top nav spacer
You Are Here: Home » Articles » When You Picture U.S. Buddhists, Do You Think Of Me?

When You Picture U.S. Buddhists, Do You Think Of Me?

Introduction: A Problem of Erasure

Buddhism arrived in the US as early as the 1800s, when Chinese immigrant laborers introduced their indigenous spiritual tradition to California. However, like many other important social, political, and/or spiritual movements, it has gained greater popularity in dominant culture with the attention and promotion of white Americans. While these teachers brought great wisdom, they have also, in some cases, stripped the practice away from its specific cultural roots — especially in the process of secularizing it. So, while the indigeneity of Buddhism’s roots are revered (almost romantically so), even this act of lifting up Asian American Buddhists may trigger a reaction of confusion or defensiveness. Unfortunately, the realities and practices of Asian diasporic Buddhists continue to be sidelined.

Why are Asians faces so rarely the ones we see in depictions of American Buddhists? Take, for example, Angry Asian Buddhist’s reflection on the Under 35 Project, which highlighted the writings of young U.S. Buddhist practitioners but featured only one Asian-American author in its Shambhala SunSpace weekly selection. Or check out our response to last year’s Lion’s Roar magazine cover that heralded “The New Face of Buddhism;” prompting the question, What was the old face? Or consider the Featured Authors — and entire, extremely white vibe — of Elephant Journal and its founder, Waylon Lewis, whose speaking fees start at $5,000/day, and whose bio proudly proclaims that he was named a “Prominent Buddhist” in the Shambhala Sun.

When we learn about the dharma, why do we not learn about Asian Americans who resisted persecution and institutionalized racism to help Buddhism take root in the U.S.? Why do we not learn about the Chinese railroad workers who built the first dharma centers in the U.S., the Japanese Americans who recovered Buddhists practices even in the face of internment and arrest, or the Khmer monks supporting Cambodian American youth organizing against racial profiling and surveillance? Perhaps the question of why Asian Americans are largely unseen reflects the ongoing underrecognition of Asians and our multifold contributions to much of this country’s history and development.

Why This Series?

With this series, we seek to re-visibilize Asian Americans in Buddhism and gather the dazzling array of stories, voices, and practices of the many, diverse Buddhists who somehow identify with the wide and politically fraught umbrella-term: Asian-American. We are varied in class, skin color, culture, and even religion. (You can practice dharma and identify with another faith or tradition, too!) Some of us were brought here as indentured labor, others came as skilled labor, others as refugees in the aftermath of US war and occupation, and others as exiles from Chinese occupation, and more.

There is no singular experience, just as there is not one way we practice dharma.

Much gratitude to Funie Hsu, Chenxing Han, Kenji Liu, and others who have broken the ice on this ongoing conversation that we humbly hope to contribute to.

Recently, we had a chance to gather with a wide range of Asian diasporic dharma practitioners. We filmed these gatherings on two coasts and compiled them into the above video. This video features Shubha Bala, Rebecca Li, Cristina Moon, Michael Hong, Melissa Fan, Kim Tran, and LiZhen Wang.

We need more spaces like this to acknowledge our shared and unique histories, to celebrate our perseverance, and to raise our voices out of erasure. We’re hopeful to create more spaces like this, and to contribute to the outcropping that is already rising up.

More Stories, Continually Growing

We will be adding more multimedia stories — audio, video, and written — as they arrive. Check back in for the latest.

Lisa Pradhan

Though I was raised in a Hindu-Buddhist household, going through all the coming of age ceremonies, rituals, and practices of Newari Buddhists—our walls covered in Buddhist iconography—I didn’t realize we were Buddhist. It would take me years to realize that our Buddhist practices, obfuscated in passive religio-cultural diffusion across multiple languages and conceptual world views, were and are valid. …

Click here to listen to or read Lisa’s full story below.

