Over the past few months, in several places and conversations online (not to mention several places out here in the real world over the last few decades), I’ve come across stories of seemingly well-intentioned young “Westerners” (i.e., white folks) who have gotten discouraged because some Asian Buddhist teacher has failed to allow him or her entrance into the “true path.” I’ve seen a stream of references to instances where white folks were “shut out” of Asian Buddhist communities. Or something. Often, these stories are used to counter the arguments of folks like myself who like to point out that, yes Virginia, there is (white) racism in American Buddhism.
Something about this line of reasoning really bugs me. I’ve had a couple of days to think on it, so here goes.
Before I say anything, though, I want to say firmly right up front here that what follows is not directed at any one person or group in particular. I am not even going to link to any of those aforementioned examples of bad logic or conversations about racism lest anyone think I am talking about you, specifically. I’m not. So chill out.
First and foremost, when having the racism-in-white-American-Buddhism conversation, invariably someone steps in with the quip that so-and-so Asian Buddhist community routinely excludes white people, routinely keeps white people from ascending the spiritual and/or political power ladder, etc., etc. When I hear this argument, I also hear my mom’s voice in the back of my head: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”
Think about it. This argument is rhetorically vapid. It is an illogical, irrational misstep. First, we weren’t talking about Asian Buddhists; we were talking about white Buddhists. Are you seriously suggesting that Asian Buddhists’ bad behavior somehow justifies white Buddhists’ bad behavior? By that same logic, the Chinese government routinely spies on its citizens’ Internet activity; so let’s go ahead and not worry about the United State’s NSA reading our emails.
Just because someone else is acting like an idiot doesn’t get you off the hook for acting like an idiot.
Somewhat more importantly, regardless of the above point, I think we’re comparing apples and oranges here, people. To assume that the wide and diverse set of Buddhist institutions in this country are all reacting to the same set of cultural and historical and sociological concerns is also, frankly, illogical.
To whit: the Japanese American Buddhist community suffered from decades of social inequality, overt racism, and bigotry leading up to forced incarceration during World War Two. Upon their release, they went home only to discover that their land and their possessions had been either destroyed or stolen or sold off by the U.S. government. Many took shelter in the only place they had left: the Buddhist temple. Is it any wonder then that older members of the community, desperate to prove they were “American” but also desperate to preserve their Buddhist heritage, drew a line in the sand and said, “our Buddhism is for Japanese only.” This doesn’t excuse bad behavior; but it helps contextualize it. It helps us understand it.1
On the flip side, consider a place like Spirit Rock in Marin County, California. Spirit Rock necessarily caters to a largely middle and upper-middle class (or even elite) section of society because their center is in the middle of freaking nowhere. In oder for even someone like me, dear readers, to get there, I’d have to take the day off work, borrow my wife’s car, and drive for over an hour, crossing a toll bridge in the process. In other words, the only folks who can even get to Spirit Rock are people who have two things that lower class folks don’t have: time and money. In order for Spirit Rock to create a more inclusive community, it necessarily has to deal with these pragmatic, socio-economic realities of life in these United States. This, I will be the first to admit, does not, in and of itself, mean that Spirit Rock is beset by institutional racism; its just got its own issues unique to its own sociological and historical context.
Even though both communities are American Buddhist communities, they’re dealing with very different issues. Using one to make some point about the other doesn’t always make sense.
But, finally and most importantly, I don’t think that these instances of white folks being “shut out” of traditionally Asian communities have anything at all to do with race. I think they have everything to do with Buddhism.
Let us stop, let us pause for a moment here, and consider the following: for more than two thousand years, the only people who were engaged in seated meditation, the only people doing vipassana or shamatha, the only people reading obscure sutras and shastras, the only people being given tantric empowerments or even watching certain rituals were full time, fully ordained, fully committed monks and nuns. Lay people? They were doing an entirely different set of practices. We should do well to keep this firmly in mind. The very notion that some young, white, middle-class hipster would want to sit on a zafu and count his breaths for twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening is un-fucking-precedented. Not because he’s a white dude. But because he’s a layperson.
