Lineage of Resistance: When Asian American Buddhists Confront White Supremacy
Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) has recently taken up a focused look at the topic of anger – a topic that’s been a popular concern for Buddhists across time and space, and in this particular Trump moment in American civilization, an especially relevant issue. For Buddhists of color in the U.S., anger may often accompany us in distinct ways on our path in the dharma. The suffering of delusion, greed, and hatred entails dealing with the effects of institutionalized white-supremacist delusion, capitalist greed, and ongoing histories of anti-People of Color sentiment used to justify white domination. As Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel so skillfully illustrates in her book The Way of Tenderness (offered as an online seminar starting June 5th with Rev. Zenju herself), these effects are experienced in immensely embodied ways.
For Asian American Buddhists, particularly those of us who were raised Buddhist, the systemic causes that effect anger are omnipresent in the very foundations of what often gets labeled as “American Buddhism.” In mainstream discourse, the “post-racial” ideological deployment of the phrase “American Buddhism” seldom includes Asian American Buddhists, an exclusion that quietly situates whiteness at the center.
The power dynamic of white supremacy in American Buddhism is such that rendering Asian American Buddhists invisible serves as the very mechanism that also hides the fact of white domination and appropriation, under the guise of “common-sense” objective neutrality. More than simple inclusion politics, the issue of Asian and Asian American Buddhists erasure from the history and contemporary landscape of American Buddhism evidences a pattern of epistemological hegemony that traces back to European imperial conquest. As indigenous Maori scholar Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith notes in Decolonizing Methodologies, colonial conquest often entails a process of delegitimizing the knowledge systems of local populations so that colonizing forces can impose a system of superiority to exert authority and control. In the American Buddhist context, the epistemological hegemony is enacted through the combined logic of European enlightenment rationality as filtered through mainstream white supremacist pursuits of Buddhist enlightenment. Even if one isn’t aware of such dynamics, the effects still shape the embodied experiences of Asian American Buddhists in dangerously internalized ways. If one does think about, and I’ve spent some time thinking about it, it’s enough to make one mad. Really mad.
So what does one do with all this anger? Well, if you’re like me, sometimes you go online and you read Angry Asian Buddhist.
Over the years, I’ve had the great fortune of connecting with Angry Asian Buddhist blogger, Arun Likhati, and developing a meaningful spiritual friendship with him—one that has been built in large part by our mutual feelings of anger towards the racist discourse and exclusionary politics of white mainstream Buddhism. It was on his blog that I came across a posting entitled, “Our American Tradition,” regarding 18th generation Buddhist priest and former BPF President, Rev. Ryo Imamura, and the controversy around his 1992 letter to Tricycle magazine. Writing in response to the magazine editor’s statement that Asian American Buddhists “have not figured prominently in the development of American Buddhism,” his letter pointed out quite firmly that immigrant Asian Buddhists were in fact, the bearers of Buddhism in the U.S.
“[I]t was my grandparents and other immigrants from Asia
who brought and implanted Buddhism in American soil over 100 years ago
despite white American intolerance and bigotry,” Imamura writes.
Drawing from the work of Dr. Charles Prebish and Dr. Scott Mitchell in first publishing portions of the letter and sharing it online, respectively, Arun republished segments of Rev. Imamura’s letter and situated it within the framework of Asian American Buddhist community. (This was a follow-up post to an earlier piece referencing Mushim Ikeda’s response to the anthology, Beneath a Single Moon). Though upset by the continued pattern of historical revisionism, Arun notes, “I am also comforted when I reflect on the ranks of Asian American Buddhists who came before me and who likewise spoke out when our communities were unfairly slandered.”
In reading the post, I, too, felt a visceral sense of community and interconnectedness with Arun, Mushim, and Rev. Imamura, in a way that I hadn’t quite felt before. Having practiced in Taiwanese American Buddhists temples throughout my life, I was used to being in a sangha with other Asian Americans, but this community was different. It was the first time I felt directly connected to a lineage of Asian American Buddhist practitioners who shared the anger and pain of being maligned from the very spiritual tradition our ancestors helped to establish; the first time I felt an embodied connection to people who not only felt this anger, but who took action to unleash it for serious consideration and reckoning.
It was because of such a sense of community that I felt compelled to reach out to Rev. Imamura himself and learn more about this former BPF President. With the assistance of Mushim Ikeda, someone I consider a matriarch in this lineage of Asian American Buddhist “trouble makers,” I was put in touch with Rev. Imamura. Over the course of our communication, we “talked story,” as his great-grandparents might have put it when they first immigrated to Hawai’i in the 1890s to head the Honpa Hongwanji Hawai’i Betsuin, and I learned many things. For instance, though I had read that his letter was rejected from Tricycle, I didn’t know that the letter had never been published in its entirety. There were attempts to edit and censor elements of his letter but his insistence on preserving his words exactly as he crafted them, resulted in its ultimate exclusion from public discourse, much to the dismay and sadness of Rev. Ryo Imamura. It should also be noted that he approached BPF about publishing the letter. At the time, our organization ultimately decided not to pursue its publication.
25 years later, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship is honored to be able to publish the letter in its complete, uncensored form.
We do so as a means of moving the American Buddhist community forward towards liberation from the hegemony of white supremacy, and towards more honest dialogue about appropriation and erasure of Asian and Asian American Buddhist histories and communities. We offer the letter as a point of departure for inspiring conversations amongst all Buddhists, and especially amongst Asian American Buddhists.