Lekey Leidecker

I am walking with my father to the subway — him towards his stressful job, and me to my summer gig as a day camp teacher. In both places, we will be the only Tibetans. He smiles and says “Hi” or “Good morning” to the white lady walking her tiny dog from the opposite direction. At the same time, I am glaring at her because I have just noticed the tenga circling her neck, the 108 beads with the tell-tale tassel hanging down …

Click here to listen to or read Lekey’s full story below.

Rev. Guo Cheen

I consider myself a nun, a female Buddhist. I consider myself Asian American. I believe in the importance of advancing feminist theology and liberation theology in the Buddhist world. Traditionally, most Buddhist teachers don’t take gender and race as serious struggles on the path of practice. The frequent refrain is, “Just practice. Forget the distracting or false conventions of gender and ethnicity!” …

Click here to watch or read Rev. Guo Cheen’s full story below.

Giselle Castaño

Spiritual practice is a living thing. It’s a living practice, that’s why it’s so diverse. It’s passed through individuals, and the essence of it is not packageable.  A lot of what people do in their homes is sacred— it is the remnants of culture that have not been wiped out by colonization. …

Click here to read Giselle’s full story below.

Many Uch

That’s kind of the thing, that when I go to my grandma’s room there was no activity except to sit and meditate. She doesn’t preach a lot, and she’s really generous. You know, you spoil your grandkids, and I was the most spoiled one because I spent a lot of time with her sitting and pretending to meditate.

Click here to listen or read Many’s full story below.

LiZhen Wang

Here I was, finally at a sangha of people who shared my background, and what I felt was the simultaneous urge to apologize on their behalf, and the growing anxiety that I could not connect to them. …

Click here to listen or read LiZhen’s full story below.

Edwin Ng

Formal meditation practice is not the only way to cultivate wise, caring attentiveness. Simple acts of dharma service like generosity toward others are also a part of this tradition. This is how families and communities of diverse heritages have kept faith and preserved the historical teachings of the dharma. …

Click here to read Edwin’s full story below.

Jessica Chen

As my Buddhist practice has evolved, I have come to see dharma as something that can provide ease in the conflict of categories. No one owns dharma –neither Asian Buddhists nor Western Buddhists. Dharma is alive. …

Click here to read Jessica’s full story below.

 

Lisa Pradhan


Puja for Chakan dhay, Lisa with Maa

Namesake Buddhist

“The Buddha was born in Nepal,” they said. Upasana didi and my Aama were adamant that I learn the facts that my 7th-grade multicultural history book neglected to mention. We were stretched out on the floor of a warm but overly furnished two-story house in Rancho Bernardo in San Diego, California, and hearing my people named, even if only implicitly, was a jewel to behold.

There’s no clean way for me to tease out Buddhism from the mark of growing up in America and seeking to name the intangibles of being Nepalese-American. Though I was raised in a Hindu-Buddhist household, going through all the coming of age ceremonies, rituals, and practices of Newari Buddhists—our walls covered in Buddhist iconography—I didn’t realize we were Buddhist. It would take me years to realize that our Buddhist practices, obfuscated in passive religio-cultural diffusion across multiple languages and conceptual world views, were and are valid.

As I got older, I more or less became a hippie, fiercely advocating for empathy and compassion, attempting to renounce my worldly possessions at 17 to move Kathmandu, my father’s well-worn copy of Hesse’s Siddhartha tucked away in my backpack. It was romantic and hopelessly privileged. My family must have thought I was crazy, this “rich, American girl” persistently fasting and refusing food (which is the greatest sin a Nepali can commit) and fervently praying at Bhagawan bahal and every temple and shrine I could see while still unashamedly going out with my cousins at expensive rooftop bars with newspaper photographers.

