5 Responses to the Awkwardly Titled “New Face of Buddhism”
All the more reason that title — “The New Face of Buddhism” — deserves some unpacking.
Here to dialogue with us, five opinionated practitioners:
Funie Hsu, Buddhist Peace Fellowship board member
Arun, author of Angry Asian Buddhist
Kate Johnson, Interdependence Project teacher, featured on Lion’s Roar cover
Katie Loncke, Buddhist Peace Fellowship Co-Director
Dedunu Sylvia, Buddhist Peace Fellowship member
BOARD MEMBER, BUDDHIST PEACE FELLOWSHIP
It’s hard to frame succinctly my immediate feelings in regards to the cover title of Lion’s Roar. On face value, I was relieved to see that there were a number of people of color, especially Asian Americans represented. Excited, even, that Larry Yang from the East Bay Meditation Center was one of those few. But looking beyond the photograph of these accomplished teachers generated many questions. In particular, I wondered what about the face of Buddhism is “new”?
When I think of this idea, of a new face of Buddhism, I immediately think of the Dalit Buddhist movement in India (to be sure, the cover title is American-centric). Even when thinking in terms of the U.S., the new face of Buddhism to me includes Asian and Asian American Buddhist youth who are the next generation to carry on teachings they learned with their family and communities.
But what about the magazine’s specific face of Buddhism is “new”?
Is it the inclusion and recognition of a few teachers of color? If that is the new face, what does it reveal about the old face? Angry Asian Buddhist has written again and again (and again…) about the dominant mode of portraying American Buddhists as mostly white and the embedded marginalization of people of color, especially the rendering of Asian and Asian American Buddhists as invisible. Indeed, Buddhism in America has been enveloped in the larger racial and social framework that has celebrated and privileged whiteness (not just—nor necessarily—white people, but the power structure of white superiority).
Asian and Asian American Buddhists in the U.S.
have been relegated to a strange position:
exotically authentic and dangerously superstitious.
Being raised in a Taiwanese American Buddhist family, another important question arose for me: Does the magazine’s new face of Buddhism include the multilingual Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities as well? If so, we are not new. We’ve been here. I think of the distinct ways in which the American racial and social context has historically shaped Asian and Asian American Buddhist practices, and images of the many Japanese American Buddhists receiving the dharma in U.S. internment camps fill my mind.
For far too long, Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities in the United States have been relegated to a strange position of being at once both exotically authentic and dangerously superstitious. Our cultures, communities, and “inaccessible” languages have been dismissed as relics of a distant past, too traditional and unscientific, and in dire need of modification. In explaining the new name, Melvin McLeod notes, “Today’s Buddhist are less traditional but their goal is the same as it’s always been—to benefit others.” I’m struck by the evocation of this notion of less traditional and am concerned by its racial implications. McLeod continues to explain that the title “is in English and reflects the natural evolution of Buddhism from an Asian import to an integral part of our culture.” I’m particularly troubled by the idea of a natural evolution, in part because of its eerie colonial undertones which evoke a spiritual manifest destiny of sorts, and in part because of what it means for the validity of Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities in the U.S. as integral to the broader American culture.
While the cover title and photograph seem to demonstrate an attempt at inclusion at Lion’s Roar, deep structural and organizational shifts are required to effect meaningful change. I am reminded of the recent “Late Show” episode on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in which host Stephen Colbert interviews guest, DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero organizer. After McKesson explains white privilege to Colbert, Colbert suggests that they switch seats, a striking visual contrast to the normal power dynamics of the show. After the segment, Colbert resumes his place as the host. The moment is meaningful, however, not in the switching of seats, but rather, in its inadvertent highlighting of the superficial nature of cosmetic diversity.
