We’ve Been Here All Along

There’s a lot in Funie Hsu’s article on the Lion’s Roar website that strikes a chord with me. Even the title resonates with a point I find I’m compelled to make, again and again, that not only am I an American Buddhist, at least four generations of my family have been practicing Buddhism in America in uniquely American ways. But is that how white Buddhists talk about us and American Buddhism? Hsu writes…

Indeed, Asian and Asian-American Buddhist practices have often been dismissed as superstitious, inauthentic (yet authentically exotic!) forms of Buddhism. In mainstream white American Buddhist conversations, white Buddhists are often heralded as the erudite saviors and purifiers of Buddhism. This perspective exemplifies the subtle enactments and overwhelming hubris of white supremacy. In positioning a certain type of Buddhism (white) as better than other kinds of Buddhism (Asian, “folk,” “baggage Buddhism”), the white ownership of Buddhism is claimed through delegitimizing the validity and long history of our traditions, then appropriating the practices on the pretext of performing them more correctly.

The issues discussed in this piece are controversial in our current political climate. But Buddhist America is not immune to the very racial stereotypes and divisions that run rampant in America in general. If we cannot address these issues in our own Buddhist communities, how can we think we can address them in broader American society and throughout the world?

The full piece is available online at Lion’s Roar.

Making Our Way without Asians

There is little new to say that I didn’t already say five years ago.

Let me start out, as I normally do, by noting that there are many virtues to the Buddhadharma discussion, “Making Our Way: On Women and Buddhism.” Sandy Boucher, Grace Schireson, Christina Feldman, Lama Palden Drolma and Rita Gross are individuals with considerable experience examining and debating the topic of women and Buddhism. They have wonderful insights to share, many of which I highlighted and jotted down in my notebook. But as you might have guessed, I noticed something missing.

Namely, Asians.

What makes this conversation so dangerous is that it easily leaves readers with the belief that Asian women, be they in Asia or the West, don’t even think about this topic, never mind do anything about it. Several years ago I posted Cheng Wei-Yi’s essay, “Rethinking Western Feminist Critiques on Buddhism,” and one of the comments came from someone with this very impression:

The critique is that we’re not listening to Asian women’s input here; well, then let’s have more of it. What developments towards the equality and dignity of women have taken place in Buddhism, apart from “western” feminist influence?

It is in response to challenges like these that Rev. Patti Usuki wrote Currents of Change: American Buddhist Women Speak Out on Jodo Shinshu. If you read the blog of Rev. Patti Nakai, you can find yet another Asian American Buddhist woman’s thoughts. Or you can read other publications by Cheng Wei-Yi. In a previous letter to Buddhadharma, I included a list of several Asian Buddhist women, including published authors, who could speak to this topic. Not only can you find their thoughts in books and on websites—these women are alive. You can send them email.

I have spent my whole life around Asian Buddhist women in the West. They are the reason I am Buddhist. They have taught me how to bow, how to chant, how to apply Buddhist teachings, how to walk mindfully, how to meditate and delve into deep concentration. These amazing women don’t fit any of the stereotypes of Asian Buddhists. I have known Asian American nuns ordained in the Tibetan, Mahayana and Theravada traditions—women who have had unthinkable struggles, incredible stories and strong opinions on the role of women in Buddhism.

Just imagine how different a conversation you would have if you gathered these women together for a discussion on Buddhist patriarchy. It’s something that’s never before appeared in Buddhadharma or Tricycle. Imagine what it would be like if they wer犀利士 e in the room, so that you couldn’t so easily refer to Asian Buddhists as “them.”

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.

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!

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?

The White Face of Buddhism Now at Patheos

Danny Fisher just announced that he’ll be maintaining a new Patheos blog, which was mention enough to spark my smoldering curiosity and get me to check out the Patheos Buddhism Portal. So I visited and saw a landing page covered with the work of White people.

I really worked hard to find the Buddhist Asian folk, but Patheos seems to have created an almost perfect showcase for the stereotype online Buddhist: the White Buddhist American man.

Well okay, I managed to sniff out some diversity in that collection of essayson the “Future of Buddhism” in the United States. Among those 22 essays, you can find four written by Asian authors—namely Mushim Ikeda-NashVenerable Sheng YenChade-Meng Tan and George Tanabe. With about 18% of those essays by Asians, this Patheos collection ranks at about the same level of Asianness as the general Western Buddhist publication—perhaps a noteworthy trend?

Yes I know that Justin Whitaker has publicly vowed to make the effort to try to be “more representative of American/Western Buddhism.” He even followed through by posting about an African American Buddhist! I can’t wait till he writes about another Person of Color!

So at least you know that the Patheos Buddhism Portal isn’t the exclusive preserve of White Buddhists. The Portal is not all White—it’s just overwhelmingly dominated by White American Buddhists. And that’s a problem.

It’s Not About Richard Gere

A recent post by Tassja at Womanist Musings stirred up some controversy in the Buddhist blogosphere around the themes of culture, race, privilege, and appropriation. More importantly, this maelstrom pulled in the voice of a frequent commenter with whom I coauthored a letter to Buddhadharma, inspiring her to write in solidarity with Tassja. She frequently comments as Liriel.

