Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Appearance of White American Buddhists

I have to say that the explosion over the post by Tassja over at Womanist Musings has jolted me. You'll have to forgive me for not moving on yet. Because I'm not moving on yet.

Given my life experience, race and racism are never far from my awareness. However, the genuine nastiness, callousness, and defensiveness that have come in response to this single article has been a reminder of just how screwed up people still are when it comes to race.

This morning, I read the following, a post by another young woman of color offering her own take, and standing with Tassja in the process.

I would like to tell you how Buddhism influences my father’s treatment of his patients, every one of whom are criminally insane. I would like to tell you how Buddhism plays a role in the way my mother lends the money she doesn’t have to spare. I would like to tell you of how Buddhism sustained my aunt through the famine and my uncle through the war—I would like to tell you how it gave some measure of peace to those who did not survive.

Because this is what we mean when we say that Buddhism flows in our blood.

I would like to tell you, but I am afraid. I am afraid of you Barbara O’Brien, Kyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother. I am terrified because I can see my future in what you are presently doing to Tassja.

You might tell me that Buddhism belongs in the meditation center and not the hospital. You might tell me that the war is over so what does it matter. You might tell me famine is a state of mind or any number of other things equally indicative of never having helplessly watched a child starve to death. You could discount all my family’s blood, sweat, and tears and the way they flow into and out of the Buddhism I live everyday.

I don't personally know either of these women. Just as I am a disembodied person to them who writes a blog about Buddhism, they are disembodied Buddhist writers to me. We are, even with the most heartfelt, passionate of words, abstracted from each other. Which makes it that much easier to toss labels about, make casual dismissals, and generally ignore the living, breathing being behind the words trying to break through their suffering.

It's quite easy to note the demonstrated lack of compassion amongst some of the white Buddhist commentariat. One man, who claimed to have written two books on the Pali Canon and to have practiced 23 years, repeatedly referred to Tassja as a "silly cow." Another commenter suggested that she needs to find a teacher, so she can deal with her anger.

I won't go on with more examples. Some of you will, no doubt, be saying to yourself "Stop pointing fingers at others and look at yourself." And that's fine. I don't care. I have spent years facing the legacy of race, racism, whiteness, and oppression that I have inherited. And I imagine I will continue to have to face it until the day I die.

Actually, though, what's even more apparent to me, when surveying all of the responses to Tassja's post, is the deeply fragile appearance of white Buddhist practice. Notice I said "appearance" because this isn't to speak of all white convert practitioners, but to speak of how we might collectively appear to people looking in from the outside.

How we, for example, appear to fail at the most basic teachings of compassion and generosity of spirit. How we appear to be fighting a turf war, and demanding to be acknowledged as "legitimate dharma students." How we appear to spin around and around in old patterns of guilt, denial, and blame the moment someone speaks a few critical words about "our race." How we appear to be smug in our book knowledge of Buddhism. How we regularly appear to make appeals to diversity, but then flip out the moment that diversity threatens the vision we have of "Buddhist practice."

All intentions aside, this is how "we" - white American Buddhist converts - collectively appear in this conversation. And it's how "we" have collectively appeared in discussions about race, privilege, and oppression for decades. Twenty years ago, then Tricycle magazine editor Helen Tworkov made the following ludicrous statement, "so far…not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism," which set off a firestorm that looks terribly similar to the smaller online version I am writing about today.

It's important to me to bear witness to the fear, sadness, anger, and suffering reflected in the voices of the Buddhists of color who either wrote blog posts like Tassja and Prajna (the author of the piece I quote above), or who left comments on these posts. Even if we have divergent views at times, we are all practicing under the umbrella of Buddha's teachings.

I offer this post as a tiny seed in the vast, seeded field of race in America. It is so much bigger than us Buddhists, but we are, like everyone else, embedded within it. It is our collective karma, to be faced or not.

May we choose to leap, again and again, into the dragon's mouth.


Unknown said...

These conversations tend to be polarizing, that is just the ugly nature of this particular beast. A conversation evolves into statements about how much better my Buddhism is compared to your Buddhism. How little he/she/it gets it.

