Who are those American Buddhists?

One thing I carried away from this past election cycle was that in certain parts of the country, people refer to their ancestry as “American.” This juicy tidbit about American demographics was gleaned from Nate Silver‘s highly influential blog, where he wrote:

Recently, the Census Bureau has begin to ask for an ethnic classification in addition to a racial one (e.g. “Cuban”, “Lithuanian”). However, about seven percent of Americans decline to check any of the boxes that the Census Bureau provides, and instead write in that they are simply “American”. As you can see, this practice tends to be highly concentrated in certain parts of the country, especially the Appalachian/Highlands region:

To be perfectly blunt, this variable seems to serve as a pretty good proxy for folks that a lot of us elitists would usually describe as “rednecks”. And for whatever reason, these “American” voters do not like Barack Obama. That is why he’s getting killed in the polls in Kentucky and West Virginia, for instance, where there are high concentrations of them.

So what does this have to do with Buddhism? Nothing.

But coincidentally, the other day, Rev. Danny Fisher posted a link to an article over at elephant journal, where Waylon Lewis defined the term Dharma brat in a way that made my heart skip a beat:

One day I visited with Ben Moore, a fellow “Dharma Brat” (child of American Buddhist parents).

So what then does it mean to be an American Buddhist?

Let’s make things clear. As a whole I have no gripes about the piece, but I was pained by this one definition. Those five parenthetical words are sad, disappointing and offensive all at once. When Lewis says that Dharma brats are the children of “American” Buddhists, he’s implicitly saying that all those Asian American Buddhists who aren’t Dharma brats are children of people who aren’t American Buddhists. (Sorry, Mom!)

After all, from my understanding, Dharma brats are more appropriately defined as the children of Buddhists who are American, but aren’t Asian. (Or the children of converts, but that distinction merits another post.) Now for some reason, Lewis prefers to use “American” in place of “American but not Asian.” Maybe he feels that Asian Americans really aren’t American. Or maybe he feels that Asian American Buddhists simply aren’t American Buddhists. Or worse yet, maybe he just doesn’t care and pretends that Asian American Buddhists don’t exist.

Or maybe he identifies with Appalachia and considers “American” an ethnicity.

And this is no bitty slip-o’-the-tongue that I’ve jumped all over. Lewis uses the same words in this interview:

First of all, I was born into an American Buddhist family—they call us “Dharma Brats.”

If you’re not convinced, just check out Lewis’ words from fourteen years ago:

The young journalist who waited for her at the cafe was similar to Emily in many ways: he was 20 years old, a college student in Boston, an aspiring writer, and another “dharma brat,” raised in an American family devoted to the practice of an Eastern religion.

It is simply astounding that in all his years, it has never occurred to Mr. Lewis — be it through personal reflection or friendly intervention — that this usage of “American” might be viewed at best as infelicitous and at worst as racist! After all, in every one of these contexts, Lewis’ use of “American” is to the incontrovertible exclusion of Asian Americans. Cries over the (mis)use of Zen seem quaint in comparison.

Let me reframe the credentials of Asian American Buddhists. We are Buddhist because that’s what we call ourselves, because that’s how we practice, because that’s the religion we choose to follow and identify with. We are American because we were born here, we went to American schools, we salute Old Glory, we pay American taxes, we speak American English, we vote in American elections and because we fought, bled and died for American freedoms. We are as American as chop suey, fortune cookies, competitive team taiko and home-baked apple pie. And our Buddhism is American Buddhism because no matter how superficially similar our local practice may seem to the way that Buddhism is practiced in Asia, we have had to significantly adapt and alter our traditions to fit our American community and context here in North America.

We brought Buddhism to America, and yet somehow we’ve become discretionary denizens of the American Buddhist community. In our own community. The truth is that in the face of all the Asian American temples and congregations, it’s the white people who have more money, power and influence over the way that America views the Buddhist community. And it’s people like Waylon Lewis who, on the record with ostensibly innocent intentions, refer to American Buddhists by pointing away from Asians.

Where do we draw the line between what counts as American and what doesn’t count as American, and at what point does race and ethnicity factor into the equation of what counts as American? We can extend these questions to American Buddhism, but can we answer them without using any racial or ethnic terms?

I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who notices these slights (and right now I’m psychically staring at all the effete white liberal Buddhists who use the term “American” Buddhism synonymously with “non-Asian” Buddhism). But that’s why I blog. Someone’s got to write about it.

20 Replies to “Who are those American Buddhists?”

  1. Are you after web traffic, or is this a sincere concern? If it were, you might’ve emailed me first…I run a pretty major web site, one google search away.

