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?

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