Why is the Under 35 Project So White?

This year Shambhala SunSpace has been posting weekly essays from the Under 35 Project, a laudable initiative to support and highlight the voices of the emerging generation of Buddhists and meditators. As usual, my naïveté never fails to let me down and I was once again shocked at the whiteness of the lineup. Not a single East or Southeast Asian among them.

A common retort to my posts of the whiteness of Western Buddhist publications is to question whether any Asian Buddhists are reaching out—or even writing—in the first place. In fact, I received a similar such comment on my last post on the overwhelming whiteness of the Buddhist Geeks conference.

In the case of the Under 35 Project, we can directly answer that question through open access to their archive of submissions.

This morning, I went looking for Asian authors who had submitted to the project, and I was able to find Nicole MahabirJoshua ShinChholay DorjiMinh Tue Vo ThanhSusan YaoGeorges HanDuc Hong TaJustin LuuTina NgPhoebe TsangSubha SrinivasanIshita GuptaAnthuan Vuongand Cristina Moon. These Asian authors are together more than were published in the last two issues of Shambhala Sun. Only one of them made it to Shambhala SunSpace’s weekly selection.

If we look at when Asian Buddhist authors submitted their work, we see a huge spike at the end of last year, when the Under 35 Project first went online. But during the nearly six months since Shambhala SunSpace began promoting this project by mostly reposting pieces by white authors, only one Asian author has submitted her work. She wasn’t included in the weekly Under 35 post.

I wonder if Shambhala Publications were to only start publishing more Asian authors, perhaps more would once again step up to submit. Or perhaps it’s already too late.

Why is American Buddhism so White?

Shambhala Sun Foundation Staff

The provocative title of this post comes not from one of my sleep deprivation induced paroxysms of self-righteous indignation, but rather from a beautifully selected forum discussion in the current issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.

You can read the forward by Charles Johnson online, but you’ll have to buy a copy of Buddhadharma to read the entire discussion with Larry Yang, Amanda Rivera, angel Kyodo Williams and Bob Agoglia. You’ll also find a great piece by Jan Willis, “Yes, We’re Buddhists Too!” I couldn’t recommend this issue enough.

The forum discussion is one that readers of this blog really shouldn’t ingore. Read it and let me know: what did you think?

Best Buddhist Writing 2011

This year’s The Best Buddhist Writing 2011 has made positive strides across the board in the inclusion of Asian Buddhist writers. Nine of the 32 contributors are Asian. That’s more Asians than ever before. They also make up a larger proportion of the authors than ever before. You could say that this year’s volume is in fact the “most Asian” volume published so far. This increase in representation boosts the entire series’ overall quotient to 20.3 percent (compared to 19.2 percent as of last year’s publication). As usual, I’ve included an Asian Meter chart to illustrate the comparison with previous years.

This progress is especially notable for the number of new Asian writers. Many of the writers in The Best Buddhist Writing also have been published in previous volumes; in the past three years, 42 (2008), 58 (2009) and 61 (2010) percent of writers in Best had also previously appeared in the series. In the last two years, none of the new writers were Asian; all Asians in those volumes also had work published in previous volumes of Best. In contrast, of the nine Asian writers included in this year’s volume, four are new.

Of course, the representation of Asian writers is still quite low compared to the proportion of Asian Buddhists in the North American Buddhist community. My count of nine authors is perhaps inflated by the fact that one of the pieces is co-authored by two Tibetan monks. (I count authors, not pieces.) Best also features fewer authors this year (32) than it usually does (34 on average). If we further take gender into account, we see that all of the Asian authors are male, even while this volume of Best is the closest yet to gender parity. (Women comprise 15 of the 32 writers.)

That said, progress is progress. Not only has the Asian quotient improved over last year, this year’s quotient is the highest yet. I hope with all my heart that they will keep up this good work.

(Thanks to the Tricycle blog for bringing this book to my attention!)

