The Surface of Buddhism: Introduction

by Guest Contributor (and frequent commenter) Atlasien

The “religion” tag at Racialicious pulls up pieces that are almost entirely focused on Islam. There’s not much coverage of other minority religions yet. I’m pointing this out not to blame — after all, to be published in Racialicious, you have to submit pieces in the first place — but rather to open up the topic for thoughtful discussion, and explain my motivation for writing about Buddhism here.

I can think of several reasons for the number of Islam-related pieces right off the top of my head: the prevalence of Islamophobia and the racialization of Muslims. There’s no corresponding “Buddhophobia”. A white Buddhist is rarely regarded as a freak of nature. Instead of being hated and feared, symbols of my religion are commonly sold in the Home & Garden section of chain stores! Buddhism appears to be eminently compatible with modern American society.

But if you look closely, you’ll see some ripples on the surface…

The overall aim of this series is to discuss how issues of race and ethnicity intersect with the image and reality of Buddhism in the United States. It’s a huge topic so I’ll try to make it more manageable by establishing what this series won’t do. After I provide a very brief historical introduction to Buddhism, I won’t go much deeper into teachings or philosophy, especially since I’m ignorant about so much of it beyond the basics and have zero qualifications as that kind of teacher. I’m going to stick to the surface, to superficial perceptions, stereotypes, illusions, skin color… although what’s on the surface usually connects to other issues which go very, very deep.

I’m going to be discussing a lot of generalizations about different religions. I’ll try to be as sensitive as possible and differentiate my own fairly neutral views. I might offend various kinds of believers, but once I get farther along, I think that the most passionate objections are going to come from other Buddhists. Contrary to popular belief, we’re a fractious bunch. I’ll try to steel myself.

My own background in Buddhism is rather unique. I was half born into it, half converted.

Back in the 6th century BCE, Buddhism began in India based on the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Several hundred years later, the Indian king Asoka converted to Buddhism. This was a huge turning point in the religion. Asoka sponsored massive efforts to spread Buddhism through peaceful means. One wave entered Sri Lanka, became Theravada Buddhism, and from there spread across Southeast Asia. Other waves went overland and became Mahayana Buddhism in China and Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet. The influence of Buddhism waned within India as it became stronger in the East.

The fact that Buddhism has diminished so much in its birthplace is, naturally, a sore spot for many Buddhists. In 1948, a Cambodian monk, Bhante Dharmawara, came to India in order to work towards reestablishing Buddhism. In his life before monkhood, he came from an influential family, and was probably able to draw on these connections to establish the Asoka Mission near New Delhi. According to one story, he mystically cured the sick uncle of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Whatever happened, Bhante and Nehru developed an extremely close relationship, and Nehru sponsored and helped the Mission as much as possible. Nehru himself was a firm agnostic known for his support of secularism and distrust of Hindu fundamentalism.

In the 1970s, my parents came to live at the Asoka Mission. The Mission was centered around a group of monks, but anyone at all was welcome, especially if they pitched in to help.

My mother left the US in the 1960s, mainly for political reasons and disgust at the Vietnam War. She lived on small remittances from her parents, and odd jobs: janitorial and agricultural work, housesitting, and so on. She first went to India to explore her belief in Buddhism. My father, a Japanese fellow hippie, ran into her at the Ajanta Buddhist caves. They fell in love and began to sync up their migrations, since my father’s job also involved a lot of travel. I came along a few years later.

I have fond memories of the Mission. The land was beautiful. Even the dust struck me as having a beautiful color to it. I wandered around anywhere I wanted. The monks were always nice and smiled at me. Sometimes they gave me fun, important jobs like squeezing behind the statues to give them a dusting.

My mother valued her time there and the opportunity to hear Bhante speak. He was an important guide for her. But the living conditions were rough. Every night, she would wrap up our provisions and hang them from the ceiling in an increasingly complicated network of ropes. Every night, the rats would sneak in, perform unbelievable acrobatic feats and grab some of the food anyway. We were used to rough living, but according to my mother’s complaints, the rats were a minor annoyance compared to the heroin addicts. The Mission did not turn people away, and many of those people were hippies who’d fallen as low as you can go in a city where you could buy a fix for a nickel. The stress of shielding children from the sight of drooling passed-out junkies became too much for my mother to put up with. She did a good job, though… when I think back over my time there, I don’t remember seeing anything traumatic.

My father is a Japanese Buddhist in much the same way as my mother’s parents were white American Christians. You’re born into a faith, it’s your heritage, it’s an important part of transitions, such as death, but other than that, it tends to fade into the background of your life.

