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Lineage of Resistance: When Asian American Buddhists Confront White Supremacy

Grandfather and grandson of Japanese ancestry at the War Relocation Authority center in Manzanar, California. Photo by Dorothea Lange, censored by the U.S. government until 2006, now public domain.

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.

Jane Imamura, mother of Rev. Ryo Imamura, made major contributions to the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, the Buddhist Churches of America, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, and the Hawaii Kyodan, in addition to being one of the people who taught Shin Buddhism to famous white Americans like Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.

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. [1] 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.

[1] 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

Tricycle

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. 

Gassho,

Ryo Imamura

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.

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Comments (8)

  • José M. Tirado

    Thank you so much for printing this letter. One unanswered question it poses is who rejected the letter, what reasons were given, and is that person still a staff member at Tricycle. Much like the “disappearance” of White racists from the obvious body politic after the Civil Rights movement crested, we must always be aware that those who controlled the dialog, defined the discipline, and decided to exclude persons of color from the history of USAmerican Buddhism, are still probably with us and still in positions of authority. I applaud Tricycle´s newfound attention to this part of history, but wonder what the future will bring so long as the same people and groups remain largely in control of the otherwise vibrant media in USAmerican Buddhism.

  • Ayya Yeshe

    I am always a little afraid to comment when I see posts about race… Because I acknowledge that white supremacy exists and I have benefitted from it…. It makes me sad when I see white people or any westerners take on Buddhism and totally change it (without having deeply mastered it), or without acknowledging the tremendous debt of gratitude we owe to Asian Buddhist lineage holders.

    That said, sometimes racism and discrimination goes both ways. As a Tibetan Buddhist nun of 16 years I have frequently experinced racism and gender discrimination from Tibetans. I have been told to pray to be reborn as a man, I have watched as Tibetan Lamas were offered support by western people, but Western monastics who were effectively running the temple were charged to stay there and made tonwork in lay jobs. I have been told that because I am not Tibetan I am not a real monastic.The practice of directing funds to Tibetan monks in India, whilst charging Western monastics has become almost universal in the West, and has led to Western monastics in my tradition having a 75% disrobing rate. There is a Tibetan monastery in Nepal that was donated by a Western nun. Himalayans stay for free, but Western monastics pay to stay. When i asked why there was a racist double standard I was told ‘you are just a tourist’. Tibetan refugees now live better than Indians and are well established.

    I have also seen many Asian communities bring over monks from their own country whilst western monastics who are available have no support. I have also been told that I cant become enlightened and am less worthy of support ‘Because in our country there are no Bhikkhunis’ by Burmese people and Thai people. I can understand that for some.people, Buddhism is something tied in with their culture and I guess thats fine… But Im not ok with being told that I should pray to be born a Tibetan male or being treated like a serf by Himalayan men who issue orders from thrones. People may say that that is how white people have treated other nations for hundreds of years… That may be true, and something I am sorry for. I have to say the terrible experiences I have had with Tibetan xenophobia and Patriarchy have made me have more empathy for anyone who is treated this way. 13 of the 15 people I ordained with have disrobed because of this discrimination.

    In Tibetan buddhism, it is Western monastics who are invisible. You may quote Pema Chodron and Thubten Chodron and Jestsunma Tenzin Palmo, but there is only one monastery in the world controlled by a Western nun where they dont have to pay and these women who are leaders can be counted on one hand. Very little has been done to address the lack of support for Western monastic. On a recent magazine cover by Lions Roar called ‘the future of Buddhism’ There were American Asian teachers, African American teachers, but not one Western monastic – white or person of colour. Empathy has to cut both ways. Tibetan Lamas should not live on funds donated by Western women whilst at the same time shutting them out of the tradition Western women have embraced as monastics, the Vinaya states it is the responsibility of the Master to support those they ordain.