My Western Massachusetts liberal arts college became the perfect place to hone my new-found spirituality and I relentlessly sought to glean all the vidya I could from my Buddhist Studies teachers— my predominantly white, straight, male Buddhist Studies teachers whom I loved without criticism. There were no teachers or institutions who mirrored my Nepali self, but there was just enough space for me to carve out the education I wanted before heavily turning to independent studies. For me, studying Buddhism, Hinduism, Asia, Art, Sanskrit, Japanese Tea Ceremony, Tibetan Buddhism, Tibetan Diaspora, Southeast Asian Buddhism, saṁvṛti-satya and paramārtha-satya, Mongolian Buddhism, Buddhist Scripture, Japanese, Shinkei, Neo-Buddhism, Buddhism in America, Indian Social Movement, Ambedkar, and the Dalit Panthers were all more accessible and institutionally supported than the study of Nepal. I embraced each topic wholeheartedly, not letting myself acknowledge that the question I truly sought to know: where am I in all of this?

The writer Manjushree Thapa has particular finesse in describing this Nepalese experience, in which our history of political instability has bred a quality of incertitude:  “[W]e developed layers and layers of personae, revealing only the layers that the situation called for. Our beliefs seemed to shift and alter and mutate as we perfected the art of dissembling, because we ourselves are not certain of anything.” It makes me sad to not see a single Nepali name in the references section of the Newar Buddhism Wikipedia page. At least “Buddhism in Nepal” lists one or two Nepalese authors. None of this has to do with the physical practice of Buddhism, but it has everything to do with the transmission of practices and knowledge and who gets to shape the discourse of what is meaningful Buddhist practice.

But it is low hanging fruit to name this erasure and not name and challenge our own systems of complicity. A boat can lead us across a river, but what good is it to carry this on land? We too serve as gatekeepers and knowledge-bringers to the development of American English-language Buddhism in 2017. As as we construct our truths and name our experiences as Asian-American Buddhists, we must challenge our “truths” and recognize the ways that we too comport our narratives to hide a wide array of differing privileges that we receive as Asian-American.I know I, like many folx of various Asian diasporas and experiences, am still navigating my allegiance to being “Asian-American”, or “South Asian”, or “API” in first place, especially when I recognize that these spaces sometimes name us but often do not claim us. In a Śāriputra-like clumsiness, we enter these self-constructed liminal spaces often guided only with superficial awareness of each other’s histories and truthfully only a superficial understanding of our own histories, and in the same breath we can be erased and be complicit in erasure.

I came to Buddhism because I wanted to learn the history of who I am and why I am who I am, but as my practice deepens, as I continue to uncover what the alleviation of suffering means beyond myself and with community, what I also find myself learning is how to awaken myself to the reality of the oppressions the American Dream asks me to forget.

Lekey Leidecker

Lekey and her sister at the Young Tibetan Leaders Summit in Garrison, NY, August 2016.

I am walking with my father to the subway — him towards his stressful job, and me to my summer gig as a day camp teacher. In both places, we will be the only Tibetans. He smiles and says “Hi” or “Good morning” to the white lady walking her tiny dog from the opposite direction. At the same time, I am glaring at her because I have just noticed the tenga circling her neck, the 108 beads with the tell-tale tassel hanging down.

My father is friendlier than me, and often kinder. I wonder if he is friendlier and kinder because he doesn’t notice these small thefts of our culture as I do, or if it doesn’t bother him as much because he is friendlier, kinder, more open.

In addition to its spiritual purposes, wearing tenga grounds me in the place that I come from, Tibet’s rich history, and its urgent present. Each time I spot a white person wearing the beads that, for me, have always been tied to Tibetanness, I am furious. In my calmer moments, I practice remembering that everyone can access the dharma. In petty moments, I hope that a Tibetan sold it to them at an exorbitant price. Mostly, I just wonder why the only other Tibetans I see in Brooklyn are nannies.

My tenga is from Tibet, purchased by a traveling friend, one of the only items I own from the land of my ancestors.  It smells of sandalwood.  I use it much less than I would like. My father would not dream of wearing tenga along with his suit and tie, since it could be deemed “unprofessional,” but on weekends he dons a turquoise earring.

