December 03, 2008

White Buddhists vs. Asian Buddhists

Arunlikhati lays into a Buddhadharma article that talks about the future of Buddhism but mentions only white Buddhists. A Monk Amok also piles on, while in the comments, Marcus laughs off the idea that white Buddhists are "oppressing" Asian Buddhists. There's no doubt there is a disconnect between the Asian and non-Asian Buddhist communities in the West, but this seems less about Buddhism (or Buddhists) than about basic social divisions, and the article, or the teaser that is online at any rate, does not pretend to cover the entire scope of Buddhism in America but rather a specific thread.

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jjwalker7730's picture

I am a white guy that appreciates the generous allowances made by my teachers from the east for our lack of training in the west.

A White Buddhist on Race « Dharma Folk's picture

[...] reviewing the trail of the Angry Asian Buddhist, I ran across a new comment on an old Tricycle blog post with a link to an even older essay “On Race and Buddhism” by the Zen teacher Rev. Alan [...]

the chop suey monk's picture

I found this writing both inspiring and challenging:

On Race & Buddhism by Rev. Alan Senauke

The quote that really struck me was:
"This is necessary because in America, passivity means white supremacy. It's subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my mind as a person with so-called privileges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges."

James's picture

I think while valid discrimination exists on both sides the separation between the two in America stems more from cultural differences than out right bigotry. I say this partly because here in America there are Asian Buddhists who separate amongst themselves even. Korean communities often stick to mostly Korean American Buddhist sanghas, Vietnamese with Vietnamese, etc.

I don't think that we can completely uproot cultural differences within a greater Buddhism nor does is it necessarily a bad thing to have different cultures represented within Buddhism. Yes, again as I stated above there are instances of discrimination on both sides but the beauty of Buddhism is that we all share the core beliefs. Dharma is Dharma whether it is spoke in English or Thai or French.

Blind Rob's picture

As no less a person than Jeff Wilson has pointed out, though I'm not claiming to quote him, convert Buddhists in the west tend to be a narrow monoculture of people with the same political and social views, ie liberals and leftists. They have adopted such Buddhist values, practices, and beliefs that already fit their world view and it is not suprising that it tends to exclude others that did not share the same starting points. I have observed that this makes them very self-limiting in thought and practice and also that liberal hate speech trips easily off the tongues of those professing the dharma in the same breath- but it can be easily observed that this phenom will not outlast the western baby boom, a demonstartion of impermanence right in the Buddhist community. On the "non-white" side, things are more evolved and Buddhism is built into community life, sometimes unfortunately without the enthusiams for practice that are found in the present western converts. Someday things will meld right here in the west, unfortunately not for a while. One hopes to see it.

Angry Asian Buddhist « Dharma Folk's picture

[...] on December 3, 2008 at 11:56 am Tricycle » White Buddhists vs. Asian Buddhists [...]

Rinchen Gyatso's picture

I see this article as part of a trend of ignoring the Asian-American Buddhist community (or communities) within the Western Buddhist press, although it's fair to point out that this article shouldn't take the brunt of the criticism. Perhaps it's simply a convenient point of focus for those of us who notice the issue. In other words, the trend among Western converts to devalue the various Asian Buddhist communities in the West is a very real problem, though this article can't take all the blame.

Marcus's picture


And, yes, thank you Tricycle for bringing to wider attention this discussion prompted by Arunlikhati. And thank you Arunlikhati too!

This morning I went down to Thai immigration in Bangkok. I live here on the basis of my work visa and have to jump through all kinds of hoops to keep it. In fact, I even have to attend the immigration office every 3 months to register my address. My workmate sitting next to me, been in Thailand for over 30 years, has to do the same. Renew the visa and work permit every year. Register every 3 months.

Unlike my Thai wife who lives in the UK and has permanent residence and can apply for British citizenship if she wishes, I - despite my marriage to a Thai and having Thai children - have no rights of residency. I'm an immigrant to Thailand but will never get a secure status, I'm restricted in the kind of work I can do, and, like I say, have to register every three months at an immigration office.

As you know, I spent the last year in Korea. Same situation. Non-ethnic Koreans simply don't get residency or citizenship. I have a friend married to a Korean, been in the country for 12 years, speaks fluent Korean, but is still treated like a foriegner. How many whites have Korean passports? How many Koreans have American passports?

