A Brown Buddhist and a Handful of Mustard Seeds

There is a very compelling post by another Asian Buddhist on the Womanist Musings blog on the topics of Buddhism, cultural appropriation and identity. Check it out.

I have plenty to be angry about in this world, and my anger at injustice does not make me a lesser Buddhist. Because I don’t visit meditation centers doesn’t mean I don’t live and practice the principles of Buddhism in everyday acts like sharing food and water, or nurturing community. I believe that ‘inner serenity’ as enjoyed by the privileged, is an illusion that insults Buddhism’s legacy of advocating for the poor and marginalized. There are many ways to practice Buddhism, but humility is the foremost of all practices: a trait that global North citizens never seem to have much use for.

Hat-tip to the Madhushala blog for bringing this piece to my attention. Naturally, this post ruffled some feathers; the Reformed Buddhist blog turns around and calls the author’s own attitude racist. The reaction I found most moving was in a comment on the original post.

Thank you so much for writing this.

I too am a Buddhist Woman of Color in the global North who sees Buddhism as something “inseparable from my culture and experience as a woman…from the Third World.” I am constantly frustrated by the invalidation of my Buddhist experience by the mainstream American Buddhist powers as so much “cultural baggage” that “modern,” “rational” Buddhism needs to be cleansed of.

But every time I dip my toes into the waters of the US mainstream to try to put forth another perspective, I am inundated with comments like “The west has a lot to offer to the stagnate, codified Asian practices” and “We in the west offer hope of rejuvenation” and perhaps my all-time favorite by a well-respected white American convert Buddhist about feminism in Buddhism “If we had not spoken up, the Buddhist women’s movement, which started less than twenty years ago, would not even exist. Things might not have changed for another 2,500 years.” And reading things like that, I don’t know how I should open myself up to more abuse and silencing.

I am hurt, and more than that, I am angry, but even more than that, I am tired. Nothing I say as a woman of color ever seems to be of any consequence to the all-knowing white Buddhist establishment, who remain determined as ever to tell me how I’m “doing Buddhism wrong.”

So I wanted to let you know that your words here were of consequence to this Buddhist woman of color. That your words spoke to a beaten-down, fatigued part of me and inspired me. Your words make me want to write my own Buddhism, out of solidarity rather than out of anger because you have reminded me that as white as Buddhism sometimes feels, MY Buddhism is not monochromatic and I am not alone.

Sometimes it feels as though I’m the only Asian American Buddhist blogger out there, but it’s times like these that remind me I’m not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of Asian American Buddhists in this country, and we are ready to speak out and stand up for our inclusion, dignity and respect.

The Accuracy of Diversity at the Maha Council

Rev. Danny Fisher invited bloggers to read his interview with Lama Surya Das and encouraged us to give him feedback on the interview. The invitation is much appreciated, and I am very happy to post my impressions here.

Overall, I am very grateful for this interview. It gave me some great perspective on the conference’s background and the organizer’s intentions. I am also grateful to get a glimpse of how the conference challenged the organizers’ own expectations. But I have two critical points, one of which I discuss in this post.

Rev. Fisher quoted Jaweed Kaleem’s article in The Huffington Post—“Most attendees at the Maha Council were white, many were men, and the average age skewed toward the 50s”—and then stated that a few conference participants felt that this statement “wasn’t exactly accurate.” Rev. Fisher’s remark surprised me because I found Kaleem’s statement to be quite accurate.

To be clear, what Rev. Fisher wrote was truthful—some participants feltthat this statement was inaccurate, and feeling is entirely subjective—but I’d like to take a moment to consider what sort of demographics would be necessary to make this statement less than accurate. Kaleem made three points, none of them particularly outstanding.

The assertion that “most attendees at the Maha Council were white” would be false if there were more than 95 People of Color in attendance. (Update:“most” means at least “more than half,” and Das states there were about 190 attendees, so as long as as there were at least 95+1 White participants, Kaleem’s statement is exactly accurate.) In the words of Rev. James Ford, there were “but a bit more than a smattering of people of color.” I counted20 People of Color (on a recount just now with a newer list, I counted 26); one distinguished conference participant took issue with my numbers, but even her suggested estimation proposed fewer than 50 People of Color. I have seen no evidence from any conference participants to suggest that this first assertion was inaccurate.