Much of my experience with Buddhism has been tied to my questions about Tibetanness, to a sense of loss. Once, a white Buddhist told me that he wanted to live the life of an elderly Tibetan when he got old: drinking tea, praying, circumambulating. I did not ask him this: “You mean to die outside of your home? To be separated from your children for ten, twenty, years? To either live in your occupied homeland or far away, as a permanent refugee?”

We did not ask to come to this country.

White Buddhists borrow the cultural markers that, if worn by a Tibetan, exotify us. White people who are drawn to Buddhism can go on costly, month-long retreats while many Tibetans work relentless hours in low-paying jobs. It would be easy to agonize over this, and I sometimes do. But I have found ways to survive these unbearable inequities: I work to use my relative privilege — English is my first language,  I graduated from a prestigious American university, one of my parents is white — to be useful to the people and the place that I care about most, tenga circling my wrist.

As my commitment to the real and present Tibet grows, the sense of scarcity, the impulse to keep what precious little I have of Tibetanness close and protected, fades. I am able to overlook the clumsiness of white Buddhists who tell me that self-immolators, the loss of whom reverberates through every Tibetan heart, are accruing bad karma. I am too busy thinking and building ways for my community to be empowered, happy, autonomous, free. It is not easy, but my community has become the refuge I need, and I have work to do.

Rev. Guo Cheen

Reverend Guo Cheen is a Mahayana Buddhist nun who grew up in the U.S. She is the founder of The Compassion Network and North American Buddhist Alliance. She had worked in civil rights 20 years ago and believes in advocating for all who are marginalized. She has a Ph.D. in translating Buddhist canonical texts and has published books and journal articles on this topic in English and Chinese. 

VIDEO TRANSCRIPT:

Do you think of yourself as a Buddhist?

Do you think of yourself as a female or male Buddhist?

Do you think of yourself as a white Buddhist or Buddhist of color?

Do you think of yourself as an American, Asian American, African American, Hispanic American, Native American Buddhist?

The historical Buddha established a sangha that included men and women, people from all walks of life during a time where a rigid and unfair caste system was in place. The Awakened One was clearly aware of social standing based on gender and a social hierarchy. He disrupted the unspoken norm, lifted up the outcasts, and refreshened people’s views on supremacy and equality, marginalization and inclusivity.

Self-awareness and awareness of social and cultural milieus are natural extensions of a Buddhist practitioner. Though you don’t stereotype yourself, you know how others consciously or unconsciously stereotype you and the apparent likes of you.

I consider myself a nun, a female Buddhist. I consider myself Asian American. I believe in the importance of advancing feminist theology and liberation theology in the Buddhist world. Traditionally, most Buddhist teachers don’t take gender and race as serious struggles on the path of practice. The frequent refrain is, “Just practice. Forget the distracting or false conventions of gender and ethnicity!”

Of course, the voice of such Buddhist teachings is usually that of an Asian male or white male.

Of course, Buddhist sanghas have been fraught with issues of race and sex, to vary degrees of severity, openness, and redress.

Of course, marginalized Buddhists are lucky if they find like-minded mentors; otherwise they struggle as they watch the growing gap between the said truth and what they know to be true.  

I have come to the awareness that I am between cultures, I’m in-between and I can go back and forth. I have come to an awareness that is straightforward but not simple.

I traverse between the freedom that comes from being celibate and apparently sexless, and the relief derived from seeing pioneering Buddhist women all around.

I traverse between tacit politicking and a proclivity to kowtow to authority in Asian Buddhist temples and the egoism and unconscious slights of dominant groups in various settings.

I traverse between the heart-warming grandfather archetype in my Chinese teacher and the gratitude that arises in interacting with those different from me in skintone, in religious belief,  and in upbringing.