  2. Dude. Racism is not a charge to bring lightly. Doing so devalues the term and makes it harder to use it effectively in important cases, e.g. when there really is negative intention, action and effect.
    You state: “this usage of ‘American’ might be viewed as… at worst racist”. Note your use of the phrase “might be viewed”. So this usage also might NOT be so viewed.
    Your own assumption about the meaning of ‘American’ as excluding Asians and all other non-“white” ethnicities might be viewed as politically recidivist at best and even more overtly and definitely racist than Mr. Lewis’ usage at worst.
    What would make the difference between viewing such a usage as Mr. Lewis’ as racist? Other racist expressions in its context or a racist background of its user. There are no racist expressions in the context of this article or its journal, and you didn’t check Mr. Lewis’ background or contact him to discuss possible issues of racism in his definition of “Dharma brat”, or to ask him to clarify that definition v.a.v. race.
    THAT could have been open, thoughtful, communicative, and helpful for everyone – important characteristics of a post-racist community.
    Instead, you made a very serious allegation based on a semantic interpretation that could actually be viewed even more readily as racist than the usage you criticize. That might easily lead readers to believe that you’re more interested in sensationalizing for blog hits than in openness and clarity. At the very least, it suggests that your tendency is more toward making negative judgments than toward contemplating or investigating a situation.
    By the way, I’m Latino and a Buddhist practitioner.

  3. Interesting stuff you have here – I am a Caucasian who was Buddhist for a number of years, I am finding myself wanting to come back to it.

    My familiarity with a Buddhist culture came when I was living (at age 12) in a red light district motel that was run by a Chinese family that happened to be Buddhist. They left a bright orange book called ‘The Teachings of Buddha’ in the nightstand drawers along side of a Bible.

    My own family were “hippie” types in a lot of ways, and I am very typical of my generation, growing up with no structure, in an environment of total moral relativism… never really knowing where I stood even inside of myself, this is the case with most people my age who have similar parentage.

    When I met these Chinese Buddhists I observed a culture where everyone had a coherent identity, families were strong and intact, there was a general sense that everyone knew what their place was and what they were supposed to do, and how they were supposed to regard others. I assumed this was a Buddhist thing.

    I figured that if I became a Buddhist, a magic wand would be waved over my life and everything around me would become sane, orderly, and nobody would yell very loudly, people would magically stop cussing, and there would magically be less sex on TV.

    Years later, as an adult, I decided on my own to become a Buddhist, and the sangha available to me was a mostly Western-oriented center. And it was the same everywhere I went in this tradition – full of white people who were neurotic about sex, wanted to discuss leftist politics in the meditation hall, and who all seemed to hate their parents.
    I was fine with this for a while but eventually came to the disappointing conclusion that I could convert to Buddhism but I could not convert to being Asian. 🙂

    I actually hang out with a lot of Christians these days, because even though I just do not ‘click’ with Christianity, I still have more in common with them than with most white Westerners who practice Buddhism. I am into the ‘modesty’ movement and politically moderate, for example. I see being a member of the social mainstream, as being a good thing.

    I am realizing these days I could have gotten what I wanted out of a conversion to Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism, as Buddhism *for Westerners* is *not* about family ties, tradition or a common moral ground. Most white people who become Buddhist, are *leaving* the very environment that Asian Buddhists live within.

    Unfortunately I just do not “click” with either Christianity or Judaism. I’m looking into Buddhism again these days but I would like to find a temple/group that is more traditional. Interestingly enough these days my mom is drawn to Buddhism, so oddly that gives me more of a feelign of ‘normalcy’ about it.

  4. Great post, arunlikhati. You’ve raised his hackles a bit (see link above in the comments) – but I think that’s a very normal response. We white folk are always hypersensitive to being called racists.

    Personally, I don’t think he consciously intended to exclude Asian American Buddhists. But I do think that he (and I!) use “American Buddhist” to mean “white Buddhist convert type”, except that the latter does sound exclusive and somewhat racist (but then, another thing I notice about us white folk is that we are very reluctant to vocalize racial identification – i.e. say things like “white”, “black”, “African-American”, etc. – I guess we’d rather avoid the issue and pretend it’s not there). Anyway, I think the white American Buddhist community is indeed a lot more visible (to me, at least) and we run the very real risk of homogenizing all American Buddhism into the white hippie/liberal community. You’ve got a good thing going here – reminding people of the real, historical diversity in American Buddhism.

    Anyway. I think yours is an important voice, arunlikhati. Reading your posts on this subject make me a lot more mindful about the terms I use and see used. I also think you make clear, readable arguments. Plus, it’s just fun and interesting to read about! Thanks very much!

  5. To all you kind folk: Not after web traffic, and this is a sincere concern. I’ve got my plate of crow here, and here’s what I’ll eat. The first piece I’ll swallow is that I shouldn’t have demeaningly and personally wrapped up Waylon in my criticism. That was out of line.

