It’s obvious anyone who’s been reading this blog for some time that I’ve got a thing or two to say about Asian American issues in the Buddhist community — and also that this thing or two has changed over time. I spent some time today skimming back over the Angry Asian Buddhist posts, and it was humbling (as in embarrassing) to read my own words. There are some things that I would never write again. And there are some things that I wrote again and again and again…
In reviewing the trail of the Angry Asian Buddhist, I ran across a new comment on an old Tricycle blog post with a link to an even older essay “On Race and Buddhism” by the Zen teacher Rev. Alan Senauke. It may be 12 years old, but it still rings true. I didn’t feel it said anything special up until one line that resonated with me:
Several years ago at a meeting of international Buddhist activists in Thailand I realized that in the first day I had figured out who (among the westerners) was Jewish. And even stranger I realized that all the Jews were doing the same thing and had “signified” to each other. We knew who each other was, and we were more comfortable for it. This, I am sure, is a pattern that goes back through centuries of being ghetto-ized, of being the other. It’s not a genetic thing. I can remember my mother telling me how to watch out for myself. That some people would exclude and threaten me just for being Jewish. It’s so deep that sometimes I find myself looking around the zendo and counting those I think are Jewish. Some of you may find yourself making a similar census. From talking with them, I know that people of color do this.
Sometimes I find myself looking around the zendo and counting those I think are Jewish. Well, he definitely did what I do when I open the pages of Tricycle and start counting the Asians.
I recently had a talk with a monk who helped me reconcile a problem I have had with Buddhism for a long time, at least ever since I really started to learn about it.
My exposure to Buddhism started as a child, passed down through temple visits, chanting, praying, incense-burning – all of which can be roughly categorized as the devotional practice of Buddhism. These traditions have been passed down to my parents by my grandparents, and this chain of religious inheritance probably goes several generations back. Many of these practices seemed to originate from culture, meshing with folk traditions and superstitions to create a mixed approach to Buddhism (e.g. burning paper money for ancestors).
One of the perks of my new place is that I live across the street from Border’s. My cold still has not gone away, so after zipping through Trader Joe’s (also across the street), I made a quick swing by Borders, where I noticed that the new issue of Shambhala Sun is out. The Tenth Annual All Buddhist Teachings Issue. (Wow!)
With my newly-bought Shambhala Sun in hand, I zoomed straight to my kitchen, turned on the stove, cooked up some rice porridge (I was inspired by a friend who assured me that shoveling in onions and pepper would smack that cold over to the next life), and then sat down and started counting the Asians.
Last week Andrea Miller posted a short story over on Shambhala Sun Space: “Remembering Koizumi” by Wendy Miyake. I’ve tried countless times in the past thirty minutes to try to give a one-sentence summary of this story. Each time I try, my words cannot seem to do the story justice. You just have to read it for yourself.
Miyake manages to weave Buddhist ritual and philosophy into her story both lightly and meaningfully. Her writing is colorful, funny, engaging and touching. I was delighted to read her writing, and I was even more delighted that it was Shambhala Sun Space that brought Miyake’s work to my attention.
I haven’t been giving Phil Ryan enough credit for standing up for Buddhist diversity, both in this recent post and also in comments elsewhere where he points out Tricycle’s recent interview with Daisaku Ikeda. The interview highlights Soka Gakkai, a group that is both very diverse and very underrepresented in mainstream Buddhist media. Good job!
That said, Tricycle is still a bad model of Buddhist diversity. I recently read last issue’s sangha spotlight, “Buddhism By Numbers”, and I was amazed at how seriously (and inaccurately) they quoted the Pew Study. It’s tempting to rehash Scott Mitchell’s arguments, and I went even further and wrote up a list of ways that the Pew’s sampling assumptions and weighted corrections probably skewed the final numbers. But when I tried explaining this to a (Buddhist Asian American) financial analyst, she promptly fell asleep. I needed a sexier idea.
So this is plan two: Tricycle By Numbers.
(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?
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 day-to-day 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.
Back in the 1930’s Christian missionaries sponsored my grandmother for immigration to the United States. My father and his siblings were born here, grew up here, were baptized Roman Catholics and attended the local Catholic school. My father and his brother also won scholarships to Saint Ignatius College Prep. Though they were Asian Buddhists, they were helped along by white English-speaking Christians who had the goodness of heart to reach out to them across racial and cultural lines. It made a difference (and some even stayed Christian).
It’s this kind of spirit that the Buddhist community needs to bridge its cultural and demographic boundaries. I’m not talking about evangelism or buying souls. A significant portion of the Buddhist community here in North America is made up of immigrant Buddhists, virtually all Asian, and many of whom are still in the process of fully adjusting to life in North America. They are the ones who could use a helping hand.
But how to help? I came up with a page full of ways that white Buddhist Americans can reach out to their Buddhist immigrant brothers and sisters. Here are just three.
Many thanks to Dan who posted a link to Making the Invisible Visible in the comments from the Angry Asian Buddhist post. (Another worthwhile article is Stories We Have Yet to Hear: The Path to Healing Racism in American Sanghas by Mushim Ikeda-Nash.) I still have a little bundled up stress from the last post, but reading this booklet was a real weight off my shoulders. You hear this all the time, but I have to say it again: It’s good knowing that I’m not alone.
My Angry Asian post was about how I felt a core demographic of the Buddhist community was being ignored. This core demographic is the next generation of Asian American Buddhists.
The Buddhists in North America referred to as “convert Buddhists” — those who did not inherit it as a part of their ethnic background — are largely baby boomers. Are enough younger people coming up through the ranks to sustain healthy Buddhist communities? Thus begins the article Next-Gen Buddhism: The future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world in the current issue of Buddhadharma.
Buddhism in America is headed for exciting times, agreed the four esteemed participants — Sumi Loundon Kim, Rod Meade Sperry, Iris Brilliant and Norman Fischer. They discussed the separate communities of formal convert Buddhists and casual Buddhists-by-affiliation. Also mentioned were emerging trends, such as a need for innovation, the hunger for engaged Buddhism and the mixture of Buddhism and modern technology. But what did they not mention?
Asians. In fact, the esteemed moderator Barry Boyce makes clear from the outset that he just doesn’t want to talk about Asian Buddhists. He wants to talk about the Buddhists “who did not inherit it as a part of their ethnic background.” In other words: not Asians.