The attitude I mentioned in the previous post towards American conservatives doesn’t seem unconnected to the attitude towards Asians and Asian Buddhism.

How is it that the plain fact that there are many American Buddhists who are politically conservative is simply missed by many? For example, I cite Miles William’s excellent blog post with data from 2016 presidential election (visualization of data originally from the Harvard Dataverse) when even many lifelong Republicans did not vote for the GOP nominee whom they could not stand. 24.3% of Buddhists voted for Republican candidate and 3.1% for the Libertarian one. In fact, among all non-Christian religions, the one with the highest fraction voting for the GOP-Libertarian combo was the Buddhist community in the US.

Why, then, does it seem like an oxymoron in some Buddhist circles? It seems that such a view can only be formed by isolating oneself from the other Buddhist circles that are Asian American. Williams goes on to show from the dataset that among the subgroups of Buddhists by race, the one that went most heavily for the GOP candidate was Asian. Some real mental gymnastics are required to refuse to see that many Buddhists are not liberal, though the majority are.

I have in the past referred to the disparagement of Asian Buddhists and Asian sanghas in the American Buddhist context by frequent reference to the “cultural baggage” of Asian Buddhism, mentions of superstition, “faith-based” and therefore not suitable for “us”.  The solution then was to have a sangha fashioned and led by white people/teachers, for they alone are the suitable leaders as in any other sphere of American life.  Of course, the word “white” would not ever be mentioned – “westerners” will suffice.  Once a white-led sangha has been established, a liberal ethos is proclaimed, that the sangha is open and welcoming of all. To use the first person narrative for the thinking in the rest of this paragraph, it is somewhat like this — now that the sangha has been set up that is tailored exactly to my community’s tastes (this isn’t about country, within this very country, people grow up in communities with different upbringings and experiences – race, politics, wealth are not the sole differentiators, but they are important ones).  You would be welcome if you can adjust your manner and background to fit into the set-up I have created.  Never mind that the Asian congregations are also fully open to all and are also welcoming. However, there, the modes of operation of those congregations weren’t tailored by me. It is led by people who don’t look like me. I am the one who needs to adjust and learn a little bit. And that is unacceptable. 

As mentioned in the last post though, the presence of political conservatives (social as well as economic) in many Asian countries provides a clear counterexample to the claim that to be Buddhist, one has to be politically liberal.

Now, there is a ready counter to that – which is to revert to the another thread of stereotyping – that perhaps those Buddhists in those countries don’t really understand the original Dharma. Although it was preserved with great effort by those very cultures for over a couple thousand years, it took “us” to arrive on the scene, with our “rational” and “analytical” thinking (that they apparently lack) to understand the true meaning. It’s convenient that to have a more consistent (if not necessarily true) view about the politics, a supercilious attitude towards the traditional Buddhist sanghas helps, along with that towards Christianity (Catholicism is a favorite and shockingly accepted punching bag in this community).   

It’s perhaps also the motivation to frequently associate the “other” with something anti-humanist so one can feel secure that one had no option but to side with what one has already chosen and to argue that the Buddha’s teachings are best exemplified by whichever group happens to be the majority among Buddhists – for example to assume that conservatives are all homophobic or racist or lacking in compassion for the poor, just like the automatic assumption that an Asian Buddhist sangha is sexist and a hard place for women.  How about the obviously contradictory data of women who are happy and content in those sanghas?  That can also be explained away with stereotypes about Asian women! Another shocking stereotype that I have heard is that Asian sanghas more closely hew to orthodoxy and show greater deference to the monastic Sangha because Asians are “more obedient”. I don’t find it hard to imagine that if the American Buddhist community were dominated by political conservatives (as it is in some other countries), there would be frequent arguments about how liberals stand in violation of what the Buddha taught – with examples provided.

But I am just a blogger stating a pattern emerging before my eyes. I hope someone in the academic world would look more deeply and thoroughly into the connection between these two forms of othering and how distancing from the Asian sanghas is essential to maintain blindness to, and provide justification for the fact that the “American” sanghas continue to be white, liberal, middle-class social fora.

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