top nav spacer
You Are Here: Home » Gender » The Influence of Orientalism on US Buddhism

The Influence of Orientalism on US Buddhism

The Influence of Orientalism on US Buddhism

“The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void.” —Gary Snyder, 1961

In contemplating Gary Snyder’s essay “Buddhist Anarchism” for my previous post on Turning Wheel Media, I came across the above phrase, which stuck out to me like a sore thumb. As an Asian American cultural critic and Buddhist practitioner, I have a finely tuned radar for phrases like “East-West,” “East meets West,” and other pithy phrases that set up a dichotomy between these two directions as if they were completely different, even complete opposites. To me, this is lazy thinking, though very much consistent with centuries of orientalist discourse.

Having roamed in US Buddhist circles in California for many years, it’s certainly not uncommon to hear such a phrase accompanied by other dichotomies like “feminine-masculine” or “intuitive-logical.” Many readily accept such binaries as somehow fundamental to the functioning of the universe rather than culturally constructed ideas. It forms a “cloud” of simplistic views easily called upon to replace the work of examining a complex world that doesn’t all fit into two categories. (Though all the causes and conditions that create a human being are what I might at times include as one of the Four Imponderables.) Gender doesn’t fit into two categories, so why should spiritual practice?

With regard to the supposed East-West dichotomy, there is a long history (centuries, really) of “Western” discourse that has posed the West as active, intellectual, modern, rational, and the East as passive, emotional, traditional (or primitive), and irrational (or intuitive). As Edward Said has written in Orientalism, this has a strong connection with European expansion into the Middle East and Asia, forming out of a soup of pseudo-scholarly thought that informed economic, military, scientific policy, institutionalizing a general stance towards “the East.” There are variations on this, for example during certain periods in the US the scenario has been flipped so that Asian men are posed as menaces, though mostly to (passive) white women.

Far from being simply an intellectual exercise, this “feminization” of “the Orient” had and still has on-the-ground reality because it is backed by power. It readily pops up in US media and policy decisions about Middle Eastern societies, stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans, and, to bring it back to Buddhism, essentialist discussions about what “the East” has to offer “the West” and vice versa. These all eventually impact the material reality of human beings. Is the East actually mysterious, impenetrable, feminine, and passive, or is that centuries of racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, and imperialism talking? What is the East? Where does it start? Where does it end?

As for Snyder’s statement about the mercy of the West and that of the East, it’s not as if social revolution and insight into the void are exclusive innovations of the places Snyder attribute them to. There are mystic traditions in the West, and social revolutionary traditions in the East. Fortunately, the mercy of critical thinking is that everyone can practice it.

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

Comments (32)

  • Ian Mayes

    You know, Gary Snyder is still alive and living out there in California. You could get in contact with him about writing his thoughts on these things currently. He might’ve changed some of his thinking now that 50 + years has passed. :-)

  • Richard Modiano

    FW Snyder published the first version in The Journal for the Protection of All Beings in 1961 under the title “Buddhism and Anarchism,” the second version in Earth Household (1969) under the title “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” and a final revision in 1997 in a Parallax Press anthology the name of which escapes me (as does the re-titled essay.) For the last version he took out the part about gentle violence. I don’t recall the other changes.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Snyder’s statement strikes me as true enough as it stands. It is a generalization and, as such, it admits of exceptions. It reminds me, for instance, of one reason why the Dalai Lama chose to characterize his own worldview as “half-Marxist, half-Buddhist.” That does not strike me as evidence of “Orientalism” (a notion of which there are at least several meanings), nor does Snyder’s observation warrant a conclusion to the effect that he’s succumbed to some Orientalist stereotype or ideology. Snyder’s sentence does not license the inference that he does not believe that “[t]here [have been and are] mystic traditions in the West, and social revolutionary traditions in the East.” Rather, and instead, it is a question of emphasis and predominance.

    “Orientalism” as an historical and (especially) philosophical subject has interested me for most of my adult life. Among the books that I’ve found useful on this topic (thus I’ve not attempted to list ‘everything’) are the following:

