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Barbara O'Brien

Fear and Loathing of Richard Gere

By June 25, 2011

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This post at Womanist Musings requires a longer and more thoughtful response than I can give it right this minute, as I have a busy day ahead, However, much of what I'd like to say Ive said already in an earlier post, "Popular Culture vs. Dharma." So until I have time to write something longer and more thoughtful, go read that.

The Womanist Musings post is written by a woman from Sri Lanka who has moved to the United States and feels alienated by the Buddhism she finds here. And clearly she is angry about what she calls the "white appropriation of Buddhism."

I don't doubt that the smarmy condescension shown to Buddhism in western popular culture is deeply distressing to her. I also note that there is a large movement within western Buddhism, led by the likes of Stephen Batchelor, which posits that Buddhism has been mucked up by superstitious Asians and must be rescued by westerners bearing the light of scientific rationalism. Yeah, that's pretty blatant.

But what's the issue with Richard Gere? It seems nearly every time an ethnic Asian explains what's wrong with western Buddhism, Richard Gere must be trotted out as exhibit A. And I can't see what Richard Gere is doing that is so objectionable.

This week he was in Korea, promoting a photo exhibit that is raising money for charities associated with Tibet and human rights. He's a co-founder of Tibet House, which is dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture. Yeah, he's handsome and successful and wealthy, which means he can give alms in big, splashy ways.

But I have never noticed that he is puts himself forward as a teacher or expert or anything but a sincere lay student. And much of his alms-giving is in support of Asian Buddhist institutions. Maybe I'm missing something. Would he be less objectionable if he were less white?

June 25, 2011 at 10:38 am
(1) Ben says:

Sorry to all the angry Asian Buddhists and “true believers”, but when it comes to appropriating Dharma, Westerners aren’t doing anything new. Old assertion is old.

June 25, 2011 at 10:56 am
(2) anon says:

I would like to apologize regarding that post by the blogger. The women just lost her best friend and reading info from authors like Stephen Batchelor could have give rise to the erroneous generalization. That is not true with the majority of practitioners of course. Many are doing a great job , such as meditation and dharma study. I have to say that people are focusing on what truly matter.The blogger is quite young and can be somewhat immature.

June 25, 2011 at 12:05 pm
(3) Wayne says:

Reading her articles you get the sense that she is young, idealistic and angry at the social injustices of the world. Buddhism at this point maybe more of an identity to her than an actual practice. Hopefully in the future that will change, but for now she fails to see that she is practicing the same discrimination against others that she has experienced herself.

June 25, 2011 at 12:12 pm
(4) nathan says:

Note: this is a general reaction to the Womanist Musings post.

While I don’t agree with everything she wrote, I think it’s worth really sitting with her voice if you’re a white, convert practitioner. Yes, she’s young. And yes, she doesn’t really seem to have any sense of how Buddhism has spread, and been re-invented to some extent in every place it has gone. But I have seen some quite hasty and defensive reactions to this post online already, which mirror reactions I have seen in local sanghas to issues brought up by practitioners of color.

White practitioners need to stop defending themselves, and pay closer attention to what other Buddhists are saying and thinking. Doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other, but if people are really serious about all the “diversity” talk that goes around convert sanghas, then demonstrate it.

Re: Gere – I think he’s just an easy target because of the visibility and popularity.

June 25, 2011 at 1:13 pm
(5) Ekajati says:

RE: “Doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other, but if people are really serious about all the “diversity” talk that goes around convert sanghas, then demonstrate it.”

Buddha Dharma is a method for bringing us into a direct encounter with the ever-fresh & infinitely-unique manifestations of Now — while remaining rooted in our vajra nature: that which never changes.

What gets named as “diversity” is so often simply “the many faces of samsara.” Do we really want to make rearranging the deck furniture on the Titanic our priority? Maybe for some, the answer is “yes” — and that’s totally cool :) For me, not so much.

June 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

White practitioners need to stop defending themselves, and pay closer attention to what other Buddhists are saying and thinking. Doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other, but if people are really serious about all the “diversity” talk that goes around convert sanghas, then demonstrate it.

Exactly what do you propose we do? This young woman is not open to productive dialogue. I appreciate that she’s angry, and I believe I understand why she is angry, and some of her points are valid. But a lot of this rant really is about issues she’s got to work through herself. I wish her well with that, but I’m not going to patronize her by issuing a blanket apology on behalf of all White People.

My little Zen sangha is racially and ethnically mixed — white, African American, Latino, Asian. At least one active member was born in Asia. We’re also a mix of gays and straights. To become more diverse, we’d have to take in some extraterrestrials. What we have in common is that we’re all converts (including the ethnic Asians) and socialized into western culture. The issue for us is to find ways to bring what is primarily a monastic practice into our lives and homes and workplaces. Sometimes we’re clumsy at it, and racial issues may be part of that clumsiness, but I don’t think it’s a major part. What I see more than anything else are an ocean of sincerity and a deep respect for the Asian roots of our practice.

