The Buddha is the New Face of Customer Service

Apparently the Buddha works at a San Francisco customer service start up. At least so it appears when you first see Zendesk’s brand mascot, The Mentor, who is elsewhere more affectionately referred to as “Buddhy.” Ugh.

Buddhy is cultural appropriation at its most flagrant. Zendesk has taken Buddhist iconography, particularly that of Budai, and repackaged it as an integral component of their brand asset portfolio. What’s worse is that when you flip through their social media stream, ZenDesk employees repeatedly play on Oriental stereotypes and often put The Mentor in situations that many millions of Asian Buddhists would immediately perceive as blatant disrespect.

Zendesk has been parading their mascot around for years now. I’m amazed I didn’t learn about it until just this past weekend, especially since it seems so many other Buddhists have already been talking about it.

What do you think about Zendesk’s brand asset choice?

HT to Wanwan.

Is Your Family Buddhist?

I know there are a bunch of Asian Americans who read this blog, who happen to be from Buddhist families. Now, I also know that the terms “Buddhist” and “practice Buddhism” may be a bit loaded. You may not explicitly call yourself “Buddhist,” but I think you should get in touch with Kat Chow if you feel that Buddhist principles are important to your worldview and maybe you meditate or go to temple with your family or read up on Buddhism. I’m definitely not looking for the Buddhist counterpart to Jeremy Lin.

I was elated to see @Quincetessence and @catzuella respond on Twitter. I love seeing Buddhist Asian Americans embrace their Buddhist identity, even if it isn’t the first, second or even fifth most important thing in their lives. I continue to hear that we Asian Americans don’t speak up enough, and I’m hoping that you can help prove this stereotype wrong. Because the last thing I want to see is an interview without voices that represent the beautiful diversity of experiences and opinions that is Buddhist Asian America.

Many thanks to Katherine Rand (@itsalldhamma) for sharing this link with me, especially so I can share this with you.

What Do You Know About the Pure Land?

I am not a Pure Land Buddhist. My familiarity with Pure Land Buddhist traditions is rather limited, but I know enough to know that Douglas Todd’s Vancouver Sun article on Buddhism in Canada (“As Buddhism grows, two ‘solitudes’ emerge”) distorts the tradition to the point of stereotype. Todd depicts Pure Land Buddhism in Vancouver as a bunch of Asian Buddhist immigrants who don’t speak English and whose superstition-dominated spirituality consists of liturgical appeals to be reborn in a Buddhist heaven.

Pure Land is one tradition among many within Mahayana Buddhism, such that most of Vancouver’s Chinese Buddhist temples practice Pure Land Buddhism alongside sutra study, meditation, community service and non-Pure Land recitation practice. It is a cavalier misrepresentation of these temples’ Buddhist traditions for Todd to reduce all they do to the pursuit of a heavenly rebirth. Even Jodo Shinshu Buddhists, who focus more exclusively on Pure Land philosophy, aren’t just sitting around praying to be saved.

Take a look, for example, at Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, the organization of Ven. Heng Jung, who was the only Asian Buddhist whom Todd quoted. It’s more than just Pure Land. You will find Pure Land Buddhism practiced alongside scholarship, meditation, recitation and much more. Online, you can read the Dharma Forest blog and watch videosof Ven. Heng Sure, where you will find quite a bit more than repetitions of “Amitabha.” You could also check out the dharmas blog of Dharma Realm Buddhist University, where the vast majority of posts appear to be on subjects unrelated to the Pure Land.

Other Buddhist groups dominant in the Chinese Canadian community, such as Fo Guang Shan—the same organization that founded Rev. Danny Fisher’s employer—proudly promote both Pure Land and Ch’an meditation practice. There is even a diversity of views within these communities as to what the “Pure Land” means. “Many Pure Land practitioners today tend to stay clear of ‘the Pure Land exists’ idea and settle for Pure Land being in one’s own mind,” Ven. Zhi Sheng, a white Pure Land Buddhist, writes. “Pure Land practice is not just about being re-born in a lotus bud in the Land of Ultimate Bliss to live happily ever after. One will have missed the point completely.”

