Urban Refuge

I’ve blogged about Urban Refuge before, but it’s definitely worth a repost a year later. Here’s Urban Refuge’s self-description:

A virtual sangha for Buddhist practitioners of color, allies and all others interested in promoting racial and cultural diversity in Western Buddhism.

On this site, you can find a community blog page, upcoming events, a listing of People of Color meditation groups and more. This site’s strength, however, is only as strong as the community that supports it. If you believe in diversity and racial equality in Western Buddhism, I encourage you to show your support by joining this site and contributing.

You might be asking yourself now, “What could I possibly contribute?” Well, here are three ways you could:

  • Do you know of diversity programs that your community offers that don’t appear on the site? If you do, you have something to give that isn’t already there!
  • Do you know of books, articles or other resources of benefit to the community? These are resources that you can share!
  • Do you know of great teachers, leaders or artists of color in the Buddhist community, who aren’t well known? Here’s a great opportunity to join and get the word out to the greater Buddhist community about these individuals!

These are just three examples. Even if you don’t have ideas off the top of your head, you could easily snoop around on Google and fill in the gaps that we’ve certainly overlooked. In fact, that’s exactly how many of us got in touch with other Buddhists of Color to begin with. I imagine there must be more People of Color meditation groups than are currently posted on the site!

(Hey, non-Americans, your communities are totally underrepresented here—I’m sure you all have much to share!)

Or then there’s the other question, “Does this site really make a difference?” Well, I can’t say for sure—I just know how it’s impacted me. In my case, Urban Refuge is the site that ultimately brought me to a People of Color group—a place where one fellow practitioner simply reached out to me and showed me to a group that has deepened my connection to my local Buddhist community. I imagine that there are other Buddhists of color out there, who—as I was—are within arm’s reach of a more supportive community, but don’t even know it.

So why not check out Urban Refuge and lend a hand to furthering racial and cultural diversity in our community?

Funeral for Ven. Chhean Kong, 1945-2011

Today is the funeral of Venerable Dr. Chhean Kong, abbot of Wat Khemara Buddhikaram, who died last week. Locally known as Wat Willow, it is one of the oldest and largest Khmer temples in North America.

Because of his background both as a Cambodian and a monk, Chhean was uniquely suited to treat Cambodians suffering from mental disease and trauma, such [as] post traumatic stress disorder and depression.

“He helped a lot of Cambodians with mental problems,” said Borann Duong, a member of the temple and its board of directors. “He was on call all the time, and he was very good when we had problems.”

Describing his approach to therapy to the Press-Telegram about nine years ago, Chhean said, “Rational living creates balance in the mind and body, but for many people suffering from mental illness, medicine and therapy must also be used. There is no reason for the spiritual and medical treatments to be mutually exclusive.”

In its early years, Wat Willow also offered a variety of social, community and cultural services, including weekend basketball tournaments for Khmer youth and adult day care for the elderly parents of working adults.

You can read more at the Long Beach Press-Telegram; the funeral announcement can be viewed here in Khmer and in English at KI Media.

I Know You Are But What am I?

The question is almost inevitable. In response to the mention of white Buddhists marginalizing Asians, someone will raise their hand and shout, “Well, don’t Asian Buddhists discriminate against white people?”

I’ve received these comments since long before this blog was launched. I typically refuse to engage this type of response, but it so consistently reoccurs that I’m writing this post to dump my thoughts on it. Here are some basic reasons why I refuse to address these remarks.

  • Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. If I’m talking about the marginalization of Asians in widely distributed English language periodicals in Buddhist America, then please show me the marginalization of white people in widely distributed English language periodicals in Buddhist America. Remember: millions of us Asian Americans speak English, even as our mother tongue—English speaking Buddhist America is our community too! Once you start talking about the exclusion of white people from Vietnamese language temple newsletters, the comparison has now shifted to apples and durians. I’d personally love to hear from all those white Vietnamese speakers who feel their voices are being grossly marginalized in the Vietnamese American Buddhist community. There’s little point in even acknowledging a comment when the comparison is so far off.
  • Show me the numbers. Once upon a time, there was a young Asian Buddhist who felt that Asian Americans were being systematically marginalized in The Big Three. But there was no proof. Thus spawned the Asian Meter, crafted through diligent enumeration, documentation and research. As a result, we have charted analyses and budding histories that demonstrate this discrimination outright. Now, you could tell me that you had a bad experience with an Asian American community, but then I all I know is that you had one bad experience with an Asian American community. No more. I don’t want to hear you ventriloquize what you heard so-and-so friend tell you. If you intend to complain to me about white folk being systematically excluded from Asian communities or publications, I honestly have little inclination to listen to unless you do your due diligence and document it. That’s exactly what I did. And don’t forget to compare your apples to apples.
  • Exclusion does not justify exclusion. I know of one local predominantly Asian temple where the congregation leader has a history of being not-so-discreetly hostile to white Buddhists. It’s definitely not cool—but his intolerance does not justify Buddhadharma refusing to consider the voices of Asian Buddhist youth simply because they are Asian. Complain about ethnic divides all you want, but the justification of one group’s exclusion based on the transgressions of the other only serves to perpetuate this division. I don’t see any logic whereby white Buddhists are compelled to marginalize their Asian brothers and sisters simply because some Asian congregation is unwelcoming.

