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.

Diversity at the Buddhist Teachers Council

A recent Tricycle blog post on diversity caught my attention. The magazine asked some participants of the recent 2011 Buddhist Teachers Council the following question about unity amid diversity:

Buddhism is very diverse—some would even say that the different traditions represent different religions. What was the common Buddhist thread that brought you all together?”

And here are the responses of two Asian American participants.

I came seeking unity in the Three Treasures. I was disappointed to find that the “mindful” community remains unable to bridge the gap of diversity; and further, that this vital necessity is not a primary concern.
—Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin, Myoken Temple

What brought us together probably has something to do with the Buddha’s saying “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” It has such a universal calling. However, while “Buddhism” may be diverse, “Buddhist” communities in the West do not yet reflect the diversity of our multicultural experiences. 
—Larry Yang, East Bay Meditation Center

I am very glad that Tricycle included us in their list, and that these thoughts were shared. For all my grumblings over diversity at the Buddhist Teachers Council, I’m inclined to think of the conference as a positive success. Diversity was certainly not prominent, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the conference was an abject failure on this front. More on that thought in another post.

You can read other responses to this question in the current issue of Tricycle. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s is one of my favorites.

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!)

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.

The Accuracy of Diversity at the Maha Council

Rev. Danny Fisher invited bloggers to read his interview with Lama Surya Das and encouraged us to give him feedback on the interview. The invitation is much appreciated, and I am very happy to post my impressions here.

Overall, I am very grateful for this interview. It gave me some great perspective on the conference’s background and the organizer’s intentions. I am also grateful to get a glimpse of how the conference challenged the organizers’ own expectations. But I have two critical points, one of which I discuss in this post.

Rev. Fisher quoted Jaweed Kaleem’s article in The Huffington Post—“Most attendees at the Maha Council were white, many were men, and the average age skewed toward the 50s”—and then stated that a few conference participants felt that this statement “wasn’t exactly accurate.” Rev. Fisher’s remark surprised me because I found Kaleem’s statement to be quite accurate.

To be clear, what Rev. Fisher wrote was truthful—some participants feltthat this statement was inaccurate, and feeling is entirely subjective—but I’d like to take a moment to consider what sort of demographics would be necessary to make this statement less than accurate. Kaleem made three points, none of them particularly outstanding.

The assertion that “most attendees at the Maha Council were white” would be false if there were more than 95 People of Color in attendance. (Update:“most” means at least “more than half,” and Das states there were about 190 attendees, so as long as as there were at least 95+1 White participants, Kaleem’s statement is exactly accurate.) In the words of Rev. James Ford, there were “but a bit more than a smattering of people of color.” I counted20 People of Color (on a recount just now with a newer list, I counted 26); one distinguished conference participant took issue with my numbers, but even her suggested estimation proposed fewer than 50 People of Color. I have seen no evidence from any conference participants to suggest that this first assertion was inaccurate.

The second assertion, that “many [participants] were men” is so uninformative that it would be terribly difficult to pin down as inaccurate. Even just forty male participants could qualify as “many” simply because “many” is so subjective, unlike a term such as “most.” (For the record, I counted five men to every four women.)

Kaleem’s third assertion was that “the average age skewed toward the 50s.” Again, this statement is so imprecise that it’s hard to prove wrong, given the numbers we already know. About a quarter of the participants were under age 45, so if even the rest of the participants were 46 (which they were not), one could easily argue that the average age then skewed “greater than 45.” Maybe it was toward the 50s, 60s or 70s—who knows—but the average age itself was never asserted.

So what’s the point of all this nit-picking?

The Buddhist Teachers Council was a truly momentous occasion, but it was simply not that diverse. This conclusion wasn’t unique to the Huffington Post piece. I separately verified the lack of diversity with my own count of attendees—no matter how many times I review the list, I can’t find even 30 People of Color—but in any case, our criticism was dismissed. Some commenters even suggested that Buddhists of Color were to blame for the lack of diversity. That’s a shame.

I can only imagine that this defensiveness stems from the fact that many of the organizers and participants are individuals who personally value and cherish diversity, so this criticism must feel bitterly personal. But in order to progress, we must measure where we stand and how much we can improve. If the organizers want a more diverse council next time, they must accept both that this council was not as diverse as it could have been and that the necessary outreach was not as effective as it could have been.

