It is understood that there are two Buddhisms in this country. One for the “people from traditionally Buddhist countries” (call it type A) and one for the “modern” rational, Westerners”, who “bring an intellectual curiosity to Buddhism as we do with everything” (call it type B).
Never mind if these Asians or Asian Americans have never in their lives previously encountered Buddhism or if some of them might even be scientists. For some people, one look at their Asian face and there’s the illusion of knowing something about their practice – that maybe they are superstitious, that they were “raised Buddhist”, maybe follow some rites and rituals and most of all, don’t really know what the the Buddha actually taught, that their practice is “devotion based”, they are unquestioning etc. There are references to “cultural baggage” in the way Asian communities practice Buddhism.
Two less-obvious areas for this that I find quite jarring and to be based on misunderstandings are the veneration of monastics and dāna.
Is the special status of monastics important for the practice of the Dharma? I won’t debate this here except to acknowledge that this is at least a reasonable question to ask. However, if you are one who thinks that veneration of monastics is irrelevant, is it necessary to ascribe the motives of the other side to be “blind following of Buddhist authority figures that is part of the Asian/(insert country name) culture”?
Or dāna. I understand if some people are distrusting of giving money or material support as a means of supporting a religious org. Maybe some people have had negative views from the relationship of certain spiritual leaders with wealth. Maybe they don’t yet really understand how material support is essential to preserve the teachings. In any case, there is no pressure on anyone to make dāna. Then is it necessary to mock the dāna practiced by Asians? To call it blind faith, a practice based on superstition about a future life, to debase it as transactional just because the other person subscribes to the concept of good karma? I have personally come across this condescending sentiment many times, including from people who are *huge beneficiaries* of this very generosity.
As I wonder about this kind of attitude towards Asians, an episode comes to mind that not all people of color are the same in this context. I was at a retreat where a young Latino man was on a scholarship (I appreciate the center for making that effort), for which he offered thanks to the center. There was one other older latino man attending (let’s call him Edward). Later, when we were all doing dishes in the kitchen as part of the chores, the young man remarked how grateful he was to see Edward there because it made him realize that someone like him, a person of color, could also practice meditation and that it’s not only for white people. Most of the people present thought the remark made perfect sense but one person pointed out that it was never supposed to have been the preserve of people of European descent or some activity invented by them. In fact, until quite recently, the Dharma had always been practiced and preserved by “people of color”.
Yet the young man was not totally off. He had deduced that the community is predominantly white and is led by white people. People of color walk into that space with diffidence and uncertainty, wondering if they do belong.
The kind of people of color that had been practicing and preserving the Dharma are of course, not the kind that the community was making an outreach to. There is membership focused outreach to African Americans and Latinos. There is sometimes also a welcoming, at least in lip service, of native American practices or Middle Eastern wisdom and not to mention any number of European philosophies, whereas the only practices to which I hear a discouragement or avoidance of is on something from a type A congregation and not really much outreach to Asian Americans for membership. It’s as if the type B communities are open to evolving in many different directions except the direction of the type A.
This would all be kinda honest if type B were a community where Asian communities are explicitly excluded. You know, just block type B groups out of your mind and move on. But they claim to be communities which are inclusive, universal etc. When in reality, for all the show of trying hard to bring in people of color (and to some extent, they are trying – with races other than Asians), they really aren’t. Type A communities are more clear and open about it: e.g., this is a Thai temple, you can expect to encounter Thai language and culture, foods, religious practices and monks ordained in Thailand. Anyone is welcome to attend, but such and such is the practice here. But type B does not claim to be a white-centric place, which is the reason we all wander in. Then we are showered with messages of welcome and inclusion while the more subtle signs simultaneously tell us there is a certain mainstream here, that there is a certain dominant culture, that we can only belong if we integrate into this dominant culture. The culture is not going to be flexible for us, it’s we who have to change. In other words, no different from many workplaces or some other spheres of American life where white culture is dominant and normative and others are, well, fringe. In other words, a place that operates with a rather narrow view of who is really American.
Perhaps this concern about becoming a type A community is what drives the force field that many Asian Americans experience as they try to approach type B sanghas, where in paper, based on their own outlooks, they feel they might find a more natural spiritual home.
Am I late to the discussion? Maybe so given the attention that leaders like Larry Yang and several writers have pointed out have brought to the matter. I also know that the leadership of several communities are making an effort to make changes to include people of color.
This is a hard post to write because things are not clear cut, provable. On the one hand, I see some leaders in the predominantly European American Buddhist community* exert themselves to change the white dominance of the space and make it open to all and on the other hand, I see a number of members behaving as if to say “This is a white space” and not a space for all Americans by simply bringing their assumptions about other races right into the Dharma circle.
In fact, as I write this, I find in my own mind a softening of the irritation in my own mind in the way Asians are perceived in type B sanghas. On the one hand, I see type B sanghas partly defining themselves by saying what they are not – they are not Tibetan Buddhism or Thai Buddhism. They are not the Catholic church, not Christianity etc. Their distancing from Asian roots of the tradition is part of that negation. Unfortunately, that does not make them universalist and welcoming: they are not as clear-eyed about what they ARE permitting themselves to be – predominantly white, middle-class, politically liberal. And people who can check off these three boxes of self-view have a different experience when they walk in and different ability to take ownership compared to the discomfort felt by those who don’t check all three. But like many things – the fact that it’s not intentional is not sufficient reason to not wake up, acknowledge, understand, react, fix.
Writing about it is also hard because of being perceived as creating divisions where none exist. For example, I sent Funie Hsu’s and Chenxing Han’s articles to someone about this kind of thing in Dharma communities, only to get a reply that these articles are full of identity politics. Well, that’s a bit interesting, isn’t it? The nonchalant putting down of people of color is not identity politics, but speaking about it is? Right in the midst of a decade where people are occupying positions of high power by riding/inciting race-based identity, fools still see only the pointing out of such reliance on identity as “identity politics”.
Do I sound angry? Maybe, maybe not. I’d like to be spared the burden of having to not sound angry. I’m stating the facts and experience for anyone who cares to see/hear what another’s experience has been. Do I speak for all people of color? No, but I can speak for one – what that one has directly seen/heard.
As to how all this appears to Asians, I plan to post a paper written by Chengxin Han that captures these feelings and experiences over a broader section than just one person’s.
* I called it European American Buddhist community above. I’m not sure what else to call type B since I’ve already expressed why I don’t want to call it:
a. “American Insight” (since the Burmese/Thai/Sri Lankan groups ARE American too).
b.“Convert Buddhism” (since many members consider Asian Americans who are also new to Buddhism to not belong there).
c.“Scientific/Intellectual” – because well, I totally reject that Asians are not that or that “westerners” have some kind of monopoly on that.