Angry Asian Buddhist

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 Blogthe Worst HorseAwake in This Life and Shambhala Sun Space. I gained a lot from reading the comments to those posts too.

53 Replies to “Angry Asian Buddhist”

  1. Hi,

    While I agree with the thrust of what you are saying (I certainly think ‘western’ Buddhism need to be tied to ‘Asian’ lineages for a long time to come and the way Buddhism is actually practiced in Asia ought never be overlooked) I totally disagree with the idea that “white Buddhism is developing into a culture of oppression”.

    I mean, oppression? Oppression? Are you serious? White Buddhists are oppressing Asian Buddhists? What, on the basis of one article in a magazine?

    Are white Buddhists banning books, refusing to let Asians speak, chasing them from the temples, arrests, imprisonment, segregation?

    Please, make a strong point by all means. But don’t cry wolf. Don’t exaggerate. Be careful not to cause division.


  2. Each one of us has incredibly subtle and deep mind-habits. These are nearly impossible to see and up-root by ourselves – and so we depend on others to open our eyes.

    Your “rant” serves that purpose quite well. As a white person in a predominantly white culture, I’m like a fish in water. What does the fish know of water? What does a bird know of air?

    Together we can help one another look more deeply. That is sangha.

  3. Apart from the internet I don’t really associate with any other Buddhists so I had no idea this sort of thing was going on. In my opinion, Buddhism should try to steer clear of grouping people based by the labels of race, national origin or wheatver. I always go back to Ajahn Mun’s exhortation to follow the Customs of the Noble Ones because that is more important then following some sort of custom based on your race, which is a divisive and unskillful convention anyway. I guess I’m glad that I don’t live in wacky San Francisco where liberals talk tolerance yet have special groups for “people of color” to sit in. How strange!

    I think race will always be an issue of sorts, but as for me I don’t want to follow a Buddhism that seems to define itself based solely on categories like that.

    You guys at Dharma folk seem to bring up a lot of these contemporary issues that largely escape this solitary Theravada guy out here in Florida. I wish you well now.

  4. I’ve just read the article you is so angry about over and over again and just don’t get it. I can’t see the quote you use from it (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? ) and even if I could I don’t see the problem.

    The article is an introduction to a forum discussion about the ageing ‘white’ Buddhist world. It’s not excluding Asians, it just happens to be about one particular aspect of the broad Buddhist community. And I am 100% certain that issues of Asian/Western Buddhism and Buddhists will come up in the forum of which this article is just a taster.

    Certainly no oppression.

  5. Gerald and Ven Rinchen Gyatso: Thanks so much for following up. I’ll leave my comments on your blog posts.

    Barry: Thanks for your very equanimous comments 🙂

    Justin: You are doubly blessed to have found great teachers and to also be able to practice away from all our ethnic nonsense.

    I should note that (I believe) the sitting group for people of color is run by people of color. Iris Brilliant mentions it because she sees it as a way that meditation centers can reach out and break free from the “rich and white” stereotype. Others disagree.

    Marcus: Thanks for your comments. First off, the quote is at the top of page 43. My misplacement. It’s the forum’s opening question; it’s not in the introduction.

    Now I know clear and well that the article’s about the “white” Buddhist world. But for some reason the participants don’t deign to qualify this when they talk about “Buddhism” or the “Buddhist community.” When they talk about expanding Buddhism (page 50–51), why don’t think to bring in Asian Americans? Although they do mention others…

    Now, I didn’t say that the presenters were oppressors. I said that I feared white Buddhism is developing into a culture of oppression. And oppression doesn’t just refer to persecution, it can (and in my case does) refer to injustice. But more on oppression another day.

  6. Wherever Buddhism has spread, it has been adapted to fit the local culture. There are numerous flavors of ethnic and cultural Buddhism. It is only natural that there emerge a specifically American Buddhism, just as there once emerged Tibetan Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism. Did the Indian Buddhists complain about the unique development of Chinese Buddhism? Well, yes, they did, mostly because of doctrinal differences; but I think we can all agree that all these different Buddhisms are now mutually accepted and recognized as legitimate branches on the Dharma tree. Buddhism will continue to evolve into different forms as it encounters different communities and cultures. It’s not about exclusion at all, it’s about a very simple and basic recognition that the Buddhism practiced by European Americans has a unique flavor, just as does that practiced by African Americans, or Thais, or Vietnamese, or Indians, or Japanese. Nobody grows up without culture of some kind, and even in a so-called “melting pot”, most groups retain some sense of their ethnic/cultural heritage which colors their views and practices. Let European Americans have the same chance to develop their own unique way of practicing the Dharma as other groups have had. Variety is beautiful!

