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Barbara O'Brien

Racial Diversity in American Buddhism

By October 17, 2012

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I want to say a bit more about the "Night-Light Buddhists" post on the Buddhism in the U.S. website. The website appears to be dedicated to the academic study of "Convert Buddhists." As a "Convert Buddhist" -- let's call 'em CBs -- myself, I was offended and dismayed by many of the remarks on the website and submit that the authors are out of touch with much of what is actually happening in American dharma.

But I want to come back to this in a bit. First I want to say just a little about the ethnic Asian-Convert Buddhist divide in American Buddhism, which the authors of the website don't seem to understand very well.

There's no question that racism remains a major factor in the United States. Just see the way Christians tend to sort themselves into ethnically and racially separate congregations. But to speak of American Buddhism strictly in terms of "Asian Buddhists" and "white Buddhists" is inaccurate.

First, Buddhism is far more racially diverse than that. Nichiren Buddhism may be the most racially diverse religious tradition in America, for example.

Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S. doesn't seem to be sorting itself into all white/all Asian sanghas, or at least it doesn't appear to be doing that in the New York City area. When I go to public teachings by Tibetan teachers, I see Asian and non Asian monastics as well as Asian and non-Asian laypeople who clearly know each other and practice together.

Zen does tend to be predominantly white in the U.S., although I know "convert" Buddhists practicing Zen who are of Latino, African American, and Middle Eastern racial/ethnic background, as well as ethnic Asians who were not raised to be Buddhists. At least some of the "convert" population that is labeled "white" is not, in fact, white.

But let's look a little more closely at how Zen came to the West. Before World War II, ethnic Asians in the U.S. were mostly of Japanese and Chinese ancestry, and the temples serving ethnic Asian communities were mostly some variation of Pure Land. There were exceptions, certainly, but that was largely the case. And this crew did not have it easy. In the 19th century drunken cowboys amused themselves by riding their horses into the "joss houses" to fire bullets into the altar, and Jodo Shinshu priests in California were among the first Japanese to be detained during World War II.

But among ethnic Asians in the U.S. there was little interest in Zen, which in China and Japan was not that popular with laypeople at the time. So when Zen gained the attention of American popular culture after World War II, and all the curious whites didn't flock to Asian American Zen temples, this was mostly because (I believe) before 1950 or so there were only two Asian American Zen temples in the entire United States -- Zenshuji (est. 1922), a Soto temple in Los Angeles; and the Zen Buddhist Temple of Chicago (est. 1949).  And in fact non-ethnic Asian Americans did flock to the Chicago temple, although I don't know that much about Zenshuji.  (Another institution, the Zen Studies Society established in New York City in 1930, I believe was more non-Asian than Asian from the beginning.)

So after World War II Japanese, Korean, and a few Chinese Zen teachers came to the West and established Zen centers and monasteries, and these filled up with non-Asian students who had read Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac. This was more self-selection than racism. That said, some Zen centers back then developed a reputation for being a tad snotty, but they were snotty in diverse ways. Many women (regardless of race) who became Zen students in the 1960s and 1970s reported considerable sexism, for example.

In the 1970s, a few Americans who had studied with Theravada masters in Asia opened Insight Meditation Centers in the U.S. These introduced Vipassana meditation to mostly non-ethnic Asian Americans. "Convert" Americans were taught that Theravada Buddhism was all about meditation, although Theravada Buddhist laypeople in Asia rarely meditate, and their understanding of Buddhist practice is different. I have an impression this may be causing some friction between southeast Asian immigrants in the U.S. and westerners who learned about Buddhism from Insight Meditation teachers. I am not aware of any interaction between mostly-white Vipassana meditation centers and the Theravada Buddhist temples serving ethnic Asian populations.

On the other hand, I understand non-ethnic Asian Americans finally are taking an interest in Pure Land, and I know of Jodo Shinshu sanghas on the East and West coast that slowly are becoming more racially diverse. Some descendants of those drunken cowboys may be chanting the Nembutsu.

I hadn't meant to go on this long on American Buddhist history, but my point is that it's inaccurate to picture American Buddhism as a simple dichotomy of "white" Buddhists and "Asian" Buddhists who don't speak to each other. It's all more complicated than that. There is more that could be said about language and cultural discomfort, but let's go on to the nature of the "convert" population.

I want to go into this in more detail in another post, but the thesis I want to develop is that the "converts' fall on a wide spectrum. There are people sincerely committed to dharma and who have received the Precepts and taken the refuges. Some even have taken monastic vows. There also are people who are sincerely and respectfully exploring Buddhism but haven't decided to commit to it.

And then there appears to be a vocal and opinionated population of non-ethnic Asians [i.e., "whites"] who haven't exactly converted and don't exactly practice, but who are enthusiastic about Buddhism and think they understand it. And I think this is the crew giving the rest of us "converts" a bad name. But that will be the next post.

October 18, 2012 at 1:49 am
(1) NellaLou says:

“non-ethnic Asians ” in the last paragraph. What is the meaning of this phrase? Thanks.

October 18, 2012 at 10:52 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

What is the meaning of this phrase?

I meant Americans who are not ethnic Asians; the group usually referred to as “white,” but which isn’t always. I can see how it’s not clear, though.

October 18, 2012 at 5:48 pm
(3) mickeypamo says:

I admire your ongoing research and application of social significance of truly engaged Buddhism.

October 18, 2012 at 6:21 pm
(4) Phra Ajahn Bill says:

Until some charsmatic Buddhist leader steps up to the plate, it’s going to problem for a long time to come. And when I say charsmatic Buddhist leader, I’m talking about someone like Ajahn Brahm of Australia, not the Dalai Lama. Someone of “white” origin who can really explain what’s what in perfect English.

October 18, 2012 at 6:46 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Until some charsmatic Buddhist leader steps up to the plate, it’s going to problem for a long time to come.

Oh, please, we need charismatic leaders like a chicken needs an iPod. And, anyway, Buddhism in America is way too diverse for any one leader to be listened to by everyone.

Since you don’t appear to have read the post, I must point out to you that the segregation problem is not a problem everywhere, in all traditions. Nichiren and Tibetan Buddhists don’t seem to need any help, for example. Zen in America is overwhelmingly non-Asian, but I doubt there is a predominantly Asian Zen center anywhere in North America. So it’s not as if we’re sorting ourselves into Asian and non-Asian Zen; it’s just Zen. Even some of the older Pure Land temples, on the east and west coasts anyway, are starting to integrate. The biggest firewall seems to be around the Theravada temples serving communities of immigrants from southeast Asia. This is possibly because these are newer immigrants, first generation. The temples may begin to immigrate when most of the community is second or third generation.

October 18, 2012 at 7:35 pm
(6) Doug says:

Well said. That blog post you cited was a little unorthodox.

Indeed there are many different people of many different backgrounds who come to Buddhism and its odd when people hold up a certain group as the archetypal Buddhist.

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