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.


Tutti i Rami, Judy Pfaff, 1993, mixed media on Chinese love poem. Courtesy André Emmerich Gallery, NY.
Tutti i Rami, Judy Pfaff, 1993, mixed media on Chinese love poem. Courtesy André Emmerich Gallery, NY.

Two years ago, I participated in a week-long Chinese Ch’an (Zen) retreat attended by both white Americans and ethnic Chinese. At the end of the retreat, the master asked each participant to express what benefit he or she had derived from the retreat. The white Americans spoke uniformly of how the long hours of meditation had helped them get in touch with themselves, given them strength and sanity to cope with the pressures of society, and assisted them in the process of self-realization. The Chinese contributions were very different. The first Chinese woman broke down in tears as she spoke. The week of meditation had made her realize how selfish she usually was; she wanted, right then and there, to bow down in apology before her family; she wanted to perform some act of deep repentance. The statements from the other Chinese people similarly revolved around feelings of shame and repentance. When the master asked the Americans if they felt repentance, one person replied, with a touch of impatience in his voice, “You always ask me that and I always reply, ‘No.'” Although we had spent one week sitting together side by side with the same master, we seemed to be two groups who had experienced the same retreat in two very different ways. The white Americans felt it had strengthened their self-understanding and assisted with the process of self-realization, while the Chinese experienced it as moral self-examination.

Perhaps it was only because of the composition of this particular retreat, but I came away reinforced in my belief that Westerners do not understand Buddhism in the way that ethnic Buddhists do. After much reflection, I have come to feel that these responses arise from two different notions of the person: the person as autonomous individual and the person as nexus of social relation. In the West, the person is an autonomous being, who exists independent of social roles and relations. For most societies outside the influence of the European Enlightenment, however, a person is not independent of social roles and relations; quite the opposite, a person has identity and uniqueness only because of his or her social relationships. In answer to the question “Who are you?” one does not answer just with one’s name, but rather, “I am the son or daughter (gender makes a difference) of so-and-so, father or mother to so-and-so, husband or wife to so-and-so, member of such-and-such, resident of such-and-such, etc.” My identity as a person depends on my relationships with other persons and, ultimately, with place, land, and nation, with history and time. Rights and responsibilities accrue to me in virtue of the social roles and relationships in which I am involved. Not merely personal identity, but also my very nature as a human being is dependent and social.

Buddhism developed in societies in which the person was perceived as having been created from social relations. When Buddhism flowed out of India, it encountered quite different cultures, but all of them, despite local variations regarding caste, ancestral lineage, etc., nevertheless resembled one another in their assumptions about personhood and society. Now, as Western practitioners attempt to follow Buddhist practice and teaching in North America, they are trying to combine Buddhism with a fundamentally different conception of the person.

Many aspects of Buddhism—the teaching that all beings have Buddha-nature, the notion of total interdependence, the emphasis on wisdom and compassion—are enormously attractive to people in the West. In addition, that Buddhism has practices one can perform, concrete daily acts that are an expression of one’s commitment to Buddhism, fills a great gap left by the current state of most Western religions. But it is not obvious that Buddhism, taken as a conceptual system, is consistent with the Enlightenment view that a person is an autonomous being. Indeed the very idea of an autonomous individual seems prima facie to conflict with the fundamental Buddhist teaching of anatta, no-self, and the general Buddhist stance against permanent essences. Thus a Buddhist practitioner who has grown up in the West must eventually come to a point of conflict: do I continue to assert the fundamental autonomy of the self? or do I accept the Buddhist teaching that the self is created our of interrelatedness? And here is a Buddhist question: are these alternatives mutually exclusive?