  7. May I also add that often, in order for a person to fully develop and mature and “come of age”, it is necessary for him to break away from the parent or teacher and strike out alone. This applies equally to groups of people. In order for Americans to fully mature as serious Buddhists with their own traditions, it is psychologically and spiritually necessary to do so independent of the Asian Buddhist “parents” or “teachers”. This also is only natural.

  8. Nikki: Thanks for your comments! Please be careful not to confuse the terms American and white. We Asian Americans are just as American as any white person (or Barack Obama), and our Buddhist institutions in America are often more American than they are Asian — take the Buddhist Churches of America, for example. And we have many white people in our “Asian” community too! I don’t doubt that white Americans will leave a unique imprint on Buddhism — in fact, I think this is a good thing. But for white Americans to build their own Buddhist community while ignoring Asian Americans is akin to saying that white Americans want to create their own political institutions without talking about minorities.

  9. Arunlikhati, you, YOU, are my hero.

    I hope that you do not drop the angry Asian rants. This is, to my mind, one of the most important issues facing the American Buddhist sangha (and by “American Buddhist sangha,” I do not mean the “white Buddhist sangha,” I mean American in the broadest, truest sense of the word. If anyone still doesn’t get that “American” no longer equates “white,” I can only assume that they’ve been living in a cave, on Mars, with their fingers in their ears, since well before November 4th. But, I digress…) Buddhists, in my view, can not simply “steer clear” of labels because these labels are real, real in the sense that they effect people, very deeply, on a daily basis. (Don’t believe me? Check out how many people are commenting on this post.) And to the extent that we Buddhists are morally obligated to be compassionate toward sentient beings’ suffering, we need to deal with this issue.

    Skimming over the comments to you post here, I’d like to point out that you are not “crying wolf,” that “white Buddhists” and “Asian Buddhists” are practicing separate (but equal?) forms of Buddhism. This is not diversity. This, by definition, is division. You’re not causing this division by pointing it out; you’re just pointing it out (and good for you!). And, to be clear, this separation is inherently oppressive because it favors one group and marginalizes another. Don’t believe me? Who owns and writes for Buddhadharma? Angry Asian man? Didn’t think so.

    Keep up the good work! (And don’t let the bastards get ya down!)

  10. My only comment is that as I read your post I felt a deep pain in my heart. Behind the pain is fear, I think, because the Western world has tended to adapt traditions it finds interesting to the point that they barely resemble the original tradition. (yoga is a case in point) Yes, there are valuable contributions made and they should be appreciated but…my eloquence fails me, but your writing shook me up, and I’m glad. Thank you for educating my ignorance and may it reach all who need to hear it.

  11. While I feel that the term “culture of oppression” is a bit much, I think you’re feeling the sting of arrogance, a collective mental affliction we in the West are so reluctant to shed.

    But let me twist the mirror a bit. I’ll tell you that we Americans who practice in their tradition feel similarly sometimes vis a vis the Tibetans. There’s a feeling one gets that Tibetans regard themselves as “authentic Buddhists” just by dint of being born Tibetan, and that we in the West are kind of just pretend practitioners. I’ve been a monk almost 16 years, and see time and time again that Tibetan monks will always get treated with greater respect.

    Conversely, when I was in Australia earlier this year, I went with friends to a big Chinese Buddhist new year’s event. The organizers were perfectly welcoming, but it seemed like we’d landed on the moon, the whole scene was so strange, and we made excuses to leave after about 15 minutes.

    So. I think we can agree that arrogance and pridefulness are ugly no matter where they arise. Everyone’s habit is to see the difference of “other” relative to “I” and “my.” This is the baseline delusion that all followers of the Buddha will one day, hopefully, abandon.

    I’m very glad to discover your blog; I like provocative thinking! Will link it for my readers.

  12. I certainly do not equate “American” with “white”. I myself was not born and raised in America, I am a New Zealander. I specifically said “European American”. And European American culture is certainly different from African American, Japanese American, Chinese American or any other kind of culture. European American Buddhism is going to look different from the Buddhism practiced by each of these other groups. That is what the article was focused on. Maybe it didn’t choose its terms as precisely as it should have, but it was speaking to its target demographic: European American Buddhists.

    You cite the Buddhist Churches of America as an example of an institution that is more American than Asian. Perhaps that is true from a Japanese standpoint, but from an American one there is still an extremely Japanese flavor to it. And that is fine, it’s a Japanese American organization in a specifically Japanese sect of Buddhism. My point is, I don’t have a problem with, say, a Japanese American organization publishing materials specifically addressed to the needs of Japanese American Buddhists, so why then is there a problem with a publication printing an article specifically directed towards European Americans? I don’t think your political analogy is accurate, and I do think creating a stink about this is, in fact, divisive. The article itself is not divisive; division is caused by acrimony, not selective focus. To confuse selective focus for “oppression” or “discrimination” (in the negative sense) is simply over-sensitivity, something it seems we as Buddhists should strive to avoid in the interests of harmonious co-existence. No?