    • Appiah, Kwame Anthony. The Ethics of Identity (Princeton University Press, 2005).
    • Clarke, J.J. Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought (Routledge, 1997).
    • Ernst, Carl W. Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
    • Garfield, Jay L. and William Edelglass, eds. The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2011).
    • Irwin, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents (Overlook Press, 2006). [A nice critique of aspects of Said’s argument.]
    • Larson, Gerald James and Eliot Deutsch, eds. Interpreting Across Boundaries: New Essays in Comparative Philosophy (Princeton University Press, 1988).
    • Lynch, Michael P. Truth in Context: An Essay on Pluralism and Objectivity (MIT Press, 1998).
    • Lynch, Michael P. Truth as One and Many (Oxford University Press, 2009).
    • McEvilley, Thomas. The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies (Allworth Press, 2002).
    • Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China, 7 Vols. (27 books) (Cambridge University Press and the Needham Research Institute, 1954-2008). This series continued after Needham’s death in 1995.
    • Phillips, Stephen H. “The Ideal of Philosophy as Globally Informed,” in The Philosophy of K. Satchidananda Murty, ed. Sibajiban Bhattacharyya and Ashok Vohra (Indian Council for Philosophical Research, 1995): 110-120. Available online:
    • Safran, Jeremy D., ed. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue (Wisdom Publications, 2003).
    • Said, Edward W. Orientalism (Pantheon Books, 1978).
    • Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
    • Smart, Ninian. Religion and the Western Mind (State University of New York Press, 1987).
    • Smart, Ninian (Oliver Leaman, ed.). World Philosophies (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2008).

  • Richard Modiano

    Patrick, Said’s Culture and Imperialism should be on your list too.

    By the way, the latest version of FW Snyder’s essay is in The Path of Compassion under the title “Buddhism and the Possibility of a Planetary Culture.”

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    Thanks, Kenji, for another thought-provoking essay, and to everyone who has added to the discussion. I too think the dualistic terminology of “East – West” is highly problematic; also, something that particularly galls me is when some people in the United States use the term “Western” as the equivalent of “United States-related,” as in the term “Western Buddhist teachers,” used as a shorthand for “Convert Buddhist teachers, predominantly white, living and teaching in the United States.” When I was a child growing up in the sixties in rural Ohio, the term “the ugly American” was being used in the media to refer to U.S. citizens who would travel abroad, and inquire in shops, “How much does that cost? No, how much does it cost in REAL money?” and who would display similar U.S.-centric behaviors, embarrassingly.
    I too have never understood which nations and regions constitute “The East” and which do not. And, in my initial Zen training in North America, the members of our temple in Canada made it very clear to those of us in the U.S. temple that they did not embrace any kind of “North American” umbrella identity — as Canadians, they felt superior to the U.S. Zen students in most ways, and even the teacher, who was Korean, once casually remarked, jokingly yet with intent: “For Canadians there is some hope. For Americans there is none.” Considering the history of the U.S., I didn’t even try to argue with any of them. I didn’t look Asian American or Asian to the Canadians; I looked like a (potentially) “ugly American,” so I worked overtime to be respectful to Canadian culture, even as I knew, inside me, that I know so little about Canadian history, governance, politics, geography, demographics, etc. that I *was*, in many ways, an ugly American.
    So I, personally, tend to ignore the terms “East and West,” and to aim for more nuanced and specific understanding of various regions in the world. I would hope that today, in 2013, that Orientialism has been eroded in the U.S. and its horrible effects have been somewhat lessened (although I doubt they are gone) in U.S. Buddhism. Let’s all keep making progress in the positive direction together!

  • Jeff

    Mushim, thank you for raising these important issues with a most perceptive illustration from your own experience. East-West may have been a helpful construct for looking at political and spiritual trends in the world 50 or 100 years ago — now it’s probably more appropriate to use a North-South perspective. But really, all arbitrary geographic boundaries, especially nationalism, divide us from our sisters and brothers just as much as racial and gender profiles do. Americans have been ugly when they have uncritically accepted US cultural, economic, and military domination of the rest of the world. But I think this is starting to change. As we began our downhill slide from the Cold War to global recessions and crippling austerity, as Americans are increasingly betrayed by the lies and thievery of our own rulers, it’s harder for us to feel smug and superior to Canada or China or even France. Part of my Buddhist practice is developing the courage to speak out and act with local and international allies against the exploitation which our country has fostered. There’s hope we can be pretty Americans yet!

  • Bob

    Mushim, do you really not find it useful to distinguish between Western Buddhist converts, verses people who grew up as Buddhists in Asian societies? One must travel East from Europe to reach Asia, thus the origin of the expression. I don’t care what people want to call it as long as there is some consistency.
    The “euphemism treadmill” is a phenomena in which a certain phrase accumulates negative connotations so it is dropped, only to have its replacement take on the same baggage.

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    Bob, thanks for raising the question. No, I personally wouldn’t say something like, “Such and such applies to Western Buddhist converts, versus people who grew up as Buddhists in Asian societies” and I don’t use the term “the East” because I don’t know where the boundary lines are and which nations and cultures constitute “The West” and which nations and cultures constitute “The East.” If there is a definition, who made it? — and how has that definition played out historically and in its impact on the peoples who have been categorized in this matter, sometimes as that category has been imposed on them in ways they completely do not self-determine and self-define?

