An Asian American Misunderstood

Time for a bit of an apology. I’m sorry if you feel that the Angry Asian Buddhist unfairly criticized the Next-Gen Buddhism piece for being white-centric. There was lots of interesting stuff in that article, and I didn’t talk about any of it. Over on Shambhala Sun Space, Barry Boyce very kindly links to my post and explains:

If I had phrased the whole thing in a subtler–yet somewhat blunter–way, I might have asked, “Is White America’s love affair with Buddhism a fad that will die with the Baby Boomer generation?”

Until I read that line, I hadn’t properly understood where the piece was coming from. I thought the article was about young Buddhist Americans, questioning if present institutions are enough to engage them and if these institutions are sustainable. These are the questions that I deal with in the Asian American Buddhist community, and I felt that we had something worthwhile to say. So let me tell you where I was coming from.

Every time I open Tricycle, Shambhala Sun or Buddhadharma, the first thing I do is flip to the table of contents and skim through the names to see which articles are written by Asian Americans. Ironically, when I got a comment with a link to Making the Invisible Visible, the first thing I did was skim through to the articles written by Asian Americans, and soon came to Mushim Ikeda-Nash’s Taking the Path Together:

In 1992 I was visiting a Buddhist friend, and saw a copy of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry sitting on the table. Intrigued, I picked it up and scanned the table of contents to see which American poets had been selected for inclusion in the anthology’s 358 pages. I remember dropping the book as though it had burnt me. It was an instinctive response, something I didn’t even think about or try to explain to myself at the time. After that I just purposefully forgot the book even existed.

It wasn’t until three years later that I understood why I had been so shocked. In the afterword of Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry, editor Walter K. Lew writes that “the 45 American poets [in Beneath a Single Moon]… are all Caucasian, and the book only mentions Asians as distal teachers, not as fellow members or poets of the sangha…. When one considers the relative obscurity of some of the poets included in the book, one wonders how it was possible not to have known of the Buddhistic poetry of such writers as [Lawson Fusao] Inada, Al Robles, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, Patricia Ikeda, and Russell Leong.”

My heart jumped. That was me! I’m not alone! Furthermore, to set this in context, Lew’s comments also sparked an online s___ storm (to quote Rod Sperry) over ten years ago, so I’m not sure if we can say the Buddhist community is any more harmonious today.

Now I know that I don’t speak for the entire Asian American community. But I’ll tell you what I do know. I’m tired of Buddhist academics who can’t say “Asian” without saying “immigrant.” (My family has been here since the nineteenth century!) I’m tired of white people who denigrate my culture by calling it backward and ritualistic — or alternatively exoticizing it by talking about how “peaceful” and “Buddhist” we are. I’m tired of Asian American voices being underrepresented in Buddhist publications — we have plenty to contribute to the Buddhist community that has nothing to do with being Asian American.

So I was disappointed to see that “Next-Gen Buddhism” had no Asians on the panel and didn’t talk at all about the Asian American Buddhist community. To me it meant that our future was not intertwined with the future of white American Buddhism. And all those emotions came out. Sigh.

Keep in mind most of this week’s discussion isn’t about Buddhism per se. It’s about race issues that happen to occur in Buddhist communities. Barry Boyce helpfully suggested a future panel discussion on young Asian Americans, but we really don’t need to be Chinatowned. Instead of segregating the Buddhist youth discussion, it’d be better to feature a forum with a mix of young Buddhists, say a fourth-generation Asian American, a second- or (1.5-) generation Asian American, a hapa and a non-Asian Dharma brat.

Of course I’ll still be waiting for the day when you have that same panel talk about something that has absolutely nothing to do with culture or race in the Buddhist community.