  13. “To confuse selective focus for “oppression” or “discrimination” (in the negative sense) is simply over-sensitivity, something it seems we as Buddhists should strive to avoid in the interests of harmonious co-existence. No?”


    I hate to be the bur in your bonnet (no, that’s true, I love being a bur), but let me posit a hypothetical. If you stubbed your toe, and were in what, to you, was a lot of pain, and I said to you, “Oh, don’t be so sensitive. After all, pain is only an illusion.” I might be “right,” from an awakened point of view, but I’m also being an insensitive dolt. And the very antithesis of compassionate, no?

    The issue is power and access to power. And the fact of the matter is that white folks (from America or Europe or wherever) have more access to power than non-white folks.

    I do not think Arunlikhati is being divisive. Arunlikhati is pointing out the actual divisions that exist in American Buddhism, not causing them.

    You are absolutely right. There are Euro-American Buddhist groups. There are Japanese-American Buddhist groups. That’s a reality.

    But is it a good thing?

    Was separate but equal a good thing?

  14. Scott: Thanks as always for your support. Your words always keep me going!

    Janet: Thanks for your comments. I’m very happy for the positive comments like yours that I’ve received to this post.

    Ven Konchog: You are totally right. No community has a monopoly on ethno-centricism. I know that it’s twenty times harder to be a white monk than an Asian monk, as Asians often have such low expectations of white monastics. I know that one of the reasons Thanissaro Bhikkhu came to the United States was because there was too much opposition to him being abbot of a Thai temple in Thailand. Hopefully more American monastics — white and otherwise — will help change perceptions.

    Nikki: You did say — In order for Americans to fully mature as serious Buddhists with their own traditions, it is psychologically and spiritually necessary to do so independent of the Asian Buddhist “parents” or “teachers”. I didn’t reckon that you were referring to Asians too.

    Buddhadharma says it reflects the growing sense of communication and common purpose among Buddhist sanghas in the West. That includes me and all other Asian American Buddhists, and if we’re not the intended audience, I’ll be happy to make a fuss until they either write “white” into their statement of purpose or include more Asian American voices.

    Asian Americans don’t live in a separate America. We are in every state, every city and every neighborhood. We live and work side-by-side with white people. The Buddhist Churches of America is more than a Japanese American organization. Its own president, Dr. Gordon Bermant, isn’t even Nikkei (you might have guessed, but he’s not even Asian). Their pews have both non-Asian and Asian (not just Japanese!) members, and their temple basketball teams play against Methodist teams.

    Our Buddhism is American Buddhism, our Sangha is an American Sangha, and the future of American Buddhism will involve all American Buddhists.

  15. See, here’s the thing. The very fact that an organization would be called Buddhist ‘Churches’ of America and have pews is already off-putting to me and, I bet, most Euro-American Buddhists. I see that as an understandable attempt to assimilate in the culture where one finds oneself. But many of us in America became Buddhist because of varying degrees of dissatisfaction with Christian teachings and culture. Just linguistically, we go out of our way to never use any spiritual vocabulary that’s overtly Christian: churches are temples or centers, heaven is the god realm, gods are deities, saints are realized beings, on and on. I remember going to a Kalmyk Mongol Buddhist center in Philadelphia and marveling that it was called the Kalmyk Brotherhood Society at the Temple of Saint Zonkava. What a collision of Asia, Russia, and America!

    Often the barriers are just language, but that’s a pretty tall barrier and it may take a generation or two to dissolve.

    But then it’s funny on the other side. We chuckle over the injis who are “more Tibetan than Tibetan,” sitting there in their chubas next to actual Tibetans in Western duds.

    And maybe you’ve observed also, even within Tibetan Buddhism, there’s very little truck between lineages, and often even individual centers in the same city! If the Dalai Lama comes around, maybe we come together, but that’s about it. Buddhism is famously decentralized, and many of us really like it that way.

  16. Konchog: The organization is called Buddhist Churches of America because it is a response to overwhelming racial hate encountered by Japanese-Americans. While they were incarcerated in American concentration camps during WWII merely for being of Japanese descent, they decided to change their name to Churches in order to fly better under the radar and hopefully have some of the millions of dollars of property that had been seized from them (including their temples) returned to them. Instead of reacting to things our of our fetishes or prejudices, we would be better served by trying to understand the roots of why things are not the way we expect them to be.

    Meanwhile, whole generations of American Buddhists have grown up since 1945 going to temples in the Buddhist Churches of America, so the name isn’t weird for them, it is normal. What would be weird at this point would be to change the name to suit the prejudices of outsiders once more, this time to sound more exotic.

    As for pews: most new temples in Japan have them. It is merely an adaptation to the fact that they are easier on old people, and newer generations are more used to sitting on chairs at tables than sitting on the floor. Likewise, in America those temples that aren’t stuck on “looking oriental” often use pews or chairs because it accommodates members with physical problems that make sitting on the floor more difficult. So pews have been a perfectly normal part of Asian Buddhism for generations now. Everything changes.