    I think it was around 10 years ago that I was part of a team of three, including Larry Yang, Michele Benzamin-Miki and me, who spent a whole year organizing what was eventually titled the “Asian American Pacific Islander Dharma Retreat and Conference” at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. We brought in a dazzling array of 13 Buddhist teachers from all the major lineages of Buddhism — one white Jewish Buddhist teacher friend said to me, “What an amazing lineup of teachers! I wish I could be reincarnated as an Asian American right now so that I could hear these teachings!” And, as we were struggling with the title of the week-long retreat with questions such as, “How do we include and honor people of mixed heritage who may self-identify as hapa?” (for instance), the potent question of what an Asian American *is* arose. (And you may note we decided not to title it “Asian Pacific Islander American Retreat and Conference,” even though people with indigenous Hawai’ian ancestry who are born in Hawai’i are definitely “Americans,” or United Statesians.) We wrestled and wrestled and eventually just did our best, knowing it was very far from perfect.

    Still, the wrestling process was very important because it highlighted for me that we *need* to hear more and more real people’s stories and voices about why they contest dominant culture terminology or attempts to put them into boxes that don’t work at all for them. (See for lots of great info — watch the 3 min video!– about Kip Fulbeck’s groundbreaking work.)

    As we wrestled with the title of the retreat, I called on my honorary niece, who is hapa-identified and who has done extensive academic study in the field of race relations (and who has since been a Fulbright scholar in New Zealand, studying the effect of race-related policies on indigenous communities). I thought, “She will be able to tell me the definition of what an Asian American is!” But when I asked, she said, politely, “Mushim, I would never answer that question.” I was greatly taken aback — I really was — and it shook me up a great deal because it deeply challenged my own assumptions about fixed and reliable definitions.

    Therefore, unless someone can show me a map and draw boundaries that define “the East” and “the West,” and I know that all of the people in those geographical areas would agree, “I am an Easterner” and “I am a Westerner,” I don’t use those terms, at all, either speaking or in writing. As I mentioned previously, I particularly find it objectionable to speak about “Western Buddhism” if the person actually means “Buddhism in the United States.”

  • Bob

    Dear Mushim,
    I do believe in striving for clarity with language. Words like East and West are broad categories that necessarily contain many contradictions. I fully support unpacking those bags, and maybe we will throw the bag away some day.

    There is something I call the “emptiness game” whereby a given phenomena is interrogated to determine its non-existence. And any language or attitudes associated with that phenomena are deconstructed. Of course everything is empty, so there is a 100% chance that a given phenomena can be broken down into meaninglessness. Yet we still have to use language.

    East and West strike me as meaningful categorical distinctions. Perhaps I am wrong and you will be successful in championing a new vocabulary and a generation or two from now nobody would want to be caught using gibberish terms like East and West. Then of course someone will point out that your new terminology can also be deconstructed, and on and on it goes. Designating and deconstructing.

    The problem is that for me, a privileged white person (am I allowed to call myself that?) to adopt the position that there is no such thing as race, no such thing as “first world vs third world” seems not only ignorant but insulting. I mean I actually work with people from many different backgrounds, skin colors and religions (I am a nurse in St Paul MN). Some of my patients are refugees from Southeast Asia, many are Muslims from Africa, some are the indigenous inhabitants of Minnesota whom my ancestors genocided. I cant pretend like “Oh those people are exactly like me… I don’t see race”. Of course race is a factor. And having to do a multi-paragraph disclaimer about how the nature of non-duality and the shortcomings of language every time the subject of Race comes up, could get wearisome.
    Okay, I enjoy a little debate with people who think about these kinds of things. So peace to the east and peace to the west!

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    Thanks for your thoughtful response, Bob. Language and terminology changes as society changes — as terms are deconstructed, often they are replaced with much improved language, in my experience. When I was a kid, “special class” at school was filled with so-called retarded kids, and the word “Retard” was a common insult. Today we talk about “developmentally disabled” children who have a wide range of abilities, talents, and individual traits and potentials. Another common insult saying someone was a bad driver was calling them, a “woman driver.” Increased equity brings increased opportunities for development for more people and begins to erode harmful stereotypes. Undoubtedly, there are some Asians who might even describe themselves as “passive.” Others would describe themselves as “active” and would be regarded by others as such, the same as in any large group of people.