My first real introduction to a different way of living a religion came around the second grade, in public school in the United States. I was one of those kids that loved dinosaurs. I met another kid in my class that loved dinosaurs too… and he was also the only other Asian kid I knew! His family was from the Philippines. I was so happy to meet him. I was sure we would be great friends. We had so much in common. One day, as we were going through lists of our favorite dinosaurs, I mentioned something about the dinosaurs evolving. My friend was horrified. “God created dinosaurs on the sixth day,” he said. I disagreed. He never spoke to me again. The next day, as I rode my bike up to school, I was suddenly surrounded by a ring of classmates who all pointed their finger at me and chanted “you’re going to HE-ELL, you’re going to HE-ELL.”

My mother’s belief had faded somewhat in favor of an agnostic skepticism. She never joined a Buddhist community again after leaving India. She grew to believe that all religions were wrong, but that Buddhism was the least wrong. However, she still retained a strong attachment to Bhante and continued to follow his career. At the age of 90, he moved to Stockton, California to minister to a large group of Cambodian refugees who had been resettled there. Many were suffering terribly from cultural alienation and PTSD. My mother attended Bhante’s funeral when he died at the age of 110 after decades of service to the refugee community.

Steven Seagal had lately become a student of Bhante, and the funeral was actually delayed for a little bit in order for Seagal to attend, because his flight was late. Bhante’s Cambodian relatives put a good face on it, but one of them did end up snarking to my mother, “couldn’t he just jump out of the plane, like in one of his movies?”

These rambling anecdotes of my family history contain the seeds of what I want to discuss when it comes to Buddhism. First of all, Buddhism stakes its claim as a universal religion. Many (not all) strands of Buddhism don’t proselytize aggressively, but Buddhism is supposed to be for everyone. No one should be turned away, no matter how obnoxious. Not even heroin addicts abusing their American privilege in a poverty-stricken but generous country. Not even (ugh) Steven Seagal. Second, Buddhism is a worldly religion. It’s highly interwoven with race, class, ethnicity, politics and economics. Third, Buddhism is highly variable, and contains huge internal conflicts that rarely come to the attention of outsiders. Fourth, Buddhists in America have had to evolve unique ways of surviving in this culturally Christian nation.

The next installment of the series — Is Buddhism the Anti-Islam? — will talk more about cultural Christianity and how Buddhism and Islam are often stereotyped as polar opposites from a culturally Christian perspective. Complicity and Conflict will discuss representations of global power struggles involving Buddhism, including examples in which Buddhism has been complicit in state repression. Yes, I will be touching Tibet, but gingerly, with a ten-foot pole. Converts and Immigrants will outline the sociology and history of Buddhism in the United States, and provide an alternate narrative than the one in which white converts represent the face of modern American Buddhism. I might change the order and add or subtract from the series based on comments and suggestions, so feel free to comment on other issues you want to hear about. I might not have the space to include it, but I’ll probably try.

Postscript: Although this really belongs more to the later part of the series, I have to mention that there has been a recent blog tempest over some remarks by C.N. Le at Asian Nation.

C.N. Le is Vietnamese-American professor with a PhD in sociology. He’s very well-known and respected in the Asian-American blogosphere. On July 15th, he wrote a post describing his family’s experience at a Buddhist retreat. He mentioned a couple of white Buddhists who did not clean up after themselves, and suggested that just possibly maybe occasionally provisionally perhaps perhaps perhaps… white privilege was involved. The right of C.N. Le to make this rather mild criticism was noted and defended by the few Buddhist bloggers who have a sophisticated awareness on racial issues (the ones I know about are Angry Asian Buddhist and The Buddha is my DJ). Thank goodness for them. Otherwise, the reaction from Buddhist blogs appears to consist entirely of ridiculous racial hysteria and sanctimonious dharma-beating. For example, This person’s post can be summarized as “I AM A PERSECUTED WHITE MAN!! C.N. LE IS THE ASIAN KKK!! AND I BET HE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A REAL SOCIOLOGY DEGREE NYAH NYAH NYAH!!”. And this is from a blog called “Progressive Buddhism”. Sigh…

I didn’t want to get to this sort of stuff until the later part of the series, but I’ll provide a brief preview right now. Below is a mathematical equation containing elements that combine to form my perspective as an Asian-American Buddhist contemplating the persecution of a white American Buddhist.

    (almost all the problems experienced by white Buddhists) +
    (extra problems experienced in general by people of color Buddhists) +
    (extra problems experienced only by Asian-American Buddhists) – (-white privilege) =

I can’t speak for all other Asian-Americans but I imagine more than a few of them share my reaction. It’s why I don’t bother participating in these sorts of communities. I don’t feel like being insulted, ignored and erased when I try to connect to my religion. My only message to them: I’ve already heard everything you’ve had to say. I’ve even experienced it along with you. You haven’t done the same for me. Let me know when you’re ready to start listening.

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