  17. Oh, don’t misunderstand me. I really get why immigrants, esp. ones in risky situations because of wars or whatnot, would go the assimilative route. I meant no criticism, but was just pointing out why others of us don’t relate to it, since what they adopted, for good reasons of their own, is exactly what we rejected, for reasons of our own. You see?

  18. Hi arunlikhati,

    I found your post through djbuddha, and to introduce myself, I am a practicing Buddhist in Singapore who lived 3 years (2004-2007) in Raleigh, North Carolina, and also spent time in the midwest in the 90s. I am Asian (Singaporean Peranakan Chinese, to be absolutely specific!), and the religious beliefs of the wider Teochew-Cantonese family I was born into were a crazy mash of Taoism, Buddhism and folk religion. I never could make much sense of it when I was growing up; and I think my experience is fairly common of those of Chinese-descent families who have not converted to Christianity. The formal knowledge of Buddhism can be quite minimal when a traditional Chinese family just treats Buddha as another diety in a large pantheon, and in that sense, I do not feel I actually “inherited” Buddhism when I was growing up. I only started understanding it when I read Dharma books in English!

    Anyway, in NC, I found it was ALWAYS easier to find (very large) Chinese Christian groups than any type of Buddhist group at all, much less Chinese/Asian Buddhist groups. (Maybe their notices were written in old Mandarin? I can’t read the stuff.) The same was true in Kentucky and Wisconsin when I was living there. (I can’t recall ever running into the Buddhist Churches of America where I was, alas.) If I turned up at a rare Buddhist event in NC, I would frequently be the only Asian present–even when the local Asian community was quite sizeable. Or, if there were 1-2 other Asians, they were Tibetan. And that was it.

    I’m just sharing my personal experience because reading the Buddhadharma article, I can’t find it in me to be angry–instead, if there is any racism in it, I don’t know if it was intended, or simple unconscious oversight, or the innocent blinker-vision (sorry!) of a white writer, which is a common flaw but rarely vindictive. If the author’s experience in US sanghas/retreats/dharma centres has been ANYTHING like mine, where the Asian presence was minimal at Dharma classes/retreats… well, I can kinda understand.

  19. You know, I definitely understand where our host and Scott (and others are coming from) but I’ve been a Buddhist for a while now and I’ve never gone out of my way to look for “white” Buddhism. That being said, my experience within both the Vajrayana community and the Zen community (and Tendai) is one where the vast vast majority of people were Euro-Americans. When I took refuge vows in Seattle, there were probably 80 or 90 people there (and the same for other teachings I attended). Out of that crowd, the lama and his assistant and maybe two or three others were Tibetan. Everyone else in the room was white.

    I don’t seek groups that exclude Asians but then I also don’t go looking for groups in order to explicitly find more Asian-seeming ones. People mention the BCA of America and I must echo the comments that such a group simply isn’t for me or many other ex-Christians in all likelihood. I don’t like “church” type atmosphere. It’s the same reason I don’t hang out with Unitarians as much as I like them. I’m not likely to seek out, say, a Chinese temple which conducts services for the local Chinese-American community as a non-Chinese-American either.

    The Berkeley Zen Center (which has been around decades) is about a mile from my house. When I’ve been there, almost everyone there is white. The same is true for the Tibetan temple in Alameda that I’ve gone to.

    I feel like those of us who have converted and who find communities of similar people at all of the temples we normally find are being implicitly criticized for not seeking Asian-American temples to attach ourselves to instead of simply what is normally around us.

  20. Hi,

    Some questions:

    (1) There are Korean (or any other nationality) temples in America run by Koreans in which everything is conducted in Korean.

    Should I, as a white Buddhist, be angry?
    Is this a ‘culture of oppression’?

    (2) There are Korean temples in Korea run by Koreans with no non-Koreans at all in any official temple positions.

    Should I, as a white Buddhist in Korea, be angry?
    Is this a ‘culture of oppression’?

    (3) There are Korean temples in Thailand run by Koreans in which everything is conducted in Korean and the only Thai people you see are those paid to sweep the yard.

    Should I, as a white Buddhist (or any Thai interested in Korean Buddhism) be angry?
    Is this a ‘culture of oppression’?

    (4) There are Buddhist magazines in America that are developing a kind of ‘western Buddhism’ and which have recently addressed the issue of youth and Buddhism but they didn’t mention asians.

    Should I be angry?
    Is this a ‘culture of oppression’?


    I’d suggest the answer to each question be ‘no’.

  21. “The issue is power and access to power. And the fact of the matter is that white folks (from America or Europe or wherever) have more access to power than non-white folks.”

