What does Western Buddhism mean for people of color?

Okay, I know the title feels like a continuation of everything before (and it is), Lama Choyin Rangdrolbut it’s not because I woke up this morning itching to write another Angry Asian Buddhist post. Yesterday a student asked me about what it means to be Buddhist, so I decided to forward her a link to a post from a year ago, “What does it mean to not be Buddhist?” When I did a Google search for this title (too lazy to search my own blog!) the top article happened to be “American Buddhism: What does it mean for people of color?” written by Lama Choyin Rangdrol back in 1998. So you can imagine I was curious.

Below are some thoughts from another writer, from the last century (so to speak), that spoke to me today.

While recent blog posts have revolved around the term and notion of “Western Buddhism”, I feel Lama Rangdrol’s comments, while using the term “American Buddhism”, are particularly applicable to “Western Buddhism”, at least in the United States. From a more personal perspective, it’s also some comfort to know that I’m not alone in feeling marginalized.

Herein lies the dilemma; our dominant culture peace loving brothers and sisters want to create a distinct compassionate group. In order to do so they must include that which their hateful counterpart does not. Inclusion means engagement with people of color whose presence is a reminder of Euro-American’s discomforting heritage. The heritage issue inevitably arises creating the notion in minds of some peace loving Euro-Americans that their cultural past is irrevocably connected to their hate group counterparts. The inseparable connection creates an understandably maddening frustration.

In an attempt to reduce the frustration a subtle selection process for Euro-American Buddhist approval has been put in place. The selection process has several criteria: 1) people of color are allowed in as long as they do not bring up the heritage issue 2) people of color who have no connection to the heritage issue, such as Tibetans, are welcome because their preoccupation is with Chinese heritage rather than American heritage 3) anyone, regardless of race or culture who speaks of these issues must subject him/herself to a verbal caution from a dominant culture senior student 4) if, after being verbally cautioned, an individual persists in discussing these matters they must leave the center or organization because they are engaging in ‘non-Buddhist’ activity, and finally 5) Any public discussion of these topics is expressly forbidden and will result in Dharma center blacklisting as well as going to Buddhist hell.

The above criteria is agreed upon by a loosely formed majority consensus among Euro-American Buddhists who happen to finance most Buddhist centers and is comprised of dominant culture Buddhists. Although the intent is to maintain a comfort zone for those struggling with their heritage issues, the result is the creation of segregated worship centers and organizations.

Some of the comments I get definitely fit into one of the enumerated points above, perhaps even more precisely into something you’d find in Derailing for Dummies. As far as I know, Lama Rangdrol isn’t Asian American, so I also appreciate his emphasis on including Asian Americans as people of color. Especially since, in my experience, this hasn’t always been the case.

With the history of early Buddhist presence in America one is led to ask a reasonable question, “Why now?” Why is it important to proclaim, at this time, that there is some new kind of Buddhism in America? Have they now ‘discovered’ Buddhism, like they discovered America? Who serves to benefit from such a ‘discovery’ bestowed upon their activity? What purpose could be served by the exclusion of a rich century and a half presence? Yes, the Chinatown I mentioned was burned to the ground by a mob not comprised of people of color. The inhabitants as well as all Asian of the period were also stripped of their right to become American citizens by the Asian Exclusion Act (c.1882). We can’t even tell if they were in fact all people from China as in those days anyone who looked Asian was presumed Chinese. What we do know is these Buddhists existed and practiced their religion on American soil. To me, they are as much a part of American Buddhism as the Dalai Lama recently speaking in New York City’s Central Park.

Considering the above and other historical precedents I think it wise that people of color participate in deciding whether certain terms, and the implications of those terms, fully express inclusion. Even newly emerging terms such as multiracial, interracial, and phrases such as non-European based diversity can only begin to embellish the increasingly panoramic view of a fully integrated ‘American Buddhist’ experience.

You can also check out the full text on Lama Rangdrol’s website. A lot has changed since this commentary first hit the internet. For one, there is a reference to the ethnicity of American presidents, which had a different resonance 1998 as it does today. The Buddhist community itself has changed much over the past decade, but even so we’re still debating these same issues and the back-and-forth has a similar ring to it.

