American Buddhism’s “Ethnic” Problem

I wish people would stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists.” Lewis Richmond did it again today when he referred to Asian Buddhists as “ethnic Buddhists” in his Huffington Post article. His categorization of the Buddhist community into “ethnic and non-ethnic Buddhists” is a crude version of Charles Prebish’s already crude “two Buddhisms” model. Prebish himself is no stranger to the term “ethnic,” which he recently used to refer to Asian Buddhist communities in a Tricycle blog piece.

My gripe is not with the word “ethnic” itself, but with how this bare form is used in expressions like ethnic food, ethnic music, ethnic neighborhoods… or ethnic Buddhism.

When Americans use “ethnic” in this way, rarely do we refer to the cranberry sauce with the Thanksgiving turkey, Mozart concertos, or Scarsdale’s Quaker Ridge neighborhood. “Ethnic” is the term we assign to people of strange and foreign cultural backgrounds. It would not surprise me if Charles Prebish, an ethnic Ashkenazi, has himself had the (mis)fortune of being deemed “ethnic,” thus labelled by those who saw Jews as somehow less “American” than their WASPish counterparts. “Ethnic” is the term that “we” use to refer to “them.”

So what would be the alternative to calling us “ethnic Buddhists”?

Call us Asian Buddhists. It’s the term which by and large we use to refer to ourselves. You may not remember, but there was once a time when Asian Americans were referred to as Orientals or Asiatics — even Mongolians! — and it was a coalition of Asian American activists in the late 1960s who successfully brought the term “Asian American” into common currency. We have never encouraged others to label us as “ethnics,” so please: don’t.

* * *

My parents are from the generation which spearheaded the Asian American movement, the movement which fought for the term “Asian,” for an apology for wartime internment, for recognition of the grave injustice that was the murder of Vincent Chin. Even so, my parents occasionally slip and say, “Oriental.” It’s an annoying slip, albeit unintentional, which probably stems from my parents’ ages (both pre-Boomers) and the linguistic habits they formed in their youth. I would like to imagine that for Charles Prebish, a great friend and supporter of Asian American Buddhist communities for decades, his use of the term “ethnic” is likewise a reflex of his youth during another era of American history.

I hope both Prebish and Richmond understand that I address them with nearly the same respect and compassion that I hold for my own dear parents when I say:

Please stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists”!

Monkish Nomenclature

Jundo Cohen addresses some confusion over the use of the term “monk” in Zen settings and its often tacit association with an ascetic and solitary lifestyle—especially when the term is pointed at him.

In the West, more and more, Zen clergy have come to resemble Protestant Christian Ministers, married with family and, very often, with outside jobs to pay the bills, yet leading a congregation.

That’s why calling many of us “Zen Monks” is kinda funny, excepting those periods of months or years when Zen clergy live and train in a monastery, usually in a celibate situation. (Then, the name “Zen monk” is appropriate). After that, most live in temples, with their families — wife and kids. So, maybe “Zen Priest” is a better term, or “Zen Minister”… or perhaps just “Zen Teacher”or “Zen Clergy”…

An old friend of mine is the son of a Shin Buddhist minister, and he used to routinely refer to his father as a monk. Other Buddhists gave my friend quite a bit of flak over his terminology. In contrast, Cohen is willing to bow to convention and accept the ascetic sense of the word monk, rather than trying to stake a flag in it. He could certainly provide justification to do so, but alternative titles are proposed instead. I find that admirable.

From Cradle to…?

One term bandied about at the Buddhism without Borders conference was cradle Buddhists. I believe Thomas Tweed gets credit for this term, one which aims to refer to Buddhists who grow up in Buddhist families, regardless of whether their families have been Buddhist for over a thousand years or whether their parents quit Catholicism and joined a Zen Center in the seventies. As Wakoh Shannon Hickey discussed problems with different Buddhist typologies, she made a side comment that perhaps I would be satisfied with the term cradle Buddhist.

Well, I don’t like it.

For the record, I appreciate the motivation behind this term, that it transcends the racial (dare I say racist?) undercurrent in the common day use of other terms like ethnic Buddhists and immigrant Buddhists. But to be very plain, this term is infantilizing. I’m also perfectly happy associating with another term that darts about the literature: heritage Buddhists.

For those of us who like to hang out in Asian America, the term heritage Buddhist is very powerful. This expression conveys the very true sense that Buddhism is woven into the fabric of our cultural heritage. Like the broad sense of the term heritage speaker, it includes both people who imbibe Buddhism through their childhood milieu and also those who later come to Buddhism through a sense of affinity with their cultural heritage. Heritage Buddhist gets at how we see ourselves.

Heritage shouldn’t be understood in contrast to convert. Several of my friends identify as both convert and heritage Buddhists. They are not born into Buddhist families (i.e. they’re not “cradle Buddhists”), but they also relate to Buddhism through a sense of familiarity or belonging. At the same time, many of us “cradle” Buddhists very much turned our backs on the Buddhism of our childhoods, only to be drawn back to different forms that diverge radically from the traditions we first experienced. One example is in the growing interest in the Vietnamese community for Theravada Buddhism. So while still heritage Buddhists, many of us are also converts within our own religion.

Lastly, don’t overlook the distinction of the growing pool of converts’ children (Dharma brats?) and their children out there. I’m happy to call them heritage Buddhists too, but this group grapples with some very unique issues that deserve to be understood in the context of their unique identities and upbringing. I’m not sure that plopping all of us down in the same cradle—as opposed to converts and sympathizers—appropriately reflects differences in both how we act and also how we see ourselves.

So scholars, maybe think about revisiting the term heritage Buddhist. If there’s an exceptional moral/academic imperative behind the term cradle Buddhists, is it so hard to instead talk about “Buddhists raised in Buddhist families”? Maybe I just dislike being institutionally infantilized.

What better term can you think of to replace cradle Buddhist?