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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.

How Can I Contribute?

This topic is both broad and specific. What we’ve gathered so far is not so broad as to cover all of the Asian diaspora, but we do need all of us. And we want to hear from you:

What is it like to be Asian American? What is it like to be Buddhist? How are the two connected for you?

If you would like to share your story, we are accepting submissions. Click here for more details.

As Asian diasporic folks practicing dharma in the West, it can be a rare and precious jewel to get together and share our experiences. Recently, we had a chance to do this on two coasts with a range of folks who span a wide spectrum of viewpoints and experiences. We filmed these gatherings 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.

 

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 sangha, beloved spiritual community, 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.

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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

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