    I have also heard from other western monastics who suffered a great deal in Asian temples in the West where there was little flexibility or sensitivity about studying in English, accepting difference (I was once told by a Vietnamese nun that I was a bad nun because I did not knock 3x on the toilet door to offer excrement to a hungry ghost)… Often Asian traditional temples run programmes only in their own language, serve food only from their own country and chant and study in their own way. Many temples of this nature seem happy to not reach beyond their on cultural demographic. They cater to people from that country. It takes a brave and visionary person like Thich Nhat Hanh to reach accross cultural divides, to adjust (needed from both sides), to understand and bend, and to be inclusive. Thich Nhat Hahn has successfully blended many cultures in his Dharma centre and has almost complete race and gender equality. He has appointed Vietnamese, Chinese, Vietnamese American and Western Monastics as Abbots. This process of sharing the Dharma skillfully, of doing it with respect for both cultures and environments, is the process of years and generations. I have a deep respect for Asian people, I have many Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian friends and an Indian foster daughter. I spent 9 years of my life running a charity in the slums of Central India. I can only say, for Buddhsim in the West, understanding has to go both ways, because the children of Buddhist immigrants often dont relate to the traditional forms their parents had, they come from a more rational perspective, they want to know the suttas, they dont want to be told they are going to hell for being gay. The children of Buddhist immigrants will also reinterpret Buddhism and peel away cultural layers and embrace others. What is needed is deep listening and mutual respect.

  • D

    Thank you for this article, and for reprinting the letter.So. brilliant.

  • YiLing

    Ayya Yeshe, who are you to speak for the feelings, rationality, development and relationship, and immigrant childrens’ relationships to our parents and “tradition”? What is in your practice, what is it that you’re averse to /craving that allows you to wrap such offensiveness and alienating and dehumanizing static racial stereotypes in the guise of a life dedicated to enlightenment? I read your comments and find them offensive that you’ve painted Asians in such a broad, static, offensive and inaccurate monolithic generalization. Are we really so mystical and homophobic and patriarchal, every one of us? What evidence do you have? In all these stories, you never seem to question or engage with the people you’re so offended by, or offer their responses, only turning inward with your judgements and seem to decide you have fully comprehended not just that person, but their whole culture. What are you even doing if you’ve dedicated your life to engaged awareness, mindfulness, ethics, enlightenment as a monastic in a different tradition, if you spend so much of your practice perpetuating white supremacy? Your practice is your personal dharma, karma, action-fruition.

    You have got to engage deeper and with genuine curiousity to understand people, and yourself in the process. It’ll require courage of allowing your judgements and generalizations to go by examining their white supremacist and colonial roots.

    Good luck! May you practice with deeper commitment to the benefit of beings different in appearance from you, yet each with distinct and fully human and Buddha potential.

  • Avren Keating

    Thank you so much for posting this. It is deeply important to have more insight into who controls the publication of discourse. I bow to your honesty and investigation.

  • Ted Shoemaker

    As a white western zen buddhist for nearly 50 years, I read both Ryo Imamura’s letter and Ayya Yeshe’s response with mixed feelings. Read the first with disappointment that both Tricycle and BPF would not publish Ryo Imamura’s letter 25 years ago. Read the second with gratitude that BPF published Ayya Yeshe’s extended response.

    The letters reminded me of my own root zen teacher’s story from Eastern Europe:

    An older couple had developed a habit of constant quarreling. A friend who cared for them both suggested that they take their differences to the local rabbi who was known for his wisdom. The couple agreed, so the friend made an appointment with the rabbi and accompanied his friends to the meeting.

    The rabbi turned first to the wife for her story. She poured out what her husband had done and had not done during the many years of their marriage. While she spoke, the rabbi nodded his head and said “Yes, you’re right, you’re right.” The friend thought that resolution would be clear.

    Then the rabbi turned to the husband for his story. He also poured out what his wife had done and had not done during the many years of their marriage. While she spoke, the rabbi nodded his head and said “Yes you’re right, you’re right.”

    During the second story and the rabbi’s identical response, the friend was becoming more and more agitated. Finally, he could stand it no longer and blurted out, “But rabbi, when the wife gave her story you said ‘You’re right’. Then when the husband gave his story you also said ‘You’re right’. Rabbi, this makes no sense! They can’t both be right!!”

    The rabbi calmly turned to the friend and said, “Yes, you’re right, you’re right.”

    Ryo Imamura is right. Ayya Yeshe is right. The friend is right. The rabbi is right. Listen.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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