4 comments

  1. There is a joke that goes something to the effect:

    “A very pious man prays to God asking God to allow him to win the lottery. As the drawing day comes and goes and the man wins nothing, he returns to his place of worship to make the request again, adding that he is pious, attending religious services on a weekly basis, etc. Again, another week goes by and he doesn’t win the lottery. The man returns to plead and beg, restating his dedication and faith, and adding further that he is a good family man, donates to charity often, refrains from all vices, etc. etc. Yet another week goes by and he doesn’t win. One day, as is inevitable with all beings, the man dies and appears before God (OK, appearing before God is not the inevitable bit!). Pleading his case before the Lord, itemising all the good he has done, he asks God why he didn’t win the lottery. God replies, “You should have met me half way and bought a ticket!”

    While I do not in any way invalidate your experience of racism in Buddhism (I myself have seen negative comments like “ethnic Buddhists”), I can’t help but wonder how many Asian American (AA) Buddhists are stepping up to the plate, applying for jobs or submitting articles to the referenced publications, asking to be involved in panel discussions, etc. If this is happening and AAs are being actively excluded, then indeed, this is racism at its ugliest. Or, are AAs sitting back and waiting to be invited/involved? Or are AAs refusing the invitations due to language barriers, or whatever other reasons?

    To be sure, if even only one person notices this situation, then it is real and must be discussed. But I can’t help but wonder if there are two partners in this tango.

  2. Jeff says:

    Ashin, I can answer that one for you. These publications don’t think to ask Asian-Americans, so Asian-Americans are rarely if ever extended an offer to refuse in the first place. It’s not that Asian-Americans aren’t stepping up, it’s that there is a network of white convert Buddhists entrenched in the publishing field and they reach out to print articles by and about other people like themselves, without stepping out of their bubbles or making serious attempts to include other voices.

    Some of this has to do with race issues in publishing. The staff at these magazines is virtually all white and always has been. That is not unusual in the publishing world, but it is regrettable at publications that seek to represent a religion that is overwhelmingly non-white (and even English-speaking Buddhists are less than 50% white). It isn’t racism in terms of actively disparaging non-whites. It is white privilege, the privilege to be focused only on one’s own community, to believe one’s own community is representative of the whole, and to not ever have to think about how one’s whiteness allows smooth entrance into the world of publishing and speaking for Buddhism in a way that people with far more history with Buddhism (but far more melanin as well) are as a group unable to access (the occasional individual exception doesn’t invalidate the general rule here).

    Mr. Boyce’s article and his shock at how it was received are typical of this pattern. A person of presumably no malicious intent, he was simply blind to how his decisions wound others–blind because his skin color and social privilege allow him to not have to think about such issues until someone blows up at him after the fact. This is not racism as outright hatred, but institutionalized racism that affects the whole society and is especially entrenched in the media (i.e. the industry of representation and normative information control), Buddhist magazines included.

  3. arunlikhati says:

    Kyezutinbade, Ashin-hpoya! In the specific case of the Buddhadharma piece, I know that one of the participants raised the suggestion of including an Asian American on the panel, but that this suggestion was (gently) shot down. The editor wanted an all-white panel. (It actually isn’t an “all-convert” panel.) Your point is something I’ve talked about before, but to no conclusion. But it looks as though Jeff responded to your post even more thoroughly than I would have known how to!

    Jeff: Thank you for such a detailed and thorough comment!

  4. After posting my comment, I went to look at the Tricycle blog, then came back to see if there were any follow up comments, only to discover that some of my post is missing!

    First, after reading your postings, arunlikhati, the subsequent comments and the comments over at Tricycle, this is really a sad state of affairs. Thank you for pointing this out and Jeff, thank you for the kind and thoughtful explanation.

    As for the missing comments, it’s not necessary to reconstruct all of them, but I did want to say that I hope it is not understood that I am suggesting (through the joke) that “Western” Buddhism is the jackpot to which all others should aspire, anymore than “Asian” Buddhism would be. Despite the trappings and clothing, the core truths remain – dukkha, causation, cessation and the Path. What we clearly need, especially with this issue, is more understanding, loving kindness and compassion.

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