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.
I more or less wanted to let go of my Angry Asian Man rants. No one seems to care anyway. I understand that we live in a white society, that there aren’t that many Asians in New York or in Halifax, and that Asian Buddhists and white Buddhists don’t always get along. But that doesn’t mean you can pretend as though we Asians are not part of the community. And someone needs to speak out for the workers in the rice fields. So here I go.
It’s insulting for a magazine like Buddhadharma to discuss the future of the Buddhist community in America without talking about Asian Americans. We’re not some alien species in the Buddhist community — we brought Buddhism to America. We’ve been practicing Buddhism on American soil for well over a century. We speak English, we have youth groups, we go on retreats and we do all the other crazy Buddhist stuff that white people do and more. Unfortunately, it seems we’re just not white enough for even an honorable mention.
While I can curse this article to no end, the Buddhadharma discussion finally opened my eyes to the way that white Buddhists see the Buddhist community. Dharma centers, sitting groups, meditation retreats, lay teachers, Free Tibet mailing lists and Buddhism-themed magazines are all part and parcel of white Buddhist culture. And white Buddhists want to preserve this. They want to build on this. But I can see that working with Asian Americans isn’t part of the plan.
It’s not just about excluding Asians. The participants made clear that the Buddhism they were talking about was white Buddhism. When they discussed “outreach”, they talked about the East Bay Meditation Center’s sitting group for people of color. Does this mean that the future of Buddhism is only for white people and maybe some other non-Asian minorities? Is the Buddhism of the future just some white-washed version of what was once an ancient Asian religion?
I know that the authors aren’t anti-Asian (yet). I know that Sumi Loundon Kim has a Korean husband and hapa kids. I’m sure all the participants have Asian friends and have signed petitions to free Tibet and Burma. Heck, they probably even had an Asian teacher. But even if the participants aren’t racist, that doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about.
I’ve gone on about this topic because I was truly surprised to see such an overtly white-centered article in Buddhadharma. No one in the article made any attempt to discuss how Asian Americans might fit into the future of the Buddhist community. There was no mention of a possible merger (whether likely or not). Nor did anyone bring up the future of the monk/nunhood with relation to the community. The silence alone is perhaps the strongest validation of the continuing division between the Asian American Buddhist community and the white Buddhist community.
So that’s my rant. My fear is that white Buddhism is developing into a culture of oppression. My hope is that the next generation will overcome these divisions to build a stronger and tighter community.
Sabbe satta abyapajjha hontu.
Update: Related posts on the Level 8 Buddhist, A Monk Amok, Tricycle Blog, the buddha is my dj, the Buddhist Blog, the Worst Horse, Awake in This Life and Shambhala Sun Space. I gained a lot from reading the comments to those posts too.