More importantly, this moment provided a critical if subtle demonstration of how the omnipresent framework of whiteness provided Colbert with the seemingly magnanimous privilege to offer his seat. That Colbert offers his seat assumes that McKesson should not and could not rightfully take it and assume a position of authority without the extension of the invitation. This moment provides a most relevant revelation: that the broad struggle for racial dignity does not need to wait for an invitation nor the approval of whiteness. The new face of Buddhism, then, has already always been defined by diverse groups, especially Asian and Asian American Buddhists.
CREATOR, ANGRY ASIAN BUDDHIST
The first thing I do is count. “The New Face of Buddhism,” the inaugural edition of Lion’s Roar, includes fourteen distinguished teachers. Seven are white. Seven are women. Clearly the editors were also counting (and wrangling).
In the Buddhist America where I grew up, a sample of fourteen Buddhist would have been more Asian, more female, and maybe a little bit older than the cohort on the front of Lion’s Roar. Many of those Buddhists I knew in my childhood were of mixed race, and many were white. Surveys of American religion suggest that Buddhism in America, at least from a racial perspective, is not much different than the one I knew as I child. And yet, I cannot say I completely disagree with the notion that this is a new face of Buddhism for Lion’s Roar.
I still harbor hope that Lion’s Roar will be filled
with the true diversity of Buddhist America.
I have rarely spared the opportunity criticize the editors of Shambhala Sun (the nominal predecessor to Lion’s Roar) and Buddhadharma for the egregious extent to which they promote white Buddhist writers at the expense of Asian Buddhists. In this new issue, they have included four Buddhist writers of Asian heritage. That number is less than half the number of Asian Buddhists we’d expect to see, if we sampled Buddhist America at random. But it’s also significantly higher than the number we’d expect, if we were to sample the past writers for Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma at random. In the past, Lion’s Roar editors have sometimes left Asian Buddhists out of the discussion entirely. So the portrait truly does represent a new face for this publication. The editors are making a concerted effort to be more diverse.
That said, we are still a far cry from the post-racial Lion’s Roar. The editors are still predominantly, if not all, white. They still offer twice as many spots on their cover to white Buddhists as they do to Asians — in reality Buddhist Asian Americans outnumber our white brothers and sisters two to one. Asian writers still occupy about the same number of bylines in Lion’s Roar as we did before in Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma. The faces on the magazine cover are not particularly new or young — Sylvia Boorstein is a pillar of the Buddhist publishing network and turns 80 this year. In a sense, this new face of Buddhism is mostly cosmetic.
I still harbor hope that Lion’s Roar will be filled with the true diversity of Buddhist America. I certainly see this magazine cover as progress, even though I sincerely doubt the editors’ ability to maintain the same levels of diversity within their pages. This cover told me that the editors care. The message I hear is that they’re trying.
I’m still trying to figure out if they’re doing enough to make a lasting difference.
FEATURED LION’S ROAR TEACHER, INTERDEPENDENCE PROJECT
Tending To the Body of American Buddhism
When I was offered a spot on the cover of the inaugural issue of The Lion’s Roar, formerly Shambhala Sun Magazine, it was explained to me that it would be something like the cover of Vanity Fair’s “Hollywood Issue.” I was totally into it. I imagined a kind of Buddhist-glam pullout spread featuring emerging and established Buddhist teachers, photographed on a set where I’d hang out with these incredible people — some of them my teachers — rapping about the dharma, eating fruit, and tossing our heads back, laughing. For the cover story, I would also get to write a bit about the Buddhist teaching I felt was most relevant to our current spiritual / social / political climate. I had often read the publication, was excited to be a part of its relaunching, and felt particularly honored to be included in a hot roster of vibrant contributors to the evolving field of American Buddhism.
So I was somewhat surprised at my own uneasiness when the preview of the cover was released, with the title “The New Face of Buddhism” weighing in heavy across the top. It wasn’t a part of the original pitch, and while at first glance it seemed like no big deal, the title put a spin on the whole project that made me a little dizzy.
New. It’s what we reach for
when we want to upgrade to a shinier,
more exciting model.
