Are Asians welcome in certain American Buddhist circles?

American Buddhists are racially pretty cool and inclusive, right? Or at least many individuals in Buddhist circles imagine themselves to be.   Yet, many Insight and Zen communities created in America which are purportedly open to all Americans end up being very white – a fact which sometimes prompts some reflection and embarrassment and to others, it’s just … normal.  I’ll speak more about the Insight community as it’s the style rooted in the strand of practice that I found myself the most attracted to and follow today. 

In an admirable step, many of these communities are actively trying to combat this with outreach to minorities – black and latino folks were told that they too can practice the Buddha’s teaching.  That didn’t quite do it as people still found it a rather white space and many minorities didn’t feel comfortable. Then, in centers that are retreat-focused, came the realization that it’s difficult to be in a predominantly white space if you’re living the legacy of slavery or colonial brutality, for example (we all are, regardless of which side of the perpetration your ancestors were on, but that’s a matter for another time). People of color retreats came up, many of which are taught by teachers of color. Further other issues were imagined/discovered – such as the fact that minority communities may not be able to afford fees – scholarships become available.  One center in New York City (with its retreat space upstate) provides free bus rides from the city to retreat location for people-of-color retreats. Social justice and activism itself is a focus area.

These measures have had some success, but the fact remains that these spaces are disproportionately white.  I wish to speak about the possible reasons for this. I notice the much more lukewarm enthusiasm for Asian Americans. Why? – I wonder.  Most spiritual organizations are happy to grow and Asian Americans seem like a natural constituency. For one, even if Asian American individuals themselves had nothing to do with Buddhism earlier, they are more likely than other groups to have come across some Buddhists in their life and are least likely to think they are stepping into something scary, weird and unknown. Many might even have had parents or grandparents who are Buddhist.

Yet, it seems that there is a feeling in some Insight communities that “our Buddhism” is different in some way.  That “we” follow our own thing. Making sure to stress that this is not the Buddhism of your family’s ancestry. This is “our” space. That stuff is “over there in those ethnocentric temples” (Thai, Burmese, Chinese etc).  There are many gestures, large and small, that sanghas (I use the term loosely here) do which eventually makes Asian Americans go away, go to some center more peopled either with those of their own ethnic make up or at least of other people who may not feel a sense of belonging or maybe lose enthusiasm for the Blessed One’s path altogether. 

I myself feel that there are few aspects of American life where I am made more aware of my race and color than in Buddhist circles. I realize that, to many white fellow Dharma practitioners, this is almost unbelievable. Spiritual circles are where people are at their best, right? How it is possible?

I contend that there are deeper causes for this than many realize – that holding POC sessions is not going to solve this.  This is one of the themes I shall explore in this blog. I shall also contend that some of the outreach attempts are counterproductive.

Practice in the time of nCOVID-19

Words of Dhamma inspiration from my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya. Click this link to get the pdf document.

Questions addressed include:

Q: How can a person practice to maintain awareness and equanimity with all the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that Covid-19 has unleashed?

Q: Does the present extreme circumstance present any positive opportunities
for our practice?

Q: Why should we try to maintain continuous awareness of such mundane activities as getting out of bed, brushing our teeth, noticing which foot goes through a doorway first, which arm goes through a T-shirt first, and so on?

Q: I share a space with my partner, and we are around each other much more often than before. We both practice Dhamma, but being around each other so much is tense, like we are breathing down each other’s necks. What advice can you offer someone living in close proximity with a loved one during this lockdown?

Q: I have been unemployed and my job prospects now seem hopeless. I have a family to support and children to educate. I have been practicing awareness but I frequently can’t sleep at night due to panic and fear. How can I approach all of this with wisdom and equanimity?

Q: How does one clear tension from the mind?

And my favorite in this document is the answer to the following question

Q: Some experts say that about 70% of us will eventually get Covid-19. How should we practice if we get sick, or if we’re dying?

Here again, is the link to get the pdf document.

Will nothing be the same again?

Many of us fear the world will never go back to what it was before COVID-19 and to be prepared for that, i.e., that there is no going back.

That may well be the case, but it’s okay because it’s not as if there will be some new permanent mode of living post-COVID.  Things will be that way until the next big thing shoves everything aside and radically  changes everything again.  Incessant and huge changes are just the nature of things.  Just speaking from a US perspective – President Obama’s election changed “things forever” – then the Arab Spring changed everything “forever” and Brexit changed things again and the world was never going to be the same gain. Then the 2016 elections made it feel like Obama’s times were normal and now everything is changed forever.  Then stunners started happening on a daily basis and the trade war with China was going to change things forever, fires in California, the Amazon and elsewhere changed things beyond recognition and the nuclear standoff with another country was a whole new reality whose impact was supposed to be for 10 years… until the virus came along.  The list of every unprecedented thing positive, negative and ugly that happened in the last few years is long.

Some even fade from memory of those who didn’t experience it directly. The unprecedented blackout during the Camp fire may not be on many minds soon. The virus too is unprecedented, but I can’t help feeling that it’s just that way until the next crisis and is the world really that much different from the “end of times” in 2003 when a big war was about to be launched? Many good things have happened, racism and various unsavory sentiments have reared their head time and again, amazing cures have emerged, much brutality has happened. It is hard to say in many dimensions, whether the world has gotten better or worse since, say 2003.

We do acknowledge this in terms like the new normal – except it’s said tinged with a sense of sadness.

Many of these thoughts arise because of the illusion that something or the other was not going to change in the first place. As if the EU, for example, were an exception to this – the union wasn’t born a mere 30 years ago. But of course, everything that ever came into existence is impermanent, is subject to change, deterioration and eventually ceasing to exist. The Buddha called this anicca. The simile of the desert applies to the world – always changing, but in many characteristics, the same. Rather that worry about the new normal, we can recognize frequent arrival of drastic change as it has always happened. Change is the Old Normal. The Forever Normal.

Back to the virus – I do see that everyone washes hands a lot better and am delighted by that.  Against all better sense, I hope that this is a change that is for good. Of course, I’m hoping for the quick discovery of vaccine/cure and do think it’s a serious situation, just not buying into the whole “game-changer” narrative.