White Buddhist for Asians

Over on Dharma Folk, kudos posts about largely Vietnamese immigrants in Orange County who have “hired a white American man to teach Buddhism to their kids.” This man is a Buddhist monk, Ven. Kusala Bhikshu.

There are a number of white Buddhist teachers who have ordained and now minister to multicultural communities, especially here in the United States. There’s Ven. Heng Sure and Thanissaro Bhikkhu to name just two. What sets Kusala Bhikhsu apart, in my opinion, is that he has not made the same effort to thoroughly immerse himself in another culture. While Ven. Heng Sure speaks flawless Mandarin and Thanissaro Bhikkhu speaks fluent Thai with a mastery of slang that would make my own mother blush, Kusala Bhikshu is a happily monolingual American Midwesterner—who also happens to reach out to Asian American Buddhist communities.

In my opinion, this is a most beautiful manifestation of Western Buddhism, where Western Buddhists of different stripes and colors come together in spite of—even because of—their differences. Here are people who are leveraging their community’s diversity to strengthen it! Kusala Bhikshu’s not the only white guy working in this vein. For example, I often talk of Richard’s assistance to a local Lao temple. My hope is that, one day, self-styled Western Buddhist institutions can outgrow their cultural insularity and follow in the steps of these multiculturally-minded individuals.

You can listen to the full story at PRI’s The World. (Photo credit to PRI’s The World.)

Allies & Identity

Reviewing Mark Herrmann’s thoughts on blogging makes me wonder if I can balance community involvement with the toil of the blog. Or maybe I need to six sigma it up a little. Regardless, I have a bouquet of interesting webpages open in browser tabs—and far too little time to explore them as I’d like to—below is an unorganized survey of what’s on my mind.

Many thanks to Justin Whitaker for his post on Buddhism and race in America. Also thanks to Maia Duerr for continuing the discussion and providing resources. I never thanked John Pappas either—from back in 2009—but he’s also gone out of his way to educate himself about situations where he’s been bitten, and he’s been happy to share what he’s learned, no less. I am deeply moved by the efforts these individuals make (among other allies out there!)—precisely because they don’t have to, and also because I believe that they have a greater influence among white Buddhists than I do.

Also on my mind are broader thoughts on issues of identity, race and culture. I was inspired by stories of white people without “white names”—particularly, a white American football player who identifies as Japanese American, and a white herbalist with a black name. These stories highlight the fluid ways in which ethnic identity can operate. To an extent, your identity is how you see yourself. But it’s what other people say you are. For most of us, the reality is somewhere in between.

I’m of the mind that the same issues apply to groups of people. When a sangha decides to “strip Buddhism of it’s cultural baggage”—is that an identity statement?

Oh—I finally made it to People of Color Night. I’ve been so inspired! Angelenos, come out an represent come April!

Are Only Asians in the Pure Land?

Perusing a paragraph brimming with parochial perspectives on Buddhist Asian Americans, my attention was drawn to a single question pointed at those of Japanese heritage:

So would a Jodo Shinshu sangha in a Japanese neighborhood alter their appearance or layout easily because a few White folk (or any person of color) don’t feel comfortable?

A general problem with rhetorical questions, such as the title of this post, is that in practice they are often more fatuous than illuminating. This homespun musing suffers from several questionable premises. For example, there is the tacit lumping of Japanese American cultural groups, regardless of the stark cultural differences, say, from issei all the way down through yonsei. This point is pertinent as the mores of yonsei+ are often characterized as more in tune with the average non-Japanese American. And exactly which hypothetical Japanese neighborhood are we talking about? Keep in mind I live in one of the most Japanese neighborhoods in North America, and there really aren’t that many Japanese here. As for what the Shin temples here would do—they have done what just about every Shin temple in America has done. They have brought up the issue of accepting more non-Japanese into their congregations and wrestled with what that entails. In fact, I’d love to know if there’s any American Shin temple that’s managed through the past ten years without confronting the issue of expanding membership diversity. I won’t deny that there are individuals who have resisted Shin Buddhism becoming less “Japanese”—but they still have taken on the issue of diversity, albeit reluctantly. And there aren’t just “a few” white folk involved or interested in Shin Buddhism. That’s a whole ’nother post. Underneath all my nitpicking with the terminological inexactitude, my real gripe is with an even more troubling premise: that the comparison between Asian and white American sanghas is even a fair one. I’m talking about white privilege. When we start making the claim that white sanghas and white Buddhist publications are no more segregated than Asian temples and Asian-language Buddhist newsletters, we are jumping straight into the camp of separate-but-equal. You might as well have your white Buddhist country club while you’re at it.

