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.