last word on the subject

Here are my final words on this whole “Western/American” versus “not-Western” Buddhism thing that just won’t. Go. Away.

(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.

9 thoughts on “last word on the subject

  1. “American” in this context isn’t used to refer to just White; it means middle to upper class white.

    I prefer to use the term I ran across somewhere–“Privileged Buddhism.”

  2. Don’t take this the wrong way when I say I do hope this the last word on the subject. 🙂 The more I think about it myself (and I am pretty guilty of doing just that), the more I realize it won’t be solved by us so there’s little to be accomplished by talking about it further.

    Somehow, the foundations we leave now in Buddhism will become the contributions generations later will draw upon and shape Buddhism further.

    For that reason, any efforts we can do to help propagate the dharma, clear up misunderstandings, and fill in the gaps from limited resources will help a lot more than one group of Buddhists sniping another group, or us lamenting about the back-and-forth struggle.

    The struggle will either resolve itself, or Buddhism will peter out and die in the West. Either way, we can only focus on what we can do now to help it foster and grow. 🙂

  3. @Doug. I also hope that this will be the last word — wouldn’t that be great? But here’s what shutting up the minorities has meant in the Buddhist community.

    Eighteen years ago, the Buddhist poetry anthology Beneath a Single Moon was published with not a single Asian poet. When Asian poets criticized this racial bias while noting a list of well-known Asian Buddhist poets, the Beneath a Single Moon editors quickly shot back by saying that none of these Asian Buddhist poets were qualified enough Buddhists for the anthology! (WTF. One of those Asian poets is a teacher at Spirit Rock.) And then this year I complain that Asians are underrepresented in mainstream Buddhist publications, and I get commenters who reply that white Buddhists should have a right to write magazines for white Buddhists. Is that community progress?

    Or consider that Lama Rangdrol writes in 1998 that “American Buddhism” is marginalizing minorities, and more than ten years later I find myself writing the same things about Western Buddhism. These issues resurface because the community has failed to address these issues.

    These issues endure precisely because we ignore them, because we choose not to deal with them, because we shut up. We refuse to accept the inequity in our own communities, and whenever a person of color brings this up, the response of the hegemonic class is to point to the door. Well I’m sick of being told to shut up for the sake of the greater good. I’m sure it’s tiring to have race issues shoved in your face day in and day out, but guess what the heck it feels like to be a minority in the United States of America! Happy Fourth of July (belated).

  4. And then this year I complain that Asians are underrepresented in mainstream Buddhist publications, and I get commenters who reply that white Buddhists should have a right to write magazines for white Buddhists.

    This is why I don’t like being part of the Buddhist community anymore online: endless sniping back and forth. As for the rest, try finding a society in the world where there isn’t injustice and inequality. Just one. If the world wasn’t off-balance and unsatisfactory anyways, Buddhism wouldn’t be much of a religion.

    Speaking of Buddhism, that’s all I have to say on the subject.

  5. Thank you. I never realized that I was such a bad Buddhist. I should just shut up and realize that racism and discrimination are there for a reason, and I shouldn’t work against it. I just need to accept the world the way it is.

  6. DJ, Arun,

    Having had some time to review what I said, I wanted to apologize for my harsh tone before. I agree with your efforts, but felt frustrated at the state of things and took it out on you guys.

    Sorry I was rude and mean, and please accept my apologies. While you’re at it, feel free to delete the comments above.

  7. @ Doug M: while I can’t speak for Arun, I appreciate your candor here. I have a general policy against deleting comments because I feel that dialogue, even when we’re not acting like our better Buddhist selves, is a good thing. It gets difficult, even painful, at times, but, I believe, ultimately it’s worthwhile. So, that said, thank you for taking the time to engage in this conversation. And thanks to you, as well, Arun, for engaging as well.

  8. Well, thanks for being patient, and I understand the policy. 🙂 It’s a nice reminder to myself that email and blog postings are like toothpaste (once out you can’t cram them back in the tube). A Shinshu minister I knew in Seattle told me that one once. 😉

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