Like the Dorothea Lange photographs of Japanese American incarceration that the federal government withdrew from public view, editorial censorship by white Buddhists led to the exclusion of Rev. Imamura’s letter from public discourse. We want to preserve the integrity of the statement in its entirety as a political act of recovery.  Although BPF may not necessarily share the sentiment of every statement in the letter, we stand behind the importance of making it available for public consideration. Thus, we encourage dialogue about thoughts and different perspectives on the letter. For example, though I am greatly appreciative of the letter, I disagree with some assertions made about Asian American Buddhists, as they don’t ring true with my experience. (Such is the diverse reality and complexity of the category “Asian American.”) However, being able to access and read these thoughts from a fellow Asian American raised in the Buddhist tradition makes possible the very opportunity to disagree and be in conversation. It makes community possible, and for Asian American Buddhists, such pan-sectarian, sacred spaces are very much needed.
By making the full letter available online, we hope to spark conversation and enable Asian American Buddhists to find community and know, in the epistemological sense, that we have always existed. And that we have resisted.
Acknowledgements: I would like to convey my deepest gratitude to Arun Likhati, Mushim Ikeda, and Rev. Ryo Imamura for sharing your time and generosity of sprit toward the creation of community. Thank you for your Buddhist practice, your anger, your action, and your words.
 In publishing the letter in its entirety, we’ve included the people originally cc-ed. They represent individuals affiliated with Tricycle who Rev. Imamura was acquainted with. He notes that Gary Snyder was especially supportive of the letter and resigned from the Tricycle Advisory Board in protest of its exclusion.
April 25, 1992
Letters to the Editor
In the Winter issue, editor Helen Tworkov made the inaccurate and racist comment that “Asian-American Buddhists…so far…have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.” I would like to point out that it was my grandparents and other immigrants from Asia who brought and implanted Buddhism in American soil over 100 years ago despite white American intolerance and bigotry. It was my American-born parents and their generation who courageously and diligently fostered the growth of American Buddhism despite having to practice discretely in hidden ethnic temples and in concentration camps because of the same white intolerance and bigotry. It was us Asian Buddhists who welcomed countless white Americans into our temples, introduced them to the Dharma, and often assisted them to initiate their own Sanghas when they felt uncomfortable practicing with us. And it was in our battered and brutalized ancestral homelands that white American GIs and the tourists who followed were introduced to the peace and harmony of the Dharma in the aftermath of our many genocidal wars in Asia.
We Asian Buddhists have hundreds of temples in the United States with active practitioners of all ages, ongoing educational programs that are both Buddhist and interfaith in nature, social welfare projects…everything that white Buddhist centers have and perhaps more. It is apparent that Tworkov has restricted “American Buddhism” to mean “white American Buddhism”, and that her statement is even more misleading than one claiming that Americans of color did not figure prominently in the development of American history.
It appears to me that white and Asian Buddhists live in two discrete worlds and practice different forms of Buddhism although they may use the same names and terminologies. Do not mistake me to say that white Buddhists do not practice authentic Buddhism; I am not saying that. It is just a very different form, one that is innovative and exciting in its own right. It is eloquent, dramatic, intellectual, impatient, proud and so very clear. In contrast, we Asian are like Hun-Tun (Chaos) and like tofu, seemingly lacking the seven discriminating holes in the head and persisting unobtrusively in new and often hostile environments. White Buddhists treat their teachers like gurus or living Buddhas whereas we Asians regard ours to be fallible human beings who represent an honored tradition and not themselves. White Buddhist centers rise and fall dramatically like the ocean waves whereas Asian temples seem to persist uneventfully and quietly through generations. White practitioners practice intensive psychotherapy on their cushions in a life-or-death struggle with the individual ego whereas Asian Buddhists seem to just smile and eat together. It is clear that, although they may adopt Asian Buddhist names, dress and mannerisms, white Buddhists cannot help but drag their Western Judeo-Christian identities and shadows with them wherever they go. This certainly makes for an exciting and dramatic new form of Buddhism.
As an 18th generation priest of the Jodo Shin sect and a past (and only Asian-American) president of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I believe my perspective is quite unique for this journal. Certainly I may have made some gross generalizations, but they contain enough validity to be voiced here, even though I am neither a white practitioner nor one of their recognized teachers.
I enjoyed reading the Winter issue of Tricycle and will encourage other Asian Buddhists to do the same, especially since we would probably never publish such a professional-looking and articulate journal ourselves. In contrast, our publications are quite amateurish-looking and probably uninteresting to those outside of our communities. I am sure that Tricycle will become a very popular journal for the white Buddhist community and would like to convey my congratulations. In closing, please remember that we Asian Buddhists do exist (if only in the background) and that we have feelings that can also be bruised by unthinking comments.
P.S. Please do not reprint this letter in Tricycle if you do not print it in its entirety.
cc: Joanna Macy, Masatomi Nagatomi & Gary Snyder
Funie Hsu is an Assistant Professor in American Studies at San Jose State University. She has a background in education, having taught elementary school in Los Angeles Unified, received a Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley, and continued her research on U.S. empire and education as a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Davis. She comes from a multicultural, multilingual (Hoklo, Hakka, Mandarin, English) family and is the daughter of working class Taiwanese American immigrants. She grew up with Buddhist practice and feels strongly about including the experiences of Asian and Asian American Buddhists in discussions of Buddhism in the U.S. Coming from a vegan/vegetarian Buddhist tradition, she is also passionate about including non-human animals in our work for collective liberation.