(Warning: disorganized rant.) Over on the Buddha is my DJ, Yuinen brought up the situtation that many Asian American Buddhists are unaware that there are other types of Buddhists in the United States. Many assume that it’s only people from their ethnic group, whether it be Chinese/Thai/Japanese/etc., who are the only Buddhists in the United States. This is a very real problem that is helped along by the lack of interaction among Asian American Buddhist institutions.
I’ve ranted about the plight of young Asian American Buddhists before. If you want to bring the Buddhist youth community together, the place to start is close to home. For me, that’s with youth groups — whether in high school, college or recently graduated. We may come from many different cultural backgrounds, but current AA Buddhist youth have more in common with Buddhist peers across ethnic/cultural lines than they do with their parents’ institutions. We’re neither here-nor-there, and as we grow up in the context of the American Buddhist community, that means that there are few Buddhist groups that appeal directly to our social background.
Our cultural isolation is set in place by the older established authority. In the temples I frequent, young AAs have little say, and they’re not often steered towards networking with other temples, especially temples from other ethnic groups.
Why is this the case?
First off, it’s always easier to work within your own group. Working with another temple involves lots of phone calls, advanced planning, comparing schedules and readjustments. If you’re working with a temple rooted in a different ethnic tradition, there’s sometimes a fear (whether true or unfounded) that there will be an insurmountable linguistic barrier. All these little obstacles are enough to favor internal participation over external participation when the choice arises.
Some groups write the cultural divide into their organizational identity. They just don’t want to work with others. I am currently in negotations with one such group to kickstart a series of inter-temple youth activities. It took me two attempts, in two languages, before someone with authority was willing to sit down and talk to me, only to say: We won’t work with youth who aren’t [ethnicity]. We’ve finally been able to (slowly) move past this, but how I dream of the day when the response will be, “We’d love to work with you!”
Some organizations have a rock star complex. They see themselves as the center of the community, and they see no reason to share the spotlight. If there’s a multi-organizational event, then this group or that group will do everything possible to make it their own event, where all other participants are just tagging along. If there’s a youth event, they want to do it on their terms, which means draping the event in the ethnic and sectarian themes of that particular group. Who wants to work with a prima donna? (You may have noticed, I’m still bitter from a recent experience.)
I can go on and on about how I hate working with current Asian American temples.* But I continue working with them because I’m convinced that their youth demographic is the best place for me to make a difference. I’m convinced that the results will be positive for the whole community.
The idea of a multicultural Buddhist network is to help Asian American youth see that their Buddhist identity needn’t be the same as their cultural identity. This notion may seem obvious to “convert” Buddhists, but it’s anathema to the goal that quite a few temple youth groups strive toward, namely the perpetuation of an ethnic Buddhist identity. I may fume over white Buddhists caring too little about ethnic issues, but it’s just as infuriating working with people who care just a little too much about it.
And now you know I don’t spend all my free time kvetching about white people.
* I’m sure no one doubts that I can rant to no end.