August 12, 2013

Race in the Sangha: Taking the Path Together

Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda

In 1992 I was visiting a Buddhist friend, and saw a copy of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala Publications, 1991) sitting on the table. Intrigued, I picked it up and scanned the table of contents to see which American poets had been selected for inclusion in the anthology’s 358 pages. I remember dropping the book as though it had burnt me. It was an instinctive response, something I didn’t even think about or try to explain to myself at the time. After that I just purposefully forgot the book even existed.

It wasn’t until three years later that I understood why I had been so shocked. In the afterword of Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (Kaya Production, 1995), editor Walter K. Lew writes that "the 45 American poets [in Beneath a Single Moon]... are all Caucasian, and the book only mentions Asians as distal teachers, not as fellow members or poets of the sangha.... When one considers the relative obscurity of some of the poets included in the book, one wonders how it was possible not to have known of the Buddhistic poetry of such writers as [Lawson Fusao] Inada, Al Robles, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, Patricia Ikeda, and Russell Leong."

I felt such relief when I read that list of names, mine included. Yes, I thought, we Asian American poets are here. Under the name Patricia Ikeda, I have become known as one of the "pioneers" of Asian American poetry, although there would be no need of pioneers if Asian American poets had been accepted as, simply, American poets, along with African American, Latino/Latina, etc. poets. Of course, this may sound merely like sour grapes on my part, but it is the complete exclusion of Asian American poets from Beneath a Single Moon that still fills my heart with grief and pain.

Another incident occurred in the spring of 1998. I was invited to be a speaker on a panel of "Asian and Asian American Women Buddhists" for the conference on North American Buddhist Women. Since one of the conference’s stated aims was to especially welcome Asian American Buddhist women, I was nonplussed when the program was printed and my name was not included on the list of presenters. Although I am now convinced that this was simply disorganization, I inquired into it, and in the process was assured by one of the conference’s organizers, a European American college professor, that I should not worry, because "many, many Asian American women are coming—Asian American women from Burma, from Thailand, from Nepal—"

"Excuse me," I broke in, "I’m confused! Are you talking about Asian American women who are living in Burma and Thailand, and coming home at the time of the conference?"

There was a silence on the other end of the phone. I was dismayed to realize that this American college professor did not know that Asian Americans are.... well, we’re American. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and though my grandparents came from Japan, the only language I speak besides English is French. I’ve never been to Japan.

Like many Asian Americans, I have been treated as an "other" my entire life. Not accepted as being truly American in my own country, I also know I would be extremely uncomfortable were I to visit Japan, where my American way of speaking, dressing, even walking or making eye contact, might seem improper to the Japanese. Throughout my more than 30 years in the American midwest, I have also been "invisibilized"—a form of unconscious racism in which people simply look past or through you—and marginalized.

Things are much better now that I live in the Bay Area in California, and I’m happy that my husband, who is white, and I are raising our son here. My married name, Ikeda-Nash, reflects the combined heritages of our family; my husband has changed his surname to Ikeda-Nash as well. And there’s been progress in the American mahasangha: a greater awareness of diversity issues is dawning (brought forward in many instances by courageous gay, lesbian, and bisexual Buddhists); healing racism in our sanghas work is being done in the Bay Area and elsewhere; and teachers of color like Ralph Steele and European American teachers identifying as allies are emerging. However, much of the journey still lies before us. I hope we can all walk it together.


Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda is a Buddhist teacher, author, mentor, and community activist. She teaches meditation retreats for people of color, women, and social justice activists nationally. She is a core teacher at East Bay Meditation Center near where she lives in Oakland, California.

The second week of Mushim’s Tricycle Retreat on building inclusive and welcoming sanghas begins today. This essay originally appeared in the pamphlet “Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities,” (pub. 2000) available in the supplementary materials section of the retreat.

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jackelope65's picture

You know " America " includes Canada, Costa Rica, Brazil, Ecuador, etc.. People of the USA are just that. I was born in Australia, lived in the USA, and now Costa Rica, and have written poetry throughout my life. Should we do an anthology of poets of the USA, born in Australia but now living in Costa Rica? I can tell you that Australian culture is very different from the USA. Why don't we do an anthology of poems from people who are immigrants from all cultures now living in the USA, compare and contrast? That may be more informative, and then we may see the suffering of the Jewish, Italians, Portuguese, Polish and others . My " Australian " grandfather was a Russian Jew. His family was tormented and hated in Russia. He escaped to France with his family where they were summarily persecuted again. He joined the French navy where he was whipped as a cabin boy. He jumped ship in Australia. My "Australian " grandmother was a descendant of convicts from England. If you want to see persecution equal to that of any race, read " The Fatal Shore. " The point is that any one of our families may have a history of the worst persecution, and being of colour, admittedly draws closer attention to that, although being of a ' white ' colour( White is a colour.) will draw the worst persecution in many countries today. Why don't those who fight against discrimination of all types define themselves by their efforts, but ultimately letting go of all titles which are empty of any solid nature.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good points. Especially pertinent to Buddhism in which the diversity of life is embraced, not feared.