With a nod to who I am and the peace found when there is no “I” to consider, I can better accept the way things are and draw from the choices offered in that calm.

From there, I share what I’ve shared so far.

From there, I work to help others expand their self-awareness and racial awareness.

From there, I am in for the long-haul for removing traces of bias and ignorance.  Just as they were conditioned, so they can be deconditioned.

From there, I aim for wisdom and compassion, and wisdom and compassion toward all.  

An Interview with Giselle Castaño

Giselle Castaño is an educator-artist-astrologer and dharma practitioner currently living in Seattle and originally from Mexico City. Giselle is grateful to the dharma for giving them access to the part of themself that has already been awake. We spoke to Giselle to hear from a non-Asian practitioner how they navigate questions of identity, appropriation, and culture in Buddhism.

Giselle with their sangha– beloved spiritual community– in 2017.

LiZhen Wang for Buddhist Peace Fellowship: So, we’re friends, and I know that Buddhism is an important part of your spiritual practice. You’ve shared before that you’ve rarely seen Asian Americans mentioned in Buddhist discourse in the US. I’m curious, as an American dharma practitioner, where do you see yourself in all this?

Giselle Castaño: Buddhism has been a huge influence in my own evolution. Learning the cultural context is important to me: I want to know more about what I’m doing, what I’m entering, and what I’m practicing. I want to inquire from my Asian American friends, like you, about how it feels to practice your family’s traditions in the US, and to make space for that. And, I want to be thoughtful about how it feels when I enter Buddhist spaces.

LW: That’s interesting. You know, I sometimes feel hesitant telling people I grew up with Buddhism because I feel like I’m supposed to know more than I do. There’s a certain worry about performing authenticity. Do you relate to that at all?

GC: Sure, of course.

I have been learning curanderismo from a Mexican elder, and I took a class with her and there was a variety of people in my class— some other Latinas, as well as other folks. And I saw a lot of my classmates really get excited to learn it. Whereas for me, there was this other pressure to be “good” at it, to be a “natural.” There was a self-doubt that made the whole experience tortured. To not be good at it just another knife wound of colonization and feeling disconnected to my roots. And because I moved to the U.S. when I was 12 with my white mom, I already grappled with feeling a loss of connection to culture, family, and roots.

Whereas when I learn the dharma, it’s like I’m starting from zero. I’m able to absorb the amazing learnings and practices without running a narrative about what it says about me and my identity. It’s not symbolic of whether or not I’ve recovered my connection to my ancestors.

I’m not sure, but I imagine you and other Asian Americans might feel similar things. And that’s why it matters to me how I practice Buddhism; I want to be sensitive about the ways Asian Americans have been silenced and unseen— both for them, and for myself.

LW: How do you do that?

GC: Well, I’m still learning, but one of the things I do is to not talk about the dharma like I know everything or that I can speak on behalf of it. I try to talk about it through my own experience, like “this is what I heard, this is how it resonated, and this is how I try to integrate it.”

The Buddhism I’ve learned so far is a very particular kind, because it’s mostly been filtered through white Americans. The Americans who popularized Buddhism here starting in the 70s have packaged it in this way that is narrow. Actually, it’s part of American imperialism. The way we interact with culture in the US is to consume it, and consume it in a way that is torn from its roots and without context.

It reminds me of the way Mexican culture has been put into this party box, and people open it when they want to party on Cinco de Mayo. Or Día de los Muertos, which actually has a deep spirituality, but people in this country often don’t know about it and just take the aesthetic pieces because they’re pretty. Too often, people don’t look or care about the Mexicans preparing their food or cleaning their tables, they’re not thinking about the injustice of our immigration situation.

Anyway. The thing is, spiritual practice is a living thing. It’s a living practice, that’s why it’s so diverse. It’s passed through individuals, and the essence of it is not packageable.

A lot of what people do in their homes is sacred— it is the remnants of culture that have not been wiped out by colonization.