    Language that is more accurate, self-determined by the folks to which it refers, and more reflective of multiple realities usually does take more time, effort, research, and lived experience — therefore, a great many more words. We’re now fortunate enough to have accounts of human experience of people whose gender identities, sexual orientations, national identities, race identities, ability identities, etc. are complex and multidimensional. Being inclusive usually means slowing down and taking time — often, a lot more time — and this can be “wearisome” to people in the dominant cultures. It is often incredibly welcome, energizing, and deeply empowering and affirming to people in non-dominant cultures if they feel there is a safe space for them to show up and bring their full selves into the room, with all of their seeming contradictions. (See )

    And, of course, you are entirely right that ignoring race, since you self-describe as a privileged white person, is very non-beneficial. Thank you for the work you do as a nurse, helping people of so many different cultures, which I’m sure requires a lot of multicultural sensitivity and skills.

  • Bob

    it strikes me that there are basically two groups of people who don’t believe in race. The first group I would describe as academic leftists who find overt race based categorization to be insulting to the individuality of people who are so designated; and not reflective of the self chosen descriptions those individuals have.
    The second group of people who find categorizations based on race offensive are of course, white racists. As a full blown white person I am privileged to an inside look at this second category. White racists deplore categorical speech such as “The percentage of black Americans in poverty is …” because such descriptions point to the troublesome reality of white supremacy.
    Such a complex world

  • PatrickDolan

    I have long admired Gary Snyder. I hope that if he were to see this, he’d assent to the critique of his words. I also hope (actually expect) that he’s learned, “There are mystic traditions in the West, and social revolutionary traditions in the East,” in his journeys over the years. If not, well, it’s never too late.

    There’s no disrespect involved in weighing a writer’s words carefully. The line quoted fits too neatly into a discourse that hides valuable features in multiple cultures. It should be critiqued, as long as the critique does not pretend to invalidate the valuable insights (if any) in the rest of the piece.

    When Gary Snyder wanted to learn about Buddhism, he went to Japan. We should all be so respectful, and more.

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    I really value what you say, Patrick, because I too am a huge fan of Gary Snyder. When I started Zen practice in 1982 at a temple in Michigan, I wrote a letter to him, c/o his publisher, thanking him for the essays in “Earth House Hold” in particular, as being the inspiration for me to start my journey studying Zen Buddhism. He answered me!

    There’s been a heck of a lot of water that has gone under the bridge since 1961. It would indeed be very interesting to know what Gary Snyder would have to say about what he published way back then. I completely trust his relationship to Asian Buddhist traditions and cultures, and I have met his former partner and mother of their two sons, who is a native of Japan, and know her partner, Aitken Roshi’s chief Dharma heir, fairly well. They are all very serious and committed students and teachers of the Dharma, and are well-versed in the Japanese Zen lineages as well as the Chinese Chan histories. Orientalism is not something they buy into.

  • Richard Modiano

    “When Gary Snyder wanted to learn about Buddhism, he went to Japan. We should all be so respectful, and more.”

    Patrick, Fellow Worker Snyder began studying Buddhism at Reed College in 1950 and later took the adult Buddhist Education classes offered by the Berkeley Buddhist Temple that were facilitated by Rev. Kanmo Imamura. Rev. Imamura brought in scholars of many traditions to speak in those classes including D.T. Suzuki.

    FW Snyder departed for Japan in May 1956 on a fellowship to learn meditation at Daitokuji in Kyoto. It’s well to remember that opportunities to learn zazen from a qualified teacher were very hard to come by in 1950s America (to the best of my knowledge only Nyogen Senzaki in Los Angeles was the only qualified teacher in the US at that time.) And it’s also well to remember that few working class people had the time or money to go to Japan or Ceylon (as Shri Lanka was know in those years) to learn meditation, the two destinations where Euro-Americans could get meditation instruction at those days.

    Mushim, in his 1985 revision of the original article (re-titled “Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture”) he let’s that sentence stand as is, although he took out the sentence about “gentle violence.”

    If FW Snyder was thinking of Japan when he wrote the “East” then he’s correct that no social revolution occurred there. The Meiji Restoration was not even a bourgeois democratic revolution, and to the extent that Japan enjoys political democracy and some measure of social democracy (if not economic democracy) today is because of the US imposed Constitution, a far more progressive document than the US Constitution inasmuch as women are given equal rights in Article 13 (written by Beate Gordon) and Article 9 that outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes.

    Still, when writing about the “East” as referring to the whole of Asia certainly the Chinese Revolution (1946-52) counts as a social revolution. I suppose the other revolutions that occurred in the region could fairly be described as anti-colonial struggles or wars of independence. and not social revolutions. And by the the time of the second revision of the essay published in Earth Household in 1969 the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was in its third year.
    I wonder if he ever addressed this discrepancy in any of the many interviews he gave.