Everyone in Buddhist practice confronts the possessiveness of ego, but ethnic Buddhists do not face quite the same conflict; their culture does not encourage them to see themselves as independent individuals. The myriad variations of Buddhist teaching and practice that Asian cultures have created—the teaching of karma, repentance rituals, gratitude practice, meditation, and so on—all are grounded in the assumption that the human person is human precisely because he or she is created our of social relations. That is why white Americans and ethnic Chinese can sit in meditation together for a week in the same retreat and experience it in such different ways. For those who see the person as fundamentally autonomous and individual, Buddhist practice is conceived as freeing the self from incessant social conditioning and releasing its own pure nature; meditation is social deconditioning designed ultimately to affirm and realize the self. But for those who assume that personal identity is created out of social relationship, Buddhist practice is conceived as breaking habits of selfishness in order to become open, responsible, and compassionate with others; meditation is personal reconditioning designed ultimately to dissolve attachment and de-realize the self.

So, we might ask, who is a Buddhist in North America these days? Buddhists may convert to Christianity for Buddhist motives and Christians may convert to Buddhism for Christian motives. The face of one may mask the motivation of the other. The film Blue Collar and Buddha (Siegel Productions, 1987) documents the difficulties faced by a number of refugees from Laos who had been placed in Rockford, Illinois, by their sponsoring agencies. The Laotians started a Buddhist temple. Many of the Laotians, however, had been sponsored by Christian organizations who expected that the Laotians would join the Christian church upon settlement. Ultimately, many did convert to Christianity—out of a Buddhist sense of gratitude. In gratitude practice, one receives all actions of others, whether good or bad, without rancor and with gratitude. In Pure Land Buddhism, one chants the name of Amida Buddha without calculation and with gratitude. There are regional variations, of course, and in East Asian countries Confucian customs of reciprocity have also exerted an influence, but in daily gratitude practice, whenever one receives a gift or favor, one does not show gratitude by returning a token of gratitude like a card or gift; one returns something whose actual value is equal to, or greater than, that of the gift received. The Laotian refugees could not, of course, return a gift equal to the gift they had received from the Christian churches which sponsored them. But they could convert to Christianity. And they did, because they were Buddhists.

Generally, Buddhist groups in North America reside within a liberal Protestant Christian society and draw their membership from that populace. Consequently, many Buddhist groups share the same outlook and attitudes as liberal Protestantism. In such a society, young people are often encouraged to leave the religion of their parents and join a religion of their own choosing; in fact, leaving the church is not a rejection but an affirmation of liberal Protestant values. Thus, joining a Buddhist group may be an expression of their underlying Christian motivations. On a broader scale, one can argue, as scholars of religion have observed, that Americans turn to a foreign religion like Buddhism only insofar as that religion affirms American values. During the sixties, Buddhism experienced a boom precisely because so many people saw Buddhist practice as a way of affirming the American values of individual commitment and self-reliance at a time when they felt the U.S. government had betrayed their trust.

The scholars’ distinction between missionary religion and ethnic religion can help us understand North American Buddhism. What they refer to as “missionary Buddhism” came to North America just after the turn of the century with a few early pioneers like Senzaki Nyogen and Sasaki Sokei-an, and then later at mid-century with Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken, Suzuki Shunryu, Sasaki Joshu, and Chogyam Trungpa, to name some of the more prominent teachers. All of these teachers came (or in some cases returned) with the deliberate intention of teaching Buddhism to Westerners and their missionary Buddhism continues to spread today among the mainly white population of North America. Most members of this group are converts, usually from Christianity and Judaism, and almost all assume without question that Buddhism must be Westernized. By contrast, what is termed ethnic Buddhism came to North America not through lone missionaries but via ethnic and national groups—the Japanese and Chinese at the turn of the century, and since mid-century the Koreans, Tibetans, Sri Lankans, and Southeast Asians. Ethnic Buddhists are not concerned with converting Westerners. Their interest in Westernizing Buddhism is limited to preserving their own ethnic culture and identity in North America. “How will we transmit our culture to our children and prevent them from being infected by Western culture?” is perhaps the most important issue in every ethnic community.