In short, we may be cultural aliens to the Womanist Musings blogger, but we are not her enemies. She would be warmly welcomed if she walked through the door. I don’t think we are utterly misrepresentative of a lot of “white” sanghas.

Yes, there are lots of white jerks out there, but jerks come in all colors. And the white jerks are jerks to me, too. Yes, I wish we could tear down the firewall between “convert” sanghas and ethnic Asian sanghas, but the converts are not solely responsible for that firewall. Often ethnic Asian sanghas in the West are mistrustful of not-ethnic Asian groups. This is a complex issue that requires working through a lot of old history, for everyone. And until enough people have done that working through, I don’t think the wall can be taken down forcibly. We’re going to have to be patient with each other. That goes both ways.

June 25, 2011 at 3:10 pm
(7) Wayne says:

As a “white practitioner” I’m not sure what I’m supposed to stop defending myself from. The author of this article appears to have been the subject of discrimination from Christians here in the United States which I can sympathize with. But at the same time she seems to think that Buddhism belongs exclusively to her and others like her without grasping how that runs counter to what the Buddha taught. White people are “imperialist, disrespectful, and mostly racist”, so apparently we shouldn’t be allowed to practice the dharma?

I would like to know if she’s actually practiced with a sangha or if its just been a part of her cultural identity. I studied for several years with Chan Monks from Asian whose primary practice was meditation and developing compassion for everyone. They would be very confused to hear that loving-kindness’ and meditation are the “White Mans” interpretation of Buddhism.

This woman’s post seems to be more about anger and frustration over social issues than any real understanding of how Buddhism is developing in America.

June 25, 2011 at 1:15 pm
(8) anon says:

Well, just like Stephen Batchlor does not represent other practitioners, the blogger also doesn’t represent others. I see it as a musing during free time. The same goes with Batchelor.

Surely both sides should discuss and learn from each other.

June 25, 2011 at 1:35 pm
(9) anon says:

The blogger can be quite young and immature, plus she is not in the best condition emotionally due to grief. I wouldn’t take it too seriously. I see a Buddhist renaissance happening in the west among many western practitioners with the changing style of practice such as meditation and dhamma study. However, I don’t see a need to alter the dhamma itself, and end up throwing out the baby with the bath water in the process. Of course, I only see this among Batchelor’s writing and not the majority of other practitioners. Joseph Goldstein and many others are doing a fine job and setting great example .

June 26, 2011 at 12:57 pm
(10) arunlikhati says:

As a Western Buddhist convert of Asian heritage who writes about race issues in Western Buddhism, I have nothing against Richard Gere—I’ve even publicized a little of his work—so I was very interested in the assertion that “[i]t seems nearly every time an ethnic Asian explains what’s wrong with [W]estern Buddhism, Richard Gere must be trotted out as exhibit A.” Due to my limited familiarity with the literature, I unfortunately know of no examples other than the piece at Womanist Musings or Dr. Iwamura’s “On Asian Religions without Asians”.

I did a little reading. I found no mentions of Richard Gere in “Displacements” by Juliana Chang, Walter Lew, Tan Lin, Eileen Tabios, and John Yau, “Feminist Buddhism as Praxis: women in traditional Buddhism” by Kawahashi Noriko, “Rethinking Western Feminist Critiques on Buddhism” by Cheng Wei-Yi or “Stories We Have Yet to Hear: The Path to Healing Racism in American Sanghas” by Mushim Ikeda-Nash and “On Race & Buddhism.”

The slandering of Richard Gere is an issue, and I feel obligated to write about it; we should do better than to make false claims about other other Buddhists who are only doing work. But I would be ashamed to claim such a pervasive trend if I could only find two examples to justify my words. Any help with other examples would be much appreciated.

June 26, 2011 at 1:09 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

arunlikhati — The one example I have a ready link to is by Jane Iwamura, but I’ve seen it elsewhere.

June 26, 2011 at 7:54 pm
(12) arunlikhati says:

Wow. Well, please don’t hesitate to let me know when you do. I would have thought it would be a lot easier to find examples of this since it seems nearly every time an ethnic Asian explains what’s wrong with western Buddhism, Richard Gere must be trotted out as exhibit A!

June 26, 2011 at 1:06 pm
(13) Kyle Lovett says:

Nathan – Actually, besides myself and one or two commentors on my site and on that post, most of the reaction to this pretty disturbed person has been an out-pouring of white guilt and agreement. And to someone who is not open to any sort of dialogue, I mean did you read that post she linked to trashing “white culture”, why should we possibly confront her arrogance and racism with anything more than disdain. Again, when we see white people making similar racist comments, I don’t see the white guilt brigade coming forth to say we should pay more attention to them, and really listen to what they are saying. Poo on that, a racist needs to be called out as one in my opinion.

