Asian Watch

One of the perks of my new place is that I live across the street from Border’s. Shambhala SunMy cold still has not gone away, so after zipping through Trader Joe’s (also across the street), I made a quick swing by Borders, where I noticed that the new issue of Shambhala Sun is out. The Tenth Annual All Buddhist Teachings Issue. (Wow!)

With my newly-bought Shambhala Sun in hand, I zoomed straight to my kitchen, turned on the stove, cooked up some rice porridge (I was inspired by a friend who assured me that shoveling in onions and pepper would smack that cold over to the next life), and then sat down and started counting the Asians.

My reasons for scouting out the Asian American have been stated, but it’s worth stating again. At a personal level, I like to see readers like myself. Asian + American. (Not just Asian.) At a higher level, I believe the mainstream Buddhist publications need to do a better job at reaching out the greater Buddhist community in North America. On one hand, these publications are (unintentionally) excluding Asian Americans from the Buddhist writer country club.  On the other hand, they are sending the signal that there is no Asian American writing worth printing — except, of course, if you happen to be a “real Asian teacher.”

My criticisms have generated a lot of response before, and my favorite comments are the ones that blame the Asians. It’s the fault of Asian Americans because they aren’t submitting their work. Or maybe it’s just the case that there actually isn’t any Asian American writing worthy of a magazine as prestigious as Tricycle or Shambhala Sun. These are valid retorts, but their assumption is that there’s something wrong with Asians, not with the institutions.

A football analogy may help put the issue into perspective. About 70 percent of players in the NFL are black. But in 2002, only 6 percent of head coaches were black. Maybe it was the case that black Americans weren’t applying for the top jobs. Or maybe it was the case that there actually weren’t any black Americans worthy of serving as head coaches for an institution as prestigious as the National Football League. Well, in 2003 a watered-down affirmative action program known as the Rooney Rule was instituted. In short, the rule is that for any head coach position, you have to interview at least one minority candidate. By 2006, the number of black coaches in the NFL had more than tripled.

The problem isn’t the player, the problem is the system. Now I’m not saying that these magazines suck. I’ve genuinely enjoyed reading through the most current issue of Shambhala Sun. I didn’t just buy it to make a point on a blog. I enjoyed Noah Levine’s piece on social action and Karen Miller’s piece on family. But I still can’t get over the point that I’ve been hammering on about for the past few weeks.

Where are the Asians?

If you counted the way that I did, you probably found two. Maybe three. You have the obligatorily distal Asian teachers. There’s Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and Tulku Thondup Rinpoche who both offer substantial pieces on Buddhism and how to deepen our practice. But they aren’t Asian Americans. Then there’s Pico Iyer (is he really Buddhist?) — he’s included in a selection of personal stories from issues past.

So I’m still disappointed with the system. I haven’t expected the system to change at all since my first Angry Asian Buddhist rant, and I don’t expect it to change any time soon. But this is an important issue, so it’s worth blogging on about. I hope it gets annoying, and I hope other people will also blog about this issue with me because maybe one day some Buddhist editors in the Old Country (or as the locals call it: the “East Coast”) may decide they want their list of contributors to look less like the white country clubs of the last century and more like change better reflect the Buddhist community.

10 Replies to “Asian Watch”

  1. This is a sideways comment, I know, but you might be interested in Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, “Outliers: The Story of Success.” You could scan it at Borders!

    It goes into data and research that talks about why certain populations succeed at certain activities, while others don’t. Doesn’t mention Buddhism, but it might be relevant to your concerns. Again, I know this is tangential…

    Thanks for pursuing this line of discussion – it’s important to everyone who is serious about how we make suffering in the world.


  2. While not Asian-American I totally agree with you that American Buddhism must bring everyone together. My hope is that the younger generations such as ours will step forward more to join hands and hearts to strengthen our ties.

    I too would like to see more Asian-American representation in the American Buddhist magazines. Even though I’m not Asian-American I still have felt the bite of elitism in American Buddhism. The sangha I use to attend was all white and very leary of “new people.” And especially young, new people like myself. So I left. Right now I prefer and online sangha through my blog, which unites people of all races, colors and countries.

  3. Voting for Obama is not enough

    Our deeds are the ground we stand on.

    I am an Asian American.

    I have experienced racism since elementary school being chased home from school by kids screaming “chink”. I was also hunted in high school by the football team for daring to fight back against one of their members who used to taunt and physically abuse other students who were minorities. The school suspended me for that. In college I led students of color to take over the administration building to force them to substantively address issues surrounding diversity. Since then I have lived and worked in poor communities of color both in the US and in the developing world.

    I came to practice Buddhism as a way to personally heal and find peace.

    I too have not only enjoyed but also personally benefited from reading teachings by European American teachers and practitioners. I have been inspired by what I have read yet I am hurt and mystified by this seemingly huge gap in consciousness in their awareness and practice.