Initially, I thought it was the “face” part I was most unsettled by. Faces are the part of us that is given to be seen, offered to the public, meant to represent the whole of a thing. When it comes to institutions, faces are easily changed. Bodies, not so much. Maybe if it were another body part, like… “The New Heart of Buddhism?” Mmm. Sounds warm, loving, but maybe a little clinical, like Buddhism recently received a major organ transplant. “The New Belly of Buddhism?” I do like this one. Makes me think of the round and the full, of the place where things get processed, the place where the guts live. With the word “new” in front of it, though, the phrase takes on the feel of a mindful sit-up routine.
New. It’s what we reach for when the old is broken, or obsolete, or we just got bored and want to upgrade to a shinier, more exciting model. I know that mine was a face included (at least partially) to show that the face of Buddhism in the west is sometimes the face of a young woman of color who looks a lot like me. I don’t know that this is actually so new, but it sure seems that way because most mainstream Buddhist media has, until very recently, made it seem as though Buddhism in the west is a mostly white affair. I was happy to be asked to be on the cover, and while I wondered whether I was being called in as a cosmetic fix for the deeper wounds of American Buddhism’s race problem, I responded with a hearty “Hell Yeah!” because I was taught that when you get called into a position of visibility as a person of color, you don’t waste too much time worrying why you got it — you just take that energy and figure out what you are going to do with it.
Right now, what I’d like to do is to join my fiercely compassionate friends in pointing out that the title “The New Face of Buddhism,” does much, much more than it means to. It means, I think, to retire the Old New Face of Buddhism — the white male face that claims, through its seizure of authority and erasure of the cultural contexts of dharma traditions, to do the dharma better than the Asian societies these traditions came from. It updates this image, expanding “the” face into an image of the many practicing the dharma in America today — different genders, races, ages, colors, lineages. I do recognize the sincerity of these efforts, and the eagerness to claim a new, more inclusive face of Buddhism in the west. It’s what I want, too.
I think what’s not sitting quite right with me is that, with this title, a magazine that featured the Old New Face for so long is now telling us what the New New Face is. It certainly is a New Face, but with same power structure behind it, displaying the same sense of authority to do so. This, and the fact that “The New Face of Buddhism” eclipses the whole world’s dharma under American Buddhism’s thumb, makes it feel like not much has changed at all.
While I’m grateful to be included as a Face this time around, I am acutely aware that the Body of American Buddhism is hurting, and that to look at this New Face, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. I worry about this Face being used to paper over the barriers to leadership and publishing that those of us on the margins of American Buddhism continue to experience. I worry that it obscures the endless questions we field about our qualifications to teach, and the coded demands to tone down very racial and gender identities that made us look great and, well, New, on the cover of The Lion’s Roar.
Establishing equity and restoring wholeness will take much more than a facelift. Many of the people pictured in the cover photo are working to heal our wounded collective Body, have dedicated their lives to it, and there are many many more doing this work who do not appear. However we are still, overwhelmingly, the exception to the rule. Broader racial, ethnic, and gender representation in media is a great way to start addressing the systemic violence of racism and other forms of oppression that express themselves in our American Buddhist institutions, which are in this way a microcosm of America at large.
My community, my family, my friends: Please, let’s not stop at changing faces. There are deep imbalances in the body systems of American Buddhism. And there is wisdom here, too, if we are willing to listen — even when we think we know what “better” looks like, and are in a rush to get there. This Body wants to get better, I can tell. May we patiently tend to every hurt, and heal from the inside out.
CO-DIRECTOR, BUDDHIST PEACE FELLOWSHIP
Dear friends at Lion’s Roar Magazine (formerly Shambhala Sun),
^^ That’s a sound I make when I’m feeling conflicted.