    Sorry, but I can’t see where the issue is power. What does access to power have to do with whether Americans (of any kind) should be consulting Asians on the future of American Buddhism. I don’t really see a connection. Maybe you can explain where you find the issue of power?

    “You are absolutely right. There are Euro-American Buddhist groups. There are Japanese-American Buddhist groups. That’s a reality.

    But is it a good thing?

    Was separate but equal a good thing?”

    You are comparing apples and oranges. “Separate but equal” was a thinly-veiled euphemism for pervasive societal and institutional racism, based on the underlying belief in white superiority and black inferiority. What we are talking about here, on the other hand, is simple cultural differences. It is nothing to do with skin color or any other physical characteristic, and there are no underlying assumptions of inferiority and superiority. Things can be different without being ranked in terms of relative worth.

    And yes, I happen to believe that allowing different groups their own traditions and beliefs is both healthy and beautiful. I do not believe in the homogenization of human culture. I believe in the preservation and proliferation of diversity.

  22. “You did say — In order for Americans to fully mature as serious Buddhists with their own traditions, it is psychologically and spiritually necessary to do so independent of the Asian Buddhist “parents” or “teachers”. I didn’t reckon that you were referring to Asians too.”

    I wasn’t referring to Asians. Asians are different from Asian Americans. Asian Americans are included in “Americans”.

    “Buddhadharma says it reflects the growing sense of communication and common purpose among Buddhist sanghas in the West. That includes me and all other Asian American Buddhists, and if we’re not the intended audience, I’ll be happy to make a fuss until they either write “white” into their statement of purpose or include more Asian American voices.”

    Maybe more Asian Americans should start sending in submissions. You can’t publish what you don’t get.

    “Our Buddhism is American Buddhism, our Sangha is an American Sangha, and the future of American Buddhism will involve all American Buddhists.”

    I agree. And maybe that’s why the BuddhaDharma article didn’t make the distinction you seem to wish it had made. You can’t have it both ways. Either Asian Americans are part of “American Buddhism” and therefore don’t rate a special mention, or Asian Americans are in their own special category and need to be addressed completely separately from “American Buddhists.”

  23. Just to add my $0.02, I am surprised how many people are taking offense to what Arun is saying. Konchog’s comment about collective arrogance among us White Buddhists sounds more and more true. If we, the convert community, get criticized for intentionally excluding Asian Buddhists from a public forum, as happened in the magaizine in question, maybe we should just stop and reflect that maybe we actually did something wrong? Maybe we committed a faux pas for once?

    A little self-reflection never hurt anyone. 🙂

    Al’s comment about the diversity of temples is apropos though, in that we shouldn’t assume a mostly White temple is a necessarily bad thing. Demographics just work out the way they do, and different people of different backgrounds will gravitate toward different temples, different practices, etc. That’s quite reasonable, and Nikki’s right in that one shouldn’t be expected to fit a particiular Buddhist mould. Having a variety of temples is certainly a good thing.

    But let’s stay focused. The grievance here originally started because of a public forum which intentionally excluded any Asian dialogue, without providing a clear justification why. Had they done so, perhaps this whole argument wouldn’t have arisen. The “oppressors” comment is something heat-of-the-moment. Let it go. Really.

    I think Buddhadharma was out of line, and I hope they and other such periodicals take a lesson from this and try include voices from other Buddhist communities besides the Western convert crowd. I hope things don’t get overly PC though, but since diversity is such a good thing, why not make the subject matters in these periodicals more diverse as well? I wouldn’t be surprised that they get more readership, and that’s what any periodical wants. 🙂

  24. Janet C: Thanks for stopping by! Thank you for your comments! I’m not as angry as you think. The term Angry Asian Buddhist is a spin off of the Asian American pop culture phenomena Angry Asian Man and Angry Little Asian Girl. I chose this title (and provocative style) for many of the same reasons that Phil Yu and Lela Lee chose theirs. Anger itself doesn’t solve anything, so I’m glad you don’t see reason to be angry 🙂

    Al: Your thoughtful comments helped me realize that the scope of this comment stream has gone way beyond the scope of my blog post. Thank you for those valuable points! (Side note: when I lived in Chicago, the Chicago Betsuin had an hour of zen meditation every morning. The former rinban is now BCA Bishop, but I have no idea what they’re up to in the Bay these days.)

    Marcus: Heavens, this is not the first time you’ve neglected to read what I wrote: “Now, I didn’t say that the presenters were oppressors. I said that I feared white Buddhism is developing into a culture of oppression.” I can see this stirred that thought pot of yours, but it won’t do you any good if you continue clinging to what I didn’t say. I’d also love to talk about racist Asian Buddhists another day — loads to say there too! And I’m not as angry as you think 😉

    Nikki: I think after many back-and-forth comments, I can see some of our language starting to converge. I bet if we kept at it longer, we’d see our words and emotions separate us more than our principles. We obviously have different ideas in mind as what constitutes Asian, Asian American and cultural diversity… and I think we’re best off just leaving it there. (Although I’m not going to prevent you from continue on about this if you feel so inclined!)

