The Surface of Buddhism: Is Buddhism the anti-Islam? [Racialigious]

by Guest Contributor (and frequent commenter) Atlasien

The similarities are fascinating. Buddhism and Islam in the United States are both minority religions with roughly the same number of adherents. Providing an exact demographic breakdown is impossible, and the issue of demographic study is controversial for both religions.

Here’s a good link to Muslim demographics in the U.S. It’s “good” not because I know anything about the site’s objectivity, but because it outlines the difficulties of achieving anything near an accurate count, and it lists multiple poll sources. There are somewhere between 1 and 7 million Muslims in the United States. In terms of ethnicity, about a quarter to a third of them are African-American, a quarter to a third are South Asian, a quarter are Arab and the rest are a mixed bag that includes a sprinkling of American-born white people and European immigrants.

Here’s a link for Buddhists that focuses on a recent controversial poll and does some great data-crunching. There are somewhere between 1 and 5 million Buddhists in the United States. As arunlikhati mentions in the above link, the 2008 Pew Forum Report has a demographic breakdown that’s horrendously inaccurate. They left out Hawaii, and the survey was conducted entirely in English or Spanish. That would be like providing a demographic breakdown of Catholicism by skipping Texas and asking questions only in English and Vietnamese. It’s completely nuts! Unfortunately, since “Pew” has such a strong brand name, the results of this study are going to be floating around for a while.

The Pew poll underrepresents the number of Asian-American Buddhists. A better estimate is that Asian-Americans represent somewhere from 60-90% of all Buddhists. The rest are composed predominantly of white people, plus a mixed bag with small numbers of African-Americans, Latinos and others. Different Asian-American groups that are well-represented in the US are going to have very different breakdowns. Vietnamese- and Cambodian-Americans will have high levels of Buddhism, Japanese-Americans will be medium, Chinese-Americans are all over the map while Korean-Americans are predominantly Christian.

Unlike Judaism and Hinduism, both Islam and Buddhism are religions with explicitly universal application and a strong history of proselytizing. There are strands within or associated with Judaism and Hinduism that do advance universal claims, but I think it’s safe to say that most adherents don’t claim universality as a goal. As a natural but somewhat paradoxical consequence of this universality, Islam and Buddhism have huge internal divides around race, ethnicity, class, immigration and convert status.

I’ll stop here for a second and say that I’m not going to be talking further about Islam as it’s actually practiced and experienced in the U.S., and neither will I be discussing real, lived Buddhism in this segment. Instead, I’ll be listing opposing pairs of stereotypes of Islam and Buddhism from a mainstream American culturally Christian perspective. If the phrase “culturally Christian” strikes you as jarring, it’s actually a pretty simple concept. It reflects the fact that when it comes to cultural institutions, the United States is very much a Christian nation. Hey, I mean this in a sociological sense, not a legal one… I love secularism and I donate to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. But when you’re raised within a majority culture, you become fluent in that culture’s idioms and ways of making sense of the world, no matter what you believe on an intellectual level. Even if you were raised in a family that never even went to church, you’re almost certainly a cultural Christian. I’m a Buddhist, and I’m a cultural Christian. If I spill a hot cup of coffee on myself, I say “Jesus ****ing Christ!” not “Amida ****ing Buddha!”

For me, cultural Christianity is like a stream I’m standing in. I have to stand inside it in order to live in this society and understand its values and language. I don’t have a choice. It isn’t good or bad, it just is. But I’m also outside the stream, to some degree… I can reach out my arms towards other streams and pools.

As a last caveat for the list of stereotypes, I’m not describing the perspective of certain very fervent and dogmatic strands of Christianity, according to which Islam and Buddhism are equally demonic and indistinguishable from other demonic religions such as Hinduism, Mormonism, Episcopalianism, Satanism, Masonism, Lesbianism, Harrypotterism and so on. This is more of a mainstream, secularly-educated kind of perspective.

Islam is very violent. Buddhism is very peaceful.


Muslims proselytize aggressively and are intolerant towards all other religions. Buddhists don’t proselytize at all and meld harmoniously with all other religions they encounter.

