A White Buddhist on Race

It’s obvious anyone who’s been reading this blog for some time that I’ve got a thing Alan Senaukeor two to say about Asian American issues in the Buddhist community — and also that this thing or two has changed over time. I spent some time today skimming back over the Angry Asian Buddhist posts, and it was humbling (as in embarrassing) to read my own words. There are some things that I would never write again. And there are some things that I wrote again and again and again…

In reviewing the trail of the Angry Asian Buddhist, I ran across a new comment on an old Tricycle blog post with a link to an even older essay “On Race and Buddhism” by the Zen teacher Rev. Alan Senauke. It may be 12 years old, but it still rings true. I didn’t feel it said anything special up until one line that resonated with me:

Several years ago at a meeting of international Buddhist activists in Thailand I realized that in the first day I had figured out who (among the westerners) was Jewish. And even stranger I realized that all the Jews were doing the same thing and had “signified” to each other. We knew who each other was, and we were more comfortable for it. This, I am sure, is a pattern that goes back through centuries of being ghetto-ized, of being the other. It’s not a genetic thing. I can remember my mother telling me how to watch out for myself. That some people would exclude and threaten me just for being Jewish. It’s so deep that sometimes I find myself looking around the zendo and counting those I think are Jewish. Some of you may find yourself making a similar census. From talking with them, I know that people of color do this.

Sometimes I find myself looking around the zendo and counting those I think are Jewish. Well, he definitely did what I do when I open the pages of Tricycle and start counting the Asians.

I never took an ethnic studies class. I’m a complete stranger to all the theory and language used to describe the ethnic issues that seem just beyond the tip of my tongue. A couple weekends ago, I watched a documentary tribute to Chris Iijima and was awestruck at how simply this old folk musician/law professor was able to put into a few lyrics what I have struggled to say in the past few months. (Bay Areans, go see the documentary at the SFIAAFF!)

This blog has given me an opportunity to grope around for ways to both describe and publicize issues that for many years I believed I experienced alone. All the criticism and rough edged comments have also helped me see the sloppiness in my words and the vagueness in how I express my ideas. Thank you.

So I thought it’d be nice to hear someone else’s words, especially when they’re more coherent than my own. It’s also nice for me to have someone else say things like, “Keeping in mind that most Buddhists even in America don’t look like me. They are Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and so on. I come to Buddhism out of suffering. They come to Buddhism as a birthright.” I wouldn’t have the gall to say that… except when I’m feeling exceptionally indignant. And as a white Buddhist, he can say certain things with much more force than if it came from me:

This is necessary because in America, passivity means white supremacy. It’s subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my mind as a person with so-called privilieges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Last week I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. Now maybe I did a good job talking to them, but I was the first Buddhist choice that came to mind for the organizers. There is some irony in that. Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people like me.

6 Replies to “A White Buddhist on Race”

  1. I think my wife does the same here in Ireland and back home in the US. I really think it’s some kind ingrained habit from pre-historic days to look for, and band together with, people of similar appearance, or other affiliations. I read once in an anthropology book that researchers think this is due to the “strength in numbers” concept that was quite necessary in the days of early man, but still plays out in things like sports teams, religions, language, culture, etc.

    It’s scary in a way being around people who are totally different than you because you’re not sure how they’ll treat you. When I was in Vietnam, I remember getting stared out all the time, and occasionally receiving mean comments. In Japan, people stare at me like a monster too, so I am kind of weirdly relieved when I am on the train and see I am not the only Westerner. I don’t think people are being hostile, but there’s some kind of comfort deeply-ingrained in our minds when we’re around people of similar disposition or appearance, even though in reality it doesn’t really account for much.

    At least that’s my thought on the subject.

  2. On race relations in general I am excited to see “minorities” near to being the majority in America. I put minorities in quotes because I think it is has become a pejorative term–that and as I already said whites will soon no longer be in the majority.

    My wife is from Hawaii and I am so in love with those islands for many reasons obviously. But one big one is that they have almost developed their own race by mixing between Asians, whites and blacks. They are beautiful and their cultures have all blended together to form a wonderfully vibrant community. I would love to see the mainland of America become that someday–and it will eventually.

    I can’t wait for the day when we are all mixtures of many races and not just mixtures of subgroups within one racial group. Such as I’m part Scottish, part Norwegian and part Dutch but all of those are white. I want to see eventually one, single race but maybe due to karma we will always have the various races?

    As for the sangha in America I think white Buddhists have often been insulting toward the Asian community, which generously taught and shared the Dharma with us. I think that all Buddhists magazines should have as many Asians as whites on their staff. Maybe it’s structured diversity and trying to “force” people together but maybe a bit of structure isn’t a bad thing for now? I don’t know…just talking out loud.

    I for one am a white, American Buddhist who has great respect for Asian Buddhists and for the holy sites in Asia. I don’t like white American Buddhists trying to make the U.S. the center of Buddhism. That’s in India/Asia. It’s like trying to rip the center of Christianity away from Israel.

  3. I had the privilege of meeting Rev. Senauke in Berkeley several times. He is an insightful teachers and his words should be carefully considered.

    Also seeing recent posts on this site and elsewhere on race and Buddhism, we should also pause and carefully consider our own inherent racisms. We should not think that, because we call ourselves “Buddhist,” that we automatically become color-blind and are “beyond” the considerations of race and ethnicity that also plague other religions and teachings. We will be dealing with these issues for a long while yet.

  4. Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to comments.

    @Doug: There is indeed comfort in banding together with similar people, when all you’re used to seeing is different. I won’t deny that there’s also comfort in being part of a majority, where all you’re used to is people who look and speak like you.

    @James: Thanks for your comments. I think America still has a ways until it’s a “minority-majority” nation (over 30 years), and I don’t think we’ll ever blend into “one race,” but I do think we’ll make strides. But for minorities to rise up, majorities will have to both recognize and give up their privileges.

    @Yuinen: Thank you — it’s taken me a while to see where you’re coming from, and I’m sorry that because it seems I keep on talking past you (rather than responding to you). I don’t think being Buddhist puts us above race in any way. I feel that your points are really good, and I’d like to address them (fairly and faithfully), but as you can see I’ve been dragging my heels on this. Will get to it soon!

  5. Thanks, Arunlikhati. I was amused/dismayed to find how close to the top my piece comes up when Googling about Buddhism and Race.

    Searching around today, preparing for a talk this Saturday at BZC which originally was going to be on race, privilege, and karma, and is now, of course affected by the spectacle of the Sotomayor hearings and the outrageous arrest of Louis Henry Gates.


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