“We’ve Been Here All Along” – Love for Asian American Buddhists
Part 1: A Knock, An Opening
Our very own Board member, scholar Funie Hsu, has touched a nerve with her recent article in the Winter issue of Lion’s Roar, exploring the historical erasure of Asian Americans from white-led Western Buddhism.
The piece incited such an uproar that Buddhadharma editor Tynette Deveaux posted a special follow-up, quoting a few furious emails (just a hint of the inferno, I’m guessing), while also airing a supportive, thoughtful perspective from Ajahn Amaro: a white European Buddhist abbot.
It’s easy to get caught up in the searing spectacle of reactivity. But I hope that many more readers, even those initially challenged by Hsu’s writing, will take it as an opportunity — an opening. As Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel (author, teacher, and former ED of BPF) recently noted,
When we are bothered by someone, something, or ourselves, that is the knock of freedom. If we shut out the uninvited guest, then that is going back to sleep. If we really want freedom, what is shut out will return and knock on the door. Knock, knock, it’s me again. I work to end oppression everywhere within and without.
Hsu’s knock on the door of delusion and cultural appropriation comes from a place of love. Love for the buddhadharma, and love for the Asian and Asian diasporic communities who have preserved and shared its wisdom — even when doing so has placed them in danger of white supremacist violence.
First tracing through poignant stories of Japanese-American Buddhists enduring mass incarceration during WWII, when Asian American Buddhist leaders were “deemed suspect by the FBI following the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Hsu then draws us into the heart of her argument on the painful problems of white domination in Western dharma.
White supremacy has systematically alienated Asian and Asian-American Buddhist communities and diminished the validity of our relationship to Buddhism in the U.S. The erasure and exclusion of our communities is not merely about a lack of inclusion; to put it so simply would be dismissive of the facts of history. The exclusion of Asian and Asian-American Buddhists from conversations on American Buddhism is cultural appropriation. It renders invisible our foundational role in establishing and maintaining Buddhism in America despite white supremacy. Thus, such erasure denies our right to claim our deep and specific connection—indeed, our centrality—to American Buddhism. It appropriates our historical authority in order to promote the white ownership of an indigenous Asian practice for liberation.
In the full piece, beautifully illustrated with archival photographs, one sees both rigor and heart: a trained academic, and a devoted practitioner.
Hsu isn’t bludgeoning people with blame and then declaring victory, righteous and justified. She’s here for a deeper change.
She offers generous encouragement from one buddhadharma follower to another.
She gives concrete examples of how white practitioners might resist dominant beliefs (explicit or implicit) that Buddhism “can only be made safe through white ownership.”
To be clear, Buddhism belongs to all sentient beings. Even so, Asians and Asian American Buddhists have a rightful, distinct historical claim to Buddhism. It has been rooted in our cultures for thousands of years. When it is said that Buddhism has been practiced for over 2,500 years, it is important to consider who has been persistently maintaining the practice for millennia: Asians, and more recently, Asian-Americans. It is because of our physical, emotional, and spiritual labor, our diligent cultivation of the practice through time and through histories of oppression, that Buddhism has persisted to the current time period and can be shared with non-Asian practitioners. This is historical fact.
Dana as gratitude might include intentional efforts to center the histories of Asian and Asian-American Buddhists in your sanghas; that work might be informed by facilitating reading groups or inviting Asian-American Buddhist scholars and practitioners to speak. A white practitioner could choose to attend an Asian-dominant sangha and learn from a teacher who is not white. And we can all actively assert the need for consistent incorporation of Asian and Asian-American Buddhist perspectives and leadership roles in popular Buddhist magazines, organizations, and conferences.
While the piece contains plenty of fierce truth-telling, it does not, in the words of Breeshia Turner, “mistake retribution for justice.” I don’t read it as an attempt to excommunicate white Buddhists, or non-Asian Buddhists, from the larger dharma community. I see it as invitation, not indictment.
But don’t take my word for it! In a spirit of ehipassiko — “come investigate for yourself” — please read the full article, and share your thoughts with us.
Part 2: Seeking Within Ourselves
On a personal level, as an Afro-Caribbean, Jewish, non-Asian Co-Director of Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I feel so much gratitude to Funie for continuing this vital conversation. Alongside wonderful authors like Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Chenxing Han, Duncan Ryūken Williams, Kim Tran, Kenji Liu, Arun of Angry Asian Buddhist, Dedunu Sylvia, and more, she is giving voice to politicized dimensions of U.S. Asian dharma — an effort that illuminates the often-unspoken context for all practitioners in white-dominated societies.
Thanks in large part to Funie’s heartfelt labor (and the foundations laid by Asian American BPFers since the organization’s inception), we at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship are diving deeper into conversations and concrete projects around these themes. After all, we are a historically-white-majority organization based in an Asian spiritual tradition. We’ve got our own healing to do.