Islam is a religion centered on bodies and seeks to control bodies (submission). Buddhism is centered on the mind and seeks to control the mind (liberation). Visually, Islam is often represented by people bowing in prayer, while Buddhism is often represented by a disembodied head.

Speaking of Heads:
Islam is all about putting stuff on your head: scarves for women and turbans for men. On the contrary, really serious Buddhists shave their heads, and Buddhism is not tied to clothing.

Islam is a hierarchical, legalistic religion controlled by old, bearded men (Ayatollahs). Buddhism has no hierarchy that reinforces dogma. The Dalai Lama is the Buddhist leader but he doesn’t tell people how to worship.

Islam is for people who are religious but not spiritual. Buddhism is for people who are spiritual but not religious. In fact, Buddhism isn’t even a religion.


Muslims dislike white people. Black Muslim converts hate white people. White Muslim converts especially hate white people. Buddhism is totally race- and ethnicity-neutral. However, expert Asian Buddhists from Asian countries can act as gatekeepers and legitimacy-markers.

Demand level:

Islam is a high-demand religion that controls every aspect of a person’s life. Buddhism is a low-demand religion and you can pick and choose which aspects to follow.


Islam is puritanical, patriarchal and persecutes LGBT people, whereas Buddhism is progressive and welcoming.

Islam is anti-science and medieval. Buddhism is forward-facing and connected to discoveries in psychology and quantum physics.

Muslims are overly fertile and threaten to overwhelm the nation on a demographic level. Buddhists are subfertile, declining and play the role of global victims.

We could unpack these for a long time and argue over which stereotype is the most inaccurate. However, I think the key is really to ask, what are these stereotypes used for? What do they tell us about the people who propagate the stereotypes? Where do they lead into the future?

A hundred years ago, the clearcut oppositions I listed above were starting to coalesce.

Let’s go back around that time, to when Rudyard Kipling wrote Kim in 1901. I’m edging away from American territory here, but the English imperialism represented in Kim was extremely influential in terms of how Americans came to view “Eastern” religion. If you doubt that, check out this scary article.

I read Kim when I was very young. I read it a bunch of times. It’s an incredibly exciting, colorful, passionate and thought-provoking book. Edward Said wrote a must-read introduction to the Penguin edition. The first few times I read it, I was wholly identified with Kim, the kind of protagonist that children instantly love: poor but destined for greatness, resourceful, adventurous, orphaned and in search of belonging. I also loved the background of India and Central Asia, especially because I’d been there and felt a strong emotional connection. Like Kim, I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and the central philosophical question of the book — What makes a person them? Why am I me? — was also my obsession.

But the last few times I read it, certain aspects of the book started to bother me. I began to stop reading all the way through to the end. Today, I hate indiscriminate use of the word “essentialism” because it’s so often deployed as distancing jargon, but in this case, I can’t think of a better word… I began to realize that all the wonderful, colorful characters in the book were meant to embody certain essential qualities of India and “The East”. I’d taken them for real, but they were starting to look more like puppets. They were not like the real “real” people I knew from my family’s travels in India. They were also totally different from my only other source of representations of Indian people — a stack of Hindu comic books. These were really cool, by the way.

It was also about that time I started processing certain facts of race… for example, that I would never, ever be white, even though my mother was white. I started to understand that Kim was white, and what that meant politically, and how that separated him from the other characters. Even though he was the absolute lowest kind of white — an Irish (and I’m not exaggerating, this is pretty much how Kipling puts it) — he was still white, and that destines him for a promising career in government service. I stopped identifying with him so much.

Kim’s two mentor figures, the Tibetan lama and the “Pathan” (Pashtun) Mahbub Ali, are also representatives of Buddhism and Islam. Both are extremely positive and sympathetic figures. They also get along with each other well. According to this biography, Kipling was a big fan of Muslims, as opposed to the Hindus that he was not so fond of, and his works are full of strong but sensitive Muslim warrior types. Take the lines of this famous poem:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the two shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.