On one hand, some of the fine folks on the cover of your magazine re-launch issue: Lovely. Yay for celebrating them! Larry Yang, Kate Johnson, Gina Sharpe, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and more — well deserving of community shoutouts. They are sharing the dharma and endeavoring to help relieve suffering in a part of the world (the U.S.A.) that stews itself in noxious fear, greed, insecurity, and violence. A part of the world that very badly needs to get our act together, for the sake of basically everyone on the planet. And I hope, as you probably do, too, that various forms of spirituality — Buddhist and otherwise — will help us in our daunting task of social and ecological repair.
On the other hand…the cover-story title, “The New Face of Buddhism.”
Let me back up. I wasn’t born into a Buddhist household, but experienced one of my first firm pivots toward dharma during a shy, fateful introductory visit to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center.
Fresh out of college and hungry for a type of knowledge that liberal arts education seemed to have missed, I was instantly charmed by CIMC’s calm, spare, high-ceilinged airiness, full library, and entire closet — yep, closet — stocked with free tea. What kind of Introvert’s Paradise was this???
Mouse-quiet, delighted, and taut of heart, I tip-toed up the stairs and settled into a cozy second-floor window nook with the center’s copy of Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America.
And promptly spilled my steaming black tea all over the white wool carpet.
I was mortified. But when I knocked on the office door, the staff — older white ladies — were so kind about it. One woman zipped to the floor on her hands and knees with damp paper towels, tending the spill with a warm, friendly vigor, practically jolly in cleaning up my mess. I figured, Wow. There must be something to this meditation stuff.
So I stuck around.
Looking back now, after nearly a decade as a Black biracial practitioner getting familiar with white-led U.S. convert dharma spaces, the metaphor of a brown spill on a white carpet feels sadly apt.
It’s hard not to feel like a brown spill on a white carpet sometimes, even when all the white folks are cheery and gracious in dealing with you. You might still feel like they’re trying, consciously or not, to blot out your brown: purify you with universal teachings, leaving only the clear water of transcendent Buddhanature to be absorbed into the universe.
It’s hard not to feel like a brown spill on a white carpet when 99% of participants in the Death & Dying retreat are elderly white folks, beautifully confronting human suffering around old age, sickness, and death. Their pain and fear are real. Their deep courage is inspiring. But perhaps, meanwhile, you are reeling from news of yet another police murder, just days before, mere zip codes away, of a Black person in Oakland: 30-year-old Demouria Hogg; shot by the cops while sleeping in his car. Dying under very different circumstances than these white aspiring arahants likely will.
Perhaps you are longing to encounter another Black or Brown person — any Black or Brown person on the whole entire meditation campus — who might relate to contemplating mortality alongside racial terror, racial anger, Black love, and Black despair in the U.S.
So, yes. I love seeing Black and Brown people, Black and Brown faces, teaching dharma. George Mumford, who gave the first dharma talk I ever saw, is one of the reasons I stayed on the path. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel has been one of the reasons I stayed. Jan Willis is one of the reasons I stayed. Faith Adiele, Bhante Suhitadharma, Bhante Buddharakkhita, Ruth King, Charlie Johnson, Sage Mahosadha, and many more, have offered reasons for me to stay.
That’s just amongst the Black folks. :) Other teachers of color have been equally encouraging. Some white teachers, too, though obviously for different reasons. Representation matters, and I appreciate that you’ve been thoughtful enough to avoid a glossy Buddhist print version of #OscarsSoWhite.
But can we celebrate teachers we love without universalizing them? Proclaiming them “The Face of Buddhism” — whether new or old?
Can we be “small-b buddhists,” in the words of Ajahn Sulak Sivaraksa — devoted to dharma while questioning the copyright?
Yours in the questions,
MEMBER, BUDDHIST PEACE FELLOWSHIP
Prayers wrapped in white lamasaris, Sunday morning dhanas, poojas under bright lunar skies. Swirls of deep-orange robed monks, chanting remnants of oral scriptures along colorful story walls. Hymns of Sanskrit and Pali reverberated throughout my childhood, even if I didn’t always understand them. My relationship with Buddhism was more than reading or reciting texts; it was a set of rituals and traditions like these, rooted broadly in cultural upbringing. This was the face of Buddhism I had grown to know.
