Crossing the Great Divides in U.S. Buddhism

Crossing the Great Divides in U.S. Buddhism February 4, 2016

Today I am again very honored to share a guest post in our ongoing series of expanding perspectives on race and diversity in American Buddhism. Recent posts include yesterday’s (forthcoming) book excerpt from Lama Choyin Rangdrol, “African American Buddhism…” an interview discussing an emerging and wonderful voice -several voices, in fact- in the Western Buddhist world, the Tibetan Feminist Collective, and two excellent academic pieces that started things off: Race Matters…” and “The Dukkha of Racism…”.

Today’s article comes with a home-work assignment of sorts for me and for interested readers: to get a hold of Diana Eck’s book A New Religious America... mentioned below and read the chapter on Buddhism and come back here in about 10 or so days to discuss that chapter (I’ll provide a summarizing blog post to start things off). Along with that, check out Eck’s Harvard-based Pluralism Project: As Mushim mentions Rick Fields, I’ll also note another pioneer in the study of American Buddhism who has been a great influence on me:Charles Prebish, whose 30+ year career (1979, American Buddhism – 2011, Looking West…) studying American Buddhism includes texts co-edited by greats like Martin Baumann and Kenneth Tanaka. More on him and Fields and other figures perhaps in the upcoming post on Eck’s work; for now, please enjoy today’s excellent work by Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda.

The recent cover image of the first issue of Lion’s Roar magazine, showing 14 U.S. Buddhist teachers who are beautifully diverse in some ways, provocatively and boldly titled “The New Face of Buddhism,” has excited both praise as well as substantial deconstructive critique. Lion’s Roar is a rebranding of the former Shambhala Sun, and not a new publication.

The praise comes from people, myself included, who appreciate the inclusion of people of different races and ethnicities, ages, gender identities, and body shapes and sizes among the teachers chosen to be photographed, many of whom I know well and love, or know slightly and respect.

I also sympathize with the thoughtful critiques, such as those published recently by five Buddhist Peace Fellowship authors, which once again shine light on the stunningly great divides among U.S. Buddhist communities and individuals. These persist despite information being readily available for Buddhists in the U.S. to educate ourselves on “The Old Face of Buddhism” in this country, to the extent that a newish sort of religion can have an old face. But you get my drift – Buddhism has been in the U.S. and in North America for awhile, certainly over a hundred years, and books like Rick Fields’s classic How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America have been out since 1981, joined by newer and excellent accounts such as the long and research-based chapter on U.S. Buddhism in Dr. Diana Eck’s A New Religious America: How a “Christian” Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.

It has been said that there is no American Buddhism, only American Buddhisms, and this is a useful truth to keep in mind, I think.

It was only a few years ago that I was seated at dinner with a diversity and inclusion professional, who appeared to be a white person, a person who was new to me. They asked about the work I had done in the D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) field. I replied that I am Buddhist and most of my diversity work has been done in Buddhist communities in the U.S., particularly focusing on racism.

They seemed very interested, smiled, and said, “I practice meditation with a Buddhist group!” Then they furrowed their brow slightly and said, in a thoughtful voice, “But there aren’t many people of color who are Buddhists.”

This was one of those moments of truth where one can choose to be mindful or not. I took a deep breath, then said as warmly and kindly as I could, “I disagree. Buddhism comes from Asia, and most Buddhists, globally speaking, are people of color.”

The person thought about this, then said, “I guess I mean Black people.”

I replied, “Actually, there are large Buddhist groups such as SGI-USA who have significant membership of people of color who are not Asian-descended, including large numbers of African Americans.”

I could tell that all of this was new and confusing information to this person, who seemed like a well-educated white professional. And they are not alone. If you go into a sampling of U.S. Buddhist groups that are predominantly white converts and ask, “If I ask you to think of three to five images of ‘a typical American Buddhist,’ who do you see in your mind?” the answer is likely to be almost completely different than if you go into a sampling of U.S. Buddhist groups that were founded by Asian Buddhist immigrants, anywhere from over 100 years ago up to fairly recently, and ask the same question.

Both broad categories are likely to contain a large number of people who self-identify as “Americans,” meaning U.S. citizens, but between these groups is what seems to me like an almost impenetrable wall, often, or an abyss in which phone and Internet signals mysteriously disappear.