An Interview with Many Uch

Many Uch (second from left) with his family at the temple at Sras Kaeo II, a refugee camp in Thailand.

Many Uch was born in Cambodia in 1976, during the Khmer Rouge genocide that happened in the aftermath of the US bombings of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. He has been fighting his deportation orders for 20 years, ever since laws were passed to automatically deport immigrants who have criminal sentences– even if like Many, they are lawful permanent residents. He has a pardon from the governor of Washington, but could still be deported at any time. Many is the co-founder of FIGHT, an API organization of formerly incarcerated men working to end the cycle of mass incarceration. He has been appointed to Washington state’s commission on prisoner reentry.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript here.

LiZhen Wang

The Taipei temple that LiZhen’s family has been a part of since it opened in 1967. It is the first temple in Taiwan to discontinue burning incense and paper money as an act of disability and environmental justice.

 

The Fool’s Journey

My mother is carrying tiny copper cups of water, a miniature clay teapot, and a plate of fruit. She places them on the altar with the statues of Bodhisattvas, lights incense, and clasps her palms together. She is still for a moment. She is prayingor 拜拜 as we say. She has done this every morning of every day of my life.

Growing up, I thought her prayers were folk practice. I grew up with my family’s Buddhism and Daoism, but living in the suburbs of New Jersey, I had little context and explanation for my family’s spirituality.

My family would tell me stories about the Buddha, and when I asked what the stories meant, they would answer vaguely, “Generosity! Patience and concentration.” I realize now that they didn’t know the answers to my questions. No one had really explained it to them. It wasn’t until Chinese Buddhists came to Taiwan in the 1940s and 50s after the Communist Revolution, that Buddhist philosophy began to enter mainstream discourse again.

So when people asked about my family’s religious background, I would tell them we were Buddhists, “but only culturally,” I was quick to qualify.

When I began to seek out spirituality and Buddhism in my 20s, it was a Black American friend who introduced me to New York Insight. Everything I heard, I ate up hungrily. But I became even more reticent about my family’s spiritual background…wondering, if I supposedly grew up with Buddhism, shouldn’t I know this stuff already?

But I didn’t. I couldn’t recite any sutras from heart, and I could barely quote the Buddha. It was as if being a real Buddhist was a stripe I had to earn.

Meanwhile, other practitioners and teachers seemed to speak confidently about the Buddha, Buddhism, and Asia in general. I heard comments from teachersand yes, even teachers of colorsuch as: “In Asia, the people actually have a culture of sangha and dana.” What was meant to be thoughtfulness about cultural contexts still referred to Asia as if we were one mass of people with one uniform and unchanging culture.

I felt invisible, like I wasn’t one of the Asians they were talking about. Like they weren’t afraid to talk about me right in front of me.

Still, I kept going because I was deeply moved by the dharma wisdom shared there and I could connect it to my life.

I also began to seek teachers and elders who shared my ancestry. Not because of a rigid attachment to identity politics, but because my experience as a child of immigrants meant that I had spent much of my life “guiding” my elders through this society instead of the other way around. I taught them how to answer the phone, how to spell, and how to ask for the restroom. I translated for them at the doctor’s office, with the lawyer, and with my school teachers. I was a 6-year old ambassador for my family. In white suburban America, I was the only kid I knew whose parents didn’t speak English; being a child ambassador was a shame and burden I carried alone. By the time I was an adult, I was hungry to experience the wisdom and knowledge of my elders.

I went to the Chan Meditation Center right in my own neighborhood of Queens, run by Taiwanese folks like myself. But, I did not find the easy and fluid connection I hoped for. First, there weren’t other young ABCs like me. Then, every time I brought a friend with me, I was embarrassed by the well-intentioned but totally fucked up comments the Chinese octogenarians would make, i.e.,  the time my Black friend was subjected to “we don’t have to go to Africa and feed starving children to be of service,”  or the time my Latinx friend got misgendered and was scolded for “showing too much skin.”