While both groups claim to be Buddhist, each approaches Buddhism from quite a different starting point. Missionary and ethnic Buddhist teachers alike speak of the Buddhism they practice as if it has remained fundamentally unchanged over centuries. Western students of Buddhism who adopt this rhetoric often also depict the arrival of Buddhism in North America as a historic confrontation between East and West. Despite this rhetoric, however, “traditional Buddhism” has never been an unchanging rock. Even in the countries of its origin, Buddhism has always been plastic, changing according to the historical and cultural pressures of the day. For many years now, those pressures have included influences from the West. In fact, the great confrontation between Buddhism and Christianity, between East and West, started centuries ago in Asia. It helps our historical perspective to remember, for example, that the first Christians appeared in China around 635, that Franciscan friars were there again in the thirteenth century, and that in 1583 the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci entered China to convince the scholar-official class of the truth of Christianity. The traditional Buddhisms of Asia have changed so much under Western and Christian influence that what many consider the “traditional Buddhism” arriving in North America now already has a strong Western component. Ironically, most Westerners fail to recognize those Western elements, and often it is just these Western elements that are thought to be the unchanging essence of Buddhism.

After the British finally colonized Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) in 1815, for example, Christian missionaries established schools, published a newspaper, printed and distributed a catechism, and taught the art of theological debate. The missionaries also pressured the colonial government into refusing to appoint a Buddhist monk to the traditional office ofsangharaja (head of the sangha), an act that prevented the Buddhists from organizing themselves under a head. In self-defense, the Buddhist monks started their own printing presses, learned the skills of theological debate, and began mimicking the organizational style of the Christians. Then an American, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), arriving in Ceylon in 1880, took the five precepts, established the Buddhist Theosophical Society (B.T.S.), and threw himself into the task of combating the Christian missions.

Parsva, Judy Pfaff, 1993, Xerox transfer, oilstick, ink, beeswax, soot on mulberry paper. Courtesy André Emmerich Gallery, NY.
Parsva, Judy Pfaff, 1993, Xerox transfer, oilstick, ink, beeswax, soot on mulberry paper. Courtesy André Emmerich Gallery, NY.

Despite his intentions, Olcott inadvertently reshaped Ceylonese Buddhism on the Christian model. Olcott was convinced that the Ceylonese laity were ignorant of their own religion, and so urged the establishment of Buddhist schools; by 1898, the B.T.S. had helped to establish 103 schools that provided modern English education. The schools also taught Olcott’s particular version of Buddhism through The Buddhist Catechism, a handbook of Buddhist doctrine which he wrote in 1881, in question-and-answer form, deliberately patterned after the Christian catechism. For Olcott, who had an intellectualist image of religion, true religion was a matter of rationally defensible doctrine and belief; it was compatible with science and was to be studied and learned intellectually. He saw no importance in the fact that Buddhism in Ceylon had traditionally been taught in the form of stories and parables whose lessons were learned through imitation. Rather, he declared that the traditional rituals, healings, and exorcisms which seemed to occupy the total attention of most lay Buddhists were dark superstition. Though Olcott was repulsed by the dogmatism of Christianity, he implicitly accepted the Christian missionary judgment that traditional Buddhism was pagan superstition. These convictions about the nature of true religion sprang from Colonel Olcott’s own strong Protestant background (his father was a Protestant minister). The combination of Christian missionaries exerting pressure from outside and Protestant reformer Olcott working from inside gave Sri Lankan Buddhism an entirely new cast—modern, intellectualist, rational—whose influence continues to this day. Not surprisingly, some modern scholars label the hybrid Buddhism of modern Sri Lanka “Protestant Buddhism,” and they are now engaged in the project of trying to recover the older folk Buddhism embodied in the practices of faith and devotion, the parables full of demons and gods, the stories of miracle and magic, the rituals, exorcisms, and other lay practices.