Full disclosure: even I, as a person of color, initially resisted this work. Not because I don’t want more dialogue and action on racial justice and the dharma (um, always!), but because I feared that an identity-based approach, rather than one grounded in clear commitment to specific social movement aims, could be easily knocked off target — diluted, derailed, and defanged.
To paraphrase the wisdom of Zora Neale Hurston: Is this skinfolk or kinfolk? It might be racially aware, but is it also politically transformative? Is it really social justice?
We know that even progressive Asian American and Latinx communities can fall prey to anti-Blackness. (To be real, so can Black communities. Shoutout to wonderful dharma fam doing work to change this!) We know that Black Americans can gloss over implications of U.S. settler colonialism, ignoring the oppression of indigenous people. We know that people of color can collude with white-led institutions that romanticize and commodify Asian spirituality.
And on top of crappy cross-group behaviors, factions within a single ethnic group can exploit, dominate, or reject each other.
Sounds so pessimistic, I know! But maybe you, too, share this desire for clarity — to avoid getting caught in the same old traps. (Rhyming nicely with our inner efforts to unlock the shackling habit-patterns of greed, hatred, and delusion.)
How can we tell when our attempts to challenge white supremacy, reclaiming healthy power and love for people of color, risk mimicking the same hierarchies?
‘I, too, deserve the benefits that white, thin, owning-class, heterosexual U.S. citizens enjoy. This is what will bring me happiness.’
– or – in a post-colonial context,
WAY too many examples to get into here — resolving, perhaps, into a basic assessment that our movements for liberation must be intersectional.
So this (as short as I can say it) is why I balked, at first, at the idea of BPF prioritizing anti-racist projects that re-center Asian American Buddhists in Western dharma. I worried that without greater political clarity, it might somehow lead us to a conservative place.
One of life’s great gifts, however, is a friend looking you in the eye and letting you know, with great love and respect, that on this one you’re wrong.
It has been a blessing to be pushed, in caring community with Funie and others here at BPF, to recognize the ways in which dialing up the volume on Asian American centrality in Buddhism is always already social justice.
This has been a deepening, for me, into Right View: beyond the intellectual.
Touching reality deeply — knowing what is going on inside and outside of ourselves — is the way to liberate ourselves from the suffering that is caused by wrong perceptions. Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. It is the insight we have into the reality of life, a living insight that fills us with understanding, peace, and love.
—Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
For one, I am hearing, from the heart, with precious tears and hugs and appreciation on all sides, that healing spaces for Asian American Buddhists are necessary. Period, point-blank. Asian diasporic Buddhists have not only seen their spiritual traditions taken up and repackaged by powerful white individuals and institutions, but have been shamed and belittled for ‘superstitious’ forms of buddhadharma in their own family heritage. Not okay. Let’s work together to change this.
Secondly, as public intellectual and #PleasureActivist innovator adrienne maree brown always says, joy and healing make us better revolutionaries.
What if it brought us sacred joy to uplift the names, faces, and stories of Asian diasporic people who have aided the flowering of engaged Buddhism where we live? As I study the sacred activism of Mayumi Oda, Kaz Tanahashi, Rev. Ryo Imamura, Mushim Ikeda, Jun-san Yasuda, Anchalee Kurutach, and other giants who have contributed to BPF since its founding in 1978, I am so deeply thankful for their efforts. Their work continues to this day in streams of poetry, painting, anti-nuclear organizing, annual peace walks, solidarity with Standing Rock, and more.
What if we relished meeting each other in a place of historically-grounded recognition, respect, and sweet spiritual friendship?
What if this recognition built sacred trust for collaboration among radical people of color and white accomplices, all devoted to collective liberation?
For non-Asians like me, our motivation must be more than a desire for intellectual acquisition — dry recitation of names and dates, or clever party tricks. (Did you know who taught the Beat poets about Buddhism? It was Reverend Kanmo and Jane Imamura!) Our regard and love for one another, in multiracial community of socially engaged Buddhism, can be so much more lush, so much more humble, so much more vibrant and powerful. This is exciting terrain.
You can expect to see more on these themes from BPF in the coming year, and I very much hope you’ll join the conversation. If you care about race, dharma, liberation, or all three, we need you.
Part 3: Continuing the Conversation
We wouldn’t be able to enter into these transformative, trust-building dialogues in beloved community if it weren’t for YOU — our readers, comrades, sangha, community members, and friends.
So, since Lion’s Roar doesn’t have a comments section, you’re welcome to use ours, below.
What does Funie’s article bring up for you, as an Asian or non-Asian practitioner? Are you surprised by any element of your reaction? What do you hope to see in the future, as we continue building transformative community to heal the karma of racism, and promote true happiness for all?
Yours on the path,
and in gratitude, always,