Here I was, finally at a sangha of people who shared my background, and what I felt was the simultaneous urge to apologize on their behalf, and the growing anxiety that I could not connect to them.

But, as I did at Insight, I persisted and kept going. And there were surprising moments of connection, such as during a lengthy two-hour chant of the Great Compassion Dharani when the fierce words of commitment and familiar sounds of my youth brought me to tears. This combination of sloth, aversion, and the sudden bright light of understanding— it was not so different to what I experienced sitting in Western style week-long retreats.

One day, in morning practice and bows with my mother, I suddenly realized that what she was mumbling was metta phrases. She was praying to GuanYin Bodhisattva, except I had learned to call it metta meditation. But her metta and mine were one and the same.

I have since reclaimed prayer as well— as mine, as Buddhist, as valid, as more than folk custom and blind religious faith.

And this morning, while talking to my mother about struggling with life transitions, especially the areas that stretch and hurt, she said, 「人生裡有酸甜苦辣。因為你的人生經歷過這些滋味你會成長得有智慧。」 “Life has the sour, sweet, bitter, and hot. By experiencing all the flavors of life, you will develop wisdom.” She was reminding me that the practice is opening to life as it happens right now; that is is how samadhi is developed.

I realized that right here, sharing a house with me, burning incense in the room next door, was a teacher—my mother. She was the face that mirrored mine, and she was the voice carrying wisdom I could apply to life. She cannot explain the sutras or the Buddha’s stories, but she has lived into the dharma. I have been seeking my people, and they have been here all along.

Edwin Ng

The Heart Sutra burning in a dedication fire.

 

Inheritance, Obligation, and Promises

I visited the U.S. for the first time during the summer of 2017, when I spent a month in the Bay Area. I arrived with a weak body and heavy heart: a decade of precarious livelihood in academia had taken its toll on me. I needed time for healing; I needed to perform sangha-work. Thanks to the good faith of Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I was welcomed into the queer, magical space of the Block Build Be retreat.

At the retreat, I met many beautiful people of diverse backgrounds, including several Asian Americans who practice Buddhism. One of them was Jun Hamamoto, or Auntie Jun, an elder of Japanese-American heritage who shared with me her family history and recent visit to Manzanar, an internment site for Japanese Americans during the Second World War. That morning, Auntie Jun taught me how to fold an origami butterfly.

I also found a spiritual friend in Mushim Ikeda of the East Bay Meditation Center. When I visited her home in Oakland, Mushim served me Japanese green tea, genmaicha, with two sacred objects: an antique cup from Meiji Japan and a cup made by her brother-in-law. Mushim also showed me her grandfather’s calligraphy of the Heart Sutra. This encounter inspired me to begin a new practice: everyday, I’d write the Heart Sutra in a notebook in Chinese script. Sometimes I write it on origami paper, fold it into a butterfly and burn it in a dedication ceremony.

I have a conflicted relationship with the “Chineseness” of my diasporic ancestry. I grew up in Singapore, where citizens of Chinese ancestry can access majoritarian privilege. It was only when I immigrated to Australia as a young adult that I began to confront my privilege, as well as my complicity in the marginalization of others. The entanglement of racial privilege and trauma is a tricky knot to undo; I’m still learning to care for it responsibly.

At the same time, the choicelessness of my diasporic heritage is also a source of dharma inheritance. It is the karmic history through which I found a dear dharma sister in Funie Hsu, for example, who taught me much about the cultural erasure of Asian Americans in the history of U.S. Buddhism.

My visit to the Bay Area culminated in a three-day retreat, which I co-convened at the Mangalam Center in Berkeley. Since Funie could not attend, as she had to be with her father whose late stage cancer was showing critical signs, I asked if I could relay a message on her behalf. Her message opened with lines from the Diamond Sutra, which she asked me to read in Mandarin:

佛告須菩提,

凡所有相, 皆是虛妄,

若見諸相非相, 即見如來

The Buddha said to Subhuti:

All appearances are illusory.

