As an ESL teacher, I spend several hours a week individually tutoring a first grader named Thomas. I started working with him because his mother, who was taking adult ESL classes at the community college I was volunteering in, approached me with concerns about his ability to acquire English reading and writing skills at the same pace as his peers, namely because he only uses English at school while his peers use English at home as well as school. In communicating with his parents, Thomas knows how to speak Cantonese, Taishanese, some Mandarin (from Sunday Chinese school), and of course English. I usually have Thomas read picture books to me, practice writing sentences and spelling words, or work on school work that his mom can’t help him with. Though from my perspective, he is a bright kid with a very active imagination and a good mind for actively learning what he is interested in, all his mom seems to see is a troublesome, naughty, unstudious child, characteristic of the troublemakers (especially guys) that are usually in every class.In line with his mother’s concerns, when he doesn’t enjoy what he is learning, he becomes stubborn, apathetic, and sometimes even silly in terms of not taking the study materials seriously. I try to make the books we read and the activities we do fun and interesting by shaping them in the form of games, rewards, and storytelling, largely based on his own interests. I treat him like a little brother and his mom treats me as her son. I rarely go home after a tutoring session (usually late afternoons) empty-handed in terms of a nicely packaged tupperware of whatever she has cooked for dinner that night. I see so much of my own youth in terms of family cultural dynamics and diversity of linguistic exposure in Thomas’ life, and that is what motivates me the most to spend time working with him.
So in having set the context, I was reading a book with Thomas on how polar bears and penguins would never meet because they live on opposite ends of the world. Essentially, they were learning about the North and South pole, the Arctic and Antarctica, and the wildlife in each region. I don’t remember how we transitioned from this topic to the next but Thomas ended up asking me, “Do you love God?”
Some 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?
I recently posted an article about “karma” that I found on the Examiner that I thought was very well written. As with any concept in Buddhism, describing what “karma” is the length of an article can be very tricky and difficult to do in a comprehensive yet easy-to-understand manner. I thought the author of this article, Emily, achieved both and therefore posted it on my Facebook account.
My friend pointed out that the way Emily described karma diverged from the way another author, Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw, described karma from another article I had posted on Facebook a while back. I reread both articles and she was right, they did conflict in the way they described “karma”. But both descriptions seemed valid. Both authors seemd to know what they were talking about and I never thought twice to think they conflicted until my friend brought it up. So who’s right and who’s wrong? Who has the more accurate description of karma?
There are about 1.5 million Asian American Buddhists in the United States. Or at least, that’s my estimate. My confidence interval is pretty big, but I feel certain enough to start tossing this number around from now on. This figure keeps the data and assumptions of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, but adjusts them to address discrepancies related to the U.S. Census, linguistic preferences of Asian Americans and geography (i.e. counting Hawai‘i and Alaska).
In past posts, I observed that the Pew Forum severely underestimated the size of the Asian American community (by about 56%!), and I also investigated what it meant to exclude Buddhists in Hawai‘i. I even tried out my own deliberately-flawed estimate. But there was one issue that I left off until now: language.
As I often do while I wait for programs to compile, I was browsing Wikipedia one day when I came across the page for Venerable Thích Nhất Hạnh. I was surprised to see my query for “Thich Nhat Hanh” redirected to “Nhat Hanh,” and when I read further, I was disappointed by the explanation given:
Commonly referred to as Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese: Thích Nhất Hạnh), the title Thích is used by all Vietnamese monks and nuns, meaning that they are part of the Shakya (Shakyamuni Buddha) clan.
Almost right, but not quite. The Wikipedia article unfaithfully refences the Order of Interbeing, which actually informs us that Thích is a name, not a title:
Thích (釋) is Vietnamese for Sakya, which is the Buddha’s family name. Every monastic member in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition has a name which begins with Thích.
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.
I came across the murky but fascinating idea on Wikipedia, and it goes a little something like this: just as we got Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit when Classical Sanskrit was affected by Prakrit vocabulary and grammar, and we got Buddhist Hybrid Chinese when Classical Chinese was affected by the former, the language of English Buddhist Literature is new and different because it tries to convey the concepts in Buddhist canonical languages using English language structures.
Presenting: Buddhist Hybrid English.
Just got back off a five hour drive from San Francisco. Some thoughts…
Finally I understand why monks are supposed to sleep on low beds. I’ve been spending the last few nights with a quilt across two zabuton (and a pillow). As a result I would only lie down to sleep for the sake of sleep, not for any pleasure at all! (I still got good sleep.)
I love staying with family because I can waste five minutes of my day by gently taking an ant outside, and no one will question why, and no one makes me defend expending so much effort for the sake of a little ant.
Someone should install a traffic camera at the corner of Oak and Octavia. The city could make millions on those tickets. And maybe it would even be safer.
Much time with family also meant much time speaking our language! I think it’s definitely important to speak another language with family for at least the following reasons.  You can talk about people in the same room without them knowing. (“Don’t nag Mom right now, she’s having a bad day.”)  Language is like a cultural glue. If you have language, you have almost direct access to so many aspects of culture, from recipes to history to religion. If you try to study a culture without its language, learning about it is like crawling the net with a dial-up modem.  Language binds family at a very deep emotional level. You share a knowledge that no one else has.  Perhaps the most obvious reason: if you don’t speak it, your language just might die out.
Lastly, I just came across an article from Urban Dharma with the topic: How will the Sangha fare in North American Buddhism? More about this later. But first sleep, and I shall sleep for the joy of it too.
A teacher of mine once commented that Buddhism had no room for hope – and he grounded this accusation on the understanding that hope is wanting things to be different than they are, and that Buddhist practice is about accepting things as they are.
Explained in that way it seems reasonable enough, but something about adhering to a hopeless religion seems iffy, especially when Buddhism has so many things which look like hope, but my own misgivings were much more personal.
I remember that when I first heard that from my teacher I felt very disappointed, because I had adopted a language of hope. I hoped others had nice days, I hope that people got good restful nights of sleep, as well as excellent hockey tickets and doubles from vending machines. Most importantly though, I hoped that good things happened to others, because I desperately wanted to stop wishing people “good luck.”
I don't want to sound like the Angry Asian Man, but I've had a hard time finding articles about Asian American Buddhists.