For the past three years, I have had the good fortune of living at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Rinzai Zen temple and monastery in Hawaii founded and still led by Asian Americans. This is exceedingly rare in American Zen. For decades, Zen (but also Theravada and Tibetan) Buddhist institutions in the West have been handed down to younger generations of mostly white leaders by founders from Asia who didn’t fully understand racism in America and who may not have been aware of their own biases. Although Asian or “heritage” Buddhist temples and churches have existed in the West for more than 100 years, many convert Western Buddhists don’t know or dismiss the role they’ve played in the flourishing of Buddhism here. The faces of Asian teachers—whether Sri Lankan, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Burmese, Thai, Japanese, Bhutanese, or Cambodian—rarely grace magazine pages or ads for teacher trainings. (This is all against the backdrop of the history of the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, who were often targeted because of their Buddhist beliefs.)
Even before the recent wave of protests against police brutality and for racial justice, more Buddhist teachers of color have been gaining prominence. They bring with them an honest reckoning with how racism shows up in and shapes their own sanghas, or communities. This is part of a broader effort on the part of many Buddhists to support a collective awakening around racial justice that is much needed and long overdue. Still, from where I sit, I see one area in our own house that calls out for attention: the erasure of Asian cultures, and of Asian and Asian American people, in mainstream Western Buddhism. There is no equivalency to be made here between Asian erasure in Western Buddhism and the murder of Black people in America. But confronting and learning about this erasure of Asian cultures is necessary in order for us to address the full spectrum of racism and white supremacy. Doing so will make it possible for us to truly wake up in the broadest political and Buddhist senses of the word.
As a Korean American Buddhist, now an ordained priest and monk at Chozen-ji, I am for the first time experiencing an authentic and lively Asian American cultural life—Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Filipino, as well as Native Hawaiian—suffusing throughout a serious Buddhist training environment. Over the fifteen years before coming to Chozen-ji, I sat with more than a dozen different Buddhist communities where I was often the only Asian and sometimes one of the only non-white people in attendance. When non-Asian Buddhists (particularly at American Zen centers) wore Japanese clothes, bowed to me theatrically, referred to me as “Cristina-san”, responded to requests in English with “Hai!”, and expressed rigid attachment to the technical accuracy of certain Japanese and Buddhist forms, it looked more like cosplay than a means to enter Zen. These actions were, in retrospect, performative rather than being a way to sincerely throw away one’s small self through the embodiment of Japanese and Zen culture.
Today, in contrast, I feel a new comfort in my own skin, seeing myself reflected in the faces of a majority Asian local population wherever I go. In my time here, I have also learned a new way to approach Zen and Buddhism altogether.
Seeing how Asian Americans in Hawaii and non-Asian locals approach Buddhism and sangha has truly transformed my Buddhist training. I have repeatedly been amazed by the local students who grew up in a majority-Asian state where Buddhism is the second most practiced religion. They show up to Chozen-ji ready to give first rather than receive—asking to pull weeds or clean bathrooms, for example, to earn the privilege of learning zazen (seated meditation). Right now, the fridge is bursting with homegrown papayas and avocados from dojo members who know we have monks to feed. Several days a week, one of our Zen priests comes to trim the grass for hours in the hot sun, his visage covered in grass clippings. We practically have to force him to get reimbursed for equipment repairs. A few months ago, a new student who had sat zazen with us only a few times made an unceremonious, unexpected, and very large donation—a gift reflecting his planned future attendance or perhaps just to express his appreciation.
Now that I’ve seen this—now that I’ve lived it—I cannot unsee it. When people from outside Hawaii come to Chozen-ji, and when I see emails or social media from mainstream, non-Asian convert Buddhist centers, I cannot ignore the glaring absence of Asian cultures and people in their communities and institutions. This is one symptom of how Western convert Buddhism has extracted itself from the foreign cultures of its roots, and it shows how the very institutions of mainstream Western Buddhism—even with sits specifically for people of color and programs in white allyship—can be vehicles for the continuing erasure of Asian cultures that were home to Buddhism for millennia and from which the dharma is inextricable. How can we truly dismantle racism—especially its deepest and most insidious forms in anti-Black racism—in our sanghas and in society without addressing a history we’ve overlooked?
The same year that I arrived at Chozen-ji, scholar Funie Hsu published her article “We’ve Been Here All Along” in Lion’s Roar. Drawing on the research of Duncan Ryuken Williams, Hsu explored how being Buddhist historically made Japanese Americans a threat to national security in the eyes of the US government. She argued that this continues today—that Buddhism continues to be co-opted and made “safe” by white ownership. Since then, scholar and writer Chenxing Han has published academic research as well as personal reflections on the damaging stereotypes of Asian American Buddhists put forth even by academic experts. Hsu, Williams, and Han provide invaluable historical and political context for how Western Buddhist converts often dismiss Asian Buddhism as lesser than—either by critiquing institutions themselves or by considering Asian Buddhists as lacking adequate intellectual or spiritual understanding of their own traditions.
