Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why does American Buddhism look so white?

Two Asian American boys playing at Aquatic Par...
Two Asian American boys playing at Aquatic Park in San Francisco, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Angry Asian Buddhist wants to know, and thanks to a recent feature on the Tricycle website about the blogger behind that site ("Arun") more people will not only be asking this question but learn a little more about Asian American Buddists and Buddhist communities.

The last time I approached a similar topic here was in 2005, although I did leave a comment on Monkey Mind not long ago that was lost in the shuffle when that site decided to ask about diversity in the sangha in the United States. I basically pointed to a 2003 article from Tricycle (the first article from a Buddhist magazine I ever read, around the time I was really starting to take notice of Buddhism) which was asking why the Soka Gakkai, one of Japan's post World War II new religions which sprang from Nichiren Shoshu, seemed to have a much more diverse membership than Zen and other more visible forms of Buddhism in America. Perhaps Rev. Ford thought my reply was an attempt to proselytize on behalf of SGI, who developed a reputation for aggressive recruiting methods.

I also linked to a classic article on white privilege, as often people with privilege (in this country that includes those are who white, male, and heterosexual) cannot see how their words and actions might send unintended signals to others who lack privilege. I figured this might help round out the insights offered in the Tricycle article.

Arun takes a different approach, although he doesn't ignore these issues. He suggests that the problem is the focus on what is sometimes called the "convert" community and the divisions (real and artificial) between those of non-Asian descent who adopted Buddhism later in life and everyone else. He isn't particularly fond of the ways in which such divisions are framed and discussed or that the general focus in discussions of "American Buddhism" is centered on white Buddhists (who make up the bulk of the non-Asian American Buddhist converts), ignoring the long history of Asian-American Buddhist communities in the United States.
While Zen and Tibetan Buddhism became popular in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, other forms of Buddhism such as Shin had been around decades earlier. Even now these communities are rarely featured in American based magazines on Buddhism. Some obstacles to dialogue between the non-Asian American convert communities and their Asian American counterparts are obvious, such as the language barrier. Some are cultural. Non-Asian converts may feel uncomfortable "intruding" on such communities which can serve as centers of ethnic connection and continuity. Some have to do with the diminished visibility of Asian American communities. And of course there is also the specter of consciously or unconsciously seeking out those from similar ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

I don't claim to have a full list of sociological, psychological, historical, political, and anthropological answers to why Buddhism is America looks so white. Nor do I have a comprehensive solution. But my education and experience tell me that exposure to other people and views, increased interpersonal connection, and a willingness to listen to others introspectively will be important in understanding in bringing different communities together. Angry Asian Buddhist includes interviews and perspectives which facilitate such exposure and connections, so pop over and check it out if you haven't already. Even if you aren't a Buddhist, go on, learn something and try to appreciate communities and individuals outside of your own daily routine.
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