There’s a story about Suzuki roshi (it may have come from Crooked Cucumber; I may have heard it at the Zen Center; it may be apocryphal, I’m not sure); in the mid-sixties when all these twenty-something hippies started coming to the Zen temple in San Francisco’s Japantown, Suzuki thought they were nuts. Lay people didn’t meditated. It was just weird. The weirdness wasn’t the color of their skin; it was their willingness to engage in monastic practices while being simultaneously unwilling to become full-time monastics.2 (He, of course, went on to teach them anyway, got into trouble with the Japanese hierarchy, and hand to start a completely different Center, separate from the Japanese-American community. Breaking with tradition always carries with it certain risks.)
I do not want to get into the question of whether or not laypeople should meditate or engage in what heretofore were practices only monks and nuns did. That’s a topic for a completely different blog post. What I really want to do is ask all my fellow white Dharma friends out there who feel disenfranchised to stop for a second and consider what they are asking of their Asian Buddhist teachers, of the Asian Buddhist tradition. They are, in some cases, asking folks to re-think the very structure of a two-thousand-year-old tradition. Religious institutions tend to be extremely conservative; it takes them a long time to do anything. They are resistant to change. It is a testament to the ingenuity, the creativity, and the openness of Asian Buddhist teachers that they would be willing to talk to us at all given the fact that there is no precedence for lay interest in monastic training.
What surprises me is not that there may be resistance in some Asian Buddhist communities to include white people; what surprises me is that there aren’t more cases of monks dismissing meditation on principle and telling laypeople to choose between being a monk or being a layperson; and if you’re a layperson, leave some dana and hope for the best in your next incarnation.
That’s the normative model of lay Buddhist practice. It would be easier to do this than to change. So, I’ll say it again for emphasis: It is a testament to the ingenuity, the creativity, and the openness of Asian Buddhist teachers that they would be willing to talk to us at all given the fact that there is no precedence for lay interest in monastic training.3
I encourage you, therefore, to reflect on your own expectations vis Ã vis Buddhist practice and traditional Buddhist institutions. Are your frustrations with the slow pace of change a reflection of others’ unwillingness to teach? Or a reflection of your unwillingness to be patient? Or unwillingness to give up what they have given up? In other words, a full time ordained monastic has given up a wife or husband and family and all the creature comforts of our modern, American lifestyles as a prerequisite for more arduous Buddhist practice. Why should he be willing to give you the same teachings when you won’t even give up your iPhone?
When we stop thinking of our limited selves in just this moment, when we stop and place Buddhism and Buddhists within the larger sweep of history, when we consider the radical changes Buddhism as an institution has gone through in a very short period of time, when we stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the Dharma as it is free from our own expectations of what it should be, then perhaps we will find ourselves more patient and accepting of Buddhism as it is rather than forcing it to conform to our expectations before it is ready.
- I’d like to point out that when I wrote this paragraph I was thinking specifically of the Buddhist Churches of America. I’ve read and talked to a number of people who’ve had the experience of being told by older members of the community (who were born and/or raised) in the camps, that the BCA should be Japanese-only. But the recent history of the BCA doesn’t suggest that these folks are either (a) in the majority or (b) that their views have had a wide-spread impact. The previous president of the BCA, for example, was a white convert to Jodo Shinshu, and there are currently a number of non-Japanese of multiethnic ministers in service. In sum, these old hold-outs, in my own tradition, are sorely out-numbered. [ back ]
- I’m fully aware of the fact that I’m picking and choosing my history in this story. Suzuki does not come from a tradition that had fully-ordained monastics in the sense of the Theravada tradition. There were some examples of laypersons practicing shiken taza prior to Suzuki coming to America that would have provided him a model for teaching white American laypeople (or Japanese Americans, had they wanted it). The distinction between monastics and the laity in Japanese Buddhism (especially post-Meiji) is always difficult. So, please, forgive my rhetorical flourishes here, and let’s not debate the details on this one, ‘kay? [ back ]
- While we’re on the subject, I’d like to point out that there are, of course, models for laypeople to engage in Buddhist practices that go beyond merely supporting a monk or dana or merit making. And one of them is, of course, my own tradition of Jodo Shinshu. I often wonder, had American Shin Buddhism note been so adversely effected by World War Two, had there been a greater willingness, earlier in the 20th century, to reach out beyond the Japanese community, would there have been more white folks joining the community because, for the past 750 years, we’ve had a model of how to be “neither monk nor lay,” as the saying goes. We’ve had a model of how to have your Buddhist cake and eat it, too, how to practice Buddhism seriously while living in this world with family and the creature comforts. Something I think we American Shin Buddhists could do a better job of expressing to folks outside the tradition. [ back ]