Fortunately, I saw some of that responsibility in Rev. Fisher’s interview with Lama Surya Das, who wrote, “Needless to say, we can continue to strive to do better and be more conscientious regarding gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness, and form and structure as well.” It’s that sort of talk which gives me hope.

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.

LGBT Pride Month

(I hate it when I accidentally post mid-draft. Apologies for this repost.) On Tuesday, President Barack Obama officially proclaimed this month of June Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month. You can also check out the associated White House website.

Last month was Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and one way I encouraged bloggers to celebrate was to actually talk to Asian American Buddhists and then post their words. I’m proposing the same idea for LGBT pride month—let’s celebrate LGBT Pride Month by welcoming the voices of LGBT Buddhists to our blogs.

It’s easy to think of these months as throwaway celebrations—“You get one month out of the year so that we can ignore you for the other eleven months!”—but the point, I’ve come to see, is that these celebrations give us license to focus on our community, to air our frustrations, to explore our history and to celebrate ourselves for who we are. We might even learn something.

Many of us can’t identify with these celebrations. They’re about other people. There can be an awkwardness about celebrating a community that we don’t sincerely identify with.

My proposal is simply to recognize that Asian American Buddhists and LGBT Buddhists (and Black Buddhists and Latino Buddhists…) are part of our community. We don’t have to identify with every part of our community to embrace it all. A great step forward is to simply shine a spotlight on the voices of those among us who have historically been ignored and marginalized.

Maybe you know everything there is to know about LGBT issues and the Buddhist community—and if you do, I hope you can educate me. Because I don’t. And I would bet most of my readers don’t.

Maybe if each of us reaches out and actually talks to other Buddhists who are normally silenced, if we share their perspectives and understanding in their own words—maybe this is the sort of process that celebrates our diversity while also bringing us closer together.

However you choose to celebrate this month, I hope that you do. And that you do so with pride.

Buddhist APAHM Roundup

As the sun sets on Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2011, I’d like to extend my thanks to Maia Duerr (@fivedirections), Jack Daw (@ZenDirtZenDust), Chris Hoff (@NarrativeChris), Adam (@flylikeacrow) and Nathan (Dangerous Harvests) for their posts that delve into the ocean of the Asian American Buddhist community.

Many thanks also to the very supportive nods from Danny Fisher and Caine Das, who posted about APAHM on their blogs.

This month’s A Gift of Dharma posts from Danny Fisher included a unique focus on Asian and Asian American Buddhist quotes. You can read the words of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (5/15/45/85/95/15), Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh (5/25/12), Siddhartha Gotama (5/7), Chögyam Trungpa (5/115/17), Sulak Sivaraksa (5/18), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (5/19), Preah Maha Ghosananda (5/20), Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne (5/215/225/23), Venerable Cheng Yen (5/24), B. R. Ambedkar (5/25), Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (5/26) and Mushim Ikeda-Nash (5/27).

My hope is that, in the future, Buddhist bloggers, editors and journalists will make more of an effort to incorporate the voices of Asian American Buddhists—not merely post about us in the third person or fish up writings off the web that we published years ago. Just as I have to put in a little extra effort to welcome in the voices of Asian American Buddhist women, there will be obstacles for other bloggers who aren’t used to reaching out to Asian American voices. Even so, for those of us who speak out in the name of equality and diversity in the Buddhist community, our actions should follow our words.

It’s another eleven months till APAHM 2012, but I’m already making a list of whom I’d like to interview. Anumodami to all who participated this year!

Buddhist Bloggers Celebrate Asian America

It’s so great to see other bloggers celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!

Yesterday, Maia Duerr posted about ten Engaged Buddhists—nine from Asian America including Anchalee Kurutach, Anushka Fernandopulle, Canyon Sam, Duncan Ryuken Williams, Sister Jun Yasuda, Kaz Tanahashi, Ken Tanaka, Mushim Ikeda-Nash, Ryo Imamura, plus the redoubtable Thich Nhat Hanh. Go visit her post to read more about them! Jack Daw followed with a post about Rev. T. K. Nakagaki, a very unique Shin Buddhist minister in New York City.

