jumping off a bridge

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 à 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.


  1. 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 ]
  2. 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 ]
  3. 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 ]

10 thoughts on “jumping off a bridge

  1. Uhm, apples and oranges when it comes to what I’ve seen, Scott.

    You state:

    “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.”

    Where does that leave the established Tibetan tradition, fairly common in Nyingma and Kagyu lineages, of people taking temporary vows and returning them and being yogis as householders? Many, if not most, Nyingma and Kagyu teachers that come to the West to teach as fully empowered lamas are not, technically, monastics. They have wives and kids and, similar to Japan, temples and such are often handed down within the families. Heck, the Sakyas have built a dynasty on doing this. It is the Sakya *family* after all.

    Leaving that aside, the people that I had mentioned before that had refused the approval to teach have not been lay people. I’m not sure what gave you that idea. They were fully ordained, Vinaya holding, monastics. Some of them had been monastics for decades, first in Asia and then here. The most egregious example that I know of, in the Kagyu lineage and in the midwest, involves an American nun.

    So, I feel that you’re conflating a couple of things. I think your overall point of monastics versus lay people is generally valid (leaving aside that true monasticism, as in the Vinaya, doesn’t really exist in Japan so doesn’t apply) but it doesn’t cover the situation that many people have witnessed in which Americans and Europeans *do* become monastics only to be the token white guy (or gal) who is never allowed, by the official structures, to do the things that their peers, often decades younger, get handed quite easily.

  2. Of course, you will probably tell me that what I’ve seen is anecdotal so is not necessarily what is really happening out there if we had access to the data, somehow. Can we skip that conversational step?

  3. Oh, I should add the reason, as expressed to me, of why so few Americans retain their vows when they do become monastics. Again, this is anecdotal but has been told to me, face to face, by more than one former monastic (within Tibetan lineages): There is no support for monasticism here, not culturally and not from the Tibetan Buddhist community. If someone takes monastic vows, the common problem that they run into is there are a handful of monasteries in which they can live. These are often completely full, not taking new people. Since they cannot get into a monastery, these individuals try to live as monastics outside of the monastery. Of course, the Vinaya requires one to not handle money, not be alone in the room with some of the opposite gender who is not a relative, and many many other rules that mean that monastics cannot have employment. What are the options for an unemployed person who is not allowed to take a job without a community that supports the person financially? The answer, as expressed to me by these former monastics, is not much. In the end, they return their vows and continue to practice in largely the same way, just as householders who are allowed to support themselves since no one else is willing to do so.

    In my opinion, this is why monasticism is not going to become well established in cultures where it is not already accepted. This is leaving aside our puritan-derived attitudes towards people who don’t work for a living.

  4. Al, I’m getting the distinct impression that you’re stalking me!

    I’d like to kindly draw your attention to that third paragraph up there, you know, the one where I said “I’m not talking about you, specifically.” So, when you wrote “the people that I had mentioned before that had refused the approval to teach have not been lay people. I’m not sure what gave you that idea” — I’m not sure what gave you the idea that I was talking about what you said before.

    Also, I think it’s pretty clear in this post that I’m talking about monastics and laypeople and drawing a fairly wide net. It’s a blog post written in generalities. If I’d wanted to write with more nuance, I would’ve taken the time to write a book or something. Lord knows I could write a book about this topic. Hell, someone probably already has. So, if you’d like to nit pick about details, that’s fine, but I’ve already admitted that I’m fudging the details.

    Obviously, if there’s no support for monastics in this or any other country, there isn’t going to develop a monastic community. But people who leave the monastery because there’s no general support might not be complaining about recalcitrant Asians, right? They might be complaining, like a lot of people are complaining, about this goddamn economy. So then this post isn’t really about them, is it?

    This issue seems to be one you really like arguing with me about. Thank god I’m not your advisor!

  5. While you weren’t specifically targeting me, I know for a fact that I am one of the few people that have brought up this point on your blog. I read your comments as “Don’t take this as a personal attack, I’m not calling *you* a racist.” I didn’t take that as “If we’ve discussed parts of this before on my blog, don’t mention it because I’m not alluding to our discussions in any way, shape, or form.”

    There are two issues that I mentioned (in reverse order):

    1. There is little support for monastics in the West.

    2. In my experience and that of people that I know, there is little support for the empowering of non-Tibetans (at the very least) as fully empowered lineage holders even after decades of practice.

    And, dude, I follow your twitter. You and at least one other person I follow tweeted about this post so of course I saw it!

    I argue with you about it because you and I have very divergent opinions about this, probably formed by very different backgrounds in Buddhism and the communities of Buddhists with which we’ve each been connected. When I have referenced the issues with empowerment, etc., it has because this has been a HUGE issue within segments of the American convert community of Vajryana practitioners and is often discussed. Perhaps this is not as much of an issue with the BCA, hence part of our different viewpoint. I take the commentary within your post as generally poo-pooing that there is a real issue here. Of course, it’s your blog and your opinions so you can say and think as you like but I’ve been trying to offer another viewpoint.