    Gerald: I think any time you think one of my posts is worthy of further mention, it’s bound to brew trouble! Thank you for your long comment above. You said a lot that I couldn’t have said myself. Thanks again for helping me ignite a little discussion about race relations in the Buddhist community 🙂

  25. Racisms can cut both ways, and many ways. As a former minister and laymember of the Buddhist Churches of America, I have met more than one member (and ministery) who were just as happy NOT to have any hakujin (white) Buddhists attend their churches and services, or non-ethnic Japanese for that matter. How welcome are non “ethnic Buddhists” to “ethnic’ temples?There are many temples which welcome all visitors, but there are also some that would prefer to serve only their immigrant community. This is just one cause of this unfortunate divison in American Buddhism, which obviously has not changed since 1991.

    And also, we are not the only ones noticing this particular elephant in the room. Working with Christian and Jewish chaplains in the military, I can observe their reactions in their relations to Buddhists, some of them seeing Asian Buddhists as somehow more “authentic” than non-Asian, usually white converts, who are looked upon as mostly young and confused (they have a similar attitude towards Wiccans!) – I have found that the they are no more confused than their ethnic Asian counterparts, but that perception is still NAGGINGLY present.

  26. Yuinen-

    It’s a good point that you raise that racism can cut in both ways. It’s a sad fact that regardless of race, culture, ethnicity or whatever there are bound to be biases. On the ultimate level, these biases are often simply perception or sanna which is just one of the five khandas and not to be clung to. Unfortunately, even if these perceptions are just one of the aggregates it doesn’t lessen the adverse effects these damaging perceptions, labels and biases have on the people around. As I pointed out before, I’m a solitary practicioner so I have never seen the things you guys are talking about, but nonetheless I hope that somehow the practice will bear fruit for Buddhists of all persuasions so that we aren’t all led by biases that serve to do nothing but divide and keep people down. I’ll levae with this quote by Ajahn Mun since it seems so appropriate for all of us unenlightened folks out there:

    “The Lord Buddha taught that his Dhamma, when placed in the heart of an ordinary run-of-the-mill person, is bound to be thoroughly corrupted, but if placed in the heart of a Noble One, it is bound to be genuinely pure & authentic, something that at the same time can be neither effaced nor obscured.”

    “So as long as we are devoting ourselves merely to the theoretical study of the Dhamma, it can’t serve us well. Only when we have trained our hearts to eliminate their ‘chameleons’ — their defilements — will it benefit us in full measure. And only then will the true Dhamma be kept pure, free from distortions & deviations from its original principles.”

    -Ajahn Mun

  27. “And I’m not as angry as you think.”

    That’s good! 🙂

    Thank you for the discussion Arunlikhati.

    With palms together,


  28. Just to put in a bibliographical plug, Jan Nattier wrote quite reasonably about the very phenomenon you guys are talking about, the ‘two Buddhisms,’ way back in ’95 and ’98:

    Visible and Invisible: The Politics of Representation in Buddhist America. Tricycle, vol. 5, no. 1 (Fall 1995), pp. 42-49.

    Who is a Buddhist? Charting the Landscape of Buddhist America. C.S. Prebish & K.K. Tanaka, eds., The Faces of Buddhist America (University of California Press, 1998), pp. 183-195 + 318-322.

    And this seems to have provoked quite a discussion. Here for example, from 2000, where the phenomenon is being taken very seriously by ‘western teachers’ of Buddhism:

    Not meaning to add any noise of my own, I am at your service.

  29. Dan: Thank you so much for posting the link to Making the Invisible Visible. Admittedly, I skimmed through and only read the sections written by Asian Americans. I was hoping that these race issues would have improved a decade later.

  30. Once I did an experiment, taking a Tibetan (lifelong Indian exile Tibetan) friend to a Tibetan Dharma teaching in a city in the Southwest U.S. Although not very famous, he is I would say very knowledgeable and experienced in Buddhist history, theory and practice. I warned him ahead of time that it was going to be an ‘anthropological study.’ I knew that he had never attended Dharma teachings in the West (many years before, he had gone to college the mid-West, and knew excellent American English, however). I also didn’t know anyone in the local Buddhist community, so we were both strangers at the event. As we were sitting down I could see that he was uncomfortable, glancing all around. After a few minutes he whispered to me that he was the only Asian there, besides the Tibetan teacher of course. Once the teachings started he paid very close attention, and when it was over he told he it was a rather strange but interesting experience to hear Buddhism explained in English. Not very eventful otherwise. Nobody spoke to him. But nobody spoke to me either.

