Asian American Buddhists

I don’t want to sound like the Angry Asian Man, but I’ve had a hard time finding articles about Asian American Buddhists.

This is one of the classic issues for Asian Americans. The underrepresented minority caught between two worlds. Asian Americans born and raised in North America must continually confront a mainstream perception that they aren’t American enough. At the same time, Asian Americans face pressures from both within and outside the Asian American community of not being Asian enough.

The real issue for young Buddhists in the Asian American community is that there are very few Buddhist communities that they can go to without having to suppress part of their identity. Culturally Asian temples emphasize language and culture, which can be really intimidating for Asian American youth who feel excessively high cultural expectations placed on them. There is probably no coincidence that the virtually all Asian American Buddhists who are active in their communities are also fluent in their parents’ native language and culture.

But on the other hand, culturally American Buddhist centers often feel impersonal when stripped of culturally Asian (but maybe spiritually-lite) practices. And it’s hard for these American centers to understand the perspective of young Asian Americans, who may be intimately familiar with Buddhist symbolism and ritual, but don’t know what it all stands for. An iconoclastic emphasis on philosophy often smacks of inauthenticity.

Then again, there are organizations like the BCA that have really, in my opinion, managed to forge a unique Asian American identity. But cultural divisions in the Asian American Buddhist community continue. BCA Youth are more likely to play basketball with Japanese Methodists than with GĐPT youth (who also have basketball teams).

So is there a place for Asian American Buddhists in today’s Buddhist community? Maybe this is why the Pew study said that 50% of Buddhists choose not to keep the faith…

3 comments

  1. John says:

    Excellent post.

    One of the questions that I think your post raises is such: Is there a middle ground, and what would it look like?

    One alternative I could think of is a temple or tradition that retains its cultural heritage, but also has an English speaking sangha.

    Another alternative are traditions that try to have a distinct Buddhist heritage outside of and in addition to a cultural heritage. I think this is one way to look at monasteries like Wat Metta: sure, it is very Thai, but because of their adherence to the vinaya and the way they set up the monastery they are trying to represent the tradition of the noble ones.

  2. Robert says:

    It seems like Asian-Americans are always in a tough position like this and it’s not surprising that this would extend to participation in Buddhist activities as well.

    Like John said, I’d actually like to see more temples that are purely Thai, for example, but with monks that speak English well enough to teach. I don’t know that most American Buddhists want to only go to “American” temples; they’re just interested in Buddhism and want to learn. So having what are basically “Asian” temples that are just more “American tolerant” (teachers speak English for example and are more open to dealing with more average Americans) would seem like a good thing to me. It seems like being both authentically “Asian” yet more able to deal with average Americans would make Asian-Americans more at home.

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