Replying to my suggestion to welcome in the voices of Asian American Buddhists, blogger Chris Hoff invited me to publish a guest post on his blog, which you can read here. Maia Duerr also invited me to do an interview with her by email, which I hope we’ll be able to pull together in the near future. I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the interviews by @ohiobuddhist “with three Japanese-American Buddhists, two of whom were in Japan when the tsunami hit.”

If you know of other Buddhist bloggers who’ve chosen to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line in the comments. As I mentioned on Dharma Bum, APAHM provides an opportunity樂威壯 for Asian Americans to write about these issues in a way that might feel awkward at any other time of the year—and these pieces, written about Asian Americans by Asian Americans, provided an opportunity for my father to share with me some of his struggles as an Asian American that he had never felt comfortable talking about before.

I hope that we as Buddhist bloggers can help foster that sort of connection—and not just for Asian Americans! This particular APAHM given me a new appreciation for these cultural celebrations and also shown me a way that I can participate, even when I might not identify with the celebration itself. Hopefully we can all join in together and bring the community just a little bit closer.

Asian American Holiday Musings

Of the five holiday interviews I’ve conducted this year (Magha PujaOhiganThingyanSongkran and Vesak), each one has reached out to a different Asian American voice in a different part of the world.

The goal of the holiday interviews has been to expose my readership to the diversity of Asian American Buddhist voices and to let these voices speak for themselves. For those of us who have limited contact with Asian Americans in the Buddhist community, our understanding of Asian American Buddhists far too often comes from poorly-deduced conclusions penned by non-Asian authors. I’d like to think that these interviews provide plenty of evidence that we might actually have some unique perspectives to offer.

Take for example the recent Southeast Asian New Year celebrations (i.e. the Other Lunar New Year). If you were to refer solely to the descriptions on Barbara’s Buddhism blog (“think egg hunts at Easter”) or in a comment left on this blog (“it’s really not a Buddhist holiday”)—both accurate but superficial and incomplete perspectives from outsiders—you would have missed out on the viewpoint of the Thai American meditator who takes this holiday as an occasion to renew his Buddhist practice or the Burmese American student activist who sees the new year as an opportunity to embrace the precepts, generosity and respect.

But I have a humiliating omission to confess. For all my dedication to highlighting the voices of Asian Americans, I’ve actually failed to bring forward the voices of our community’s largest demographic.

Namely, women.

All of the people I interviewed in the past are men who I met and interacted with online. The vast majority of Buddhist bloggers are men—a proportion that is even more extreme when we look at Asian American Buddhist blogs. It’s not prohibitively difficult to reach out to our Asian American Buddhist sisters—it just takes a little more work. I have to step out from behind my fig leaf of pseudonymity and actually reach out beyond the Buddhist blogosphere.

My only excuse for not having a Gotan-e post was that I had made the commitment to interview Asian American Buddhist women, and then I was too hesitant to take that extra step. This excuse is not a good one, and I’m not going let this opportunity slip by.

My plan is to continue to reach out for this interview—simply because it’s worth taking that extra effort to reach out to the women in my community. It’s worth the token sacrifice of my pseudonymity to bring a fuller diversity of Asian American Buddhists to the readers of this blog. It would be shameful to do otherwise.

If you’ve gotten this far, I’d also encourage those of you with your own blogs to take a similar step. This month is Asian Pacific American Heritage month, a celebration the United States established to spend a little extra time noticing the contributions of its APA citizens, and so it would be great if the Buddhist blogging community took advantage of the eight remaining days in May to spend a little time—maybe just one post—recognizing the voices of Asian American Buddhists.

I encourage you all to celebrate this month by publishing an interview with or a guest blog by an Asian American Buddhist.

Of course, you could reach out at any time that works for you, but just as it’s never to soon for me to publish the voices of Asian American Buddhist women, it’s never too soon for, say, Danny Fisher or Jack Daw to publish that interview with or guest post by Asian American Buddhists. When was the last time you did so? In fact, if you’re someone who agrees with absolutely nothing I write here, then here’s a fantastic opportunity to invite an Asian American Buddhist to post about how they think my blog is full of crap!

Ultimately, if you really believe that we are also American Buddhists, then please welcome us into your blogs as you welcome other American Buddhists. Let’s celebrate this month together.