When I imagine the cover of Lion’s Roar spread with my beautiful, dharma comrades of color, I am nourished with affirmations of our presence: a refreshing change from the usual white-robed, White men dominating images of Buddhism across the West. Despite this, there is something unquestionably painful about labelling such representation as the ‘new face’ of Buddhism. What makes Asian Americans “new” given the roots of Buddhism in South Asia? Across what paradigm of change are the placement of folks of color being positioned?
There is a familiar, tokenizing comparison of Black and Brown bodies being shown as “new” and “different” in any setting. For far too long, the veil of diversity has whitewashed the realities of violence against Black and Brown communities. “New faces” of “diverse” police are celebrated when the lives of Black communities are constantly under physical and emotional threat by law enforcement. “New faces” of “diverse” students are brought in when schools and colleges fail to support their students of color. “New faces” of “diverse” actors and activists are painted over struggles for racial justice through white supremacist mandates of pacifism and passivity. (Ask nicely for your lives and dignity!) What is the framework and intention of ‘new faces’ in an exploration of Buddhism?
What is the face of a religion
which has no constant self?
As a New York City-born, Sri Lankan Sinhalese, Theravada Buddhist, our community growing up was initially very small. But as time, a 26-year old civil war, and changing immigration policies set forth, our little community expanded swiftly over the years. And within it all, Buddhism was and still is going through its own transformation in both the West and South East Asia. What is the face or faces of a religion which has no constant self?
In the West, the face of Buddhism I have seen represented across media and even some academic institutions has experienced a telling parallel process: a focus on East Asian practices of Buddhism (Zen, Mahayana) appropriated and co-opted by White America. Countless ‘mindfulness’ books and workshops and trainings at heavy costs. Glorified retreats for White, able-bodied, thin, cis, straight, and class-privileged peoples. Images and films focused almost exclusively on the attainment of nirvana by the White man. Histories of generational attachment to colonialism, slavery, genocide, and conquest, all unapologetically glossed over through exotified ventures to the “third world.” All I can see is Buddhist practice — particularly “mindfulness” and “loving-kindness” ideals — used to placate resistance from marginalized populations. Upheld to weaponize model minority myths of Asian passivity in contrast to Black liberation. Exercised in the service of corporate, capitalist, and militarized agendas.
Somewhere on the other end of the world, a contrasting agenda forms in Burma and Sri Lanka. The face of Buddhism is no longer the “cool,” “hip,” and “peaceful” trend marketed so sweetly across the West. Western conquest and imperialism lie deep in these Buddhist enclaves of South and Southeast Asia. From the militarized practices and genocide of Rohingya peoples in Myanmar, to the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist violence of Bodhu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”) in Sri Lanka, there is a strange constant of Buddhist teachings being exploited and used as a tool of violence, both here and there.
For far too long, the veil of diversity
has whitewashed the realities of violence
against Black and Brown communities.
So when I revisit the ‘new faces of Buddhism,’ more than anything else, I have questions. Why specifically the phrase, “new faces?” What makes the “new” faces of Buddhism different from the ‘”old”? Who and what is shaping what should or shouldn’t be the “old” or “new” faces, especially given the varied geographical manifestations of its teachings? What defines a shift in Buddhism or any kind of practicing religion or faith —a changing set of practice, rituals, and/or principles in itself?
I don’t have answers, but what I do know is that this title for your cover does not sit right with me or my dharma siblings of color. I know that, in addition to impermanence, we can better reexamine our relationship with attachment in Buddhism. I hope you may use this as an opportunity to reconsider and dismantle the attachment to Black and Brown bodies, which are anything but “new.” In the spirit of impermanence and compassion, we can strive towards reimagining and rethinking more fulfilling ways of affirming our Black and Brown siblings in our collective, spiritual journeys.