Ah, smell that testosterone! Anyway, the “two strong men” in question are the English Colonel’s Son and Kamal, a “Pathan” bandit. People who know nothing of Afghanistan or Pashtuns other than what was written by Kipling (and in his time, this meant almost every European and American) imagined them to be a bunch of awesome freedom-loving ass-kicking supermen.

In the novel Kim, the Tibetan lama is unique figure, a man with a deep understanding of the world who is not afraid of adventure despite his advanced age. For me, a story the lama tells near the end became the true high point of the book:

‘I did not seek truth in those days, but the talk of doctrine. All illusion! I drank the beer and ate the bread of Guru Ch’wan. Next day one said: “We go out to fight Sangor Gutok down the valley to discover” (mark again how Lust is tied to Anger!) “which Abbot shall bear rule in the valley and take the profit of the prayers they print at Sangor Gutok.” I went, and we fought a day.’

‘But how, Holy One?’

‘With our long pencases as I could have shown . . . I say, we fought under the poplars, both Abbots and all the monks, and one laid open my forehead to the bone. See!’ He tilted back his cap and showed a puckered silvery scar. ‘Just and perfect is the Wheel! Yesterday the scar itched, and after fifty years I recalled how it was dealt and the face of him who dealt it; dwelling a little in illusion. Followed that which thou didst see – strife and stupidity. Just is the Wheel! The idolater’s blow fell upon the scar. Then I was shaken in my soul: my soul was darkened, and the boat of my soul rocked upon the waters of illusion. Not till I came to Shamlegh could I meditate upon the Cause of Things, or trace the running grass-roots of Evil. I strove all the long night.’

I don’t have the space to explicate this passage and why it affected me so much, but I’ll point out that the lama’s approach to non-violence is complicated, historically contextualized, and fully embodied. Plus, he’s wearing something on his head.

I hope this literary digression will help establish what stereotypes of Islam and Buddhism have in common and where they start to diverge. They’re both “Eastern” religions. Back in Kipling’s time, they both offered special kinds of benefits, which were accessible or appropriable to special white people. I don’t want to use the word “Orientalist” too heavily, because it has a very specific meaning as well as the more general and theoretical one it has today because of Said’s work. Orientalists were serious scholars. But the kind of access I’m talking about wasn’t restricted to scholars, it was also accessible to anyone who immersed themselves in low art forms like… adventure stories. Today, the method of access to Buddhist mystique retains this dynamic. Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu is a prime example. A special white person stands between East and West, and their destiny is to mediate between the two. It never goes the other way around, though. People whose origins are Eastern can try and mediate all they want, but their hybrid destiny is tragic at best and comically pathetic at worst.

Islamic mystique diverged from the pattern somewhere in the 20th century. The value of the white mediator became not so romantic. Racialization of Islam swelled to truly amazing proportions. Today in the United States, the negative stereotypes of Islam I listed above are not just applicable to Muslims; they stretch to Sikhs, Arab Christians, anyone who looks vaguely Middle Eastern. On the other hand, the positive stereotypes of Buddhism do not extend to East Asians! East Asian cultures are still stereotyped as repressive towards women, lovers of hierarchy and haters of individuality, unchanging and ahistorical, superficially clever but not really innovative, etcetera.

What makes an “Eastern” religion? Why is Islam Eastern, even though it’s from the same monotheist tradition as “Western” Christianity? As far as I can tell, the major difference is that Eastern religions hate life. No, seriously. I read Joseph Campbell’s “Masks of God” series of books when I was a teenager — Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology and Occidental Mythology — and although I learned a lot from them, they were also very disturbing, because some segments really gave me that impression. I had to consciously block out a large proportion of what I read in those books, or I would have formed an image of myself as a potential death-lover.