While I’m grateful that many eyes have now been opened to the historical processes of Asian American erasure in Western Buddhism, I’ve been waiting for someone to articulate how we get out of it. It is clear that it is not enough to lift up Asian teachers or “pay respect” to the cultural roots of Buddhism. To truly reverse Asian American erasure, we need competency or fluency in the cultures that allowed Buddhism to survive for over two thousand years. In my own experience, this means a more humble and less dismissive attitude toward the cultures from which Buddhism came and a willingness to change our behavior and our approach, not just for the sake of equity but also for the sake of fully realizing the dharma.
There are certain ways of engaging a temple, church, or sangha that are common across many different kinds of Asian Buddhist communities and that anyone can adopt. To be clear, Asians do not own these behaviors. They are simply practices notable for their presence in Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities. They’re also, in my experience, a critical missing link if we truly aim to end injustice in our own sanghas and beyond. Furthermore, they hold promise for our becoming better and more realized Buddhists.
There is a Japanese belief that for something to have religious significance, it need only be simple and capable of repetition. For anyone who doesn’t want to be party to the ongoing erasure of Asian cultures in Western Buddhism, who wants to build competency in the cultures that gave birth to Buddhism, and who wants to find ways to bring the dharma alive beyond concepts and through action instead, here are some reorienting practices.
- When approaching or entering a Buddhist institution or community, consider what you can do before asking for or expecting to receive anything.
- When going to a center, temple, or any place where there’s sangha, bring something. Snacks from a popular local eatery and fruit are usually the way to go. If you’ve taken a trip somewhere recently, some snacks from your travels are an excellent thing to bring.
- Look for the people with experience, pay attention to how they interact with their space and with people, and match. Are they cleaning up? Clean up. Are they keeping quiet? Join them in being quiet.
- Any time someone older than you or more experienced than you is doing something menial, like setting up chairs or sweeping the floor, jump in and do it for or with them. Next time, arrange to be there right at the start of the activity to take the burden, whether in part or in its entirety, off their hands.
- Show up on time and be consistent.
- Put relationships first. Take very seriously the impact your behavior will have on the people you’re in relationship to and how your words or actions may not just impact them, but reflect on them.
Bringing food, offering to help, and being on time may feel like small, individual, and insignificant acts. Even though they’re simple, these practices can be challenging to integrate into our lives because they shift the transactional and self-motivated approach we usually bring to encounters in the West, whether we realize it or not. It can be especially difficult to not talk about our actions or motivations—asking questions, explaining, or asking for permission. The opposite of making performance out of these is to fulfill them without comment and with sincerity. Sincerity means to complete every action, no matter how small, with the attention and discipline that demonstrate that it actually matters.
Culture itself should be regarded as something that actually matters. Encompassing more than only ritual and arts, culture is how beliefs become action, and how we shape the fabric of our societies to reflect what we regard with importance. Culture, in short, is our values. In this case, culture is the dharma brought to life by how we live, not just how we think or talk about it. That’s why, when Western convert Buddhists dismiss Asian approaches to Buddhism—because they focus on maintaining a shrine, prayer, prostrations and pilgrimage, engaging in the arts, offering alms, or espousing a Buddhist worldview without the same emphasis on formal meditation—they’re missing what it means to allow the Buddha’s teachings to penetrate from all angles.
As important as formal meditation is, the cultural roots of Buddhism (reflected in the practices described above) provide ways for us to train with just as much discipline and focus in every moment of our lives as we do during our time on the cushion. They are tangible means of taking care of others before ourselves, and of letting go of our small selves, again and again. They’re a way to realize that what we want, what we can get, and how we want to do things just doesn’t matter—a critical and mistaken view for us to overcome in the individualistic West. In a training monastery like Chozen-ji, the combination of serious zazen, Zen training through martial and fine arts, and everyday culture make for a deeply transformative combination—even if we, too, have been written off as “merely cultural” by a Western convert Buddhist teacher or two.
There’s more that we can do. We can also donate to Asian American Buddhist institutions and teachers—maybe even without having received anything from them or visiting them first. We can invite the pastor from a local Buddhist church or the abbot of a local Buddhist temple to come and speak to our sanghas. We can even join an Asian American Buddhist temple or church ourselves.
For years, few Asian American Buddhists have publicly raised this issue of Asian erasure in mainstream Western Buddhism. Can you blame us? After Funie Hsu’s article ran in 2017, the Lion’s Roar editorial board shared how shocked they were by some of the negative feedback it received, including an accusation that Hsu “ain’t no Buddhist.” Personally, I hesitated to speak up until now because I couldn’t offer more than an oppositional voice—speaking out against anti-Asian behavior without a set of actions or remedies that I could also be for. Now that I have, I hope I’ll receive support in the face of any blowback.
Finally, while we are called on by the times to improve our sanghas and ourselves, it is also important that we maintain Asian American-led Buddhist institutions in the West. These, like other formal religious institutions in the West, are dwindling as demographics shift. But for more than a century, Asian Buddhist temples, churches, and schools have been places we can look to for guidance and learning on how to live the dharma—in a way that maintains Buddhism’s cultural roots and spirit, while also fitting the modern world. They’re a precious jewel, previously invisible to many of us but which has been here all along and that, especially now, we cannot afford to lose.