The second assertion, that “many [participants] were men” is so uninformative that it would be terribly difficult to pin down as inaccurate. Even just forty male participants could qualify as “many” simply because “many” is so subjective, unlike a term such as “most.” (For the record, I counted five men to every four women.)

Kaleem’s third assertion was that “the average age skewed toward the 50s.” Again, this statement is so imprecise that it’s hard to prove wrong, given the numbers we already know. About a quarter of the participants were under age 45, so if even the rest of the participants were 46 (which they were not), one could easily argue that the average age then skewed “greater than 45.” Maybe it was toward the 50s, 60s or 70s—who knows—but the average age itself was never asserted.

So what’s the point of all this nit-picking?

The Buddhist Teachers Council was a truly momentous occasion, but it was simply not that diverse. This conclusion wasn’t unique to the Huffington Post piece. I separately verified the lack of diversity with my own count of attendees—no matter how many times I review the list, I can’t find even 30 People of Color—but in any case, our criticism was dismissed. Some commenters even suggested that Buddhists of Color were to blame for the lack of diversity. That’s a shame.

I can only imagine that this defensiveness stems from the fact that many of the organizers and participants are individuals who personally value and cherish diversity, so this criticism must feel bitterly personal. But in order to progress, we must measure where we stand and how much we can improve. If the organizers want a more diverse council next time, they must accept both that this council was not as diverse as it could have been and that the necessary outreach was not as effective as it could have been.

Fortunately, I saw some of that responsibility in Rev. Fisher’s interview with Lama Surya Das, who wrote, “Needless to say, we can continue to strive to do better and be more conscientious regarding gender equality, diversity and inclusiveness, and form and structure as well.” It’s that sort of talk which gives me hope.

A Bit More than a Smattering?

The much anticipated 2011 Buddhist Teachers Council has finally concluded, in spite of all the griping. It was organized secretlyIt was exclusive. But I was more interested in how many Asian participants were invited to the party.

“Mostly, as might be expected,” Rev. James Ford writes, “folk of European descent. But a bit more than a smattering of [People of Color], African descent and Asian, as well as a few Tibetans and other Asians.”

Those terms are hard for an unskilled layperson like me to gauge. Fortunately, Rev. Ford posted a list of attendees, which I spent the last few days coding. The list falls short of the 230 mentioned in the press release, but I have to work with what I’ve got. After crunching the numbers, it turns out that “a bit more than a smattering” equates to about one in nine.

If you break out the Asian participants, there were just fifteen of us (that’s one in twelve). Thus “a bit more than a smattering” falls short of the representation of Asian writers in The Best Buddhist Writing (one in five), but hangs a couple notches above the paucity of Asian contributors to Tricycle (one in fifteen). Maybe then a “smattering” is the handful of Asians you find in Tricycle.

On the other hand, if we look at the inclusion of women at the conference, their representation is much stronger. There were four women for every five men present. That’s a little better balanced.

So even as the White gatekeepers seemed to have no trouble finding spots for the female half of Western Buddhism, the share set aside for Buddhists of Color was obscenely low. We also make up about half of Western Buddhism, but we’re apparently not as important to the discussion of the future of Buddhism in the West. (I’m having flashbacks.)

That said, I’m glad for the Buddhists of Color who showed up, including one whom I interviewed on this blog. A strong contingent came from the East Bay Meditation Center, along with several others whose names were entirely new to me. Since this conference is scheduled to recur, I hope the organizers will make an effort to be more inclusive the next time around.

Lastly, as editors from both Shambhala Sun and Tricycle were in attendance, we might just be able to look forward to a few new contributors in the next few publication cycles. (Is that too much to expect?) Or at least Tricycle might be able to boost its Asian quotient to “a bit more than a smattering.”

