In 1992 I was visiting a Buddhist friend, and saw a copy of Beneath a Single Moon: Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Shambhala Publications, 1991) sitting on the table. Intrigued, I picked it up and scanned the table of contents to see which American poets had been selected for inclusion in the anthology’s 358 pages. I remember dropping the book as though it had burnt me. It was an instinctive response, something I didn’t even think about or try to explain to myself at the time. After that I just purposefully forgot the book even existed.
It wasn’t until three years later that I understood why I had been so shocked. In the afterword of Premonitions: The Kaya Anthology of New Asian North American Poetry (Kaya Production, 1995), editor Walter K. Lew writes that “the 45 American poets [in Beneath a Single Moon]… are all Caucasian, and the book only mentions Asians as distal teachers, not as fellow members or poets of the sangha…. When one considers the relative obscurity of some of the poets included in the book, one wonders how it was possible not to have known of the Buddhistic poetry of such writers as [Lawson Fusao] Inada, Al Robles, Garrett Kaoru Hongo, Alan Chong Lau, Patricia Ikeda, and Russell Leong.”
I felt such relief when I read that list of names, mine included. Yes, I thought, we Asian American poets are here. Under the name Patricia Ikeda, I have become known as one of the “pioneers” of Asian American poetry, although there would be no need of pioneers if Asian American poets had been accepted as, simply, American poets, along with African American, Latino/Latina, etc. poets. Of course, this may sound merely like sour grapes on my part, but it is the complete exclusion of Asian American poets from Beneath a Single Moon that still fills my heart with grief and pain.
Another incident occurred in the spring of 1998. I was invited to be a speaker on a panel of “Asian and Asian American Women Buddhists” for the conference on North American Buddhist Women. Since one of the conference’s stated aims was to especially welcome Asian American Buddhist women, I was nonplussed when the program was printed and my name was not included on the list of presenters. Although I am now convinced that this was simply disorganization, I inquired into it, and in the process was assured by one of the conference’s organizers, a European American college professor, that I should not worry, because “many, many Asian American women are coming—Asian American women from Burma, from Thailand, from Nepal—”
“Excuse me,” I broke in, “I’m confused! Are you talking about Asian American women who are living in Burma and Thailand, and coming home at the time of the conference?”
There was a silence on the other end of the phone. I was dismayed to realize that this American college professor did not know that Asian Americans are…. well, we’re American. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and though my grandparents came from Japan, the only language I speak besides English is French. I’ve never been to Japan.
Like many Asian Americans, I have been treated as an “other” my entire life. Not accepted as being truly American in my own country, I also know I would be extremely uncomfortable were I to visit Japan, where my American way of speaking, dressing, even walking or making eye contact, might seem improper to the Japanese. Throughout my more than 30 years in the American midwest, I have also been “invisibilized”—a form of unconscious racism in which people simply look past or through you—and marginalized.
Things are much better now that I live in the Bay Area in California, and I’m happy that my husband, who is white, and I are raising our son here. My married name, Ikeda-Nash, reflects the combined heritages of our family; my husband has changed his surname to Ikeda-Nash as well. And there’s been progress in the American mahasangha: a greater awareness of diversity issues is dawning (brought forward in many instances by courageous gay, lesbian, and bisexual Buddhists); healing racism in our sanghas work is being done in the Bay Area and elsewhere; and teachers of color like Ralph Steele and European American teachers identifying as allies are emerging. However, much of the journey still lies before us. I hope we can all walk it together.
The second week of Mushim’s Tricycle Retreat on building inclusive and welcoming sanghas begins today. This essay originally appeared in the pamphlet “Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities,” (pub. 2000) available in the supplementary materials section of the retreat.
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