(And you know this isn’t really going to be my final word on the subject. You just know I’ll bring it up again and again because I’m like that that annoying kid who keeps poking his mom saying, “Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom….”)
The question isn’t whether or not white folks should infuse into Buddhism their own cultural expectations. The problem isn’t whether or not it’s appropriate for white folks to practice Buddhism. The question isn’t whether or not the West needs Buddhism or Buddhism needs the West. The problem isn’t reverse racism. The problem isn’t that there aren’t more white folks in Asian temples or Asian folks in white temples.
The problem is simple: “American” does not equal white. Whenever someone paints a portrait of American Buddhism as white Buddhism, they are necessarily suggesting that American-ness equals whiteness.
So, to suggest that Asian Buddhists in this country leave their cultural baggage on the boat, so to speak, is insulting. That cultural baggage is not only a part of Buddhism, it’s a part of America.
To suggest that American Buddhism is nothing but a Buddhism that resonates with scientific empiricism, that it is nothing but something aligned with a pacifist, progressive political agenda this necessarily suggests that Buddhists that somehow don’t mesh with these values are somehow not American.
Asian-American Buddhism is Western Buddhism. Why? Because Asian Americans are Americans.
The only thing that is universal about American culture is its diversity. Why should American Buddhism be anything less than fully and thoroughly diverse?
And what does diversity look like?
Diversity doesn’t mean that all Buddhist sanghas look the same. (Ahem. That would be whitewashing Buddhism, don’t ya think?) Diversity doesn’t mean that all American Buddhists vote Democratic. Diversity doesn’t mean that all Buddhists desperately try to use science to justify their practices or beliefs or assume that the pantheon of bodhisattvas and celestial deities or reincarnation are “just stories,” myths to be taken symbolically.
Diversity means we recognize that there are other Buddhists in this country who are just as American as us but hold radically different views and perform radically different practices and rituals. Diversity means acknowledging without judgement or condemnation that generating merit, practicing dana, celebrating the Buddha’s birthday by washing statues of the baby Buddha in sweet tea, venerating relics housed in stupas, treating images of the Buddha not as decorative art but as imbued with spiritual power, and making offerings to Jizo for the protection of unborn children in a literal, not symbolic, way all of this and more is American Buddhism. All of this “cultural baggage” is as much a part of the rich and vibrant history of American Buddhism as mediation retreats, mindfulness, and zafus.
Cultural baggage? Where do you get off telling someone that their culture is just baggage, ready to be jettisoned, whereas as Western culture is exactly what Buddhism “needs”?
It’s all culture, people. We cannot treat Buddhism as if it is some object housed in a museum under glass, as if it is somehow separate from culture Asian, Western, any culture because once something is housed in a museum, it’s dead.
But that’s not the problem. The problem isn’t that well-intentioned white folks want to incorporate their culture into Buddhism, that they want to find a home. (More power to you.)
The problem is the judgement. The problem is in the valuing of one culture over another. The problem is assuming that to be an American Buddhist, one must relinquish one’s native culture. The problem is the assumption that to be fully American, one must act like a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
I, for one, am not ready to limit Buddhism in this way. Buddhism’s got too much to offer the West for us to demand of it that it leave that cultural baggage where it came from.
So, my final word on the subject: “American” includes the cultural heritage of Asians as well as white folks. If you find yourself trying to define “American Buddhism,” you’d better include all that baggage. If you find yourself burning with a strong desire to describe your Buddhist practice, feel free. But know that your Buddhist practice may be only a tiny slice of the sum total of all American Buddhist practice. So just use a different word. (And I’ll stop poking you!)
Because the truth of the matter is this: “American” or “Western” Buddhism includes all that Asian cultural baggage just as much as your own cultural baggage. When you imply that American Buddhism doesn’t include that baggage, what you’re implying is that our Asian Buddhist brothers and sisters many of whom have been in this country since John Tyler was president they aren’t really American. And that is simply not true.