  31. As an Asian American who came to Tibetan Buddhism late in life, I beg to differ with the angry Asian Buddhist. If Americans are to truly integrate the Buddhist teachings into our lives so that we are living according to the teachings, we will need to differentiate between what is culturally Asian about our spiritual traditions and what is in fact the essence of the teachings. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has taught at length about this. So has my teacher, Lama Drimed (who is mos def gaijin: Jewish American from Connecticut), and I have come to see the wisdom in these two great masters’ teachings. Chinese Buddhists will be Buddhist in Chinese ways; Tibetan-by-blood Buddhists will be Buddhist in Tibetan ways; and American Buddhists will, through years of refinement and discernment, finally be Buddhist in a very American way–ideally, no matter what, we will all be practicing the essence of the teachings without needing the cultural trappings. If I thought I couldn’t practice Buddhism without thinking about the Asian American Buddhist experience in America, I would be confusing socio-political isues with spirituality; both are important but we mustn’t mistake one for the other.

  32. Most of us white Buddhists are just practicing anyway.

    I don’t read either Buddhadharma or Tricycle.

    Read the latter quite a bit in the mid-90s, but rarely, if ever, now.

    But thanks for the perspective.

    OTOH, we are practicing.

    We might come up with something useful, whether with Asians, without Asians, or perhaps with Brazilians.

    Don’t know.

    Just practicing.

  33. As a white, I do understand the cultural bias I enjoy in the US.

    But as a white Buddhist, I am honestly at the other end of the spectrum. I must be either a 21 year old college student, breaking away from my Christian upbringing or a 55 year old with money to spread like butter on hot toast.

    Neither fit me, by far. But since that is how most white Buddhist are seen, I have been compartmentalized already. Asians tend to ignore me while whites seem to be more relaxed with me, willing to teach me.

    While the US may indeed still be a predominately white, Christan one, those of us who are different in any way need to ignore what we are taught about others and just help each other to learn and practice.

  34. I think you make two assumptions that are not sound.

    1) “Buddhists ‘who did not inherit it as a part of their ethnic background.’ In other words: not Asians.”

    There are a lot of Asians who did not inherit Buddhism as part of their ethnic background.

    2) “I understand that we live in a white society, that there aren’t that many Asians in New York”

    I live in New York, there are hundreds of thousands of Asians here, and many of them go to the “convert” dharma centers I go to.

    I think you have a legitimate gripe that Boyce should have been more clear why he was excluding non-convert Asian-American Buddhist if the article was about “the future of Buddhism in the West.”

    But other than that, I think there are in fact reasonable reasons why you would want to limit the scope of the discussion to “convert” Buddhists since the issues are different in many ways.

  35. Thanks for your comments, Greg! The first issue that you bring up is a more delicate point that likely rests on different understandings of what it means to “inherit as part of one’s ethnic background.” As for the second issue, that’s just from the perspective of this Western Buddhist — compared to us, I don’t think you’ve got much at all! (I can hear my ECAASU registration being ripped up as I write this…)

  36. True, “inherit as part of one’s ethnic background” can mean a number of things, but I think we can agree that most Asian from Muslim backgrounds don’t inherit Buddhism as part of their ethnic backgrounds much more than Europeans and Euro-Americans do.

    I guess what I’ve seen with a lot of Asian friends is, even when their family background is Buddhist, if their parents aren’t religious and they weren’t raised with any tradition, then they are functionally just as much “convert Buddhists” as I am. So I don’t think “convert Buddhist” means “non-Asian only,” necessarily.

  37. to much “i,me,my” mind!
    when you allow thinking you create “opposites” mind. good, bad, up, down… all opposites. but before “thinking mind” we are all the same. whether “Buddha” taught me directly or my parents were buddhist is not important. evening saying “I am Buddhist” is a mistake. the “one point” is the same in all things. the bird is a bird… but did the bird ever say “i am a bird”? when you can answer that then you will realize that asian, not-asian doesn’t matter.

  38. In Australia, we have similar (but certainly not as large) issues of the division of predominantly convert and predominantly ‘ethnic’ Buddhist organisations. I think the situation of the integration of ‘Australian’ and ‘Asian’ Buddhism is much better here, because there is a large immigrant Asian community, many people first come into contact with Buddhism through a community based immigrant organisation and stay loyal to it. Asians marry Westerners who convert, have friends, bring children…so there’s generally at least a bunch of white people in every sangha I’ve been. They tend to be very active in the sangha because as converts, they have strong faith and a real desire to practice well and often hold high lay positions in ‘ethnic’ Buddhist organisations.

    Although the issue of culture is important, I think the issue of language is bigger. The usual situation is that I go to the Chinese monastery, everyone speaks Chinese all the time, the nuns/monks may speak only limited English…I have difficulties learning and I wouldn’t be able to bring my family or friends. I go to the Thai sangha…same deal. I’d go to a primarily convert sangha just because I know people would speak English…except for that they don’t exist where I live.

