Buddhists, first in the blogosphere and then in print. Most recently, a rant that began about the exclusion of Asian American Buddhists in a Buddhadharma piece has developed into Asian Meter, an analysis of the under-representation of Asian American Buddhists in high profile Buddhist publications, which in turn has sent me reviewing the statistics in the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The idea for “Angry Asian Buddhist” comes from Phil Yu’s Angry Asian Man blog. The name combines the irony of “Angry Asian” and “Angry Buddhist”, which are terms meant to counter the notion that all Asians are polite and submissive or that all Buddhists are calm and detached. As the Man himself explains it:

I’m not as angry as you think. Yes, racism angers me. But I’m not here sitting in front of the computer, hating whitey and plotting revolution. This is just a subject that has always interested me — pointing out racism and noting any and all appearances of Asians in mass media and popular culture (the good and the bad). It’s something I care about. So I’ve created a little space on the web for it all… I suppose the angry part sometimes scares people, but rest assured, I’m a pretty civil, reasonable guy. Just don’t cross me.

The main difference is that Phil Yu is funny, while I can get pretty snarky. I’m not doing this for money or for fame, I just want to share my thoughts and my occasional research.