How much of the traditional Zen Buddhist of Japan is traditional? D.T. Suzuki was the one who first gave the West a systematic account of satori in Zen. But we need to ask if we have understood his position correctly. Although he declared that he was expounding the traditional Zen Buddhist notion of satori, at least one portion of his voluminous writings on satori was influenced by William James. The list of seven characteristics of satori, which Suzuki gives inEssays in Zen Buddhism: Second Series, for example, recalls James’ work The Varieties of Religious Experience, duly cited by Suzuki in the section “Chief Characteristics of Satori.” James was one of the early philosopher-psychologists who introduced the notion of “pure experience” to the study of religious experience. In this theory, the consciousness of the original self is at first pure and unformed, since language and thinking have not yet become active. As they develop, language and thinking make the world intelligible, but at the same time they rigidly categorize it, causing the eventual alienation of the self from its surroundings. Religious experience is that experience wherein the self, bursting through the screen of conditioning erected by thought and language, reunites with things as they are. At this point the self experiences the bliss of reunion with its original and natural state. The vocabulary of this account gives the appearance of psychological theory but it is actually a drama, the hero myth recast in psychological language: a lone hero (the self) confronts the bad guys (thought and language), who have terrorized the innocent townspeople (alienation); the hero finally destroys the bad guys in a climactic shoot-out (satori), which brings peace and happiness to the town (bliss).

While D. T. Suzuki often depicted satori in similar terms, it would be a serious error to think that his account of satori can be simplistically reduced to pure experience. The fundamental Buddhist flaw in the pure experience account is that satori is not the moment of breakthrough from conventional consciousness to pure consciousness; if it is any kind of psychological moment at all, it is the moment of transition from pure consciousness back into the conventional consciousness of dualism and attachment. If satori were not this return to conventional consciousness, there would be no meaning to the Mahayana statements that samsara is nirvana, that emptiness itself is form, that the delusive passions themselves are enlightenment. Most people fail to understand this point because they do not really understand nonduality; instead they opt for the simplistic pure experience account of satori, unaware that it encapsulates the very dualism (nirvana opposed to samsara, emptiness opposed to form, enlightenment opposed to delusive passion) that satori overcomes. Westerners understand William James and the theory of pure experience; D. T. Suzuki understood Buddhist nonduality. He was explaining an authentic point about satori, a point that many Westerners find difficult to comprehend. Unable to understand what he was really saying, Westerners have projected onto him the theory of pure experience.

At an American Zen center, it is still possible to meet people who claim that Zen in Japan is degenerate, that monks in Japan do little more than perform funeral ceremonies for money, and that only Westerners practice true Zen. Since Japanese Zen masters partial to the West often make this claim, it is not surprising that American disciples repeat it with conviction and not a little self-righteousness. Such claims about Americans being the only true Zen practitioners, from a non-Western perspective, are clear examples of ethnocentrism.

The increasing prominence of ethnic Buddhism in North America shows (by contrast) how very American the American interpretation of Buddhism is. Americans’ rhetorical use of Buddhist vocabulary disguises the fact that fundamental Western attitudes about self, society, and consciousness have not changed much. Just as pouring a little sweet-and-sour sauce over Western food does not make it Chinese, so also flourishing Buddhist terminology over Western concepts of self, society, and consciousness does not make them “essentials of Buddhism.” We are not Westernizing Buddhism so much as Orientalizing Westernism. I am worried that this Westernizing of Buddhism, which is going forward on many fronts, much of it unnoticed—using Buddhist labels for Western concepts, making the dharma into a middle-class commodity to be sold only to those who can pay, using Buddhism to reinforce Western notions of morality and psychotherapy—will ultimately co-opt Buddhism, making it incapable of criticizing Western society. Now that ethnic Buddhist communities are starting to flourish in North America, perhaps the comparison will make us aware not only of the many ways in which Western and ethnic Buddhism differ, but also of how we have projected Western cultural attitudes onto Buddhism. When we become fundamentally aware of the mind’s incessant need to reify experience into fixed categories that are convenient to the self, then we are learning Buddhism.

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