For more on the conference from Rev. James Ford’s blog, see herehereherehere and here. Not to mention photos!

Update: This post has been revised to reflect corrections from a Tricycle editor in the comments below.

The Emerging Face of Buddhism

recent post by Barbara O’Brien pointed me to a great article by Jane Iwamura, “On Asian Religions without Asians.” A commenter asked O’Brien for her related thoughts on the upcoming Buddhist Geeks conference. In her response, O’Brien mused, “And are there any Asians at all in the line-up? It’s almost Exhibit A of what Jane Iwamura is talking about.” I had to check it out for myself.

You may not have heard of this conference, but it’s a pretty well-publicized event in the Buddhist blogosphere. As the organizers describe it:

Taking place July 29th – 31st, 2011 in Los Angeles, Buddhist Geeks | The Conference brings together some of the most exciting teachers, leaders and thinkers from the US and beyond as Buddhist Geeks continues its ongoing mission to discover the emerging face of Buddhism. With a vibrant program of presentations, workshops, performance and participant-led elements and its inclusive non-denominational attitude, #bgeeks11 will be the most innovative, energetic and relevant event in the Buddhist world. We would love you to join us.

Following up on O’Brien’s comments, I went to the Buddhist Geeks conference page and pasted the photos together into a composite graphic, not unlike the one in this post from over two years agoVoilà.

A picture is worth a thousand words, I’m told, and hopefully at least this one is. I’ll be in transit for the next twelve hours, and I’m going to be too jet-lagged and sleep-deprived for a more eloquent post.

There you have it: the emerging face of Buddhism (conditions and restrictions apply)!

April Fools’ Day and Wrong Speech

This year’s April Fools’ Day hoax was set up to be as believable as possible. I posted at the end of April 1 (11:59pm PDT), I provided an emotional context and I resisted extending the post’s arguments to reveal their flaws. It turned out to be a much more convincing prank than last year’s. In at least one case, it was even more hurtful.

One loyal reader’s feedback was both flattering and intensely humbling. She expressed her appreciation for this blog’s discussion of issues relating to Western Buddhists of Asian heritage. Unlike most Buddhist blogs, this blog does not hesitate to write about instances where these Buddhists are ignored and marginalized in Western Buddhism, particularly in North America. But my April Fools’ Day post celebrated arguments that denounce the discussion of race issues in the Buddhist community—the very sort of argument that this blog normally challenges. As a result, the hoax felt like a betrayal, a sentiment which lingered even after the ruse was unveiled. Repeating this prank another year didn’t help.

There are two main reasons why I regret my April Fools’ Day posts. First, I unintentionally hurt a reader from the very community that this blog aims to speak out for. There are few blogs that discuss the issues that Asian American Buddhists face in Western Buddhism, and I made it seem as though I had withdrawn my support. It’s a cruel game to toy with loyalty and support.

Second, I regret the fact that these posts were stitched together from completely intentional falsehoods. As I’ve discussed before, sarcasm and verbal irony are by definition both deliberate deviations from the truth for the sake of humor. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes: “Especially here in America, we’re used to getting laughs with exaggeration, sarcasm, group stereotypes, and pure silliness — all classic examples of wrong speech. If people get used to these sorts of careless humor, they stop listening carefully to what we say. In this way, we cheapen our own discourse.”

To be entirely clear, I have in no way changed my opinion as I otherwise suggested. The prank was to sincerely explore three basic arguments that are repeatedly used to shut down the discussion of race in Western Buddhism. I’ll hopefully find the time over the next few days to write exactly why each of the issues I brought up is a not a good enough reason to avoid this discussion. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to keep my snark on a leash.

Not Angry, Just Wrong

Update: This is an April Fool’s Day post. And my last one too.

This blog has been silent for a couple weeks now, and I feel I owe my readers an explanation. I got into a disagreement on the blogosphere (what a suprise!), which caused me to really sit back and question what I’m doing here. I always knew that one day my blogging would end, but I imagined it to be abrupt and unhearalded—no goodbyes, no farewells. I never thought that I would stop blogging because of a change of heart. This post is to help all of my loyal readers understand where I’m coming from.

