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.)
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!
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.
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 Pink, a 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.
More on race, privilege… and karma!
- Diverse views on “white privilege” « Bija Andrew’s Zen Blog(Wednesday, July 29, 2009) “To some extent, we need to agree, or at least settle on a common practice.”
- Race as karma « Angry Asian Buddhist (Wednesday, July 29, 2009) “Over on Drums of Dharma, GK Sandoval discusses topical issues from the perspective of karma.”
- My last word on White Privilege « Sweep the dust, Push the dirt(Wednesday, July 29, 2009) “We take for granted things that we were basically born into (or given the opportunity of).”
- How to demean an Angry Asian Buddhist « Angry Asian Buddhist(Thursday, July 30, 2009) “All the way back to the first Angry Asian Buddhist post, I’ve repeatedly noticed certain types of comments meant to stymie discussions of racial marginalization.”
- The issue of kamma « My Buddha is pink (Friday, July 31, 2009) “But that would presume homosexuality is necessarily inferior from heterosexuality.”
- Power of Education « Angry Asian Buddhist (Saturday, August 1, 2009) “If we are committed to diversity, then we should be committed to educating ourselves and noting the inequities that may very well exist beneath our noses.”
You can catch the earlier part of this thread here, here and here.
I really wanted to wait till the end of the week to post a new timeline, but the bloggers are on a roll!
- White privilege and homophobia « My Buddha is pink (Sunday, July 26, 2009) “Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have observed a similar reaction within the Buddhist community, based on cultural and ethnic differences, with reaction to homosexuality and a temple’s gay members.”
- Sanctuary « Resist Racism (Sunday, July 26, 2009) “Awareness of privilege is stepping back and taking a look first.”
- The Larger Context of the Professor Gates Racial Profiling Incident « Asian Nation (Monday, July 27, 2009) “What strikes me the most about not just this particular incident involving Professor Gates, but the reaction of Americans from different racial backgrounds around the country is this: I find it ironic that in general, many (as in a large number but certainly not all) Whites feel unaccustomed and therefore uncomfortable talking about racial issues (this recent article published by the American Psychological Associationsummarizes this tendency among Whites to avoid talking about race very well).”
- introduction to this week’s topic « the buddha is my dj (Monday, July 27, 2009) “Over the next couple of days, I’ll be posting a long, three-part piece on white privilege, the homogenization of Buddhism, why you might care about these issues, and what we can do about it.”
- part one: white privilege « the buddha is my dj (Monday, July 27, 2009) “So before we can even begin to unpack white privilege, we need to understand how race and whiteness work in our culture.”
- Being a Buddhist Convert in Rural America « Progressive Buddhism(Monday, July 27, 2009) “These can certainly be difficult times to be a Buddhist convert in rural America.”
- On race and Buddhism « Resist Racism (Tuesday, July 28, 2009) “Go here.”
- part two: the homogenization of buddhism « the buddha is my dj(Tuesday, July 28, 2009) “But perhaps the best way to understand this is to take a step back away from Buddhism, and even a step back from race, and examine a different homogenization of culture.”
- White Privilege and Buddhism « Sweet the dust, Push the dirt(Tuesday, July 28, 2009) “I can’t say that I agree with everything brought up in various postings but I can say that majority of commentaries provide readers (white or not) with information that is both valuable and relevant to this issue.”
- Some of my background and realizations « The Drums of Dharma(Tuesday, June 28, 2009) “In equanimity, there are no Native Americans, Asians or Caucasians–the enlightenment mind shines on all just like the sun.”
- part three: work to be done « the buddha is my dj (Tuesday, July 28, 2009) “If you’re going to claim an interest in social justice issues and then blindly look the other way when your own, fellow American Buddhists of different colors, genders, or sexual orientations are crying out, are suffering, then you need to question your own motives, your own beliefs, before yelling at me for doing nothing more than pointing out the obvious suffering of others.”
You can check out the previous two timelines here and here.
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.
- A White Buddhist and Privilege « Dharma Folk (Tuesday, July 21, 2009) “Until then, there’s always the Angry Asian Buddhist.”
- Dharma, Race, and White Privilege « Dangerous Harvests(Wednesday, July 22, 2009) “I have more to say about all this, but instead, I want to invite you to reflect on the conversation above, as well as those in the other blogs, and those in your own lives.”
- The Surface of Buddhism: Introduction « Racialicious (Thursday, July 23, 2009) “Let me know when you’re ready to start listening.”
- Exegesis of a White-Privileged Notion « Dharma Folk (Friday, July 24, 2009) “If there’s any conclusion to this ramble, it’s imperative that we question our own assumptions and the conclusions they lead us to, especially on a topic as sticky as race.”
- Privileged, Persnickety Buddhists « Sweep the dust, Push the dirt(Saturday, July 25, 2009) “That is what we are – one big-assed, struggling, North American sangha.”
Let me know if you’ve read other posts on this topic.
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.
- Reflections on a Multiracial Buddhist Retreat « Asian Nation(Wednesday, July 15, 2009) “These two incidents go to show that even at an event that shows us the peace, harmony, and mindfulness that exists in American society and among people from all kinds of backgrounds, in many ways, American society is still quite racialized, even if most of us may be completely oblivious to such dynamics.”
- Race and Retreats « Barbara’s Buddhism blog (Thursday, July 16, 2009) “I suspect both of these examples were dharma teaching opportunities that were missed.”
- Annoying Asians and White Privilege « Angry Asian Buddhist(Friday, July 17, 2009) “It’s worth reading the whole piece and Barbara O’Brien’s post too.”
- Privileged White Buddhists? « Progressive Buddhism (Sunday, July 19, 2009) “I would like to hear everyone’s opinion on this.”
- Filthy Filthy White Buddhists « Sweep the dust, Push the dirt(Sunday, July 19, 2009) “If I was half white and half Asian, does that mean I am only half privileged and half lazy?”
If you know of other posts on this thread, please feel free to drop a comment below.
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.