For most of us born in the Western world, remote from Buddhism of any institutional kind, knowledge of the dhamma has come entirely from books and, occasionally, spoken words, some quite excellent and informative, certainly. But this kind of learning still retains a somewhat ethereal air in the absence of actions, traditions, and spiritual observances in which we can participate. That the Buddhist religion has survived so long in the world is a result not so much of the durability of manuscripts as of the power of ideas embodied in custom; and custom, for all our abundant sources of information, is what we lack and cannot in the long run do without. Books crumble easily enough; thought crumbles faster, if not made firm by some sort of concrete practice that holds together believers and sees to the transmission of the teaching to the young.
In the Spring 2009 issue of Tricycle, David Loy’s “Why Buddhism Needs the West” predictably whipped up the Angry Asian Buddhist in me (again). When I got down to reading the piece a second time, his words began to appear less provocative and more simple minded.
From a Buddhist perspective, it would be naive to expect social transformation to work without personal transformation. But the history of Buddhism shows us that the opposite is also true: although Buddha-dharma may focus on promoting individual awakening, it cannot avoid being affected by the social forces that work to keep us asleep and submissive. It is the mercy of the West that those social forces need no longer be mystified as natural and inevitable.
These words didn’t explain anything to me, and I had to track down his article “Religion and the Market,” which presents the same notion in a different framework.
The great sensitivity to social justice in the Semitic religions (for whom sin is a moral failure of will) needs to be supplemented by the emphasis that the Asian enlightenment traditions place upon seeing-through and dispelling delusion (ignorance as a failure to understand). Moreover, I suspect that the former without the latter is doomed to be ineffective in our cynical age.
David Loy is simply a philosopher who wants Buddhism to merge with Western social justice to transform society and the world for the better. But he has no empirical argument to show that this can actually happen. He’s a philosopher doing what philosophers do best: enjoying that armchair. Buddhism doesn’t need the West “to realize its own deepest promise,” rather this is Loy’s way of describing how he’d like to make society fit his worldview. That’s great, but I think I’ll pass.
With Tricycle‘s Summer 2009 issue currently online, I decided to take a sneak peak. There are notable articles regarding climate change, the Tibetan diaspora and an issue close to my heart: the state of the nunhood in Thailand. But in spite of all the intriguing titles and informative content, they reduced their writers of Asian heritage to a measly 6.4 percent. If you forgot why I hold the Tricycle Foundation to higher standards of inclusiveness, then simply take a look at the foundation’s own claims:
The Tricycle Foundation is dedicated to making Buddhist views, values, and practices broadly available. In 1991 the Foundation launched Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the first magazine intended to present Buddhist perspectives to a Western readership. Tricycle soon became the leading journal of Buddhism in the West, where it continues to be the most inclusive and widely read vehicle for the dissemination of Buddhist perspectives.
Look at these words: the most inclusive. I am aghast that they can shamelessly make such claims when it turns out that Tricycle continues to devote, on average, less than 9 percent of its bylines to authors of Asian heritage. In a community where at least half of the members are Asian American, this exclusion is obscene. I wonder what they could have possibly meant by calling themselves “inclusive” — I can only imagine that these words are intended as a subtle dig against Shambhala Sun.
Following a suggestion, I went through the last 15 issues online and counted up the bylines. (Beyond Winter 2005, I started finding online articles with omitted bylines.) You can see the results in the image to the right. At least over the past four years, Tricycle has continually declined to welcome Asian American Buddhists into its ranks, with the exception of the occasional token minorities. Someday, I’ll just sit down with a stack of all the issues back to 1991, and then I’ll have some real fun.
One thing that’s occurred to me is that I would like to make a difference. My writing is about as influential as Free Burma activists trying to take on the Burmese junta. So how can we get Tricycle to represent? I know a few of the contributors to Tricycle, and there are a few more contributors who keep an eye on my blog. If they truly care about Asian American voices, then maybe the next time they have an opportunity to write a piece for Tricycle, they might ask the publisher whether any consideration had been given towards extending more opportunity to Asian Americans. And don’t forget other minorities too! Would anyone care? I’ll ask around.