Next-Gen AsianAm Buddhists

Many thanks to Dan who posted a link to Making the Invisible Visible in the comments from the Angry Asian Buddhist post. (Another worthwhile article is Stories We Have Yet to Hear: The Path to Healing Racism in American Sanghas by Mushim Ikeda-Nash.) I still have a little bundled up stress from the last post, but reading this booklet was a real weight off my shoulders. You hear this all the time, but I have to say it again: It’s good knowing that I’m not alone.

My Angry Asian post was about how I felt a core demographic of the Buddhist community was being ignored. This core demographic is the next generation of Asian American Buddhists.

The Buddhists in North America referred to as “heritage Buddhists” — those who inherited it as part of their ethnic background — are largely Asian Americans. Thousands of these heritage Buddhists are young American-born Asian Americans in their teens, twenties and thirties, who represent a whole new generation of Asian American Buddhism.

We’re in many ways like the generations that came before us. For one, we’re Asian. We have that whole eye-thing going for us. We also feel a cultural affinity for our “heritage” culture, which includes Buddhism. We get offended when we see Buddhist images disrespected because, by extension, it’s a disrespect to our culture. We battle stereotypes that we are exotic, weak, subservient and perpetually foreign.

We’re also very different from our immigrant forebears. English is our language of choice. American pop culture is what we wear on our sleeves. We are increasingly politically active and socially liberal. (Note: some 41 Nguyens donated money to oppose Prop 8, while none donated money to support it.) We also seek to understand Buddhism from an American social context — after all, we’re raised in a culture that’s been hyper-religified by the Religious Right.

This next generation of Asian Americans is currently the invisible generation. To say that we’re underrepresented in Buddhist mainstream media is an overstatement. We aren’t even that prevalent. But that’s not to say that we’re not involved.

At the college level, Asian American Buddhists comprise a significant segment of the Buddhist youth who are founding and maintaining college Buddhist associations and creating on-campus Dharma communities. The Southern California University Buddhist Association (SCUBA), an alliance of multicultural college Buddhist clubs, hosts largely non-Asian teachers as chaplains. In addition to Dharma talks and meditation retreats, they also promote community service projects and networking events. If Asian Americans can contribute so successfully to the college Buddhist scene, imagine what they could contribute to the greater Buddhist community!

These new Asian Americans have also gone back to the community to bring youth programs up to par with the 21st century. One of the most well known endeavors is BCA Youth Advocacy Committee, which has been reaching out directly to address concerns of Buddhist students of all ages with workshops, socials and retreats. Dharma Realm Buddhist Youth provides English language lectures, sitting groups and retreats. Most recently I discovered Bodhi Youth of America, which aims to create a more nourishing youth environment than the more established Gia Đình Phật Tử. Imagine how Asian American Buddhists can bring this experience in raising Buddhists kids to the greater Buddhist community!

But not all is well and dandy. I’ve lamented before that Asian Buddhists too rarely interact across cultural lines. This is still the case, and for the sake of a more united Buddhist community this needs to change. Asian Buddhists need to get out of their organizational bubbles, and the Next-Gen Asian American Buddhists are in the best place to start. They have the common Asian American cultural background that their parents and/or grandparents so often lack — and they can extend this to connect with other non-Asian American youth. Here is an untapped source of community talent that will go to waste if ignored both by Asian and white mainstream Buddhist institutions.

So those are my two cents on who this next generation of Asian American Buddhists are, and why we’re important.

I noticed that a lot of previous commentators talked about Asian Americans in a way that I don’t feel accounts for these Next-Gen AsianAm Buddhists. I’m going to try to tell their stories. Literally. My next few weeks are devoted to interviewing young Asian American women (a very underrepresented segment in Buddhist media) and posting these on Dharma Folk. Stay tuned!

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