    If the Asian Buddhist community wants to interact better with the convert community in Australia, they HAVE to start making services available in English as well as other languages, and not viewing their role as primarily for the benefit of one cultural group.

  39. I’m fortunate to live in a southern USA city (Tampa Bay) large enough to have a sizable number of Vietnamese (both Theravada and Mahayana), Thai, Lao, and several branches of Tibetan temples and sanghas. There are no local Korean or Chinese groups that I know of.

    Although, some of these have social events open to the public–mainly featuring food and on special holidays–as a non-Asian, I’ve never felt welcomed or included any time I have attended actual ceremonies at local Asian temples. And, it’s not just not being spoken to and feeling ignored; I don’t speak any Vietnamese or Thai or Tibetan and English is generally not spoken so I don’t know what’s going on. I never see any other whites trying to attend and I’ve basically given up trying to go there, although I really would love to.

    It’s also true that few Asians attend the white Buddhist groups here. There are a smattering of non-ethnic groups such as Buddhist Peace Fellowship and when I asked, as a newcomer, where the ethnic Buddhist participation was in BPF, people just scoffed. Apparently, western Buddhists, both Asian and non-Asian, self-segregate, which I think is very, very sad.


    1. Dear Hilton, it appears that you have provided evidence that people in your locality self-segregate by linguistic affinities more than by race. A more interesting question is whether or not the Asian American children of these communities choose to continue to self-segregate; the answer is very much influenced by how white Buddhists, such as yourself, choose to treat us. This specific post on which you have chosen to leave a comment is about the deliberate exclusion of Asian Americans from a published discussion titled “Next-Gen Buddhism: The future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world.” The exclusion of our voices tells us we are not important. When we are told it was our own fault that we weren’t invited in the first place, it seems the message is that we are not wanted.

  40. Well, I’ve come late to a party once again. To me in fact the clearest evidence that we are seeing a white upper/upper-middle class Buddhist culture of oppression is that none of our white interlocutors mentioned our Black and Latino fellow practitioners. It is as if it’s just a conversation between whites and Asians.

    Not so good. I had the good fortune to start practice with a Latino Dharma teacher, and no slouch of one either: Sheng-Yen’s only resident native English-speaking Dharma heir in North America. Not white. I started practicing with my Black romantic partner, who had no end of harsh experiences with white Buddhists assuming this or that about her. It’s a real problem.

    Your awful good to set yourself up to take one for the team like this.

  41. I am from the Chinese Buddhist practice of Buddhism. I have an affinity for it. I am white as snow with a bit of spice from Asia and UK and Germany. However, I dealt with the language problem by preparing myself well for learning the complex Chinese history and culture first then improved my listening second and third still struggling on my conversation; gratefully my Buddhist language in Chinese is good and I throw in some sutra phrases when I can’t figure how to make the conversation grammar work. It confuses some of the nuns but heck they are smart and they get me.

    Yes, the isolation is hard but doable, we are the pioneers in the West and we must endure, do you think it was easy for those first to the third generations of Buddhists monks and nuns who left India? Nope. is the first huge temple that everyone speaks English, alternate days their services for the whole day are in English the next day is Chinese; they have a very large complex and practice traditional Vinaya based Buddhism in the Chinese flavor mixed with the various populace of monks and nuns from all the traditions. There are more that do this. This group has English only services and programs; it also has recently added talks in other languages as well.

    The issues raised are very important to discuss, there is a too much superficiality in these matters. How would you like to be me? I’m a white woman practicing Chinese Buddhism as a fully ordained bhikshuni. It has led to little bits of racism WHICH ARE NOT CONSTANT WHICH WOULD BE UNBEARABLE from the Chinese and from the whites who come into the temples or are a part of centers that have no ethnic Buddhists. So when I go where I am comfortable in the Chinese temple, I am an outsider, at best I am given some duties and join in without question or at worst treated like a guest, or become a workhorse or worse a person of low understanding of being human let alone Buddhist nun a burden (the aunties sometimes do this, rarely do the nuns do this). If I am in the white community I get nothing, zero recognition of being a Buddhist bhikshuni, even with my robes they got problems categorizing me and just plain ignore me. Some guy hit on me! Made me very embarrassed for he was white guy and thought I was just being ethnic in my dress (bald head no less!) I scolded him roundly! humpf!

    Well anyway, just hang in there, Buddhism is less than 200 years old! It’s gotta have time to ‘marinate’ and beside there are so many cooks we need time to taste test and pick our favorites so to speak. And those rags in question thankfully there is only a few of them around. They like to think they have an impace but really their audience is so limited and small the bookstores only keep a few copies. They are just full of ads hardly any content to speak of, used to have more content but they got greedy or maybe their costs blew up for publishing such a shiny pretty rag!

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