I think this death-loving/life-loving divide is an idea that holds huge power among cultural Christians. Suicide bombings are a prime example. The stereotype is that Muslims are suicide bombers because they love death. When I think of this stereotype, the image of a famous Buddhist suicide comes to mind… Thich Quang Duc in 1963. The photo of the burning monk is instantly recognizable, but very few people understand the context anymore. If you ask someone who the monk was and why he burned himself, I doubt many younger people would even know what country it was taken in (I experimented a few times this week), much less that Thich Quang Duc had some very specific political complaints about Catholic persecution of Buddhists. Without context, the self-immolation becomes “something that some Buddhists do…”

Joseph Shahadi emailed me a bunch of fascinating essays on political/religious suicides during the Vietnam War. I’ll just go ahead and quote part of his email:

Buddhist self-immolation-as-protest inspired similar actions in the US during the Vietnam war among people of various faiths. It is little discussed but American Buddhists, Christians and Jews all burned themselves alive during this period to protest the war. The most famous of these was Norman Morrison, a Quaker, who immolated himself in front of the Pentagon. It is worth noting that several American women—and many Vietnamese Buddhist nuns– also burnt themselves alive but they are forgotten, while Thich Quang Duc and Norman Morrison both became icons of the peace movement. Partly that is because the entire American history of the practice has been suppressed out of fear of imitations and partly, I think, due to sexism. The fear that the practice would become widespread the west led to some effed-up criticisms of Buddhism as a “cause” of immolations (Sound familiar?).

The idea that Buddhism is death-loving also has a basis in popular misconceptions of Buddhist teachings. From a heavily dualist, culturally Christian perspective, “Nirvana” is an idea that’s almost impossible to grasp (not that it’s easy from other perspectives). Nirvana ends up getting translated as either Heaven or else true, final Death.

All these stereotypes I’ve been talking about are listed from the perspective of outsiders. Once you convert into a religion, or move towards the inside, a lot of them fade, are transformed or totally recontextualized. No matter where you are, though, you can’t entirely banish them.

I think one important step in the right direction is to expose and ridicule the “East/West” divide. I’m so sick of it, yet it’s almost impossible to have a discussion without reinforcing it. I’m not against generalizations — communication would be impossible without generalizations — but I’m against stupid generalizations, and this is definitely one of them.

Even the archaic Occidental/Oriental strikes me as a preferable distinction, because at least it doesn’t pretend to be geographically accurate. Let’s look at exactly how stupid and racist the use of “Westerner” is in a religious context. A “Westerner” is usually a culturally Christian white European or white North American. White Christians south of the U.S. border are included at the margins. African-American Christians are included as long as they don’t get too carried away with that “Afrocentric” stuff and say that Jesus could have been black. Jewish people are included as long as they’re white and as long as they don’t look or act too Jewish. Other kinds of non-white Christians float in and out. Eastern Orthodox Christians are Westerners except when they call themselves Easterners. Any sort of Native American religion is emphatically not “Western”, even when it’s mixed with Catholicism. Syncretic religions native to the Western hemisphere, such as Santeria, are not Western. Arab or Ethiopian Christians are not Western. Asian-Americans of all religions are Frankensteins.

In other words, use of the word “Westerner,” especially in an American religious context, already ignores, marginalizes and insults a substantial percentage of the population. I’m not dogmatic about this. I realize the term is so widespread that not of course everyone who uses it is being stupid or racist. I just think we should be moving away from it as fast as we can.

In place of “Westerner,” I try to be specific and use Christian, culturally Christian, white, Anglo, Eurocentric or European. And to be REALLY specific, I’m not fond of the word “European” as a geographical term, because why does Europe get to be its own continent? It’s just the western corner of Asia. It should be a subcontinent, like India.

On that cranky note, I’ll end this piece. It’s been rather depressing to survey so many of these stereotypes. I may switch the order of these pieces and instead of Complicity and Conflict talk about something much more positive: the unique perspective and wide-open future of a truly multiethnic Buddhism.

Commenters on this post: can you talk about the kind of positive and negative stereotypes you’ve encountered on your own religious or irreligious journeys, and how you’ve processed and/or rejected them?

Postscript: As part of the blogstorm I touched on in the first post, The Buddha is my DJ has a great three-part series on white privilege in Buddhism. We’re touching on some of the same topics for totally different audiences: predominantly people of color who are not Buddhists (my series) versus predominantly white Buddhists (his series). It’s an interesting complement.