I wish I could go into details about the argument itself, but the shame and guilt I feel are still a bit raw. I now understand that in an effort to combat the stereotypes and marginalization of Asian Buddhists in the West, my writing has only served to perpetuate the very problems I decry. For one, there’s the issue of referring to “Asians.”

The category “Asian” is simply too broad. Asia represents 60 percent of the world’s population and an untold diversity of cultures. Even if we ignore our various cultures of origin, each new wave of immigrants is remarkably unique from the preceding wave, with different challenges and perspectives. I do an injustice to Asian Americans by grouping us all under a single moniker, thus implying that we are all the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. My use of “Asian” further licenses other writers to likewise group us and all our different issues together. Worse yet, this broad classification hides the ways in which Asian Buddhists marginalize other Asians.

Marginalization is a problem, but the issue isn’t race. I’ve typically framed the place of Asians in Western Buddhism as one where we’re marginalized by White Buddhists, but this framework glosses over the very same marginalization between different Asian communities. How often do you see Cambodian Buddhists attending Korean Zen centers, or Chinese Buddhist publications open their pages to Sri Lankan writers? And just as Asians Buddhists marginalize each other, so do White Buddhists.

I’ve previously documented that the authors and editors of Shambhala SunTricycle and Buddhadharma are mostly White, but it isn’t just Asians they leave out. There are a number of predominantly White Buddhist communities whose voices are never represented in those pages. Where are the White Buddhist Southerners or the White Buddhist auto engineers? Yes, we need to tear down walls, but the real barriers aren’t between Asian and White, but between “us” and “them.” My Asian-White dichotomy—aside from marginalizing non-Asian and non-White Buddhists—diverts our attention from the real issue of being unawakened to our interconnectedness.

Even my usage of the term “White” is misguided in so many ways. I could write post-after-post on this topic, but the single biggest problem is that there is no such thing as “White.” For example, it has been well-documented that even Jews and Irish were once considered non-White. Black Americans have crossed the color line all throughout United States history. Anyone could be White. If racial divisions can dissolve away for all those groups, then those very same boundaries can also be washed away for Asian Americans. The mere act of pointing out race is where racism begins, and I am moving my community backward when I use such racially-charged terms like “Asian” and “White.”

I’m still trying to come to grips with the effect my writing has had on the Buddhist blogosphere. I’ve encouraged other writers with similar views and argued relentlessly with those who espoused contrary opinions. This post will likely not be my last, but I’m still trying to figure out where to go from here.

Fun with Asian Names

Barbara O’Brien wrote something the other day that really got under my skin. In her post about a few of the issues facing mae chi in Thailand, she threw out one flippant line singling out the name of a Buddhist university:

Ooo, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University. How awesome is that?


A commenter responded with a joke, noting a university basketball tradition where cheerleaders spell out a school’s name (‘Gimme an M! Gimme an A…’)—to which O’Brien extended the ridicule that the “game would have to go into overtime to let them finish.” Just retyping these words is quite painful.

This lighthearted banter summoned up memories of all the times that white Americans made fun of my Asian name, mocked my ancestral language with ching-chong routines and done the good ol’ chink-eye to my face. In case you’re unaware, it can really suck to grow up Thai in America—because you might just have to live your entire life with people like Barbara O’Brien making fun of your family’s long name, only to then hide behind, “Relax! It was only a joke!”

Most painful is that O’Brien’s mockery is completely inessential. Her post argues a more noble topic, where she decries the marginalization of women in Thai Buddhist institutions. She even tentatively wades into the complex relationships of Thai Buddhism to the Thai State. But in making light of a Thai university’s long name, she perpetuated the unfortunate tradition to which so many Thai Americans with long names are subjected to, and so ridiculed the very culture of the mae chi she sought to champion.

These long names stem from a specific quality of Thai culture: that spaces are not so ubiquitous as in English. It wouldn’t be difficult for O’Brien to uncover that the university’s name roughly translates to “King Chulalongkorn Royal Academy”—Chulalongkorn being the university’s eponymous founder, not to mention also namesake to Thailand’s most prestigious university. Now you have the translation, it doesn’t sound so amazing—or ridiculous—does it?

