all american buddhism

An earlier iteration of my online self would have jumped on this one, a piece by the Angry Asian Buddhist regarding the Buddhism portal on the religion website Patheos. I’m not really interested in having a debate I’ve had before all to no avail. But I was contacted by @cherryblossom on Twitter today about one aspect of this debate that I think needs closer attention.

Reacting to a comment on Arun’s piece, cherryblossom notes that some folks think that to be “American,” you have to speak English. What often gets lost in these endless racial/ethnic debates is the language side of things. That is, “American” is as often equated with “whiteness” as it is with the English language.

cherryblossom is a member of the Buddhist Churches of America, a community that is often caught in a double bind of being “not American” enough to be counted among “American Buddhists” and “not Buddhist” enough to be authentically Buddhist. This double bind comes from the fact that, as a historically Japanese American community, the BCA falls outside of that “American equals English speaking white people” equation. On the other hand, in part as a reaction to this sort of ethnic and linguistic marginalization, the community has, over the last hundred and a dozen years, consciously adapted their practices to suit the expectations of the American religious scene. In other words, in a BCA church (that’s right, I said church) one can find pews and a pipe organ in place zafus. Services are often conducted in English, or at least bilingually. And it is these alterations to the tradition that have lead some to claim that the BCA isn’t “really Buddhist.”

(Michael Masatsugu [PDF] does an exceptional job of unpacking some of this history.)

In response to this, cherryblossom poignantly writes, “I inferred that some feel, to be American, it must be in English and English means white. I’m MexAm, I speak English. My Sangha is JA, they speak English. What gives?”

This, to me, speaks volumes about the BCA specifically but also about how we conceptualize American Buddhism. We think of American Buddhist communities as ethnically homogenous groups and then divide them up accordingly. This division of communities along ethnic or racial lines then leads to the usual sort of judgements (by almost everyone, I’m sad to say) about who’s a “real” Buddhist or a “real” American. Otherwise well meaning progressive or liberal folk who rightly cringe at racist language ignore the contribution of Asian American Buddhists as if they are not really American, regardless of what language they speak.

(Before you rush off to the comment box and start arguing with me about the language of race and racism, watch this video. And then this one.)

And so the BCA remains in this double bind. It continues to be considered a Japanese community and left out of the discourse on American Buddhism. However, statistical evidence suggests that the BCA is far from an ethnically homogenous group. By constructing this stereotype, we end up not only marginalizing folks like cherryblossom, we completely ignore them. If we assume that a community is ethnically homogenous, how do we account for folks who don’t “fit” that model? (This works in so-called “convert” communities, too. If a community is assumed to be all converts, what about those folks who were born and raised in the community?)

More importantly, even if the BCA was a homogenous Japanese American group, does that mean that they are not American? Have we not grown past the naive assumption that to be American one must be an English-speaking white Anglo-Saxon Protestant?

Let me put it another way. Chevy, a quintessential icon of American culture, was founded in 1911. The Buddhist Churches of America, on the other hand, was founded in 1899, twelve years earlier. In other words, there have been Buddhists in America longer than have been Chevys.

Can we all agree then that Asian American Buddhists are just as American as their white bothers and sisters and get on with it?

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One thought on “all american buddhism

  1. Thank you so much for this great post, Scott! I’ve been trying to think of ways to talk about the heterogeneity of Buddhist America for so long, but you have done it so much more quickly and eloquently that I ever would have been able to. And thanks for the links to the Jay Smooth videos; I really appreciate the second one! I also have more to say about my AAB post about Patheos and all the responses to it—maybe on the weekend. I wrote it up in 15 minutes, and I thought it was pretty boring, but it struck a deeper chord than I imagined it would.

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