I was raised Buddhist versus you are only a convert. Your Buddhism is devotion and not the core teachings. Blah. Not interested anymore.

Simple fact is that, blind to all race and color, Samsara stings us all. We feel it, it hurts and we react.

I found the original post that sparked this whole thing to be short-sighted, the author could benefit from talking to some the people she judges as well as a few more years of wisdom. She is young and angry. We've been there.

The commenter calling the author a "silly cow" was ridiculous. He (or she) needs to be more compassionate and not hide behind insults when someone opens themselves to the world to judge.

The follow up post over at Arun's blog was heartfelt but Buddhism runs in the bones, skin and blood of every Buddhist. We each have our narrative, our own moments. We each bleed the Dharma and it left scars.

But there is no way to compare those scars, the pain, that brought us into this practice. Whether you are born into it or not; whether you have pleasant memories or not; devotional or pragmatic; we each had our moment when the bottom of the pail fell out. We each stood naked in the light.

When reminded of that, emotions arise. I know they do for me. "How dare she belittle me..." , "They are just New-Agers and Hippies..."

Whatever. It is just the pain talking.



ps. Always wonderful to read your take though Nathan.

Kyle said...

Well, this made my day. I'm curious, when they (meaning these two women) find someone that will engage them with an opinion that doesn't fit theirs, then hide behind the victim role while playing the aggressor, do they want their cake and eat it too? I mean, so dicussions about race should be one sided, eh? No disagreements for fear of becoming the victimizer?

Either their is discussion or their isn't. So I'll take the road all the other bloggers take, and just avoid the whole topic all together. What's the point of conversation if it's one sided or else?

Algernon said...

Is there anything I can say to this that won't just stir up the waters more? I don't know. Listening is probably best.

If I were to say anything, it would be something about layers. There is a layer close to the surface where there is pain, alienation, a painful interaction between self and other.

The idea that we can just overlook this pain and "transcend it" is an abstract view -- maybe that's the "book learning" coming in. It's easy to read some translations of the Madhaymika and decide nothing matters, certainly not other people.

But can a "self" be transcended properly without healing? Can a true sense of unity appear without healing the rifts on the surface in some way? Is that even possible?

I really don't know, but I often notice how easy it is to use dharma words as an excuse to ignore things.

Ignoring the cries of the world (or explaining it away in sophistries) is not the bodhisattva way.

Firehorse said...

@Jack Daw: "Samsara stings us all. We feel it, it hurts and we react."

Very true... I was going to ask what happens if you/we "sit" with that pain and look beyond the words and then I was remembered an instance where I have not been doing that...

Thank you for sharing...

Ji Hyang said...

While it is true that the separation of race (like that of gender) is ultimately, like all compounded things, an illusion, the suffering caused by this illusion is real. As white Buddhists there is a layer of mindfulness we are not challenged often enough to engage--

In moments like this I take refuge in Thich Nhat Hanh's Mindfulness practices.

May we engage each other with clear mind and open heart.

Trainings of the Mind in Diversity
1. Aware of the suffering caused by imposing one’s own opinions or cultural beliefs upon another human being, I undertake the training to refrain from forcing others, in any way—through authority, threat, financial incentive, or education—to adopt my own belief system...
2. Aware of the suffering caused by invalidating or denying another person’s experience, I undertake the training to refrain from making assumptions, or judging harshly any beliefs and attitudes that are different from my own or not understandable to me. I commit to being open-minded towards other points of view, and I commit to meeting each perceived difference in another person with the willingness to learn more about their world view and individual circumstances.

3. Aware of the suffering caused by the violence of treating someone as inferior or superior to one’s own self, I undertake the training to refrain from diminishing or idealizing the worth, integrity, and happiness of any human being. Recognizing that my true nature is not separate from others, I commit to treating each person that comes into my consciousness, with the same lovingkindness, care, and equanimity that I would bestow upon a beloved benefactor or dear friend...