    The second piece I’ll stomach is about the meaning of “Dharma brat.” I considered two definitions, but obviously went with the more racially charged version. I have always heard Dharma brat refer to non-Asians, and that’s what I ran with. Much of my argument falls to dust if we all agree that Dharma brat means “any second-generation American Buddhist.” But then we’re still left with this use of “American Buddhist” as in “child of American Buddhist parents.” What does “American Buddhist” mean then?

    This is where dinner ends.

    We can use linear logic to get to my problem with the concerned definition: If Jane is a third-generation American Buddhist, then she is not a second-generation American Buddhist, and then she is not a Dharma brat. If Jane is not a Dharma brat, then she is not the child of American Buddhists. If she is not the child of American Buddhists, then her parents are not American Buddhists.

    It so happens we find thousands of Buddhists just like Jane who are Americans who also happen to be Asian (such as the “offspring of the concentration camps”), but who don’t qualify as Dharma brats and whose parents accordingly don’t qualify as American Buddhists.

    This post is for those mothers.

    In its context, Lewis’ use of “American Buddhist” excluded people who I refer to as American Buddhists. The term and definition work out nicely if your parents are American Buddhist converts, but less so if your American Buddhist heritage is considerably more aged. As I said before, “this usage of American might be viewed at best as infelicitous and at worst as racist.” I stand by those words.

    So what this boils down to is that I got riled by Waylon Lewis’ cavalier usage of “American Buddhist.” It hit a sore spot in me especially because of all the times that I’ve been told that I’m not an American Buddhist and that I don’t practice American Buddhism. Especially since I’m not a Dharma brat. Lewis’ words provided the tinder for my past indignation, and he was unfortunately caught up the fire. If only we all chose our words more wisely.

    I really appreciate all the positive comments I got, but I think everyone should take in the concerns posted in the comments here and also Lewis’ well-earned indignation. While my words may have resonated with some people’s frustrations, they were also not the best chosen words.

    I still think Waylon Lewis should be more mindful about the way he uses “American Buddhist.” But I’ve also got a lot of work to get my own writing up to my own standards.

  6. To put it as simply as possible, I think the main concern arunlikhati is trying to express with this post boils down to this:

    “After all, from my understanding, Dharma brats are more appropriately defined as the children of Buddhists who are American, but aren’t Asian. (Or the children of converts, but that distinction merits another post.) Now for some reason, Lewis prefers to use “American” in place of “American but not Asian.”

    So why does Waylon use “American” in place of “American but not Asian”? Waylon has clearly expressed in his comments and his own elephant journal entry that his intentions were not racist. Therefore, I think it was just out of innocent convenience that the term “American” was used in place of “American but not Asian”. If so, then I would also agree with blogger angela in her comment on the elephant journal blog entry that using the term “American Buddhist” is rather “lazy”. Maybe terms such as “American Buddhist” are not supposed to be used out of convenience. Really, any term that derives from a combination of race/ethnicity/nationality+religion should be carefully considered before used to define any group of people.

    Thanks to arunlikhati, Waylon, and all the other commenters for discussing quite an interesting issue.

  7. Thanks for this post. Actually I have never heard the term “Dharma brat” before until this discussion! In military chaplaincy work, I have come across second-generation young persons of convert Buddhist parents (I am assuming this is the general meaning of the term, you all can debate this further): some of them are actively practicing Buddhists, others say “my family is Buddhist” and may identify therefore as Buddhist even if they do not practice Buddhism themselves, and usually not any particular tradition, or also some were who identified themselves as basically “nonreligious” – meaning that they had no interest in Buddhist services on base or off base n the local community. So I think, just to confuse everyone some more(!) that “Dharma brat” can be a very fluid definition and we should be wary of attempts to pin it down to any one group of people.

  8. I found this post very interesting in light of my recent attempts to survey the academic literature about Buddhism in America. There is a term that’s used to refer to an evolving Buddhism here in the U.S. and Canada — “American Buddhism” — and that term is really hard to pin down.

    The Buddhism of immigrants who came to the U.S. in the mid-1800s has changed over the years. The Buddhism of immigrants who came in the 1970s and later may not have changed a lot for the people who were adults then, but for their children (who are now adults), that might be a different story, and for their grandchildren (if they choose to be Buddhists), it almost certainly will. Then there are the various assorted converts, and children of converts, and we have to keep in mind that some convert Buddhists (especially in Soka Gakkai) are not rich or middle-class white people with a college education.

    I had never given ANY of this a moment’s thought before about two months ago. I’m one of those educated middle-class white convert Buddhists, and I practice with a bunch of other white people. I have traveled a lot in Asia and have known a lot of Asians in the U.S. (some immigrants, and some third- and fourth-generation Americans), so I’m aware that many of them practice Buddhism no more than many Christians practice Christianity — that is, they don’t practice.

    In other words, there are uncountable variations in practices and beliefs in Buddhism in North America. Many people don’t realize that. They might know that Tibetan Buddhist practices differ from Japanese Zen Buddhist practices.