Beneath a Single Moon

Released in 1991, Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry was the first anthology to highlight the poetry of practicing American Buddhists. The reaction of the Asian American writing community was for the most part simple and straightforward. We were less than happy. Of the 45 American poets who appeared in Beneath a Single Moon, some were well-known poets, while others were quite obscure. None were Asian American.

Mushim Ikeda-Nash remembers “dropping the book as though it had burnt me.” In PREMONITIONS: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, editor Walter Lew provided half a dozen examples of accomplished Asian American poets whose work should have qualified. In 1997, Juliana Chang, Walter Lew, Tan Lin, Eileen Tabios, and John Yau together lambasted Beneath a Single Moon editor Kent Johnson in the Boston Review, arguing that his anthology “displaces Asian American poets from the practice of Buddhism.” They reprinted Lew’s most polemical paragraph from PREMONITIONS.

The 45 American poets whose essays and poetry on Buddhist practice comprise the anthology are all Caucasian, and the book only mentions Asians as distal teachers (ranging from Zen patriarchs to D.T. Suzuki), not as fellow members or poets of the sangha . . . When one considers the relative obscurity of some of the poets included in the book, one wonders how it was possible not to have known the Buddhistic poetry of such writers as [Lawson Fusao] Inada, Al Robles, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, Patricia Ikeda, and Russell Leong. . . . [Gary] Snyder’s introduction deliberates the question—‘Poetry is democratic, Zen is elite. No! Zen is democratic, poetry is elite. Which is it?’ . . . perhaps he should have also asked whether Zen and poetry, as reconfigured in American Orientalism, are racist.

Kent Johnson did little to help the situation when in a 1997 email response, he backhandedly disqualified all the writers Lew had mentioned.

Before reading this quote, I was quite certain that we had probably missed, out of ignorance, Asian-American poets who should have been included in the anthology. But now I am not as sure. If Mr. Lew (and the other co-signers of the BR response) had carefully considered the Shambhala anthology, they would have seen that a fundamental criteria for inclusion was a serious background in Buddhist study and practice. We were not interested, in the least, in poetry exhibiting the vague and stereotypical waft of the “Buddhistic.” If anything, our anthology begins to point to the fact that reductive notions of the “Buddhistic” are one of the by-products of the “Orientalism” that Mr. Lew denounces. There is simply no way of boiling down Buddhist artistic expression to any particular “Buddhistic” characteristics of tone, content, or style.

Now, I still suspect that there are publishing Asian-American poets who would have met the criteria we established for the anthology, but their absence was certainly not due to some underlying racist criteria of selection; we simply (and perhaps to our editorial discredit) were, and are, unaware of Asian-American poets who also happen to be Buddhists. Apparently, and unfortunately, so is Mr. Lew, as I assume he would have mentioned specific names if there were any.

Preoccupied with the word “Buddhistic,” Johnson failed to verify that most of the writers mentioned by Lew were, in fact, practicing Buddhists. One of these writers played a major role in getting me involved in the Buddhist community. Little did I know that, at the very time he advised me on Buddhist engagement, this literary controversy was storming in the background.

It took me some time to piece this history together, emailing friends, hunting down references and reviewing email exchanges from, well, the last century. What you see here is a sample of a much more complex fabric of conversations being woven at the time. On the face of it, the recriminatory exchanges must have seemed futile, either side barely acknowledging the other’s argument. But these conversations were not entirely in vain. As discussed by Jonathan Stalling, subsequent anthologies of Buddhist poetry opened their pages to include Asian American authors, including those mentioned by Lew.

Reflection on this history brings me an even share of bitterness and comfort. The bitterness is in seeing that so little has changed—that two decades after the publication of Beneath a Single Moon, the nature of the controversy and the criticism it engendered could have happened just last month. In fact, it did. On the other hand, the comfort is in knowing that I’m not alone, that I’m following in the footsteps of many others who came before me. There is comfort too in the thought that, if history is any guide, change may indeed come.