Venerable Suhita Dharma's picture

As a Buddhist monk for 45 years and lived and trained in many traditions such as, Tibetan, Mahayana and the Theravada the problem with race is only in America and is a major problem for us Buddhists here. Why? American Buddhists ( whites) needs to rethink their practice and under standing of the Dharma, We need to talk more about race and learn ways to overcome this problem which is a disgrace to our country and what America stands for Freedom for all people!

workbc9's picture

Great that your a monk for 45 years!
Being so wise you should use caution when speaking on polarizing subjects. Might be best to stick to the monk stuff.

In peoples hearts, prejudice is held for a variety of reasons, but I don't see or hear about (white) American monks lynching people. But I hear a lot about monks physically and verbally assaulting practitioners sexually.

Racism is hardly the problem with (white) monks. More likely to molest or sexually assault their students as far as the articles in this journal and the NYT.

Oh I didn't know all American Buddhists were white, I guess the two people who started me on the path of buddhism,both who have brown skin, will be laughing to find out they are white.

Known many monks in the states most American born (white, black, and brown) and SE Asia all were not racist, but did encounter a Japanese monk, who was an obvious racist.

Rob_'s picture

We can argue about the severity of the problem, but I think one thing stands out for America. This is that we actually have a diversity of races and ethnicities. There are many Asian countries that lack diversity in their populations and sanghas. Thus, they don't have a "problem". It's easy to talk about an ideal like equality, but there are many in other countries that have never even made the attempt to foster diversity. What is it that they have to accept?

Than there is the prejudice long held in Asian countries that women aren't equipped to pursue enlightenment. A notion, if held in Western countries is rare.

I think your statement that the problem with race only occurs in America is out of touch. Apparently, you have no awareness of some pretty strong xenophobia in some Asian countries (sanghas included).

workbc9's picture

Good point. One of the most racist people I've met was an Asian monk.

mahakala's picture

Believe me when I tell you that "home" is not defined by species, race, country, status, fortune, fame, etc. There is no escape from "community" other than self-imposed illusions. Instead of trying to "fight the power" it may be more helpful to realize there is no "power" in the first place. Divisively separative perspectives of compartmentalization and fragmentation allow an appearance of "independence" to flourish at the expense of awareness in regards to the totality acceptance of its consequences. Such superficial ideologies are a convenient excuse for "success", but not sustainable in the long term. And yet they are the most common outlooks on life. Thats why actual reality is so often "invisible". Much like your own body, this too shall pass. Why not face that reality with your eyes open, instead of running from it and endlessly scrambling to prevent the inevitable? Paying lip service to the idea of impermanence is not the same as realizing it as fact - not by a long shot. You cant heal the social divide by extending the platform of separatism. There will be never be resolution to social conflict through the efforts of crusaders driven only by a need to assert their particular identity. Such assertions are the basis of those conflicts to begin with.

susmarine's picture

I'm not sure what you're saying here-- that Mushim's assertion of her concern for the absence ad marginalization of Asian and Asian Americans in Western Buddhism is irrelevant because "this too shall pass"? Or are you referring to something else?

mahakala's picture

Im not sure you are able to recognize it. But I will try to point it out again, namely that circumstances based on composite transitory phenomena such as our physical bodies are in themselves composite, transitory, and ultimately temporary. This human life is short, therefore the way in which that short time is spent is the only thing that truly matters within it. Which way do you choose? Assertion of individuality based on conflict between races? Or, exposure of the equality of all peoples by way of shared concerns?

workbc9's picture

Excellent point as in your post above.

nitaro's picture

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Joanna Piacenza's picture

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bjerry9999's picture

As a black man and a spiritual student of many traditions for several years, I can only say this: if somebody is on a spiritual path and cannot see past someone's skin color, his or her whole quest is fundamentally flawed. The physical body sooner or later will return to dust and I doubt that the soul is of any color.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Nichiren Buddhism addresses racial diversity with "itai doshin": differing bodies one in mind.