So, what's all this got to do with the debate?

Well, Arunlikhati is claiming there is a "culture of oppression" in America in which white Buddhists are oppressing Asian. He claims it's racist. Racist? Racist compared to what? Is the way American Buddhists treat Asian Buddhists any more racist than the way Asian Buddhists in Asia treat immigrant western Buddhists?

I've lived for many years in both Thailand and Korea and have nearly always been placed in the position of outsider. Because these countries refuse immigrants, people from outside are always seen as mere visitors.

Let me tell you a typical story. Last year I attended the wonderful Saturday Sangha in Seoul. Every week we'd sit and chant and discuss the Dharma. And you know what, even after months of seeing these people, sometimes I'd go to a temple with one of the Korean members and they'd point out the Buddha image to me and say "Buddha" as if I was some tourist on my first ever day in Asia!

We western Buddhists there used to laugh about it. We used to imagine a parallel situation where we go up to Korean Christians in a Church in America and, as they were leaving the service, having watched them pray and bow, stop them and ask if they knew who the fella on the cross was! Seriously, spend some time in Korea, do some bowing in the temples, and it'll happen to you - you'll leave the temple and people will ask you if you know who the big gold fella is and if you've ever heard of Buddhism!

Things are changing. In Thailand I know some western monks, and in Korea I know some more. But these are exceptions to the rule and there is a long long way to go before Asian Buddhists in Asia are comfortable with the sight of western Buddhist laypeople and fully integrate them into the temple structures.

So, do I call the situation in Asia a "culture of oppression"? No, of course not. Do I claim Asian Buddhists here to be racist? Absolutely not. This is an issue of understanding, that's all. And all groups (western, asian, asians in the west, westerners in asia, children of asian-western parents, etc etc) simply have to follow the Noble Path the best they can, and talk to each other along the way.

With palms together,


arunlikhati's picture

Thanks Phil for posting about my blog and giving what I feel is an even handed assessment of it. It's definitely more of a socio-cultural issue than a "Buddhist issue."

Like Danny, a lot of readers feel that I lobbed unfair criticism at the Buddhadharma article. To that I can only say, if we were talking about young voters and the future of our political institutions, would it not be equally as unfair -- if not unjust -- to focus on white people and white issues, while ignoring minorities and minority issues? We know that separate-but-equal doesn't work in the political sphere, so why do we apply it in the Buddhist community?

Rev. Danny Fisher's picture

Well put, Phil. These conversations are surfacing a lot of valid points...but I'm not sure the Buddhadharma article is the right target.

Just a Buddhist's picture

Phil, I think a lot of it comes down to the persistent impression that white Buddhists look down on their Asian-American fellow practitioners. At a certain point, constant criticism creates heightened sensitivity that may react to individual cases because they are part of a perceived pattern, not because any one case is worse than any other. At the end of the day the real question is, given that Asian-Americans outnumber non-Asian Buddhists, have been involved in Buddhism far longer, and have been instrumental in disseminating Buddhism to new communities in the West, why are they so hugely outnumbered by new white Buddhist voices in Buddhadharma and similar magazines?

I circulate frequently in both Asian-American and convert white Buddhist circles. There is far more criticism (and at times barely covert racism) in white Buddhist circles toward Asians than vice versa. Yet few of the white Buddhists I talk to have spent any significant time in a non-white temple or have any sophisticated grasp of what Asian-American Buddhists do and why. This never stops them from expressing opinions of superiority, in my observation.

Just earlier today, a Tricycle blog post described robes as "trappings," implying that they are elements that could be left behind in Asia. That's fine, we are all entitled to our opinions (it's not like I wear robes). But Dogen considered robes to be absolutely essential, part of the core of Buddhism that was not to be tampered with--just read Shobogenzo, he goes on and on about it. The decision of what is a trapping is always based on cultural prejudices, not some sort of universal or objective stance. One man's trapping is often another man's core, and vice versa. The thing is, white convert Buddhists in North America spend a lot of time telling each other than they have thrown off the trappings of Asia and congratulating themselves for it, often while looking down on Asian and Asian-American groups that do not rate the same things as "trapping" or "core." Meanwhile, few Asian-American Buddhists feel the need to denigrate white Buddhists' practice, though they do get touchy after the zillionith time of being told directly or indirectly that their forms of practice are inferior or outdated.