  6. Al, like I said, this post is cutting a fairly wide swath. Which is why I said I wasn’t talking about anyone in particular. Your comments strike the tone (to me anyway) that my post was somehow directed at you. Your comments leave me with the impression that you think I’m picking a fight with you, like you’re defending yourself. Which isn’t what this post is about. It’s about a lot of things. And some of those things I said, clearly, may not be applicable to the specific case you’re talking about, i.e., a lack of support for monastics in this country. It seems to me that your specific case may not be applicable to the argument here. But other points in this piece may be applicable to other people’s experiences or communities which is why I was cutting a wide swath in the first place and trying to avoid having a direct argument with any one person. I’m trying to be as inclusive as possible while fostering conversation with as many people as possible.

    My “stalking” comment was a joke. It’s not often that one person posts four comments to my blog within ten minutes. Get it. You’re stalking me? Haha…? Okay, bad joke. Maybe I should re-think my general aversion to emoticons….

    As to the rest of it, I’m done arguing. I get your point. As a matter of fact, I respect your viewpoint and your opinion and am a little sad that you think my engaging you in this conversation is me “poo-pooing” what is, obviously, a very sore subject for you. That’s certainly not my intention. But, got it. I hear your point. And I’m letting it stand. But since I have no direct experience of (nor, frankly, have I read anything else on) this subject, I really can’t comment. I would be speaking out of turn. So I’m letting it drop.

  7. All right. I hear what you’re saying.

    It is a sore subject to me. I felt like I beat my head against Tibetan Vajryana (which I still care a great deal for) for years before finally just giving up on expecting to find an actual empowered teacher to work with and this was living in places that were considered hotbeds of Buddhism. I’m part of a circle of friends that did a retreat together in 2004 that were all in the same boat. At this point, out of something like ten of us, two of us still follow the Dharma. The others just gave up on it as too hard because they wanted to train in Vajrayana. All they wanted was to fully practice the teachings. The one of us that has done so had to move to Nepal in order to have it happen. I ran into very similar issues around Shingon and Tendai before I simply focused on my own practice and wound up, effectively by accident, in a Zen sect that did have Western teachers (but which is effectively on its own).

    So, the issues of Buddhism coming to the West and how it is transmitted or people are trained are very much hot spots for me and I will freely admit it.

  8. Hi DJ,

    Bear in mind that in traditional Buddhist countries, they do have Uposatha-type holidays frequently where lay-people can spend the time among monastics, so I think the Buddha did intend people to do more than just be passive lay people. I think the problem in these countries is that not enough people do it, and just fall back on the “merit-building” stuff.

    On the flip side, Westerners suffer from a sense of “entitlement” where they think they just automatically deserve things just because they showed up.

    In my experiences of Shingon Buddhism, for example, there’s never been an issue with people learning the esoteric practices, but you just have to leave it to the discretion of the teacher, and you have to show up regularly and prove that you’re interested. If so, the teacher will gradually work you through practices that suit your temperament (and that you’re not encouraged to share with others, who may have different inclinations anyways). I thought Shingon had a good balance of clergy not being too aloof, but at the same time sticking to its tradition of dedication and respect for the esoteric tradition.

    Also, speaking as someone in the BCA for a few years, I found that the head BCA center and its views doesn’t always reflect followers on the ground elsewhere. Cali is a world unto its own, lemme tell ‘ya. 😉

    Anyways, I suppose each community will just have to sort out their own fate. I know the temple I used to go to has finally reached a turning point after I left for Ireland, and may finally be getting the picture. I think it’s not too late for them, so they’ll be alright.

  9. Hey Doug,

    Thanks for the comment. I see where you’re coming from. But I think there’s a distinct difference between laypeople visiting a temple for a holiday or other service and going on a month-long mediation retreat.

    That being said, I think the real concern I have — one that I didn’t directly talk about here, may bring up later, and I think you’re hinting at with your “entitlement” issue — isn’t so much that lay folks can or can’t do more arduous, monastic-style practices. The real concern I have is that it seems like people condescendingly dismiss lay practice as somehow not real practice. There seem to be an idea (which, you hint at in your “fall back” comment”) that the real, true practice is the monastic practice and the lay stuff is somehow not real Buddhism, cultural baggage, folk-superstition-whatever.

    Frankly, I find that sort of attitude insulting and somewhat naive. (But know I’m saying that you support the view. I’m just trying to make myself more clear.)

    Anyway, thanks for the comments.

  10. Yeah, I am not real big on the arrogant, culture-centric view of Buddhism either with “culture-centric” being Western-centric of course. Then again, i am sure there’s an “asian-centric” view too.

    Not much we can do about that. Buddhism has so much to say about the fallacy of views and such, that I believe if anyone really practices Buddhism, regardless of time/place/background, etc, they’ll see their own views for what they are, and gradually let them go. The big ball of yarn that is our accumulated ignorance will gradually unravel. 🙂

    For the rest, patience and kindness, as described in ch. 14 of the Lotus Sutra among many sources. 😉

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