  • Kenji

    This thread is wonderful to read and I’m glad to see such thoughtful reflection on our received political-geographic categories.

    Richard, I tend to think of “social revolution” more broadly. I would certainly include anti-colonial wars or independence wars as social revolution because they established new social relations. Whether they went “far enough” to truly break from the previous regime is of course debatable and for the most part I’d argue they didn’t. But I think for Snyder to say that the East did not have any social revolutions smacks of Eurocentrism. Perhaps he might think differently today, but all I have are these words to go on.

    In any case, for me this topic is not so much about Snyder but about how Buddhism in the US has been influenced by Orientalist understandings. I think for many traditions during the 60s and 70s, Buddhism was transmitted to the US within the context of US global power, whether benefiting privileged people in the US who were able to travel to Asia and return, or creating intolerable conditions in Asia forcing emigration. US Buddhism exists within certain dynamics of power that have national, class, race, and gender dimensions.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Again, Snyder does NOT make the claim that “the East did not have any social revolutions” (nor, for that matter, that ‘individual insight into the basic self/void’ is utterly absent in the West). As I explained above, Snyder’s sentence does NOT license the inference that there have not been ‘mystic’ traditions in the West or social revolutionary traditions (or simply social revolutions) in the East. Rather, and instead, it is a question of emphasis and predominance.

  • Richard Modiano

    “…for me this topic is not so much about Snyder but about how Buddhism in the US has been influenced by Orientalist understandings.”

    Kenji, your response prompted me to revisit the “Tricycle” magazine scandal of 1991. In the Winter 1991 issue Helen Tworkov who was the founding editor wrote that Asian-American Buddhists hadn’t figured prominently in the creation of American Buddhism, that American Buddhism was represented by eductaed members of the white middle class. Ryu Imamura (son of Kanmo Imamura) wrote a reply that “Tricycle” refused to print (it was finally printed in his temple’s periodical.) By the way, this prompted Gary Snyder to resign from “Tricycle’s” board of trustees.

    Tworkov insisted that she was drawing a distinction between “American Buddhism” and “Buddhism in America” thus denigrating Asian-American Buddhists across the board. The incident is discussed in the anthology “The Faces of Buddhism in America” edited by Charles Prebish and Kenneth Tanaka.

    At present, there’s remarkably little awareness of Asian-American temples by Euro-American temples or centers. I happen to belong to an Asian-American temple that’s sought out contact with temples of other denominations, and we’ve found it easier to connect to other Asian-American temples than Euro-American centers. Several years ago there was a proposal to create the Buddhist equivalent of the National Council of Churches. I think it’s worth pursuing at least as a way of breaking down the barriers.

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    This thread is getting better and better, in my experience. Thank you, Richard, for highlighting this important “scandal” of denigration and discrimination by Helen Tworkov. (And this is not to detract from the other very good work she did as Tricycle magazine’s editors for many years.) I am friends with Rev. Ryo Imamura, have read his mother Jane Imamura’s wonderful (and little known) book “Kaikyo” (which I recommend to everyone interested in the history of Buddhism in the U.S.!), and can feel how hurtful and unfair it has been to Asian American Buddhist sanghas to have been categorized (yet again) as perpetual foreigners in their own country.

  • Bob

    Here are two excellent books that dig deep into the history of Asian political rebellions along with anti-colonialist movements. ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ looks at South Upland Asia, a region full of people who resisted assimilation for thousands of years. The other title ‘Asias Unknown Uprisings’ focuses on the intense and violently repressed democracy movements in Korea, which go on to this day. I find these books enjoyable and they completely shatter the notion of Eastern quietism vs Western activity. Orientalism.

    The art of not being governed’

    Asias unknown uprisings

    Where I am still a bit confused is I feel like Mushim is trying to throw out the use of East vs West duality. But the very notion of Orientalism is based on criticizing traditional Western (European / American) projections onto the East. So how do we criticize western ignorance without talking about the west?

  • Bezi

    And here’s a question too. What if a black person, like me, uses the East / West framework? Is this offensive? I ask because honestly, I did. I wrote an essay for a Buddhist philosophy class which I’m also using to introduce myself to different Sanghas around Northern CA I’m looking at possibly joining. But let me fill in some blanks first before anyone answers.

    Though my practice of dzogchen has been unfolding powerfully for exactly ten years now, I certainly did not grow up in, nor was I ever exposed to, a milieu in which these cultural conflicts would cause me to assume I had to take a position. I can see I’ll need to, now. The deeper into Buddhism I get, the more I understand the point of contestation – and as a member of a people who have been on the unfortunate (indeed deadly) side of the “western” gaze, I can also empathize.