To see that appearances are not appearances is to see the Tathagata.

 

Funie had been reciting the Diamond Sutra to her father—the same thing he had done for her mother when she was passing on. The words of the sutra came to me through my grieving dharma sister; like a hug of thunder they arrived unexpectedly—as if to ask of me the making of some promise or profession.

Formal meditation practice is not the only way to cultivate wise, caring attentiveness. There are other practices like chanting or the recitation of sutras. Simple acts of dharma service like generosity toward others are also a part of this tradition. This is how families and communities of diverse heritages have kept faith with one another for generations, and preserved the historical teachings of the dharma so that we may receive them in the contemporary world.

I arrived in the Bay Area raw and tender from heartbreak and I left it still raw and tender from heartbreak. But thanks to the kindness of others I have learned to be more caring towards the trauma and grief I must heal from. Thank you, dear friends, comrades, lovers, and kin of Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Thank you for welcoming my vulnerability and thank you for trusting me with yours.

May your hopes and aspirations bring benefit to all.

Jessica Chen

American culture says to do this

Chinese culture says to do that

All I know is the practice of sila

What gladdens the heart

Does no more harm

Brings the most ease

This is what I follow

 

The answers do not lie in the East or West

But in each life lived -fully and consciously

For what is culture but a group of humans

All of us struggling to do the best

Wherever we come from

And wherever we reside

We make our own culture here, now. 

 

I was born in China, and immigrated to America at the age of five. Growing up Chinese-American, I had one foot in each world—neither of which I felt completely at home in. I responded by being silent. I went along with things. I was a chameleon. Inwardly, I was very divided.

As my Buddhist practice has evolved, I have come to see dharma as something that can provide ease in the conflict of categories. No one owns dharma –neither Asian Buddhists nor Western Buddhists. Dharma is alive.

This poem came out of a moment of insight. It was a moment of freedom in which the practice allowed me to temporarily  find refuge. I found a home and a place of rest.

So much suffering has come out of our ideas about East, West, American, and Asian. Each of us is more than that. Reality is messier.
The poem ends by empowering this moment. Ideas are static. Human beings are not. Let’s take responsibility for how our communities look and feel today. We need to reshape categories as we go along. For me that means speaking up. It means I need to be less invisible to myself and to others.

Use these simple buttons to share!
Share on FacebookEmail this to someoneShare on TumblrTweet about this on Twitter

Comments (3)

  • Jennifer Hawkins

    It’s true that Buddhism in the US (I cannot speak to the rest of North America) is not dominated by Asian Americans. However, there are many notable Asian American leaders (e.g. Steven Low, Rebecca Li, Dr. Funie Hsu, etc) with a notable online presence, and many without (e.g. Kritee Kanko) who should not be downplayed or ignored. I think that Ven. Guo Cheen has a point when she speaks about making sure that there are Asian American specific spaces and help for those who’d like to start them (including podcasts). However, I think additional attention needs to be paid to factors such as:

    – Making sure to consider those who lead off line instead of online as well
    – Considering factors (some individual and in some cases cultural) that would discourage someone from wanting to pursue online attention or positions of leadership
    – Encouraging Asian Americans who want to see more representation online to be willing to take on such a role or to begin organizing (in other words, to move from “creating awareness” to tangible steps)

  • Lucas

    Thank you for sharing your teachings.

  • Jennifer Hawkins

    Sorry to double post, but just saw this offering from East Bay Meditation Center that would be an amazing resource for this article and any readers of this article:

    https://eastbaymeditation.org/calendar/healing-anti-asian-racism-in-dharma-practice/

    It’s an Asian/American specific space that will engage in action on this concern. May healing and leadership spring from it.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Scroll to top