This last point ultimately renders the first two irrelevant. I understand if you have a chip on your shoulder because of this or that experience you’ve had. If you need to vent, go ahead. But don’t expect me to buy into a contorted argument that amounts to little more than, “I know you are, but what am I?” Such comments neither educate me, nor do they weaken the basic dilemma of Western Buddhist communities and publications which ostensibly embrace equality and fairness in one hand, but engage in marginalization and exclusion with the other.

Update: Many thanks to the anonymous friend who alerted me to my misquotation of Pee-wee Herman. I’ve updated the title accordingly.

Tribute to Preah Ros Mey, 1925-2010

A leader of Rhode Island’s Khmer community and president of America’s first Khmer temple recently passed away.

[Temple Vice President] Chea also credited Mey with keeping alive the teachings and legacy of Preah Maha Ghosanada, considered the supreme patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism until his death two years ago. Ghosanada and his supporters founded the temple (the Khmer Buddhist Society of Rhode Island). The temple served as a spiritual anchor for Cambodian Buddhists in Rhode Island and across the country.
You can read more about his life and dedication to the Buddhist community at The Providence Journal online.

(Photo credit to Andrew Dickerman/The Providence Journal.)

Saving the Wat

The San Francisco Film Society is sponsoring Saving the Wat, a film by Virada Chatikul and Siwaraya Rochanahusdin about a team of young community advocates who banded together to protect their community’s temple. Here’s a film synopsis:

Wat Mongkolratanaram, aka the Berkeley Thai Temple, comes under fire when a request to build a Buddhist shrine on their own property is submitted to the city. The Temple elders must now rely on a group of young and energetic second-generation Thai-Americans to advocate for their constitutional rights protecting religious freedoms. The team navigates through the city’s land use and permit process, represents the Temple in mediation with neighbors, launches an awareness campaign, and ultimately, brings together a community that would otherwise face potential closure of the Temple.

Please support this film project—not to mention Buddhist community organizers—by making a donation. You don’t have to bequeath your estate; if everyone in the community donates a little bit, we’ll be威而鋼 able to get this film off the ground! You may remember this campaign from posts last year by Rev. Danny Fisher and Dharma Folk, also reposted by several others. Now is a great chance to continue that support. (Hat tip to the Angry Asian Man; image credits to Where There Be Dragons and Asian Pacific Americans for Progress.)

Why Are Thai Monks Protesting?

According to Phra Cittasamvaro, it’s because Thai monks are, after all, mere mortals.

In fact monks are like any other Thai – they have opinions too. The reason Thailand keeps them away from politics is to stop popular teaching monks using their ‘moral credentials’ to sway voters for one party or another. It is probably a good idea.


Monks feel that even if they should not be involved in party politics, they are quite free to take a moral stance, which is why so many have joined the Red Shirt rally over the last few weeks. Naturally, where the line is drawn between politics and morality is very flexible…

I encourage you to read his thoughts in full. For the perspective of a couple academics on this issue, check out Danny Fisher’s interview on Shambhala SunSpace.

How to Raise a Segregated Sangha

One theme I often see pop in my comments is color-blindness. In an extreme view, this theory holds that if racial and ethnic divisions are eliminated from our language, they will then be eliminated from our consciousness and thus from society in general. This theory is often argued with reference to Rev. Martin Luther King’s “dream” of a world where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Oft misinterpreted.) The root false premise under the many different extensions of this theory is the notion that racial bias is something learned and does not develop independently—that people are inherently color-blind.

Which brings me to a point made the other day. How to raise racist kids?

Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.”

Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two.

Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that <insert your ethnicity here> is better than everybody else.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book and column NurtureShock get straight to the heart of this issue by using that ever-so-hated bane of the uneducated: empirical inquiry!

What Bronson and Merryman discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The attitude (at least of those who think racism is wrong) is generally that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good.

Color-blindness is where good intentions are led astray by woeful ignorance. What Bronson and Merryman’s studies demonstrate (which we already knew from plenty of personal anecdote) is that kids can arrive at deplorable racial conclusions without their parents’ help. The thought can be chilling—we’re inherently not as open-minded as we’d like to think we are. So does that mean racism is inevitable and all resistance is futile?