Most sadly, Todd missed out completely on Vancouver’s Jodo Shinshu community, one of the oldest in North America. If Todd had cared to sift through Tricycle and Buddhadharma online, he would have found Revs. Tai and Mark UnnoRev. Patti Usuki and Rev. Jeff Wilson talk about some of the very misconceptions of this Pure Land Buddhist tradition, which apparently were too enticing to avoid. There are quite a few other Jodo Shinshu perspectives online, such as Rev. Patti Nakai’s Taste of Chicago Buddhism blog or Rev. Harry Bridge and Dr. Scott Mitchell’s entertaining and illuminating Dharma Realm podcast, where they wrestle with questions from “What is Shin Buddhist practice?” to “Is Shin Buddhism in America really declining?

Note that none of the individuals mentioned here who follow Pure Land Buddhism are Asian Buddhist immigrants who don’t speak English—many are, in fact, Western converts.

While I have no doubt that there are Buddhists in Vancouver who will readily identify as Pure Land Buddhists and others who avow a yearning for rebirth in the Pure Land, for at least as many the Pure Land tradition is just one in a knapsack of Mahayana Buddhist traditions that an individual may practice. The Pure Land “practice” itself varies, just as practitioners have different perspectives on what the “Pure Land” actually is. You can learn more about Pure Land Buddhism by following the links above—I am by far no authority on this subject—however, from Todd’s article in the Vancouver Sun, you will find a stereotypical perspective of the type that Pure Land detractors would promote.

On the Newtown Shootings

I was glad to see that Tricycle pulled together a collection of responses by Buddhist teachers to the Newtown tragedy, but I was disappointed to see that not a single one of those teachers was Asian. Not only are the vast majority of Buddhist Amerians also Asian American, American temples with monks, nuns or priests of Asian heritage also play a role in communities with parents and children. There were invariably conversations within these communities where Asian American Buddhists discussed what all this meant and how to deal with this tragedy from a Buddhist context. But those perspectives will never be shared with us through the pages of TricycleShambhala Sun or Buddhadharmamagazines. If you’re curious to know what Asian American Buddhist teachers have said, you could visit the Taste of Chicago Buddhism blog for at least one perspective.

Update: Another relevant article to read is Ven. Losang Tendrol’s essay on the shootings in the Washington Post online.

Stereotypes of Asian Buddhists in Canada

I knew the article was going to be bad when I saw the first word misspelled: A-mi-tha-ba. Google could have helped on that one.

This careless misrendering of an Asian name of the Pure Land Buddha is but one of the myriad problems in Douglas Todd’s Vancouver Sun piece on Canadian Buddhism (“As Buddhism grows, two ‘solitudes’ emerge”). Todd attempts to stuff Metro Vancouver’s Buddhist diversity into a Two Buddhisms framework, and in so doing he misrepresents both Asian Buddhists and Pure Land Buddhist traditions by perpetuating common racist stereotypes and sectarian aspersions.

Todd’s Two Buddhisms are dubbed “ethnic Buddhism” and “Westernized Buddhism,” and he describes each group by their usual stereotypes. Ethnic Buddhism, for example, is “practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English.” This assertion is incredible. According to the Canadian Census, the vast majority of Asians in British Columbia speak English, so why does Todd propose that Asian Buddhists are so much more unlikely to speak English than their non-Buddhist counterparts?

Of course, these überforeign ethnic Buddhists “generally meet in large extravagant-looking temples throughout the city.” Another cavalier assertion that can be inspected a little more closely. I went to British Columbia’s listing on the BuddhaNet World Buddhist Directory and ran Google Street View on the addresses of “ethnic” temples listed in Metro Vancouver. Mostly residential and office buildings turned up. I have a hunch that most Asian Buddhist congregants in Vancouver regularly attend services in buildings on the same order of “ordinary-looking” as the Gold Buddha Monastery that Todd described visiting.

Let’s not forget the claim that “‘ethnic Buddhists’ have a more supernatural bent.” I can’t imagine how many Asian Buddhists Todd must have interviewed to find that out, but as I demonstrated previously based on Pew Forum research, non-Asian Buddhists are more likely to believe in Nirvana than Asian Buddhists are. (The Pew Forum surveyed the United States, but Todd has separately stated that his “experience covering diversity issues suggests its findings can be comfortably extrapolated to Canada and Metro Vancouver.”) So perhaps Asian Buddhists are more likely than non-Asian Buddhists to believe in the supernatural, while being less likely to believe in Nirvana. I find that hard to believe, especially when Todd has no surveys to back him up.