    Sadly, I too have been alienated from all white sanghas where although there was no overt racism, yet neither was there any sense of being welcome at all. Perhaps any person of color would find it difficult to feel comfortable practicing there.

    In these sanghas where every face is white yet when they walk out the door into the world and see that America is a multicultural society, don’t they feel a sense of something not right?

    Everyone suffers and I don’t pretend to know what burdens or difficulties other people have been through. Yet race and class remain perhaps the 2 of the most oppressive and hurtful systems in the US. How can people who are compassionate and aware ignore this in their own practice and the communities that have been formed to support the enlightenment of all beings, not just those who are of European descent.

    I tried to bring this up gently with good friends who are white and progressive. I was shocked and disappointed by the vehemence of their denial. They accused me of being silent, of not speaking out and therefore not being heard.

    Is our practice inclusive of people unlike ourselves? Is it one that sees injustice in the world and seeks to effect positive change? Do we acknowledge the privilege that race, class and gender bring? Do we acknowledge that as social entities, the American Buddhist community, our sanghas and practice reflect social dynamics in American society including racism, classism and sexism? If the answer is no, perhaps we need to ask why. Perhaps we need to find the courage to bring these questions to our friends and teachers. And if we don’t perhaps we should also ask why not.

    Our deeds are the ground we stand on.

    Voting for Obama is not enough.

  4. Who was it that had that quote about the “most segregated hour?”

    There are predominantly black churches and white churches, Polish churches, Korean churches, and so on, just as there are Thai Buddhist temples, Chinese temples, and Japanese Buddhist temples, all right here in America. There aren’t any religious laws that force them to be segregated, it just seems to be how people prefer to congregate with people of their own culture or color, even if there is a sprinkling of “others” in the crowd. Maybe it is just a form of hubris to think that American Buddhism would somehow simply be above all that?

  5. Thank you all for your comments.

    Barry: Thanks for the tip, I’ll definitely leaf through that book in Borders!

    James: I appreciate your open-mindedness. I’ve recently started making the effort to connect with less Asian-dominated sanghas. It’d be hypocritical if I shout for diversity, but don’t actually step forward into the mix.

    Chop Suey Monk: It’s good to know that I’m not alone in my feelings of injustice. I don’t think that voting for Obama solves the issues — I was trying to make a snarky reference that I later preferred to cross out.

    Ven. Konchog: I don’t know, but I’m sort of curious now that you ask. Your short comment is worthy of a whole post on its own. Here’s a thought: I would feel 100% hypocritical to demand Shambhala Sun be more diverse, only to turn around and start up an Asian American Buddhist quarterly. That said, if I happened to spot one such Asian American magazine at Borders, I would buy it in a heartbeat.

    Yuinen: I think your (valid and very thoughtful) comment speaks more directly to other topics I’ve raised in the past, rather than with this particular piece. I sincerely feel that the absence of Asian American authors in the mainstream Buddhist media reflects negatively on Asian Americans in the general Buddhist community — be it subtle and indirect — and that this is unjust. I feel it would be wrong to say that since there are Buddhist magazines with only Chinese writers, then predominantly white magazines should be entitled to list only white writers (even if there is a sprinkling of “others” in the crowd). I see the issue of diversity in temples and sanghas/congregations as a whole nother beast.

  6. Hello Arunlikhati,

    But aren’t they directly related, the issues of diversity whether in temples or in the media? I know there is Buddhist media directed at members of predominant “ethnic” temples, in their own languages (i.e. not English). Can this be considered as a reflection of the self-segregation within sanghas?

  7. [putting on my professor cap] Arunlikhati & Yuinen, I think we need to be careful about the distinction between an ethnically homogenous Buddhists community (whether its all-white or all-Asian) and a multimedia, international publication or not-for-profit organization like Tricycle or Shambhala. To the extent that the latter explicitly claim to represent the broad spectrum of “Buddhist America,” they have a responsibility to do just that — represent all Buddhist Americans regardless of sectarian, generation, ethnic, or any other distinction.

    When Dr. King said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour of week in America in reference to the way that religious institutions self-segregate, that’s something completely different. It’s different because religious institutions have different objectives and serve a different (literal) congregation. A small Lao temple in the Toronto suburbs has a much different raison d’etre than Tricycle or some other magazine. And if this little Tao temple self-segregates, so what? The same is true of an all-white community in Nebraska. They’re just serving their communities.

    The question (and a real and important one that I’m going to answer here) is whether or not a temple or community in a major urban area such as SF or LA or NY has a different responsibility. Or, at the very least, should be more willing to be open and inclusive of a wide variety of people.
    [taking off professor cap]

  8. Scott: Thanks for your so eloquent comment!

    Yuinen: My response wouldn’t be along the exact same lines as Scott’s comments. I do think your questions are valid, but maybe I’ll write another post that suits this issue more neatly.

  9. I’m reading over posts for references, and I have to admit at least one comment in the post itself that I should retract (and which no one called me on!). I excluded certain people mentioned in this post from the Asian American community for reasons which I would use to include others. I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.

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