White Privilege Isn’t a Bad Thing

I tend not to read long blog posts, but I often mark them with a star and sometimes sift through them on weekends. Over on My Buddha is Pinka couplesuch posts from early August really resonated with me this morning. Richard Harrold writes about how as a journalist, he got involved with the local Lao Buddhist community in Michigan.

Richard reached out to help and get involved in the community, even though he didn’t share a common ethnic or cultural background. He helped teach English, and offered to assist with challenges involving the local township board. Even when his overtures were declined, he still managed to publish articles highlighting the local Buddhist Asian community. He spoke directly with the township attorney about specific issues that may have underlain miscommunication with the Lao temple board. I imagine none of this was smooth riding. Indeed, Richard expresses his personal ambivalence with regards to the linguistic and cultural differences, especially on the topic of sexuality.

Some of what Richard was able to accomplish was due to resources available to him by virtue of his white privilege. Importantly, he was able to bend his privilege to the benefit of others who were relatively disadvantaged. Being white gives you an edge when talking with white administrators, when writing to a majority white audience, and even to the extent of being involved in the publishing industry.

In a sense, I have nothing against white privilege. I’d just like all of us to share these privileges. One way to move past institutional racism bias is by making use of our privilege—be it of gender, culture, sexuality, race, etc.—for the benefit of others with less privilege. You might want to see what you can do to help bridge cultural chasms in your local Buddhist community. Or say, if you happen to be a regular contributor to Shambhala Sun or Tricycle, then the next time you talk with the editors you might ask them if they’d considered offering more articles to be written by People of Color. Think of it as a democratization of noblesse oblige.

If You Haven’t Had Enough…

More on race, privilege… and karma!

You can catch the earlier part of this thread herehere and here.

More on Race, Privilege and Prejudice

I really wanted to wait till the end of the week to post a new timeline, but the bloggers are on a roll!

You can check out the previous two timelines here and here.

Our Continuing Racial Cut and Thrust

I previously posted a timeline of blog posts on C.N. Le’s controversial Asian Nation post, Reflections on a Multiracial Buddhist Retreat. The list goes on. As before, I’ve included the last sentence of each piece.

Let me know if you’ve read other posts on this topic.

Reflections on Racially Excited Buddhists

Plenty of excitement in the Buddhist blogosphere touching on our racialized society and discussions of white privilege. Here’s a timeline with the last sentence of each post provided.

If you know of other posts on this thread, please feel free to drop a comment below.

Annoying Asians and White Privilege

Barbara’s Buddhism blog pointed me to an Asian Nation blog post by C. N. Le on a retreat at Deer Park Monastery, incorporating disruptive Asian foreigners, ambivalent Asian Americans and privileged white Buddhists who didn’t want to take out the trash.

As it turned out, of the 15 or so people who stayed to help clean up, all but one was a person of color — there was just one White person who helped in the cleanup … In particular, I took notice of one young White couple who came to the morning activities (apparently on the last day of the retreat, the monastery invites those from the surrounding community to come in and participate in a group walk and lunch). During lunch, this couple actually raised their hands when the monks asked for volunteers to stay and clean up, but for whatever reasons, just walked away and left once they finished their lunch.

But that quote’s just the part on white privilege. It’s worth reading the whole piece and Barbara O’Brien’s post too.