June 26, 2011 at 1:31 pm
(14) nathan says:

Wayne and Barbara,

I fully agree she doesn’t have a good sense of how Buddhism has come to the U.S., nor how it is developing in the broader sense.

My sangha has also gotten more diverse over it’s existence. Convert sangha diversity was one point I was trying to make, but not really the main point.

What I think I’m getting at is that there is too much “doing” that goes on the moment race comes up. Some people defend themselves and their sanghas. Others are looking for answers, trying to “fix” whatever problems seem to be present. Others dissect the crap out of every last statement made in conversations about race, trying to pin point the flaws, or what’s factually right. And still others just turn the other way, saying race isn’t important – that it’s delusion and people should just get over it. Lots of doing. In fact, even the flood of long comments left on her post, mine included, seem to reflect this doing attitude. That’s one of the challenges of writing and the internet, in my view – the rush to say something, anything.

So, that’s why I pointed to more listening and paying attention to what comes up. Responding to criticism or perceived criticism of our practice by practicing.

Because I don’t see this as being solely about the young woman who wrote the post in question; it’s about seeing that her voice isn’t a lone wolf going off in the woods, and that, if I choose to not listen to the pain and frustration beneath her words today, they’ll be someone else – maybe in my own sangha – expressing something similar tomorrow.

June 26, 2011 at 2:38 pm
(15) Barbara O'Brien says:

Nathan — sometimes accusations of racism need to be addressed, and sometimes venting is just venting. Sometimes there is something others can do to help, and sometimes people have to work through things themselves.

I do agree with Kyle that this young woman doesn’t appear to be open to constructive dialogue. She is hurting badly, and she is venting. Whether the source of her pain is really racial oppression or something else that she’s projecting as racial oppression or a combination thereof I cannot know, and I make no assumptions. But if at least some of these grievances are her own projections, the last thing she needs are people reinforcing her projections. I doubt any one who doesn’t know her personally and hasn’t shared some of her experiences can understand exactly what’s going on here.

BTW, I understand the urge to “fix” is kind of a guy thing. Women will often vent about things for the sake of venting. Men hear venting as a problem that needs to be fixed. But sometimes we just want commiseration, not “fixing.” So we come home from the office and say, “That jerk so-and-so did blah blah blah, and I’m upset about it.” And our significant others jump in with advice about what to do about so-and-so, which often pisses us off even more. It’s probably the case that nothing can be done that we haven’t already done, and we just have to put up with so-and-so. But we need to vent, not be “fixed.” So try to keep your inner “fixer” in check. :-)

June 26, 2011 at 7:43 pm
(16) anon says:

How come there are mention of Richard Gere ?

June 27, 2011 at 8:25 pm
(17) Greg says:

Wow. Just wow. I never cease to be amazed to see otherwise thoughtful people hide behind the same old cliches again and again when asked to confront their white priviledge in western society. I’m mean, really, to hear the same old “we’re not racist – you’re racist” argument, the “I have friends” self-justification, the dismissal because someone is “angry”, not to mention the pop-psych “projections” BS… it would be comic if it weren’t already tragic.

What the Womanist piece really is, for those with eyes to see, is an invitation to release your attachment to your whiteness and all the power implications that come with it.

White Buddhism desperately needs to come to terms with issues of cultural imperialism. At it’s best, it could be a tool in the battle. But that would require an uncommon depth of humility. Let this woman be your teacher, rather than suggest she find a teacher of her own.

June 27, 2011 at 8:50 pm
(18) Barbara O'Brien says:

What the Womanist piece really is, for those with eyes to see, is an invitation to release your attachment to your whiteness and all the power implications that come with it.

It’s always easy to see other people’s attachment, isn’t it? Seeing our own is a bit more difficult.

White Buddhism desperately needs to come to terms with issues of cultural imperialism.

Some of us have acknowledged and addressed those elements of “white Buddhism” that are culturally imperialist. They don’t listen to me, either.

Let this woman be your teacher, rather than suggest she find a teacher of her own.

I hadn’t noticed anyone suggest she find a teacher. We all have a lot to learn from each other. This goes both ways.

June 28, 2011 at 6:55 am
(19) Greg says:

> I hadn’t noticed anyone suggest she find a teacher.

Actually, I think that was in the comments on the Womanist site, not here. Sorry about that.

