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’m going to take the amateur linguist in me for a spin. C.N. Le’s blog post on Asian Nation last Thursday was perceived as ridiculously offensive, even racist, by a number of White bloggers. I walked away from this post with different conclusions, perceiving no racist finger pointing, and instead a strong affirmation of the very same sentiments I occasionally experience at multicultural Buddhist retreats. In spite of heated back-and forth-comments, which have made liberal use of the terms racist, racism and white privilege, I believe further discussion is necessary. How did we come to these different conclusions from the very same words?
I’m writing today’s post as a white male American Buddhist. I shouldn’t introduce myself as a privileged white Buddhist, though. Not because it’s unfair—but simply because it’s redundant.
To be clear, my privilege didn’t come as some sort of elite pedigree. My family lived in the urban projects, neither of my parents held a college degree, and I didn’t spend much of my childhood getting to know them because they both worked more than full-time jobs to cover the bills. My Jewish immigrant progenitors weren’t colonists, settlers, politicians or plantation owners. They were persecuted refugees who didn’t come here until long after the turn of the twentieth century—where, overworked, they continued to endure prejudice and discrimination—and they voted Democrat and Civil Rights all the way. But my white privilege runs even deeper. I am privileged by the very fact that I’m a white American dude.
Some recent blog posts relating to race and meditation.
A recent post by Scott Mitchell lists “several concerns with the meditation-centric rhetoric of contemporary Buddhism in America.” One of them was written with a sharpness that perhaps only the Angry Asian Buddhist could love: the rhetoric of “meditation is practice” but chanting and other Buddhist practices are “just ritual” perpetuates the notion that white folks are doing something unprecedented in American Buddhism while Asian folks are simply carrying around their cultural baggage.
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.