Last, but not least offensive, is Todd’s depiction of Pure Land Buddhism in Vancouver as basically a bunch of Asians praying to get to Buddha heaven. The forms of Mahayana Buddhism practiced in Vancouver involve much more than just Pure Land practice. They even include meditation—just like those white Buddhists! Even congregations which identify primarily as Pure Land, such as the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada, would probably surprise Todd with their approach to Pure Land philosophy. That’s worth a whole post on its own.

If by chance Todd cares to amend any of the numerous errors in his article, it may be best to start with a spell check. For example, the largest Buddhist school is called Mahayana—not Mayahana. Wow. My iPad’s autocorrect just tried to fix that one.

The Economist Staff

The Asian Meter is one of the tools I use to demonstrate the marginalization of Asian Americans in Buddhist publications. You can find similar approaches at the Op Ed Project and now at I just found out about the latter site today—they even have a word cloud!

The site sprang up in response to issues over a particular article on Korean women golfers. I don’t have much to say on that topic, but I certainly can commiserate on the topic of editorial diversity. As I mentioned over two years ago, if you take a look at the staff of the most widely distributed Western Buddhist magazines (Shambhala SunTricycle and Buddhadharma), it’s not hard to see the irony that an Asian American’s more likely to show up on the White House Cabinet.

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.

Buddhist America in the Press

Here’s a summary of what the press has been noticing about Buddhist America during the “week” from April 6–12.

You can check out previous summaries herehere and here. More updates to come.

Buddhist America in the Press

My news feed was particularly clogged by Tiger Woods and The Amazing Race. Missed those? See below…

Previous lists here and here. I’m inclined to feel the Long Beach Buddhists were misquoted in the press, but even so, stay tuned for a post on meditation and Buddhism in Long Beach! (Sometime in the distant future.)

Buddhist America in the Press

Who knew there’d be so much going on in Buddhist America? Below are some news pieces from the past three days.

  • Socho Koshin Ogui heads to Gardena Buddhist Church on April 10–11 to participate in services and lead a “Meditation in Jodo Shinshu” seminar. [Gardena Buddhist Church]
  • Vanderbilt University celebrates Magha Puja along with Passover and Easter. [Vanderbilt Hustler]
  • The Dalai Lama will be in Atlanta at Emory University in October talking about interfaith dialogue, science, meditation and spirituality. [Atlanta Journal-Constitution]
  • More discussion of Tiger Wood’s moral journey with a brief mention of his Buddhist faith. [New York Times]
  • The Korean Jogye Order advertises a Templestay program for overseas tourists to “relax, reflect and revitalize” at Korean Buddhist temples. [Toronto Sun]
  • What’s the story behind Bodhi Hawn Hudson’s name? [Us Magazine]
  • I would never have guessed that recently deceased Robert Mander was (spiritually?) Buddhist. [CBC News]
  • A profile of Kevin Trainor, professor and chair of religion at the University of Vermont, spotlights his research which “might discomfit some 21st century American converts.” [UVM University Communications]
  • Sir Edmund Hillary’s remaining ashes are to be taken from a Buddhist monastery in Nepal to the summit of Mount Everest. [AFP]
  • San Francisco’s Franklin Square Park might soon get an Ikeda Peace Gate, donated by Soka Gakkai International. [San Francisco Examiner]
  • Vajrapani Buddhist Center in Orlando, Florida hosts a special Buddha’s Enlightenment Day class on April 15. [Orlando Sentinel]
  • I can’t think of a single Buddhist blogger who hasn’t heard about the upcoming PBS program, “The Buddha.” [The Oklahoman]
  • Hanamatsuri and Easter are being celebrated all throughout Southern California this coming weekend. [Rafu Shimpo]
  • Gelek Rinpoche is in Seattle April 2 and 3 teaching the “Fearless Compassion” workshop. []
  • Wat Buddharangsi in Miami-Dade will be hosting both a Jade Buddha exhibition and also its yearly Songkran festival. [Sun Sentinel]

Check out the previous list here.

Update: I just realized that a few of these pieces have nothing to do with “Buddhist America”—or at least the “America” part. I’ll try better next time.