June 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm
(20) arunlikhati says:

Thank you for writing about these issues. I sincerely believe that your words of support have a significant impact, even if they aren’t greeted with effusive praise. One regrettable dilemma is that some of your writing, such as this piece, comes across as a calculatedly back-handed slap at the author and her thesis. In this case, the dilemma can be broken into at least two. First, there was nothing in the Tassja’s post that denoted “fear and loathing” of Richard Gere; he was mentioned as an example of White privilege. Second, your mention of “nearly every time an ethnic Asian explains what’s wrong with [W]estern Buddhism…” is an unfair exaggeration of our arguments—a statement which you have chosen to defend with little other than hearsay. Slander of Richard Gere should be challenged, but your point is presented with cavalier mischaracterizations of both the author’s own words and the arguments of the aggregate of Asian Buddhists who have gone before her, thus the point is lost on the author (and also other Asian writers). I believe you may have a fair point to make, but this piece reads more as an eisegetical retort than a challenge to anything the author actually wrote. I understand that what I write here must feel as though I have no appreciation for the support that you offer, that I am only looking for faults and pouncing on them. Your support is very deeply appreciated, but the benefit of such support is outweighed by the misunderstanding that your writing also engenders. I understand if you refuse to accept that you have written anything problematic, I only wish for you to understand where we may be coming from when it seems that we haven’t been listening to your voice of support.

July 3, 2011 at 9:32 am
(21) Chanda says:

“What the Womanist piece really is, for those with eyes to see, is an invitation to release your attachment to your whiteness and all the power implications that come with it.”

This is beautifully put, Greg.

Here is another invitation that I think might be useful to many here: http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

I saw Peggy give a talk two years ago on this topic, and also personally spoke with her, and the most striking thing about what she communicated was that the work is never over. She never gets to sit back and say, “I have dealt with my internalized racism.” She wakes up every day and actively confronts it. She believes an important part of challenging white supremacy is recognizing that it is a life long process for those of us who grew up in the world as it was and as it is. Hopefully one day that will no longer be necessary, but we are not there yet.

July 3, 2011 at 2:22 pm
(22) Barbara O'Brien says:

Chanda, let me explain to you why the phrase “white privilege” is a barrier to understanding.

There is indeed an oppressive power structure in the U.S. that has been built by many generations of privileged people, and by accident of history those people were white. And those who are not members of the power structure often are crushed by it.

But membership in the power structure is not based on race any more, if it ever was, and plenty of white people have been shut out of it and are now being crushed. When you throw around the phrase “white privilege,” you are turning your back on the very real victimization of a lot of people. And many of these people would be your friends and allies if you could refrain from slapping them in the face first.

Racial issues in the U.S. are enormously complex and also differ in many subtle ways in various parts of the country. Throwing around phrases like “white privilege” obscures that complexity. It not only is a barrier to other people sympathizing with you; it is a barrier to your sympathizing with them and seeing that they all aren’t as “privileged” as you appear to assume.

So in the interest of not being a party to perpetuating racism, henceforth any comment that tosses around accusations of “white privilege” or links to other sites doing the same will be deleted.

June 28, 2011 at 9:02 pm
(23) anon says:

It is very clear that there is a gap in the way people from different locations practice the Buddha’s teaching. It would be nice if we can agree on one form of practice.

June 29, 2011 at 9:25 pm
(24) Barbara O'Brien says:

It would be nice if we can agree on one form of practice.

No no no. We all have different capacities and nervous systems and neuroses, and a practice that works well for one person is a disaster for someone else. Diversity is good.

June 30, 2011 at 6:04 pm
(25) Cenac says:

‘Diversity is good’ is, well, a pretty good start. People do have attachments to skin colour, and the problem, for obvious reasons, is easy to explain. The ‘nexus’ensnares victims: many people are hurt by such attachments. Womenists musings was, as said, an invitation- not for ‘white guilt’- but for a dialogue on the psychology of ‘whiteness’, a form of meditation, if he were alive, Buddha may have suggested. Saying she is ‘grieving’ is a like patting her on the back and handing her 5 cents for the cleaning.

June 30, 2011 at 9:45 pm
(26) Anjaneya Reddy says:

Even in Asia, each Buddhist country has its own brand of Buddhism, often a fusion of the core prinicples of Buddhism and the native cultural beliefs. Buddhism has never sought to start on a clean slate by wiping out the local religious culture. One can have no quarrel with it as long as the core teaching is not distorted.
In the West, if an international brand of Buddhism is developing, it is welcome as long as the core principles are respected. Buddhism is no one’s monopoly. No one can say this universal Dhamma is appropriated by some one else.

July 1, 2011 at 3:35 pm
(27) xavier paolo josh mandreza says:

so is it here in the philippines. 90% of filipinos think buddhism = feng shui = chinese. and if you attend a prayer service/sangha, you feel alienated becuase you’re not chinese. so sad.

July 2, 2011 at 6:42 am
(28) tara says:

I agree with what you wrote about Richard Gere. He seems to do what he can to help the cause of Buddhism- I think he has also helped to finance translations of some Buddhist texts.
Perhaps we need to be a bit less judgemental of each other. You can be/live in this world, and be well-off, without being too hung up about it.

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