    At the same time, and as someone dedicated to understanding and engaging with the anti-imperialist cause with solidarity, there’s a basic usefulness in a shorthand of East / West, instead of listing the nations of Europe and of Asia which might be involved in the point I’m trying to make. I’ve been to India and in a quest to ‘keep it real’ as it were, I visited a Buddhist temple in the South (Byalakuppe). So I have the intellectual / experiential capacity, to an extent, to make a distinction between “Indian Buddhism”, “Tibetan Buddhism”, Sri Lankan, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, etc. And thanks in large part to my philosophy class, I can say some basic things about the differences between Soto and Rinzai, Vipassana, Tantra, Pure Land, Tibetan &c.

    So the bottom line here is: as one who is approaching the discourse later in the game but with the deepest respect and reverence, not a member of the agenda-setting culture but definitely on the receiving end of it… am I flopping for saying East / West? Though I hope it’s evident, I’m not saying this to be funny or snarky. I really need to know! I mean… looking at what I wrote now I used “Western” and “American” Buddhism interchangeably. I do mention a Chinese, Thai and Indian Buddhism, etc.

    But one more thing, as I think about it now, is that… if I were to use East as a catch-all term, I would probably be thinking about not just Buddhism, but Jainism, Hinduism, Taoism and other traditions collectively from those regions of Asia which share, to my mind, characteristics that distinguish themselves favorably to Western ones. Given that this whole exercise is dualistic and reductionist from jump (let’s have THAT out there, lol), there is something – not intellectual, more like an experiential aesthetic – in Buddhism, Jainism &c which feel more authentically mystical to me in that they’re not obsessed with rationality, categorizing, hierarchical authority and lawgiving. And as to the question of the passiveness or femininity of the East, not that there’s anything inherently wrong with either… I challenge ANYONE to watch a demonstration of Shaolin monks (ch ch BLAOW!) and try to defend that point of view. Or for that matter, any of the martial arts, sword styles, nunchauks (sp?), etc…

    So again: if your life experience and sociocultural reality lend themselves to an impression of innate solidarity with “the peoples of ‘the East'”… does it still come off as a dis to say that?

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    I think this is an extraordinarily good discussion — really interesting, and I appreciate that everyone has been so thoughtful and respectful.

    I do understand the convenience of using shorthand terms such as “the East” and “the West.” But honestly — and I am not trying to be difficult — I do not understand what is the East and what is the West. For instance, where do these countries/ areas fall within those categories?
    1. Russia
    2. Australia
    3. Ethiopia
    4. Iraq
    5. Greenland
    6. New Zealand


  • Bezi

    No, I totally hear you. There are places all across the world which don’t fit neatly into the East / West geopolitical / cultural model. If I were to answer these questions, and this is most def not to be taken as gospel –

    Russia = Eurasia
    Australia / New Zealand = Oceania
    Ethiopia = Africa (or better yet, East Africa)
    Iraq = Middle East
    I’m not 100% on Greenland (lol). It’s kind of like a protectorate of Denmark so to me that’d be Europe, or “the West”. This might be a bit bookish or biased…

    To your point (i think), Africa and South America on the whole are examples of the impreciseness of this region-labeling methodology, exemplifying how Western Europeans and Anglo/Americans have defined all the terms, decided who’s important and irrelevant to name, etc. Is Brazil in the “western” sphere? Kenya in the “eastern”? Or are they not in the formulations at all?

    Truthfully as an African-descended person I could be all like – “well at least Asian cultures were deemed relevant enough to be incorporated into European geopolitical schemata in the first place.”

    I’ll leave folks to decide for themselves what this is a function of…

  • Bezi

    also, reading over my post before this one, I better go ahead and correct this while I can. I’m not saying “Eastern” traditions don’t have categories, hierarchy and lawgiving. The Hindu caste system is only the most obvious example that they can and do. I guess it would have been more accurate to say that these don’t prevent me from approaching Asian practices from a mystical standpoint the way, for example, Abrahamic faiths do.

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    Bezi, thank you, thank you. For me, you’ve made an extremely powerful and cogent point: “To your point (i think), Africa and South America on the whole are examples of the impreciseness of this region-labeling methodology, exemplifying how Western Europeans and Anglo/Americans have defined all the terms, decided who’s important and irrelevant to name, etc.” Turning Wheel Media (which is a function of Buddhist Peace Fellowship) has been opening fabulous conversations about how to decolonize our minds, a vital process in what the Buddha taught as liberation. For me, what you so aptly term as “region-labeling methodology” is in actuality “region-labeling mythodology.” I personally don’t use the terms “the East” and “the West” 98% of the time because, to me, saying “the East” conjures up white-invented myths of Orientalism and exoticization, and saying “the West” is often, to people in the U.S., a synonym for “the U.S.” — as though Europe doesn’t exist. I have heard that there are some Australian Buddhists (of which there are many) who are now protesting that their part of the world is dropping through the cracks in use of “East / West” terminology in discussions of global Buddhism.

