Race and Religion in American Buddhism

For those of you who feel I should write a book, let me say that the job has already been done. Just arrived in the mail is Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Fr. Joseph Cheah. Below is the opening paragraph.

When the first wave of Burmese immigrant Buddhists set foot on American soil in the late 1960s, they came into contact with a variety of forms of Buddhism not found in their native Burma. One of these forms was a white or convert Buddhism, whose legacy includes the specter of an Orientalist and racist past, often hardly acknowledged, yet rarely if ever entirely absent from the discourse within Euro-American Buddhism. The legacy of Orientalism in convert Buddhism can be traced to the works of Western Orientalists in the middle and late Victorian era. Stemming in part from Orientalist racial projects, vestiges of white supremacy ideology can still be detected today in the controversy surrounding who represents “American Buddhism” and the smorgasbord of approaches in Buddhist practices that have been taken for granted in many meditation centers, hospitals, and other institutions. The prevailing ideology of white supremacy operative in these and other contexts influences the ways in which Buddhist practices have been adapted by both convert and ethnic Buddhist communities. Within the scope of Buddhism as both a religion and a practice, focusing primarily on the Theravada tradition, this book examines rearticulations of Asian Buddhist practices through the lens of race and racialization.

I can’t wait to read the whole book!

Religions Separate and Different

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.

An Opportunity to Lead

The Wall Street Journal hosts an opinion piece by Thich Chan Phap Dung on the situation of monks and nuns at Bat Nha monastery in Vietnam.

The government of Vietnam now must respond. Will it disband a peaceful Buddhist organization, or move to fully protect religious freedom as required by international covenants and treaties to which Vietnam is a party, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as Vietnamese citizens demand? Vietnam is currently serving as president of the U.N. Security Council and chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010. There is no better time to show the world its leadership on these important issues of human rights.

The monks and nuns still wish to return home to Bat Nha monastery. If this is not possible, the government, through its established Buddhist church, could at least reaffirm the monks’ and nuns’ legal right to practice together as a religious community at another location. These young monks and nuns want nothing more than to serve their country and humanity and are fine examples of the true beauty and determined spirit of the Vietnamese people.

Thay Dung provides some context on the situation that I hadn’t seen elsewhere (such as Hoang Hung’s petition, also in English). Hopefully this piece on the WSJ will spark enough interest to pressure Hanoi to finally fulfill its self-proclaimed commitments to religious freedom.

Bat Nha Perspectives

Not long after my previous post, Dr. Scott Mitchell relayed a comment he received in an email, which presents another side to the events at Bat Nha monastery.

The criticism is, in short, that there may be more going on here than meets the eye or that we are only getting one side of the story. This person suggests that the monks and nuns in Vietnam may be “making nuisances of themselves” and that the locals had had enough, driving off the “elitist followers” of Thich Nhat Hanh.

The government press releases that I’ve seen don’t exactly piece together an alternative narrative. But it’s important to understand that this situation can be viewed from multiple perspectives, and they’re all worth honestly discussing. My real concern here is that the monks and nuns—regardless of their affiliation—should be entitled to due process under the law, which is apparently not an option being afforded to them. I have never been all too enthusiastic about Thich Nhat Hanh or the Order of Interbeing (another story for another time), but this situation really hits home for me. For some reason, I cannot silently condone the breach of human rights against the monks and nuns at Bat Nha monastery. It’s them today, but who’s next?


The teachers’ situation is extremely difficult. This headline—the translation of the post title—is what drew me into a post on Pháp nạn Bát Nhã, which alerted me to current actions by the Vietnamese government to forcibly remove monks and nuns from Bát Nhã monastery. At the bottom of the page was a link to a list of YouTube videos that report directly on recent events.

Monks sitting in the rain after being forced outside by thugs.

Monks being forced outside by thugs.

Another video of monks being forced outside by thugs.Regardless of what you think of Thích Nhất Hạnh or Vietnamese people or Angry Asian Buddhists, this situation involves basic violations of human rights on many levels. Qui tacet consentit—if we do not speak out about this situation, we are effectively condoning the oppressive actions by the government in Vietnam, and by extension, those of governments elsewhere.

You can learn more about the situation of Bát Nhã monastery at the Help Bat Nha Monastery website, and also through recent posts on Shambhala Sun SpaceThe Buddhist Blog and Barbara’s Buddhism blog.

Buddhism in not a Religion

It is a dolphin. </justkidding>

Inspired by a post on Racialicious.

I’m 100% fine with people who insist that Buddhism isn’t a religion. But if they’re going to make that stand, then they should be fine with telling self-professed Buddhists that because Buddhism isn’t a religion then…

  • Freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Buddhism.
  • Buddhism doesn’t belong in interreligious dialogue.
  • Monks and nuns should not be eligible for visas as religious workers.
  • Buddhism doesn’t belong in religious studies.
  • Persecuted Buddhists shouldn’t get religious amnesty.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here. But in all honesty, if I find such a person who’s willing to do all that, I want to meet them. I want to bring my video camera too.