I bring up the false premise of inherent color-blindness because understanding the flaws in this premise lead us to seeing the problems in the notions that arise from it—such as the flawed notion is that racism is a problem that can be solved.

Some of humanity’s afflictions can be solved and some can be managed. For example, smallpox was solvable, yet cancer has to be managed. Through policy, education, screening, research and ever improving treatments, we can reduce various cancer mortality rates to almost zero. But once at (near) zero, we can’t just pack our bags and go home because this achievement is only possible through the aforementioned concerted action. We need to manage the problem because, by its nature, it will always come back. Racism, like cancer, is a terrible problem that must be managed.

There’s a lot more to say here, especially with relation to our implicit biases. My point is to put another perspective on what’s been said before. By ignoring race, by whitewashing our rhetoric and by living up to a deluded standard of color-blindness, we perpetuate the painful racial segregation of our sanghas. We need to cultivate mindfulness, not dismissal, of this issue in order to overcome it—or, rather, properly manage it.

(Thanks to the Angry Asian Man for the heads up on this post!)

Collected Responses on Dhammadarini

Little was I aware that these posts are all available on the Dhammadarinisite! All due to not following through on a single link on Ajahn Sujato’s original post. For the sake of fairness, it should be noted that of those who responded to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, four of them have a unique stake in this argument. At the same time, these letters reveal a concern that Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter may come to be viewed as a sort of Vinayic responsa—and thus authoritative. The non-Asian monastic communities seem to have clearly drawn the lines by now. If there’s anyone left out, I’d love to know who. As Ajahn Sujato pointed out in a previous post, monks generally seem to get along, even when one group may hold the validity of another’s ordination in question. Bhikkhunis will find themselves in a similarly uncomfortable position for a while, but I am optimistic that they will find the support they need to establish enduring roots. Now it’s time for me to finish my pumpkin pie and go enjoy Thanksgiving Day.

Grey Areas of the Vinaya

In his response to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s letter, Ajahn Brahm chooses not to lock horns with the analysis. Instead he steps back and points out that the issue in question is one where more than one opinion can hold. “Grey areas of the Vinaya” is the term he uses. He proposes that when we find ourselves with more than one legal interpretation to follow, best to follow the more compassionate ones.

The Vinaya Rules and the Perth Bhikkhuni Ordination

The recent argument by the respected monk and scholar, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, suggests that the recent bhikkhuni ordination in Perth was invalid on the basis of Vinaya (the monastic legal code). While I admire his scholarship and dedication to Buddhism in the West, there are grounds for looking at the matter in a different way.

The length and complexity of Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s paper demonstrates that it is a difficult argument to prove. Any argument that is based on the principle of comparing authoritative statements on the Vinaya by the Buddha, and teasing out their meaning, will always be ambiguous. Inferences can travel alternative paths and lead to very different conclusions.

For example, bhikkhuni pacittiya 83 gives a pacittiya to a female preceptor who ordains more than one bhikkhuni per year and a dukkata to the other nuns who participate in the ceremony. Conspicuous by its absence, in both the Pitaka and the commentary, is any statement that those thus ordained are not valid bhikkhunis. This can be compared to the monks’ pacittiya 65 that gives a pacittiya to a male preceptor who ordains someone underage, a dukkata to the monks who participate in the ceremony, and there is a statement that the ordination is invalid. One can infer, from comparing these two rules, that if the Buddha had intended a breach of bhikkhuni pacittiya 83 to make the ordination invalid, then he would have stated so.

About thirty years ago, I coined the term “grey areas of Vinaya”. The question posed by Thanissaro Bhikkhu – “is a sanghakamma invalid when one of the participants knows that a rule is being broken” – is a nice legal point, but clearly qualifies as a grey area of Vinaya. It has become wise practise for the Sangha, when faced with grey areas of Vinaya, to follow the more compassionate interpretation. The respected Thai scholar Phra Brahmagunabhorn (P.A. Payutto), stated to me that “the knowledge and observance of the principles, esp., of the Vinaya rules should be as complete as possible on the one hand, and the matter should be treated with as best Metta and compassion (sic.) as possible on the other. Decision should be made by the Sangha that is best informed and compassionate.” Such is especially advisable in the current case where the reason for the original pacittiya offense, a temporary situation of crowding in the Bhikkhuni Monastery close to the Jeta Grove, hardly applies in present times.

So, may the fourfold assembly recognise this as a grey area of Vinaya and choose the more compassionate path.

Ajahn Brahm
Monday, 23rd November 2009

Many thanks to Sobhana Bhikkhuni for sharing.