    And — your “lol” in regard to placing Greenland in the East/West schema has given me a morning chuckle and brightened my day. Gratitude!

  • Bezi

    ha ha… *bows* Outta site. You’re welcome. I dealt with the fraudulence of this mythodology (yup, that works) when I went to India and found myself continuously tarred with the “Western” label by Indians I met. One minute it would be all “Martin Luther King?… Michael Jackson?… Bob Marley?” – which seems to reflect a kind of “third world” solidarity (though, ummm.. inconsistent) but then it would quickly get around to baksheesh I was supposed to have in wheelbarrels due to being a privileged Westerner, which I was actually called. And also “Yankee”. (!?) When I started playing with this – fronting myself off as a Muslim African whose accent was merely a product of in-integrated schooling in the US, and which I reinforced by reciting prayers in Arabic – all kinds of new possibilities opened up to me as an authenticated non-Western brother. It was so bizarro-world, and reflective of how we were unconscious of each other at a deep level due to being caught up in a geopolitical framework we didn’t participate in the architecture of.

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    Bezi, I’m totally fascinated by the bizzaro-world experience you have shared with us here! As is said these days, to everything you wrote above: Word.

    I am Japanese American (sansei, or third generation, thus a long ways from Japan) and I trained for 8 months in South Korean Buddhist monasteries in 1987-88. Part of this time was spent in a nuns’ temple that was quite large, with around 50 resident nuns ranging from teenagers (very junior nuns) to elderly nuns (the most senior). It was a training temple for the junior nuns and had a special wing, like a retirement section, for the elders. The Koreans would ask me if I knew Michael Jackson, and some of the young nuns were listening to cassette tapes of the Carpenters (brother-sister duo singing sappy pop songs) on headphones in the room off of the meditation hall when they had spare time. Those were the projections onto me as an American. But then they would forget I was an American and treat me like a defective Korean, since they thought I looked Korean but I didn’t know the customs and my spoken Korean was babylike. They would range from feeling pleased that I was there, looking like them, to being annoyed because I couldn’t understand them, and couldn’t hold up my end of the work that nuns were supposed to do. Mostly they treated me kind of like a pet dog. So one minute I was potential Michael Jackson fan from the U.S. (a “Westerner”) and another minute I was a Korean lookalike who wasn’t Korean (some sort of defective “Easterner” I guess) and then they were trying to grok that I was of Japanese descent, I was a U.S. citizen, but that my spiritual lineage was Korean Zen. No one knew whether I was from the West, from the East, from the Midwest (I grew up in Ohio), or from another planet populated by pet dogs who looked like Asian people. I became extremely confused and went into culture shock. For this reason, after I managed to get safely home to the U.S., I have never returned to S. Korea, and I’ve never had much interest in visiting Japan, either, since again I fall directly into the void between the East-West construct of reality. I’ve heard that some Japanese Americans who can’t speak Japanese are treated either with scorn or as developmentally disabled Japanese who are pitied and not treated well. From this standpoint, I feel I relate totally to your statement about “being caught up in a geopolitical framework we didn’t participate in the architecture of.”

  • Bezi

    Damn! You know, what you’re saying about Korea (ouch) and Japan sounds a lot like what I hear from “western” (American) blacks mostly I think, who go to those places and others in Asia, particularly China – and experience some REAL serious bigotry. There’s what looks to me – and I could be / would love to be proven wrong – chauvinism towards the “west” for having attempted to trample and/or commercialize indigenous culture, but a de-facto tacit belief in the superiority of whites due to… their position of authority over nonwhites globally? I remember the first time I saw an array of dolls in a Chinese drugstore featuring characters like Good Girl White, Special White, Beautiful White, and was like WTF? Other stuff started clicking. So it’s like, let me get this straight. You feel resentful to the “white west” for colonialization, but in fact submissive culturally? I mean, I’m not trying to be rude or controversial here. Trying to really sort it out. One could halfway understand (while not condoning) natives of a country looking askance at a homecoming brother or sister who can’t speak the language or is seemingly clumsy with local traditions. I’ve heard similar complaints from Puerto Ricans, Italians, Irish, Nigerians and others visiting homelands as US westerners. But still…

    Personally, I’ve felt rather uncomfortable and in the spotlight oftentimes in Chinatown; more politely tolerated amongst Japanese and Thais (though with a vague undercurrent of superiority), and for the most part, something approximating genuine solidarity amongst Filipinos, Cambodians and Vietnamese – I’m guessing due to those countries’ brushes with the same imperialistic mindset we blacks were forced to confront…

    Hmph. So much for the monolithic “East”! I may yet need to abbrieviate tho’ (lol)

    Jeez. Bottom line – SOMEBODY got us “effed up” in the game out here, pardon my French (and pardonnez moi sil vous plais to any Franks out there). Disclaimer: this all could just be me imagining things. Matter fact, if I got the Awakened One’s message properly grokked… it’s more or less ALL me getting it twisted and wilding. It’s like, “really, Sidd? That’s how you feel?”

