Chenxing Han is a young Asian American Buddhist who never intended to write a book on young Asian American Buddhists. Han, who describes herself as a “1.75-generation Chinese American immigrant,” grew up in a nonreligious household and with few Asian American peers. As a young adult, she adopted Buddhist practice and even pursued a master’s in Buddhist studies from the Graduate Theological Union but was hesitant to talk openly about her racial and religious identity, for fears of being stereotyped as either an “inauthentic” practitioner as a convert or a “superstitious immigrant” as an Asian American.
In 2012, while beginning research for her M.A. thesis, Han decided to let go of her ambivalence about the terms “young,” “Asian American,” and “Buddhist,” in order to get to the bottom of the “two Buddhisms” dichotomy that seemed to thwart nuanced conversations about representation and race in American Buddhism. She set out to ask her fellow Asian American Buddhists directly about their experiences. Casting “as wide a net as possible,” she spoke to any “young adult” of full or partial Asian heritage who responded to a call for interviews, regardless of immigration status or English ability. As Han suspected, these interviews disturbed the perceived divide between “heritage” and “convert” Buddhists, but they also gave many young Buddhists an opportunity to reflect on their racial and religious identities on their own terms for the first time.
Drawing from her academic research, Han’s first book, Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists (North Atlantic; January 26 , 2021) continues to complicate “two Buddhisms” through its use of memoir, ethnography, and critique. Presenting the voices of her interviewees, who come from a wide range of backgrounds and Buddhisms, the book paints a complicated picture of Asian American Buddhists, who make up two thirds of Buddhists in the United States. Ann Gleig, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Central Florida and the author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, spoke to Han about the making of the book, and the importance of letting Asian American Buddhists speak for themselves.
Be the Refuge is partially a memoir, but it’s not just about your journey. Can you say more about how you came to write this book? Back in 2012, I needed a topic for my master’s thesis in Buddhist chaplaincy. Part of my attraction to this topic was born out of a sense of loneliness and confusion. I’d read that among American Buddhists, who are only about 1 percent of the nation’s population, more than two thirds are of Asian heritage. So it confused me why I rarely saw Asian American voices or faces represented in a lot of scholarship that I read or in more mainstream depictions in Western media.
There was that piece, and I was also lonely as a young Asian American Buddhist, because I didn’t grow up in a Buddhist tradition. A lot of the people I met through this project grew up in predominantly Asian Buddhist temple communities or families. That wasn’t a privilege that I had growing up. That got me started on interviewing people, and I thought, “Maybe a few people will talk to me, and then it’ll be enough for an M.A. thesis.” I wasn’t even thinking about writing a book at that point. By the time I talked to 26 people in person, and 63 more people wanted to do email interviews, I realized my motivation had shifted. I felt inspired by respect for these voices. Although I didn’t agree with everyone I talked to, it felt important to put them together on the page and allow other people to hear their voices too.
I would be remiss to not mention Aaron Lee, who is deeply woven into this project from beginning to end. He started a blog back in 2009 called the Angry Asian Buddhist. People who knew Aaron knew that if he was angry, it was an anger that came out of his deep love for Buddhist communities. He was one of the first people to talk about the importance of Asian American Buddhists. He initiated conversations around race and representation in American Buddhism at a time when that was still, unlike now, very much avoided.
What were some of the methods guiding your research? I don’t think of the book as a work of sociology. I wasn’t setting out to be representative; I wanted to find people to talk to and explore what it means to be doubly marginalized as Asian American and Buddhist. I noticed that people often spoke about Asian American Buddhists as a category, especially in contrast to white convert Buddhists. There were so few of us speaking for ourselves or on our own terms. For these interviews, a lot of it meant creating a space to build trust and rapport. These topics of religion and race can be really challenging to talk about, so I did my best to create the space to invite people to simply share what came up for them.
Can you unpack the title Be the Refuge? “Be the Refuge” is actually the title of the last blog post that Aaron ever wrote. What I really like about the title is that it’s a challenge. It’s an invitation. It’s a koan. It’s a chant. It’s what you want it to be, right? I wanted to invite the reader into the realization that Buddhism is vast and multifaceted. Someone’s refuge may look like making vegetarian food for the Lunar New Year feast at their temple. Or it may look like bowing at the altar. It may look like donating their money and time to environmental justice or social justice causes, and so on. In the US, Buddhism is predominantly depicted as and reduced to certain forms of seated meditation. I hoped that “refuge” would make people think more broadly about what American Buddhism looks like.
