Buddhists in the United States include fifth-generation Americans of Chinese and Japanese heritage, second-generation Korean-Americans, recent immigrants from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia and their American children, along with converts from European, African, and Latino backgrounds. As with other groups, Buddhists with common cultural and sectarian orientations have tended to stick together. With the end of the melting pot ideal, issues that once addressed racial and cultural diversity have been redefined in the political terms of multiculturalism. As this special section on Dharma, Diversity, and Race suggests, the views of Buddhists from different races and traditions reflect the society at large.
Political discourse has made it popular to speak of Asian-American and Euro-American Buddhism as two distinct camps; yet this does not take into account the many divisions under each of these headings. In short, there is no love lost between different Asian groups in America. Just one example: every group with half a memory of World War II—the Koreans, the Burmese—still hates the Japanese, and often the Japanese still think of other peoples as the barbarians. Race and sectarianism are further complicated by the general lack of knowledge among Asian-American congregations about sects of Buddhism other than the ones that they follow; this is logical, as their devotion has not required the labored search common to converts. Another problem with dividing Buddhists into these two groups is that African-Americans are invisible. Although many African-Americans join the Nichiren Shoshu sect, white practitioners of Tibetan, Zen, and vipassana Buddhism think that Nichiren Shoshu is not real Buddhism and disdain its messianic proselytizing and appeal to the masses. Is it just coincidental that the one Buddhism that attracts black Americans is the only Buddhism that doesn’t attract educated white people? Even if it is mere coincidence, it is incumbent on the ruling class—whites—to understand that black people cannot accept that white disinterest is race-free.
This dynamic between black and white Buddhists is repeated with white and Asian-Americans, but with one difference: black people aren’t proclaiming that their Buddhism is the one true Buddhism. This is the claim of arrogant white practitioners who are not content just to practice Buddhism, they have to practice the best Buddhism, the true Buddhism. This is offensive to Asian-Americans who were born Buddhist. Yet a valid political gripe doesn’t automatically provide the final word on Buddhist teachings. Imagine the situation in reverse, substituting Christianity for Buddhism. If true Christianity were practiced by all American-born Christians, there would be no place in this so-called Christian society for Buddhism to grow. It is true that Euro-American Buddhists have been raised to believe that their views are smarter than anyone else’s, and to have blind faith in their own authority and the power of their own words. Yet those Asian-Americans who feel proprietary about Buddhism miss the point and confirm white prejudices that ethnic Buddhism is so driven by secular interests that no spirit of dharma remains.
Referring to Euro-American Buddhism as one entity is also incorrect because white people have many of their own sectarian prejudices and are engaged in various power struggles’ concerning whose version of Buddhism will be most influential: whether to take Buddhism more in the direction of enlightenment or ethics, and who can raise the most money, or have the biggest center and the loudest voice. Still, there seems to be some camaraderie among converted Buddhists that provides dialogue. They have conferences for teachers from different traditions, although the absence of clergy from the Asian community at these conferences reinforces a sense of white exclusivity. Because these teachers think of themselves as very “open”—a buzzword in white Buddhism—and because their no-self selves are identified with being politically liberal, the suggestion that this exclusivity stems from racism is repugnant. But their “openness” does not acknowledge how non-whites relate to this situation. In white racist America, there is no way for a person of color to relate to any all-white situation without experiencing racism. This is an unavoidable fact that white people must wake up to—and it includes Buddhist conferences and communities.
The problem for Buddhist communities anywhere is how to maintain the truths of the dharma and at the same time not ignore the suffering caused by political injustices nor so ingratiate Buddhism with government rule and conventional views that it becomes an ineffective force against ignorance. Even progressive ideologies are just ignorance fighting ignorance on the battlefield of ideas, opinions, concepts. Penetrating one’s own Buddha-nature is a real alternative to this, but that means releasing all one’s attachments to every kind of identity, including being a racist, having pride in not being a racist, or valuing Asian or white superiority. Very few people want to do this and of those who do I have not found a predominance of one color or sect.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.