The reasons for this divide, it has been noted, include, although they are not solely reduced to, racism. And, because issues of socioeconomic class usually co-arise with issues of race and ethnicity, there is classism as well. Asian American Buddhists, like Asian Americans in general, commonly encounter racism in the forms of being regarded as perpetual foreigners, sometimes exoticized, sometimes feared, and most often completely ignored or what is called “invisibilized” in addition to what is sometimes called “Otherized” these days. Last year, for instance, I was talking to a white American woman in a Buddhist center in Berkeley and we had been chatting for quite awhile. English is my first and primary language, except for a little French, and I speak with a flat Midwestern accent, having grown up near Akron, Ohio; I am a sansei, or third generation Japanese American who has never been to Japan. After we’d been talking pleasantly for at least fifteen minutes, the woman said, “Are you from Hong Kong?” I replied that I am originally from Ohio and asked why she thought I was from Hong Kong. She said, “There were some other people from Hong Kong here earlier today.” I hope it is obvious that it is exactly this sort of conflation of identity and nationality, based on physical appearance, that was at the root of the reason that American citizens of Japanese descent were placed in concentration camps in World War II. That these implicit associations and biases exist so strongly today among people of undoubted good will is something to be strongly taken into account when white convert Buddhist groups consider or are challenged to consider diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Meanwhile, the so-called Asian American and the Asian immigrant U.S. Buddhist organizations and groups are doing what they’ve done, in some cases for over a century in this country: serving their communities. I always knew better than to try to reach my late friend, Ven. Thich An Duc, an African American senior Buddhist monk who resided in Chua Dieu Phap, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in San Gabriel, California anytime around Buddha’s birthday or other major Buddhist holidays. The venerable, who also went by the name Bhante Suhita Dharma, told me that Chua Dieu Phap would easily draw 2,000 people for Buddha’s birthday, and that the temple had a system in place so that services were held, everyone got fed, bathroom facilities were provided, and people of all ages, from babies in arms up to elderly folks in wheelchairs, were well cared for. Similar thriving, multigenerational scenes that fluidly include laypersons, monastics, married clergy, and visiting Buddhist dignitaries, albeit perhaps with smaller numbers, can be found – should one have the consciousness to look – at hundreds and probably thousands of Asian-descended American Buddhist centers and communities that have impressive infrastructure, including Dharma schools for young children and teenagers, in the U.S.

Although it’s a bit of a collector’s item, Taking Refuge in L.A.: Life in a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, a book of lyrical photos by Don Farber and text by Rick Fields, can still be found, and, were I calling the shots, would be viewed avidly by every person in a predominantly white, U.S. convert Buddhist community as a foundation of their Dharma study. In my experience, U.S. people of color who are converts to Buddhism usually have a fairly strong awareness that Dharma in the U.S. includes both Buddhists of Asian as well as non-Asian descent, and includes African Americans, Latin@s and Hispanics, U.S. indigenous peoples, and people of mixed heritage as well as people from other countries, including often invisibilized Canadians. “Minority awareness” seems to fairly easily translate to an openness to consider that “American Buddhists” might be diverse also, regarding sexual orientation, gender-identity, ability and disability, and other dimensions of diversity.

How to cross this great divide? It’s probably evident that some additional factors that keep it so firmly in place are cultural differences and needs, as well as negative perceptions and judgments on both sides. There are people who freely cross the divides in U.S. Buddhism, feeling welcomed and at home everywhere they go; these folks, however, aren’t usually the voices that are heard in convert U.S. Buddhist media. We can become these folks if we make the effort. Start small and identify a Buddhist group that’s quite unlike your own; ask if you can visit and go with a friend. Take a donation of food or flowers or money. Ask lots of questions and make it clear you’re interested in their culture and what they’ve achieved in building their temple, undoubtedly persevering through many difficulties. Then, although of course nothing is ever 100% guaranteed, be prepared to be the recipient of warm hospitality, and gain transformative insights into new worlds, and to make new spiritual friends. It probably won’t feel 100% comfortable to you to be there, but learning new things doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.

Mushimhapchang1Mushim (Patricia Y. Ikeda) is a socially engaged Buddhist teacher at East Bay Meditation Center ( in downtown Oakland, California. She has published in numerous Buddhist publications and also works as a diversity and inclusion consultant. She has taught meditation retreats for people of color, women, and social justice activists nationally. She is the recipient of the 2014 Gil A. Lopez peacemaker award from the Association for Dispute Resolution of Northern California (ADRNC) for her yearlong program, Practice in Transformative Action, training social justice activists in mindfulness. In September 2015 she was awarded an honorary sacrae theologiae (sacred theology) doctorate from Starr King School for the Ministry. Mushim has been featured in two documentary films: Between the Lines (on Asian American women poets), and Acting on Faith: Women and the New Religious Activism in America, distributed by the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. In June 2015 she participated in “Suffering, Liberation, and Fraternity,” a weeklong Catholic-Buddhist dialogue addressing issues of social suffering, hosted by the Vatican in Italy.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

Close Ad