This cruel little joke on a Thai name encapsulates a recurring dilemma for Western Buddhists of Asian heritage. We are embraced by white Buddhists, even while we are culturally denigrated. Without a doubt, Barbara O’Brien deserves credit and commendation for her advocacy of the rights of Buddhist women of all colors, but that does not excuse her casual mockery of Asian culture.

On White Women and Buddhism

What’s gender got to do with Buddhism? How are women—and men—working with the challenges of sexism in Buddhist institutions? What opportunities present themselves when women pursue the path of dharma outside of traditional institutions and organizations? With these questions—and more—we are welcomed into Buddhadharma’s Winter 2010 feature, “Our Way.”

Brought together to discuss these questions are the brilliant minds of Grace Schireson, Christina Feldman, Lama Palden Drolma, Rita Gross, Lama Tsultrim Allione, and Joan Sutherland. These authors delve into the history of women bringing balance to the Buddhist community, current forward-moving trends and the outlines of a more equitable future for us all. But apart from these great women and their compelling discussion, I found something missing.

Namely, Asians.

In fact, no People of Color were included in this list—but here I prefer to underline the most blatant omission. For a feature that focuses “on women and Buddhism”—the editors chose none to represent Buddhism’s largest demographic: Asian women. Even when we narrow our purview to the Buddhist community in the “West,” Buddhists of Asian heritage are still an obvious part of the picture. Our voices are Western voices. Our mothers, sisters and daughters also reside in these lands, attend Western schools, live by Western rules, embrace Western values and grapple with the pernicious challenges of patriarchy that so regrettably pervade time and border. Asian American Buddhist women even represent the State of Hawai‘i in the U.S. House. By charting “Our Way” with the voices of white women, Buddhadharma has chosen to displace Asian women from “our” discussion.

Keep in mind that there are plenty of Asian Buddhist women capable of delving into these questions. The editors could easily have contacted Mushim Ikeda-NashRev. Patti UsukiVen. Tenzin Kacho or Anchalee Kurutach, women of varied backgrounds who are engaged Buddhists and also Asian American. (In fact, you can even listen right now to two of them talk about Buddhism in the United States—in an all-Asian American broadcast to boot!) All that said, when it comes to Shambhala Sun’s track record at bringing Asians into the conversation, they’ve made it clear that, well, we’ve just about got a Chinaman’s chance.

My laments have become so frequent that they are banal. Only last month I admonished Shambhala Sun Space (among others) for covering white non-Buddhist politicians, while completely ignoring non-white politicians who are actually Buddhist. Two years ago, I excoriated Buddhadharma for deliberately excluding Asian Americans from a forum on “the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world.” We can even look back to Beneath a Single Moon, Shambhala Publication’s anthology of contemporary Buddhist poetry, which failed to include a single Asian American Buddhist poet. Keep it up, and I’ll be able to publish an anthology of my own—a record of Asian Americans’ marginalization by the white Buddhist establishment.

If any of this is news to you, welcome to the discussion. Concerning the key actors involved, however, no new ground has been covered. We all know this dance. Angry Asian Buddhists castigate the white-privileged editors—who in turn acknowledge their faux pas, bemoan their obliviousness and profess their love for equality. Who knows, they may even ask for a letter to the editor. How grand!

But what would it take to have real change? How do we get consideration for a seat on that next panel—and how do we avoid being Chinatowned into a group of Asians talking about some “Asian” topic? I assure you, we Asian Buddhists can do a lot more than iron your clothes, paint your nails and serve you our “ethnic” food. We can talk about individual struggles, community institutions and transformative frameworks. I work with white Buddhists (and other Buddhists of color) all the time out here in the field, but I wonder what it takes to hang with the white kids in the big leagues.

