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.)
Barbara O’Brien wrote something the other day that really got under my skin. In her post about a few of the issues facing mae chi in Thailand, she threw out one flippant line singling out the name of a Buddhist university:
Ooo, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. How awesome is that?
A commenter responded with a joke, noting a university basketball tradition where cheerleaders spell out a school’s name (‘Gimme an M! Gimme an A…’)—to which O’Brien extended the ridicule that the “game would have to go into overtime to let them finish.” Just retyping these words is quite painful.
This lighthearted banter summoned up memories of all the times that white Americans made fun of my Asian name, mocked my ancestral language with ching-chong routines and done the good ol’ chink-eye to my face. In case you’re unaware, it can really suck to grow up Thai in America—because you might just have to live your entire life with people like Barbara O’Brien making fun of your family’s long name, only to then hide behind, “Relax! It was only a joke!”
Most painful is that O’Brien’s mockery is completely inessential. Her post argues a more noble topic, where she decries the marginalization of women in Thai Buddhist institutions. She even tentatively wades into the complex relationships of Thai Buddhism to the Thai State. But in making light of a Thai university’s long name, she perpetuated the unfortunate tradition to which so many Thai Americans with long names are subjected to, and so ridiculed the very culture of the mae chi she sought to champion.
These long names stem from a specific quality of Thai culture: that spaces are not so ubiquitous as in English. It wouldn’t be difficult for O’Brien to uncover that the university’s name roughly translates to “King Chulalongkorn Royal Academy”—Chulalongkorn being the university’s eponymous founder, not to mention also namesake to Thailand’s most prestigious university. Now you have the translation, it doesn’t sound so amazing—or ridiculous—does it?
This cruel little joke on a Thai name encapsulates a recurring dilemma for Western Buddhists of Asian heritage. We are embraced by white Buddhists, even while we are culturally denigrated. Without a doubt, Barbara O’Brien deserves credit and commendation for her advocacy of the rights of Buddhist women of all colors, but that does not excuse her casual mockery of Asian culture.
This morning I read Stephen Porthero’s Boston Globe piece on why it’s important not to think all religions are intrinsically the same—that they are substantively different. His argument is well articulated. All religions accept that there is some intrinsic problem with the world as-is—but they diagnose this problem differently and prescribe very different treatments aiming at sometimes diametrically opposed outcomes. (Medical analogy may not be the most appropriate here, but it’s early in the morning for me.)
When it comes to international conflicts where religion is involved, he argues, it’s important to take these differences into account. I can accept this—up to a point. I am very weary of assuming that humanity’s religious differences are at the forefront of today’s so-called “Clash of Civilizations.” These differences are, in my view, merely contributing factors to larger political and socio-economic conflicts, which use religion and culture as the playing field on which to wage battle.
I’m quite happy with Prothero’s argument that religions are actually different. This is in fact what I believe about Buddhism. At the same time, I’m not sure if I buy into the political implications he extends—but my uncertainty may simply be rooted in that I don’t understand his argument well enough yet.
Reviewing Mark Herrmann’s thoughts on blogging makes me wonder if I can balance community involvement with the toil of the blog. Or maybe I need to six sigma it up a little. Regardless, I have a bouquet of interesting webpages open in browser tabs—and far too little time to explore them as I’d like to—below is an unorganized survey of what’s on my mind.
Many thanks to Justin Whitaker for his post on Buddhism and race in America. Also thanks to Maia Duerr for continuing the discussion and providing resources. I never thanked John Pappas either—from back in 2009—but he’s also gone out of his way to educate himself about situations where he’s been bitten, and he’s been happy to share what he’s learned, no less. I am deeply moved by the efforts these individuals make (among other allies out there!)—precisely because they don’t have to, and also because I believe that they have a greater influence among white Buddhists than I do.
Also on my mind are broader thoughts on issues of identity, race and culture. I was inspired by stories of white people without “white names”—particularly, a white American football player who identifies as Japanese American, and a white herbalist with a black name. These stories highlight the fluid ways in which ethnic identity can operate. To an extent, your identity is how you see yourself. But it’s what other people say you are. For most of us, the reality is somewhere in between.
I’m of the mind that the same issues apply to groups of people. When a sangha decides to “strip Buddhism of it’s cultural baggage”—is that an identity statement?
Recent events in the Chittagong Hill Tracts deal with Bangladeshi Buddhists who by and large are not ethnically Bengali—although there are many Bengali Buddhists in Bangladesh too. Collectively called Jumma, these tribes are culturally and linguistically different, the plurality (if not majority) of whom are Buddhist. You can learn more about this situation at the links below.
A bit late on reposting, but here’s a post I deeply appreciated—Brad Warner’s response to the following question about privilege: “Have you ever considered that it may be easier for you to give up attachment to identity because your identities are not problematic, are in fact usually not considered identities at all? I honestly do want to know what your thoughts are about your position in the world, so please tell me.”
His comments struck me as incisive. Here’s the meat of his response.
I do not think that attachment to identity is something that can be quantified. I don’t think it’s something some people have more of than others, at least at the outset of practice. Except perhaps in some very rare and extraordinary cases.
I believe that all of us, no matter what our race, sexual orientation, gender, etc., are socialized to cling tightly to individual identity and to believe in it very strongly. This goes far beyond matters of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Those aspects of identity are very superficial compared to the much deeper issues of seeing oneself as separate from the rest of humanity and from the Universe itself. So my guess is that maybe someone who has forged a strong identity based on his/her/zher race, culture, sexual orientation etc. might have a tiny fraction of a percent more attachment to identity than someone for whom the questioner says identity is not an issue. Maybe. Maybe. Just a teeeny, weeny, itty bitty bit.
But in terms of what we’re dealing with in Buddhist practice this would hardly make any difference at all. In those terms, even for members of the ruling class, identity is a HUGE issue. Perhaps it’s even worse for members of the ruling class because they’ve never seen their identity as an identity, having been able to take so much for granted. I’d say a person who has grown up having to understand their identity as identity actually has a small head start on what Buddhism is dealing with in these areas.
I was surprised he took on this question, and he has some very solid points here. His personal anecdotes on privilege are also worth reading. I hope he blogs on it more.
Hopefully I’ll be able to attend this Friday night. The schedule looks as though it involves a mix of meditation and discussion, all of which I look forward to. If you happen to live in the Los Angeles area, I’d love to see you there!
Thanks to a comment at Dharma Folk, I learned about a new online network: urban refuge – Buddhist People of Color and Allies. As they describe themselves, “a virtual sangha for Buddhist practitioners of color & others interested in promoting cultural & racial diversity in American Buddhism.” I’m delighted to have found them online.
A friend forwarded me an opinion by critic Roger Ebert, which brought me some good comfort this morning. He responds to a question about the “whitewashing” of the upcoming film The Last Airbender.
Q.Regarding the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan vehicle “The Last Airbender,” what do you think about the whitewashing of the production so that all of the original Asian cultural landmarks, architecture, philosophy, and costume design are being retained while they cast white kids to play the main characters? Arlene C. Harris A. Wrong. The original series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was highly regarded and popular for three seasons on Nickelodeon. Its fans take it for granted that its heroes are Asian. Why would Paramount and Shyamalan go out of their way to offend these fans? There are many young Asian actors capable of playing the parts.
But intentionally or not, they are adding another chapter to Hollywood’s long, sordid history of Yellowface. By giving white actors roles that are so obviously Asian – and by stating from the get-go their preference for Caucasians – they tell Asian-Americans that who we are and how we look make us inherently inadequate for American audiences, even in a movie that celebrates our culture.