Is Western Buddhism White?

stuffwhitepeoplelikeSome Buddhist writers have an unquenchable fascination with Western Buddhism. Perhaps it’s due to a flaming sense of entitlement, zealous evangelism or cultural elitism. Regardless, I unfortunately seem to have an undying fascination with these people.

Barbara O’Brien addresses Stuff White People Like, a blog and book by Christian Lander, noting that “Lander mentions Buddhism as a popular choice.” She then writes that “[w]hile Lander’s description of western Buddhists is exaggerated, I think it reflects how most westerners view western Buddhists.” But Landers was writing about white people, not Western Buddhists.

After all, Western Buddhism isn’t white—or is it?

The issue here really has to do with what “Western” means. I typically hear this term with reference to the countries of Western Europe and the white-dominated nations that sprung from their erstwhile colonies. In this case, it’s easy to see where this term might overlap with “white.”

Faced with increasingly globalized cultural and demographic changes, Western societies have come to struggle with what “Western” (or “French”, “American”, “Australian”, etc.) really means. Is the British-born daughter of Punjabi immigrants a Westerner? And what about the Indian/American/Englishman who lives in Kyoto? Is Mitch McConnell more Western than Steven Chu?

In North America, Asian Americans in particular have had to wrestle with the perception of being perpetual foreigners. We may enjoy a heritage of five generations in the West, only to repeatedly face the question, “But where are you really from?” And sometimes we get killed just for being who we are.

Common sense tells me that I can be Asian and a Western Buddhist without being a contradiction. So when a writer like Barbara O’Brien makes a casual assumption that a man talking about white Buddhists is talking about Western Buddhists, I am quite disappointed in her.

As I have made the point before, most Western Buddhists are of Asian heritage. We comprise the majority of Western Buddhism. If you’re talking about white Buddhists (and Lander writes about Americans in particular), then you certainly aren’t talking about most Western Buddhists.

I am not against a discussion of Western Buddhism, but it is exasperating when individuals use this topic as a medium for marginalizing Asian American Western Buddhists. O’Brien has an established track record here. To talk about Buddhism in the West while focusing on non-Asians is like discussing Israel without talking about Jews.

I have a great deal of faith that Western Buddhists are generally not outright racists, and in fact affirm very noble and egalitarian values. I would like to attribute most of the rhetoric of marginalization to misplaced biases and stereotypes. These subtle habits of the mind manifest even when we believe we know better. But we can only change our biases if we are willing to acknowledge them.

The best way to overcome our implicit biases is not through sheer willpower but through experience. We can educate ourselves. We can promote our disadvantaged brothers and sisters. There are several cases of such programs already underway, at least in some Buddhist communities here on the West Coast.

There’s no obligation, of course. We are all free and entitled to write as we will—just keep in mind there might be an Angry Asian Buddhist lurking round the corner.

13 comments

  1. Jayarava says:

    I find O’Brien generally disappointing. You are right of course that most Buddhists are Asian, though I would add that not all Asians living abroad are Asian-Americans. In the so-called ‘West’ many White Buddhists are deeply disenchanted with, not to say disenfranchised by, their own culture and look to the ‘East’ for something better. As Gita Mehta wrote many years ago in Karma Cola this can sometimes be disastrous. Think of the Western infatuation with Stalinism as well. The disenchanted are eager to fall in love with Asia and suffer from all of the symptoms of falling in love.

    Does Buddhism provide a alternative that can ‘save’ us? Despite being an ordained Buddhist I’m not 100% convinced because of the level of superstition and unreasoning belief that I see Western Buddhists adopting – we are swapping the defunct superstitions of Europe for the superstitions of Asia and that makes me wary.

    We White Buddhists may not be racist, but I think we have created institutions that people of colour do not feel drawn to. This seems to be a problem on the UK where I live. Here also we seem to have created what are perceived as “Middle-class” institutions which is a barrier to participation here. (I’ll never understand the British class system!)

    I always tell people that I’m from the Far-East having been born and grown up at about 175 degrees east, which is east of Japan.

    Best Wishes
    Jayarava

  2. arunlikhati says:

    You’re right, not all Asians abroad are Asian American! Thank you for catching my bias! I am of the mind that superstition will always surround Buddhism—not everyone has the time to practice Buddhism on the same level. And your understanding of a religion you are raised in is often different from one you converted to, especially when it comes to understanding things literally versus allegorically.

  3. TFitz says:

    OK, Jayarava has a problem with Barbara?
    Is this one of those pissy Buddhist sites cause boy, I can sure get pissy, even by Buddhist standards, so fer Chrissake, watch the denigrating comments, boyo.

  4. Jayarava says:

    The line between ritual and superstition can be a bit blurred and I wouldn’t like to squeeze out ritual altogether because I know it can be a potent force for change. Does knowing that something is an allegory rob it of it’s power to change?

    I’d also temper what I said a bit. Think of the placebo effect – if you belief you have had an effective treatment then you experience healing (including physical effects). I’m still getting my head around that.

    Time is a funny thing though isn’t it? We don’t have time to practice, really means we don’t make practice a priority. It’s a problem particularly when people come to the Dharma after they tale on spouses and have children and careers (the full catastrophe as Zorba the Greek Called it). Every moment holds the possibility of awakening – I’m quite convinced of this.

    Best Wishes
    Jayarava

  5. James says:

    I’m a white guy and I use to be more embracing of a “Western Buddhism” but soured on it too with the impressions of Western equaling “white” and somehow better.

    You’re right of course that there are Asians who are also westerners. As for now I’m focusing on my Zen practice as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. If something forms as “Western Zen Buddhism” then I’ll look into it. For now, however, the crux of my practice will remain in Vietnamese Zen. Albeit with a touch of my upbringing. I don’t profess it to be “better” or anything — just a different shade of color reflecting the light of the Dharma through the prism of samsara.

    I readily admit that I can’t help but flavor my Buddhist practice to a degree with the Americanized culture I grew up in. I purposefully use “Americanized” instead of “western” because “America” encompasses many races. I have to check myself on a regular basis to make sure that I don’t buy into any form of “exceptionalism.” I’m not always perfect but at least I try and that’s all we can ask of anyone.

  6. Sean says:

    I hypothesize that the prevailing body politick, proceeding under its own self-perceived inertia, produces a sense as if it would be a disadvantage, an unprivileged position, for a person to be not within that body’s own exhalted ranks. In any regard, I think it’s a purely secular perspective, as equally significant as the perception as if the said body was any more exhalted for its own communal and/or individual self-views.

    Not to take issue for argument, but simply to admit: I don’t know how one could help promote someone who would be supposed to be disadvantaged — in regards to what about Buddhism? — as I don’t know how that sense of disadvantage would be defined. I think we may be all equivalently disadvantaged due to attachments upon desires – and not only one’s own, if also one’s own. I do not think I can promote another, in that regard. I may spend my whole life trying to promote myself, at that — so to speak — into a state of mindful nonattachment?

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