    Well! There you have it. Tough crowd. But since my attitude always improves when I look at myself as the author of my suffering… what can I say? He’s right.

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    See in regard to:

    I remember the first time I saw an array of dolls in a Chinese drugstore featuring characters like Good Girl White, Special White, Beautiful White, and was like WTF? Other stuff started clicking. So it’s like, let me get this straight. You feel resentful to the “white west” for colonialization, but in fact submissive culturally?

  • Bezi

    the epicanthic fold, huh. *sigh*

    “indoctrinated by white standards of beauty” ~ yeah, no kidding…

    what’s even sadder to me is that the genetic evidence strongly suggests an African origin. Pictures of San / Khoikhoi people in South Africa show the feature prominently. Yikes…

  • Richard Modiano

    “I’ve heard that some Japanese Americans who can’t speak Japanese are treated either with scorn or as developmentally disabled Japanese who are pitied and not treated well.”

    During my last visit to Japan with Nisei, Sansei and Yonsei temple members no one experienced anything like that. When I lived in Japan from 1990-92 and met up with Japanese Americans no one reported treatment of that nature. I also have young adult AJA friends who were part of the JET Program and lived in the country for 1 to 2 years and suffered no negative experiences from native Japanese. On the other hand, it seems to be more common for Japanese visiting the US to experience racism, and I’ve been out with my Sansei partner when she’s been the recipient of insulting thoughtless “Jap” remarks. In fact, she first heard the word “Jap” in reference to herself in the third grade 50 years ago.

    No doubt Japanese American visitors have been the object of scorn by native Japanese on some occasion or other, but from my experience Japanese Americans have been dissed more often by their fellow citizens than they have by native Japanese.

  • Richard Modiano

    “You know, what you’re saying about Korea (ouch) and Japan sounds a lot like what I hear from “western” (American) blacks mostly I think, who go to those places and others in Asia, particularly China – and experience some REAL serious bigotry. There’s what looks to me – and I could be / would love to be proven wrong – chauvinism towards the “west” for having attempted to trample and/or commercialize indigenous culture, but a de-facto tacit belief in the superiority of whites due to… their position of authority over nonwhites globally? ”

    I think you’re right about a defensive chauvinsim toward Europe and the USA coming from Asia. Further, the first representations of blacks came from nations with histories of slavery where blacks were portrayed as inferior.

    The entire question is very complex, and you might be interested in a book by the always insightful black historian Gerald Horne called Race War:
    White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire. For example, Horne describes the reverse racial hierarchy practiced by the Japanese internment camps, in which whites were placed at the bottom of the totem pole, under the supervision of Chinese, Korean, and Indian guards—an embarrassing example of racial payback that was downplayed by the defeated Japanese and the humiliated Europeans and Euro-Americans. And in War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, John Dower records black attitudes to Japanese victories at the beginning of the war. By the way, the epitaph “Here lies a black man who died killing a yellow man for the sake of a white man” (that was resurrected during the Vietnam War) comes from the Pacific War.

  • Bezi

    hey Richard. Oh yeah I KNOW where Asian racist stereotypes came from: the darkie and mammy caricatures on their products, the blackfaced misappropriations in performance situations and whatnot. The US had and in fact continues to have a profitable (in more ways than one) business in the industrial production of black inferiority, with thriving domestic and internatonal markets. And your final point here… well, Ali said it perfectly explaining why he refused to be drafted: “no Vietnamese ever called me nigger…” Bam. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for black soldiers to be leafletted by Vietcong flyovers with that same message. What I didn’t know was how the Japanese conducted the internment camps. Huh! First and all too easy response to that is “sounds like just deserts to me.” But what I love about Siddhartha is how he suddenly appears in a moment like that, smiling that 1000 watt smile and slapping his open palm with a switch. And I’m all like “oh yeah. Naw, I’m good…”

    There’s a succinct African proverb ~ ‘ashes fly back in the face of he who throws them’.

    It’s not really anything to cheer on, regardless of whose eyes are getting murked

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

Scroll to top