My name is Wisdom. Specifically, Prajña. As in Prajñaparamita. My legal name. I never changed it. It is the name my parents gave me at birth, encompassing all their hopes for how I would deal with the myriad array of choices in my future.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is written on our bodies.

Chinese school at the Chan temple is where I learned to dance from the first Chinese Disneyland music box ballerina, fold origami cranes—the last one I folded is now part of an art installation for the victims of the Japan quake—and chant sutras before lunchtime. I still never waste a single grain of rice. The temple library is where my mother would go to borrow cartoons starring the 15th century Zen monk Ikkyu for me to watch. We have a youth orchestra and our own version of the boy scouts that marches under the Buddhist flag. Fifteen years after I was a student there, I attended the funeral of my favorite teacher.

This is what we mean when we say that Buddhism is moulded on our skin.

I would like to tell you how Buddhism influences my father’s treatment of his patients, every one of whom are criminally insane. I would like to tell you how Buddhism plays a role in the way my mother lends the money she doesn’t have to spare. I would like to tell you of how Buddhism sustained my aunt through the famine and my uncle through the war—I would like to tell you how it gave some measure of peace to those who did not survive.

Because this is what we mean when we say that Buddhism flows in our blood.

I would like to tell you, but I am afraid. I am afraid of you Barbara O’BrienKyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother. I am terrified because I can see my future in what you are presently doing to Tassja.

You might tell me that Buddhism belongs in the meditation center and not the hospital. You might tell me that the war is over so what does it matter. You might tell me famine is a state of mind or any number of other things equally indicative of never having helplessly watched a child starve to death. You could discount all my family’s blood, sweat, and tears and the way they flow into and out of the Buddhism I live everyday.

Or perhaps what I say will not matter in the least. You could disregard everything I say in favor of ad feminam attacks about my being an angry person of color with a chipped shoulder. Or about my being young, in my early twenties, and thus uninformed. Or about my being an illogical woman, a “silly cow.”

All these barbs will likely be pointed at me as they are being used against Tassja, and I am afraid. But I am still here, still non-white, still young, still female, still Buddhist, still speaking out in order to tell you that this fear you strike in my heart that makes my fingers numb as I type is the issue. Not Richard Gere. Every time I want to express my differing perspective, I’m silenced by the shitstorm I know is waiting to demean my person and mock my loved ones, rather than engage with the logic of my thesis.

And so I take refuge in the non-white, non-English-speaking, immigrant sanghas I was raised in. And thus our bodies and our voices are absent from your conferences and self-congratulatory blogs. And consequently there are few to challenge your cocksure assertions of your own diversity and inclusiveness even as I stand here feeling alienated.

I retire to await your abuse with one last thought, the one that constantly plagues my mind as I read your vitriolic reactions to Tassja and Arun: there is always so much talk of detachment and transience and samsara in your cavalier dismissal of these writers, but where is your consideration for the other great pillar of Buddhism? Compassion. Where is your loving-kindness and empathy for your fellow sentient beings who suffer? Beings whose suffering is as real as yours? Beings whose suffering you should feel as you own rather than mocking as ridiculous or dismissing as inconsequential?

Na Mo Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa.

Will the Real American Buddhists Please Stand Up?

One of the frustrations of being an Asian American Buddhist arises when people routinely exclude us from “American Buddhism.” We are American and we are Buddhist. No less, the vast majority of us practice Buddhism differently here than the way it’s practiced in Asia—in ways that are uniquely American. But when it comes to talking about “American Buddhists”—or just simply “Americans”—time and again, we are left out. This attitude was evident in a comment on yesterday’s post, which responded to a question by Barbara O’Brien on the number of Asians at the upcoming Buddhist Geeks conference:

How many Indian’s [sic] were at the monasteries in Tibet at the time of Atisha? Or in Japan at the time of the 3rd Patriarch? This US event is bound to be dominated by American faces…

This sort of slip is not confined to White Buddhists; you’ll frequently hear Asian Buddhists make these same sorts of assumptions too. I’ve even had a commenter use the words of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh to suggest that Asians recognize that “American” excludes the Asian, “Please show me your Buddha, your American Buddha. […] Show me an American bodhisattva. […] Show me an American monk, an American nun, or an American Buddhist Center.”

This exclusion of Asian Americans is often termed “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” Even when we act completely American, our basic “Asianness” casts us as foreign. It’s the sort of attitude that underlies statements by those such as Tricycle founder Helen Tworkov that Asian American Buddhists “have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.”

Just for good measure, I’d like to remind you why we are American Buddhists.

Let me reframe the credentials of Asian American Buddhists. We are Buddhist because that’s what we call ourselves, because that’s how we practice, because that’s the religion we choose to follow and identify with. We are American because we were born here, we went to American schools, we salute Old Glory, we pay American taxes, we speak American English, we vote in American elections and because we fought, bled and died for American freedoms. We are as American as chop suey, fortune cookies, competitive team taiko and home-baked apple pie. And our Buddhism is American Buddhism because no matter how superficially similar our local practice may seem to the way that Buddhism is practiced in Asia, we have had to significantly adapt and alter our traditions to fit our American community and context here in North America.

The exclusion of Asians from “American” is an abhorrent trope in American society. When it comes to American Buddhism, this is one piece of American cultural baggage that’s better off checked at the door. Please don’t exclude us from our own community.

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.

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.