Many of the divisions in the Buddhist community cannot be healed overnight. As one simple step, publications like Buddhadharma could simply recognize the broader diversity that exists. There are few starker lines of the so-called “ethnic divide” than the refusal of white Buddhists to even acknowledge the voices of the Asian Buddhist majority in the West.

Sometimes I Get it Wrong

I had no idea how popular my last post would be. I’d love to respond to most of the reactions, but here I address just one. Several commenters called me out on a crude rhetorical slip. While David Nichtern’s piece examines the development of Buddhist institutions in the West within a certain cultural context, my reaction pivots—with only a brief reference to his article—to assail arguments rooted in an East-West dualism with a couple of annotated graphs. The problem is that the graphs and notes had very little to do with the thrust of Nichtern’s article.

In other words, I pulled the old “I see your point—which reminds me of this other point I wanted to make.” But I didn’t even say that much.

At least one commenter vigorously drew attention to this discrepancy. (“It isn’t a this Buddhism vs. that Buddhism article.”) His response to my post dwells on the specific exhibits that Nichtern presents—the different roles of teachers in different cultural contexts. Nichtern notes that the roles of Tibetan Buddhist teachers that he is most familiar with have no obvious corollary in mainstream Western culture. He ends his post with a question mark—in what way will the various and sometimes conflicting roles and expectations develop among Westerners?

To be clear, my gripe is not with what Nichtern asserts, but with what he presupposes. Nichtern continues the timeworn notion of looking toward a separate Western Buddhism, culturally distinct and segregated from the forms of Buddhism in Asia. This notion is what underlies his presentation of the three different routes of “transplanting Buddhist teachings in the West”—(1) transplantation of the traditional form, (2) hybrid growth and (3) complete transformation into Western modalities. These are three points on a progression where at one end sits “traditional form” and at the other sit “Western modalities.”

As pointed out at the buddha is my dj, most of the objections to Nichtern’s framework have been discussed before. Issues with oversimplified notions of Western Buddhism, including drawing lines between “traditional” and “Western.” Or the issues that arise when describing religious movements with analogy to evolutionary biology. (On that last note, Thomas Tweed does a better job explaining why.) And so on. But my post wasn’t about these issues, it was about something else. Though I may stand by my point, it was inappropriately made with Nichtern’s piece as a foil.

More than owning up to bad writing, I owe David Nichtern an apology for misrepresenting his writing. In the blogosphere, it’s easy to click through and see the original writing for yourself, but so often the gateway biases you before you get there. This was the case with some who passed through my post, leading them to mistake Nichtern’s point. Separately, this was also the case with the Reformed Buddhist, who falsely accused me of “dislike of whites” and “insinuating a racial superiority of Asians over white people,” leading at least one commenter to suggest that’s what I was trying to convey. Not at all what I believe or intended.

The act of publication (blogging included) comes with a measure of responsibility for one’s written word. I wish I had written differently what I did, but it was my decision not to take more time to do so, or have someone else review it first. Next time, I’ll hopefully at least set aside more than a lunch break. Many thanks for all the feedback.

Ditch the Asian Straw Man

I was writing a long response to David Nichtern’s Huffinton Post piece—but then I realized that lunchtime is almost over. So I leave you with these images.

Is Asian Buddhism versus Western Buddhism a fair comparison? Honestly, it’s like comparing characteristics of America to the Perth metropolitan area. There is a real issue of scale here.

Not to mention that the timescales aren’t exactly comparable, either. When self-styled Western Buddhists are writing about “Asian Buddhism,” it’s never entirely clear to me if they’re writing about something they saw the other day or read about in a historical text written by some clueless white guy European colonialist.

Buddhism in Asia is greater, more diverse and far, far older than Buddhism in the West. It will continue that way for the entire span of your natural life. When writers like David Nichtern attempt to describe Buddhism in Asia, they end up as nothing more than blind men feeling about an elephant. Their arguments create a fictional Asian Buddhism to use as a straw man in order to define their vision of a separate Western Buddhism. This rhetoric is colonialist at its root, and I encourage them to do better. I have no doubt that they could.

Update: In response to some thoughtful commentary below, I had to put it in print: sometimes I get it wrong.