Faces of American Buddhism


The racially homogenous staff of Shambhala Sun.

In the past I’ve harped about Buddhist publications, and I’ve mostly opined about Tricycle because it has a popular blog. (The blog makes it an easy target.) In all honesty, I don’t hate Tricycle (or its blog) or Shambhala Sun or Buddhadharma. I think these are great magazines, but they could be even better. One point that I’ve been derisively hammering these past few months is that mainstream Buddhist media don’t properly reflect the Buddhist community. For one, they are overwhelmingly white.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being white. There are plenty of whites in the Buddhist community, and if you believe the Pew Survey, then whites even make up the majority of American Buddhists. That said, the Buddhist community has a large number of Asians — certainly many more than are exhibited on the staffs of magazines such as Tricycle and Shambhala. Why are there no Asians?

I was going to write a long post suggesting affirmative action and outreach for Asian Americans in Buddhist institutions, but I drew back because I think that would be too divisive. For one, affirmative action is an inherently divisive issue. It’s saying that we want you because you are Asian, not white, and certainly not because you’re qualified. Secondly, if affirmative action were actually implemented and the content of these magazines subsequently changed, then some people would definitely be disappointed and they would point to unqualified Asians degrading the quality of their cherished publications. That would certainly be an unintended consequence.

In my experience in the Buddhist community, I’ve always gotten the feeling that white Buddhists are trying to create their own acculturated version of the Buddhist community. They want the same thing the Asians have, just white. It seems as though all this talk about the future of American Buddhism is really about, “When are we white Buddhists going to be in control?” There’s nothing against Asians or Asian Buddhism, but there’s a strong sentiment that Buddhism in America needs to be more American. If Asians want to join American Buddhism, they’re welcome, they just have to speak English, sit in chairs (except of course when meditating) and act American. Can someone pass the candied yams?

For this reason, I feel that Asian Americans have stayed away from the white Buddhist institutions in North America. There’s this feeling of deculturation. You can come and sit with us, but leave your cultural baggage at the door. At least for me, I get the sense that the achievements of Asian Americans are completely overlooked in American society — we’re viewed as some sort of extraneous culture that doesn’t really contribute much. Of course, this is how I feel while ranting at 10pm while coping with an annoying cold. Who knows how I’ll feel once I’ve slept this off.

But is this what’s making Buddhist publications so white? Is it a combination of white Buddhists’ attempt to form their own community, and the Asian Ameicans’ reluctance to join this community? Or maybe we Asian Americans have nothing to offer. I think Asian American involvement in these publications would seriously push the topics of Buddhist American discussion in entirely new directions, and also engage the entire Buddhist community at a much broader level (and probably also generate more profitable revenue streams). But I really don’t know right now. I’m sick and tired. I’m going to go mediate and take a Nyquil.

Sorry for another bout of aimless ranting. I’m not a hater, I love you all!

9 Replies to “Faces of American Buddhism”

  1. These things are often cyclical: the Shambala sun probably reaches mostly the white buddhists in the first place. Once you don’t have people of Asian background, where are you going to find talented ones? And ingrained expectations are going to make it hard to take such Asian Buddhists as seriously as those of your own cultural background.

    Not saying that to justify it. Just explaining it.

    disclaimer: I’m fully a western ‘Buddhist’ (of sorts).

  2. As always, thank you!

    “When are we white Buddhists going to be in control?”

    This may or may not be an accurate sentiment within white communities, but, regardless, it’s awfully ironic. White people are already in control.

    To whit: I suspect that the success of glossy Buddhist magazines is three-fold. One, white Buddhists are more likely to get credit to start magazines since lending institutions historically loan money to people who they “trust” to pay it back (i.e., white folks). Two, non-white folks can probably get plenty of money to publish glossy magazines from non-white sources (i.e., international organizations, Asian banks, etc.), but those magazines may be less likely to be published in English. Three, white Buddhists won’t be able to read non-English publications and therefore gravitate to the glossy mags, and meanwhile, white non-Buddhists who have “Asian fetishes” can indulge their fetish by purchasing Buddhist magazines that are overwhelmingly white without feeling guilty that they’re turning Asian folks into “the other.”

    This is all early-morning-post-bike-commute-pre-coffee rambling, of course. But it’s an interesting train of thought nonetheless. Thanks for letting me indulge.

    Here’s to hoping you haven’t slept it off!

  3. “The customs of people everywhere are the Customs of People with defilements.”, this was Ajahn Mun’s reasoning when pressed to conform to certain cultural interpretations of Buddhism and I think it is a good idea today as well. I’m white myself but do not consider myself or label myself as a white Buddhist or even an American Buddhist because when you do that you not only alienate people you sort of put yourself into a category that boxes you in.