I know that Lama Rangdrol’s commentary was controversial ten years ago, and I haven’t gone out of my way to read what others wrote in response. I don’t know if he still feels this way, or whether he even cares about this issue any more. But here’s something that I can say with absolute certainty. Even if you find what I’m saying annoying and objectionable, you are reading sentiments that are shared by countless other American Buddhists, many of whom are people of color and who have felt they were alone, that they were the only ones who felt marginalized in their own community. Maybe our sentiment is “wrong” or “irritating” — and I encourage dissenters to comment accordingly below — but these views exist within the Western Buddhist community, and ignoring them isn’t going to make it all better. Reading Lama Rangdrol’s piece reminded me that my posts make a difference if only because they might show one lonely Asian American Buddhist kid that she’s actually not alone, that the marginalization that she feels is real. At the end of the day, if for no other reason, I’m writing for her.

8 Replies to “What does Western Buddhism mean for people of color?”

  1. While I have been a vocal proponent of the concept of Western or American Buddhists I would like to thank you for this post. The attitudes discussed are what I see as the older, yuppie/hippie form of Buddhism that was more about making yourself feel special than if was connecting to the Dharma. Of course, this attitude still exists and is likely to among all religions as long as there are people with knowledge not tempered with humble sincerity. The concept of Western Buddhism I see is a ‘native’ Western or American Dharma experience in the same way that Zen is a Japanese experience. That concept is still so young that it is understandable to see the text you quoted from only ten years ago. It is still very relevant. It’s relevance, though is in being mindful to include rather than exclude and not something unique to the newly forming Western movements. This critique of ‘Western’ Buddhism is just as applicable to the Japanese temple I attend as it is to the newly developing Dharma Punx movement. I would appreciate not being marinalized just as much as the Asian American you mention in your post. That person and I are both Buddhists walking the path to enlightenment that only we can walk.

  2. Arunlikhati, thank you for this post and digging up some very good material. Lama Choyin Rangdrol expresses much more eloquently sentiments I’ve been trying to express for some time now (plus, he’s a helluva nice guy).

    Keep up the good work. I’m sure that wherever your anonymous lonely Asian American kids is, she’s grateful.

  3. Thanks Todd and Scott. Just for the sake of clarification, the “one lonely Asian American Buddhist kid” was meant to refer to an arbitrary individual. I’ve gotten a lot of encouraging feedback from Asian American Buddhists, and this arbitrary kid stands for them. (I guess I just chose her to be female for the sake of expanding diversity in the world of arbitrarily referenced individuals.)

  4. I agree with Todd A., when he says, “The attitudes discussed are what I see as the older, yuppie/hippie form of Buddhism that was more about making yourself feel special than if was connecting to the Dharma,” which itself is a bit of a stereotype itself.

    There’s a stink to enlightenment regardless of culture, and anyone with a sentient brain doing the practice for a while ought to figure out that feeling special ain’t it.

    Moreover, I had to chuckle a tad because Western Buddhism is very big, and “people of color” includes a few of those who practice forms of Nichiren Buddhism who have ancestors from Africa, as well as a smattering of Zen students.

    There’s lots of Buddhisms out there, and cultivation of skill is useful in most of them.

  5. Thank you arunlikhati, I have to say I agree with most all your points in this post. If a Western Buddhist tradition is to grow it has to be incompessing of all people, regardless of color or even religion.

    I would careful not to say American Buddhist vs Western, but then again I’m throwing rocks from my glass house.

    Great post!

  6. This is exciting stuff. I’m in the thick of trying to work out how to be a white buddhist and avoid cultural appropriation while confronting elements of white buddhist culture that I find alienating (I’m a sex worker. You can imagine the interesting discussion this produces on sexual misconduct).
    Thank you for bringing up the issues that so many of us european-descended buddhists would prefer to avoid, in particular the way that white dominance manifests as an invisible shield against addressing the politics of racism in our world and in our practice. To the white buddhists reading this: one of the most significant way that your privilege manifests is in its invisibility–to you. For your own karma, open your mind, end delusion, wake up to the reality of the continuing viciousness of racism and white dominance in your world.

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