    Do they also know that Korean Zen Buddhist practices differ from the Japanese?

    Do they know that Vietnamese practices typically incorporate a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism? Do they know that the Vietnamese practices are derived rather directly from Chinese Buddhism, where these three traditions competed, borrowed, merged and diverged over several centuries?

    Probably not.

    If someone is a practicing Buddhist in America, is there a need for her (or him) to understand the myriad forms of Buddhism in this country?

    Well, at least people ought to know that their one single form is not universal, or “best.”

  9. If a person has been seriously practicing or studying Buddhism in the US for some time, then yes, I think he or she gradually realizes that there is an enormous amount of diversity within Buddhism and among Buddhists, and that much of it is also cultural as well as doctrinal diversity. But for the average non-Buddhist American, then no, I don’t think most people have any idea of the myriad forms of Buddhism out there, other than Zen and the Dalai Lama, unless they suddenly have a need to know. I knew a hospital chaplain who expressed his confusion when he had a SE Asian Buddhist family in need of counseling (who were from a predominantly Theravada country) and he called in a Chinese nun for them, and wondered why that didn’t work out! (“I thought they were all Buddhist!”) It helps to explain that Buddhism is divided into different traditions with sometimes VERY different beliefs, just as Christianity has its different denominations, and then they understand.

  10. @Eric: Chop suey (or dop suey, as pronounced in the dialect of those Chinese railroad workers you mentioned) is an unmistakeable facet of Chinese restaurants in America, even though (like fortune cookies) it has its roots overseas. This transnational character does not diminish the dish’s Americanness. I have travelled to China many a time—even to Taishan—and I cannot once recall having seen chop suey on a menu… but it’s surprisingly hard to miss in America. The prominence of chop suey in America is an enduring legacy of those early Taishanese immigrants who built the railroad, who founded the Chinatowns, who brought over their families and who comprised the overwhelming majority of Chinese Americans (and, by proxy, Chinese American Buddhists) up through the 1970s. Being of Chinese heritage doesn’t make chop suey any less American than those Chinese Americans. That, after all, is the point of this post. Being American and Asian are not mutually exclusive.

  11. Spiritual principals of love and compassion are universal.

    We are human beings first, without any racial or nationalistic labels. When we define ourselves as being separate from others it demonstrates most clearly that we have missed the essential message that aside from all else we are in fact one.

    If we can hold this principal as being a common element to faith, regardless of what that faith is, or where it originates, then the apparent differences of race or nationality will no longer matter.

    The principal of oneness is the only salvation for a world divided by fear and self interest.

    1. Thanks for you comment and pointing to the fact that, we are genetically different and often isolated by such artificial boundaries as national borders.

  12. @Marvin: Ah, but let it not be lost on you that my question more importantly pointed to the well-known fact in the medical community that the artificial (yet not entirely arbitrary) constructions of race and nationality are in fact at times beneficial—to the point of saving lives. Race and nationality are very complex issues, and I am very happy for you that you live a life of such luxury and privilege that you can look down on them from above.

  13. I don’t think that this political correctness is very helpful in combatting real racism. Your comments are like the mirror image of McCarthyism. Looking for “reds in the beds”. Making distinctions is how human language works. Deconstructionalist logic was very de riguer in social sciences in its important and valuable discussions about racism, imperialism, orientalism etc. but we don’t need to work on deconstructionist auto pilot, creating new stigmas were ever we go.

    Surely we can see what the real intention behind these terms are the same as if a racist chose be like a lawyer and chose his words carefully he would still be able to convey his attitude. I don’t think the Dharma brats and American Buddhists are a racist group. Personally I find Americans seem to cling to racial definitions of them selves and that doesn’t seem very useful. I think economic inequality is your biggest problem in America and racial issues are a red herring that keep everyone’s energy engaged in a war of words that may never be won. You might have a better racial mix at the top but the social problems created by not having proper social welfare are what is shameful about the US. The richest country in the world can’t take care of it’s tired and hungry. I think the kind of racism your worrying about is not the same kind of racism as Idi Amin’s Africa for Africans or Hitlers final solution or Paki bashing in the UK ro what caused the deaths in The Srebrenica massacre. American Buddhist may be a largely white liberal privileged group but being born into that kind of group is not the cause important social problems related to race in America and obsessing on the minutia of racism seems to be rooted in fear of the stigma of being defined a s a racist than actually making a difference.

  14. Interesting article. I was trying to find more info on the term “dharma brat.”

    Trick question 🙂 – my Dad is First Nation (Blackfeet)/Basque, my mother is Russian/Dutch, I was born in Taipei, and was raised Buddhist. What Race – nationality am I?

    I think I am bleep outta luck if I had to depend on my race to find a bone marrow match :P.

Comments are closed.