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.”

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.

Fun with Asian Names

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.

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.

A Western Buddhist Superiority Complex

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I skimmed through old posts and came across the Western Buddhist Feminist Oppressors post again. From Cheng Wei-yi’s conclusion…

While Buddhism has a long history and is practiced in a wide range of cultures, it is essential to avoid using one’s own values to evaluate Buddhist practices of others … Generalizing non-Western Buddhists and universalizing Western values are two problems needed to avoid.

I have also shown that during the process of discoursing Asian Buddhism, a ‘Western Buddhism’ arises. It is done through the process of comparison between and reflection on the practices of Asian Buddhists and Western Buddhists that a ‘Western Buddhism’ is formulated. I am not saying that there can be no ‘Western Buddhism’ without the comparison between and reflection on Asian Buddhism, for there has to be a ‘Western Buddhism’ (or Western Buddhisms). Since the social, economic and political conditions vary in different societies, one cannot expect that the practices of Western Buddhists remain entirely the same as those who live in a different social, economic and political condition. The problem lies in the process of identifying or formulating Western Buddhism, in which Western superiority is habitually created or sustained. While I must admit that works of many Western feminist Buddhists such as Rita Gross’ inspiring, I must also draw attention to the oppression and racial hierarchy created in these works. There can be no liberation for all women if the notion of Western superiority is to continue.

The self-styled Western Buddhists need to move away from a self-definition that involves over-generalizing and marginalizing Asian Buddhists and our diverse heritage and traditions. After all, we’re not mutually exclusive.