(the full text can be found at:http://www.eastbaymeditation.org/index.php?s=64

6. Aware of the suffering caused to myself and others by fear and anger during conflict or disagreement, I undertake the training to refrain from reacting defensively, using harmful speech because I feel injured, or using language or cognitive argument to justify my sense of rightness. I commit to communicate and express myself mindfully, speaking truthfully from my heart with patience and compassion. I commit to practice genuine and deep listening to all sides of a dispute, and to remain in contact with my highest intentions of recognizing the humanity within all people.

7. Aware of the suffering caused by the ignorance of misinformation and the lack of information that aggravate fixed views, stereotypes, the stigmatizing of a human being as “other,” and the marginalization of cultural groups, I undertake the training to educate myself about other cultural attitudes, world views, ethnic traditions, and life experiences outside of my own. I commit to be curious with humility and openness, to recognize with compassion the experience of suffering in all beings, and to practice sympathetic joy when encountering the many different cultural expressions of happiness and celebration around the world.

8. Aware of the suffering caused by the cumulative harm that a collective of people can impose on individuals and other groups, I undertake the training to refrain from consciously validating or participating in group processes, dynamics, activities, decisions, or actions which perpetuate the suffering that these trainings describe on a familial, social, institutional, governmental, societal, cultural, or global level. I commit to exploring, examining and eliminating the ways that I consciously and unconsciously ally myself with forces that cause harm and oppression, and commit myself to working for the benefit and peace of all.
Diversity Practice © 2004 Larry Yang

David said...

I am unable to understand just how white Buddhists are oppressing Asian Buddhists. In my experience, which is considerable, Asian Buddhists across the board often seem standoffish and frankly, downright unfriendly to Westerners. Perhaps they resent us, feeling that we are encroaching on their territory. I don’t know. I feel Buddha-dharma belongs to the world, not just to those from one geographic corner of it.

So, I'm not sure that these angry Asian Buddhists have that solid of a case to make, but I do think it’s high time someone called out a few of these folks who think being crude and rude is part of the Buddhist path with their inappropriate posts and/or nastiness when replying/leaving comments.

Firehorse said...

@Ji Hyang:Beautiful - thank you!

Richard Harrold said...

All I can say is I'm jealous that my posts about racism in the sangha didn't generate discussing like this. But I am white, so maybe it's anticipated?

Vincent said...

Buddhism - You either understand it or you don't. If you understand what Buddhism is, there is no need to talk about it. If you do not understand what Buddhism is, you shouldn't be talking about it.

When someone talks about Buddhism as if he or she has the final authourity on it, you can be sure he or she knows nothing about Buddhism.

Cheers! :-)

Kyle said...

Yea, I'm sorry, studying white people with generalized characterisics, (which is stereotyping) and calling it "Whiteness" is nothing more than modern day liberal eugenics. I mean, people do realize that most whites have never even heard of the term "white privlidge" right? When you live in an academic or social bubble where this kind of behavior of painting a entire race of people with a broad brush of "characterisics," and negitive at that, as acceptable behavior, the shock of how the real world works is only going to be worse. Furthermore this non-sense of owning a religion, claiming it for one's own culture, in this case Sri Lanka, is one of the most non Buddhist things, if there is such a thing, that I have ever heard. And worst of all, this kind of hate towards white people only helps those real white racists, and gives them fodder.

I'm sorry, I don't enjoy being studied like an animal in a zoo. But hey, disagreement only leads to long victim rants, right? Imagine if someone wrote that they were scared of what you were going to say about their 3 year old brother? In what world is this ok? They are scared of me. Should I send this whole conversation to a columnist I know at Redstate.com or to one of the vile columnists at townhall.com, and then see what they think about what they have to say? And they fear me?

In what world is it ok to call out an entire race of people, and their so-called culture, as bland and boring, then play the victim role when called out on it. This is radical behavior, and as liberals or left leaning people we scream about the right toning down their violent rhetoric, but we don't even acknowledge some of this hateful speech coming from the left? People want middle white America to listen to them, and make actual progress towards better race relations, then the hate and disdain needs to be toned down, or this whole conversation is going to be completely tuned out by them.

And what does this have to do with the dharma? Everything and nothing.

Unknown said...

