Angry with Asians

(Warning: disorganized rant.) Over on the Buddha is my DJ, Yuinen brought up the situtation that many Asian American Buddhists are unaware that there are other types of Buddhists in the United States. Many assume that it’s only people from their ethnic group, whether it be Chinese/Thai/Japanese/etc., who are the only Buddhists in the United States. This is a very real problem that is helped along by the lack of interaction among Asian American Buddhist institutions.

I’ve ranted about the plight of young Asian American Buddhists before. If you want to bring the Buddhist youth community together, the place to start is close to home. For me, that’s with youth groups — whether in high school, college or recently graduated. We may come from many different cultural backgrounds, but current AA Buddhist youth have more in common with Buddhist peers across ethnic/cultural lines than they do with their parents’ institutions. We’re neither here-nor-there, and as we grow up in the context of the American Buddhist community, that means that there are few Buddhist groups that appeal directly to our social background.

Wat Thai of Los Angeles

Our cultural isolation is set in place by the older established authority. In the temples I frequent, young AAs have little say, and they’re not often steered towards networking with other temples, especially temples from other ethnic groups.

Why is this the case?

First off, it’s always easier to work within your own group. Working with another temple involves lots of phone calls, advanced planning, comparing schedules and readjustments. If you’re working with a temple rooted in a different ethnic tradition, there’s sometimes a fear (whether true or unfounded) that there will be an insurmountable linguistic barrier. All these little obstacles are enough to favor internal participation over external participation when the choice arises.

Some groups write the cultural divide into their organizational identity. They just don’t want to work with others. I am currently in negotations with one such group to kickstart a series of inter-temple youth activities. It took me two attempts, in two languages, before someone with authority was willing to sit down and talk to me, only to say: We won’t work with youth who aren’t [ethnicity]. We’ve finally been able to (slowly) move past this, but how I dream of the day when the response will be, “We’d love to work with you!”

Some organizations have a rock star complex. They see themselves as the center of the community, and they see no reason to share the spotlight. If there’s a multi-organizational event, then this group or that group will do everything possible to make it their own event, where all other participants are just tagging along. If there’s a youth event, they want to do it on their terms, which means draping the event in the ethnic and sectarian themes of that particular group. Who wants to work with a prima donna? (You may have noticed, I’m still bitter from a recent experience.)

I can go on and on about how I hate working with current Asian American temples.* But I continue working with them because I’m convinced that their youth demographic is the best place for me to make a difference. I’m convinced that the results will be positive for the whole community.

The idea of a multicultural Buddhist network is to help Asian American youth see that their Buddhist identity needn’t be the same as their cultural identity. This notion may seem obvious to “convert” Buddhists, but it’s anathema to the goal that quite a few temple youth groups strive toward, namely the perpetuation of an ethnic Buddhist identity. I may fume over white Buddhists caring too little about ethnic issues, but it’s just as infuriating working with people who care just a little too much about it.

And now you know I don’t spend all my free time kvetching about white people.

* I’m sure no one doubts that I can rant to no end.

4 Replies to “Angry with Asians”

  1. Brother Arunlikhati, is it possible you’ve developed an attachment to a concept about how things ought to be, and because they’re not, you’re bummed out? Why, there’s the Buddha’s teaching right there! As I mentioned before, in the “convert community,” centers in the same city almost never work together. Each has its own teachers, its own practice lineage, its own style, its own donors(!), and, frankly, it’s so much work for an all-volunteer staff to run one center, there’s rarely time or energy to put into multi-center networking.

    And…very few are fussed about that, I think. Almost no one I know wants everyone to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” as One Sangha. Honestly, among the many things that turned me off to Christianity was that so many churches just seemed like social clubs, and not in any way places for spiritual development.

    But. All that said, it may be different for the young ‘uns. I imagine they could really benefit from periodic get-togethers with kids like themselves, and develop an appreciation for the broader palette of Buddhist ways.

    Finally, I don’t care for the term “convert Buddhists” (I know you didn’t use it in your post, but I’m seeing it crop up a lot in this wider discussion) because it’s often not accurate. I was not part of any religious organization nor was I any kind of spiritual seeker at all before my karma blindsided me, I enthusiastically took up a Buddhist way of life, and found myself in robes after three years. So, you see, I didn’t convert from anything, except perhaps “alcoholism”!

  2. Konchog,

    I also don’t envision Buddhism in the U.S. simply turning into a single Sangha organization, or that it is even desirable. The “culture” part of Buddhism is something that I see is intrinsic to Buddhism, and also not something you can just separate, at least not so easily, from whatever is the “essence” of Dharma; every aspect of Dharma we have now has been filtered through some kind of “culture” so I don’t really think you can say “This is A” and “This is X – the real deal” etc.

    But getting “the kids” to be aware of other Buddhist traditions at least is something defiinitely to be considered, if just only to broaden the perceptions of what Buddhism is, that it IS part of a global culture and teaching/philosophy. And especially when these kids go off into the military or college, or move away from home somewhere where their ethnic group is not so populous, they have an opportunity to still be a part of a Sangha or community, even if it is not the one they grew up with. I am Korean-American, hapa, but I am a member of a predeominantly Japanese-American Buddhist tradition. So what we can expect in the (near)future is perhaps even more diverse makeups of Sanghas in the U.S.!

  3. Excellent post. I think that there will be more integration of sanghas with each successive generation. And I don’t think that there has to be one universal American Buddhist sangha to see integration. I follow the Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh and our sangha has people from several cultural traditions and I hope that it will continue to be so.

  4. Thanks for your comments Ven. Konchog, Yuinen and James!

    I’m definitely attached to the idea that things ought to be different than they are, but I’m not working towards any coherent “vision.” I’d like the Buddhist community to be tighter than it is, and every time that I reach out my hand, then the Buddhist community is a little closer than it was before. Will this lead anywhere? Who knows. But I will always be there to try out new ideas to bring people together. Communication is the key.

    That said, I certainly prefer many diverse, independent Buddhist organizations to one giant organization with many branches — the larger an institution, the more politics you have to deal with. Plus, as Scott Mitchell has pointed out, diversity is important for the individual.

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