    I’m more a conservative Theravada Buddhist but I wear that lightly and I think regardless of which branch or school you practice in, Buddhism is Buddhism if it has the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path and people are practicing the Dhamma according to the Dhamma. It’s when we try to categorize ourselves or others based on race, national origin or whatever that we run into problems. I think people will always judge us and lump us into categories but we don’t need to do that ourselves. I think it would be great if Buddhists of all types could get together and practice and drop the labels and the judgements and just practice. This is what Ajahn Mun tried to do and he was successful.

    Buddhism is not about skin color or about which ethnic group is in control of the Buddhist community but about putting and end to suffering in our own hearts and doing what we can for others. So much trouble comes from holding on too tightly to the labels we and others use to define ourselves and the world around us. There are no easy answers here though, but i thank you for a nice reflection that got me thinking. Be well now.

  4. Katinka: Thanks for reading and for your insightful comments! I think you’re probably right that the overwhelming ethnic makeup is the result of a positive feedback loop.

    Scott: I slept it off! Thank you as always for your support of my rants! A few years ago (maybe 10?) Rev Noriaki Ito wrote an article in (maybe) Pacific World about his experience growing up Buddhist, going off to college, personal development and eventually becoming a minister. In one way, his story perfectly reflects the development of the Asian American community. From my experience, I think Asian American Buddhist community is in its personal development stage. Keep your eyes open, and I think you’ll see more from us in the next decade…

    Justin: Thank you for your comments. I’m glad you posted your comments because you lead up to an important point. All these divisions in the Buddhist community are not Buddhist divisions. These are social divisions that exist in the world with or without the Buddhist community. As you mention, dhammanudhammapatipatti, practicing the Dharma in accordance with the Dharma, is the proper practice regardless of identity — and in fact transcends identity. Ajahn Mun wasn’t explicitly against customs, he just preferred to practice by the ariyavansa: the customs of the Noble Ones.

  5. You put it far better then I did in using the term “social divisions.” Perhaps I was trying to say that but just couldn’t find the right way to say it. I’m glad that you can see it in a similar light.

    I think it would be great if the social divisions were cast off permanently and people could see beyond them but I think that is ultimately something we each have to do in our own lives first. At any rate, Be well now.

  6. Hm, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this one says a lot about the imbalance of representation in Western Buddhism. But I also really liked Justin’s comment and words from Ajahn Mun. “Customs of defilments indeed.”

    I won’t comment further though. There’s no real benefit to being snarky. 😛

  7. I’m a little surprised at the homogeneity of the Shambhala Sun staff photo myself and am surprised at the whiteness of the American convert community, given that so many are stuck in the ooo-la-la-ness of Asian teachers. I’m a white boy myself (transplanted to Korea–I’m switching from Tibetan Buddhism to the Jogye order), and I can’t tell you how many times white folks heard me described as a “Tibetan monk” by people who should have known better only to see my white face and get really disappointed.

    I do think many in the largely white convert community are trying to create a Buddhist tradition independent of any organized Asian insitutions, but I’m not sure they’re trying to create something specifically “white.” I think it’s more about a secularized psychological, non-monastic approach to the Dharma rather than one that focuses on clergy performing funerals, memorial rites, and holidy services for the lay community. That is, of course, too clear a distinction between the Asian and emerging American branches of the tradition, but I think you get my point.

    The thing that drives me nuts about magazines like Tricycle and Shambhala Sun is that they seem to keep interviewing the same five or six people. And it’s almost always Zen, Vipassana, and Tibetan with, in recent years, a bit of Pure Land mixed in. What about the Nichiren and Tendai traditions for example? There’s so much more out there. Even if they stay within the Zen, Vipassana and Tibetan forms of Buddhism, I think they should be putting in a lot more effort to find people with a truely unique approach to the tradition, rather than continuely going back to the same small group of people again and again for interviews.

  8. Thank you for your comments Ven. Rinchen Gyatso! Perhaps another way to put the issue is to say that Western Buddhists are unable to see their own cultural baggage for what it is. As a result, Westerners see themselves as updating Buddhism to the modern world, while we backward Asians might call this cultural colonialism… if we were anthropologists.

    Buddhist practices and communities are diverse, and as you pointed out (I think) the line between Western and Asian Buddhism isn’t night-and-day. But there is a new generation of Asian American Buddhists on the rise, more numerous than those that came before them, rooted in both their Asian and American identities, and also more interested in the Dharma. I’m definitely curious to see how they’ll change the face of Buddhist America…

  9. Hi,

    My friend recently sent me this entry because I had observed the same racial homogeneity about the Buddhadharma staff.

    This is my first time coming across your blog and I noticed you have our blog, the UBA at UCLA, on your blogroll and I just to thank you for it. I don’t get many comments mainly because the entries I post are mostly news rather than commentaries so I often wonder if anyone looks at the site. Anyways, I’ll be adding Dharma Folk onto our blogroll.

    -Eric

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