I'm not Buddhist and therefore not really part of this dynamic, although I have spent much time reading Buddhist texts over the past 6 years and that's been a big influence in my life. However, prior to that I spent two decades working on race related issues and also wrote book on the subject. Therefore this is a discussion that I find very interesting.

My suggestion is that if you are white, it's most helpful to cultivate a genuine attitude of openness, curiosity, and compassionate non-judgment when encountering things like these angry posts from young women of color. Not taking on all their anger and falling into PC white guilt, and not reacting to it defensively either - just recognizing that here's someone with a very different set of experiences from yours on an incredibly important issue. Just think how much you would learn if you could really understand her perspective to the greatest extent possible. Again, that doesn't mean embracing it as right, but just being really open to trying to understand her perspective. In my experience, the more that happens, the easier it is to deal with these issues in what feels like an honest and good way.

I suspect that some commentators are reacting to the sense that they must embrace the standard PC line on white oppression in order to listen like this. This is not true. A lot of that, I agree, is BS. But not for the reasons commonly stated by the Right. Rather because they're too simplistic -- in particular, they don't take class divisions and the pain those cause sufficiently into account. Working class whites have been enraged at upper middle class white sanctimoniousness on racial issues since the late 1960s and there's many good reasons for that. That doesn't mean, however, that their anger and reactiveness creates a world view that's helpful either.

A genuine desire to understand the anger of others without feeling obliged to accept their viewpoints is I think key to undoing some of the karmic mess that we were all born into on racial issues.

Nathan said...

Just to let everyone know, I'm choosing to put into practice my call for listening, and to just let people speak their views here without commentary from me. Thank you for sharing. I know this is a challenging discussion.

Kyle said...

@Carol - Thanks for that, I appreciate it, and I agree with a lot of what you say! I wonder though, when you say:

"A genuine desire to understand the anger of others without feeling obliged to accept their viewpoints is I think key to undoing some of the karmic mess that we were all born into on racial issues."

Why is not my anger or someone else's anger towards the same exact thing the other person is angry about just as valid? Why do you feel there is a different standard for white people being angry over racism and people of color being upset over racism?

Unknown said...

@Kyle I don't. Personally, I spent serious effort trying to understand the anger of working class whites on racial issues and benefited tremendously from it. (Note: I myself did not grow up working class, although my parents did, so there was some, albeit very vague sense of personal connection.) One of the points of my book was that the fact that white liberals did not do this enough was key to their (read: in my case, our) downfall. There was (and is) tremendous unconscious class bias.

That said, we can't wait for the "other side" to go there first. To paraphrase Whitman, we (can) contain multitudes.

Nathan said...

Carol makes some excellent points about class. As someone who grew up on the edge of poverty, and has never had much extra as an adult, I totally agree that there are differences in levels of privilege and in reactions between working class folks and middle/upper class.

That said, all too often, voices of color are drowned out in the U.S. by appeals solely based on class analysis. (I'm not saying you are doing that Carol, only pointing out what I have seen in general.)

I disagree with Kyle's assessment that his anger is directed at the "exact same thing" as the woman's anger from the original post. At the same time, I think we all have to find ways to listen to each other better, which presents a dilemma here I suppose.

Personally, I see white anger as having been centralized for centuries in the U.S. And so, while I may occasionally get upset by a generalized remark from a person of color, I see that as an opportunity to practice. Because it's not something systemic that needs to be addressed - it's an individual response.

Caine Das said...

Thank you for this post, it brings peace and stilled waters to this issue. May the Buddha bless you and your merit increase.

Ben said...

As an African-American Buddhist who has never once attended a non-Asian Buddhist community, I'm wondering where all this leaves me. I suppose that's what happens when sweeping generalizations are made.

If anything, this whole thing is a beautiful illustration of Dukkha, and specifically the Dukkha caused by attachment to identity, whether that is cultural, "racial", or what-have-you.

Nathan said...

"If anything, this whole thing is a beautiful illustration of Dukkha, and specifically the Dukkha caused by attachment to identity, whether that is cultural, "racial", or what-have-you."

I totally agree Ben.