One of the main targets of your book is the “two Buddhisms” typology. Can you explain the limits of this idea? On the surface, there are these Asian immigrant temples and there are these primarily white meditation communities, each with their distinct histories, with limited crossover and interaction between the two. I never explicitly asked my interviewees about the “two Buddhisms”—often referred to as “heritage” and “convert.” I asked people, “How would you categorize American Buddhism?” And I just listened to what they had to say. It felt it was important, at least at first, not to center or mention the two Buddhisms dichotomy.
Interestingly enough, the two Buddhism typology didn’t need to be a target of the book, because my interviewees were already living an intersectional Buddhism. Again and again, my interviewees would bring up ideas that immediately complicated the typology. They would ask, “What about our friends who are mixed race? What about our Black and Latinx and Indigenous Buddhist friends? What about Asian American converts? Where do they fit?” There was a natural desire, too, to think more intersectionally and to bring in not only race, but also sexuality, gender, and class.
Asian American Buddhists are not monolithic. They don’t always look at the same topics in agreement. There are some people who cannot disentangle their social justice commitments from their Buddhist practice. Others do not feel aligned with the label Asian American, or may not be comfortable publicly identifying as Buddhist. I think there’s a way in which second generation Buddhists in particular have had to think more transnationally about Buddhism, and see the connections between their religion and their parents’ and grandparents’ home countries in surprising ways. Another interviewee, who identified as working class, was particularly worried about the dangers of “the upper middle path.”
Recently, I was reading an article by religious studies professor Hsiao-Lan Hu on queering identities. Dr. Hu was using queering as a verb in the sense of disrupting our notions of attaching to identity as a stable, fixed entity. I’ve found it really powerful to see this kind of queering as a resource and a richness, and as a source of resilience, rather than a deficit or source of shame.
I was glad to see that people were comfortable enough to share these intersections of their Buddhist experience. There’s a beautiful way in which my interviewees modeled what it looks like to be curious and listen very deeply to other perspectives, and to have humility about the limits of one’s own perspective.
The final section of the book, “Refuge Makers,” draws from the voices of your interviewees “to explore the possibilities of a pan-ethnic, pan-sectarian, Asian American Buddhist identity.” You quote an interviewee named Andy who states, “Blogs are not enough. We need to have conferences. We need to have podcasts. We need to be at parades. We need to be talking to other faiths. That’s what building a space is.” Do you see these refuge spaces for Asian American Buddhists emerging? For some, these spaces have been around for a long time. We can look to our Shin Buddhist friends to see how generation after generation they have made Buddhism relevant for the newest generation—how to keep adapting it. But I think there’s still a long way to go. In terms of representation in mainstream Buddhist publications and spaces, I’m still thinking about who holds these platforms of power and where we’re allowed to share our message of what American Buddhism’s true diversity really looks like. One interviewee in the book, Noel, said, “It’s really important for Asian Americans of all faiths, or of no faith, to be in all sectors of society. At all levels. That’s what will help eliminate a lot of these stereotypes and assumptions.” I reflect on that a lot. I know there are efforts to create some broader Asian American retreats and conferences, and that’s really exciting. Aaron dreamed of bringing in people from different Asian heritage backgrounds and from different Buddhist backgrounds. It can be hard to bridge those boundaries and those gaps, and this book is such a tiny part of that larger picture. I hope we can spark more of these conversations and encourage people to create these spaces of refuge.
One of the striking features of the book is how it functions on so many levels: as scholarship, as activism, as memoir, as a sutra. How did writing this book impact you? I think the journey is still continuing. Before this book, I feared that the label of Asian American Buddhist would ostracize me. I was very uncomfortable with that label. But through the process of writing and talking to so many people, it’s become a source of profound connection. And connection with not just other Asian American Buddhists but also across racial boundaries. That sense of loneliness and confusion I started with has transformed into a sense of expansive possibility.
This interview has been adapted from a live online discussion between Chenxing Han and Ann Gleig presented by Books & Books and Miami Book Fair.