Saturday, June 25, 2011

Buddhism and Race Again



This post, written by a young woman from Sri Lanka who lives in Minnesota, has been getting a lot of attention in the Buddhist blogosphere. It's not an easy to read post. And it's gotten a bit of negative attention already, as well as dismissive comments about how she's a just a young, angry, and/or ignorant woman.

This paragraph is probably the one where the rails fall off for many white Buddhist readers.

Much like the commercialization and appropriation of Yoga serves as a profound source of anger and frustration to many South-Asian Hindus, I'm alternately befuddled and angered by white appropriation of Buddhism. No, I don't care how many times Richard Gere used his private jet to visit the Dalai Lama, stripping a belief system of its cultural context and putting it on like a pair of shoes, without acknowledging the struggles and realities of the people whom that culture belongs to, is imperialist, disrespectful, and mostly racist. The shallow ease with which Whiteness claims to understand the experiences of cultures of colour continues to bewilder me. How can you claim something as part of your identity, on par with people who grew up living and breathing that culture everyday? How can you claim to own something you've never had to defend, or fight for? And please, spare me the details of how your white Lutheran parents disapproved of your visits to the meditation center.


I'm not going to write a long commentary on the pluses and minuses of this piece.

While I don’t agree with everything she wrote, I think it’s worth really sitting with her voice if you’re a white, convert practitioner. Yes, she’s young. And yes, she doesn’t really seem to have any sense of how Buddhism has spread, and been re-invented to some extent in every place it has gone. But I have seen some quite hasty and defensive reactions to this post online already, which mirror reactions I have seen in local sanghas to issues brought up by practitioners of color.

Point blank: white practitioners need to stop defending themselves, and pay closer attention to what other Buddhists are saying and thinking. Doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other, but if people are really serious about all the “diversity” talk that goes around convert sanghas, then demonstrate it. Be willing to be with the uneasiness of conflict and difference. Be willing to accept that you might be wrong. Be willing to listen, and perhaps then, you might also be listened to.

This is one of the major pieces of work for the modern, worldwide sangha. I'm convinced of it. So, let's do it.

10 comments:

Ji Hyang said...

Agree.

Yes. she seems to be not completely aware of the way Buddhism, like Christianity, crosses cultures.
And, yes, we have work to do as a global sangha in hearing her experience, creating room for all voices.
I wrote last week about the need to articulate why this matters, in the way we teach Dharma, East Bay Meditation Center has some excellent resources here:
http://eastbaymeditation.org/index.php?s=64

There are also some events, like Angel Kyodo Williams' Inner Justice Intensive: http://transformativechange.org/transform/2011/06/2011-inner-justice-intensive/

Perhaps we should all move to Berkeley.

Be willing to be with the uneasiness of conflict and difference. Be willing to accept that you might be wrong. Be willing to listen, and perhaps then, you might also be listened to.

This is one of the major pieces of work for the modern, worldwide sangha. I'm convinced of it. So, let's do it.

Yes. if there is one major piece of work for the modern, worldwide sangha, this is it.

Eco Yogini said...

I agree. I'm not a Buddhist... but I agree with her.

I think as a white woman in Canada, raised Catholic in relative wealth, I cannot even begin to fathom what religion, faith and culture can mean to another.

Instead of defending, perhaps we should simply accept that everyone views Faith differently.

Robyn said...

I am thinking about her words in the context of what the Buddha taught, which is that realizing our true nature is available to everyone. If that is so, then it is available to people who grow up in a culture that is steeped in Buddhism and to people who discover it at some point in their life despite being a culture that is large unaware of the Buddha's teachings. This has always been so.

But, of course, I get it. I get that she is angry and probably has every right to feel ripped off and shut out by a lot of what passes for Buddhism in the West. As a middle class, white person, I cringe at a lot of what I see!

I was just looking at the website of a well-known Zen center in the US and saw that one can buy their way out of shared accommodations during retreats there. I had a moment of "yuck". Spending a couple of nights in a bunk bed in a dorm room, or sleeping on a mattress on the floor (the two options available where I practice) is an opportunity to practice like, you know, the rest of life. It already is incredibly privileged to just be there at the retreat!

Maybe I am already off-topic but reading her words, that little gesture by that Zen center came barreling back to me. I wanted to shout "toughen up!". It did smell a little of how yoga gets watered down to be a nicey-nice fitness routine.

I think the real key is that the teachers lead by example and make sure everyone is genuinely welcome. I feel like I have seen this work - not perfectly - but it does work. Likewise, people who have issues with what is going on need to be heard but within the context of what is really at stake - remaining clear about why we are there practicing in the first place, which is the Dharma.

David said...

She makes several good points but based on her presentation I suspect she has some other issues in her life that may be more deserving of her attention, and she probably believes that Theravada as codified in Sri Lanka is the beginning, middle, and end of Buddhism.

Algernon said...

Aye, listening is a good default here; and not just to the words, but really to what is behind the words. We don't always need to respond, defend, rewrite, reframe.

Arun said...

For you, dear Nathan, this may be “Buddhism and race again”—but for those of us who bear the burden of brown skin in white society, it is Buddhism and race every day. We don’t get to choose when to deal with issues of race.

There is an even more important dilemma that I see continually bubble up in the comments under various guises: that the author’s words should be discounted on the basis of her identity.

This dismissal presents itself in many forms. She is young, so she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Her writing doesn’t matter. She is angry, so she doesn’t mean what she’s writing. Her writing doesn’t matter. She is an ignorant Asian, so she lacks proper perspective. Her writing doesn’t matter. She is a hurting woman, so she is writing from a place of emotion, not logic. Her writing doesn’t matter.

None of these arguments are a valid reason for dismissing what she writes. If her assumptions are faulty or her logic impoverished, then the commentariat should kindly take issue with that. But if her argument is well-conceived, and one cannot find fault with it, then one exudes only an air of bigotry by faulting her based on who she is or seems to be, rather than by what she has written.

It is a shame that much of the backlash against this article only serves to exemplify some of the very points the author makes.

Nathan said...

Yes, Arun, I'm aware that I have the privilege to choose when it comes to race considerations, while you and others don't.

"It is a shame that much of the backlash against this article only serves to exemplify some of the very points the author makes."

I totally agree.

The fast and easy dismissals of her writing were exactly why I wrote the two posts that I did here.

Kimber Scott said...

I believe it is part of the human condition and perhaps the condition of all sentient beings to discover things about each other and if we find those things good and honorable, to appropriate them into our own existence and use them from our own perspective. Imitation has always been a form of flattery. And while a dress can belong to someone, the Dharma can not. The truth is universal and has no basis in the color of one's skin. The Dharma was meant to be shared and like everything else in the universe is always changing - even if the basic tenets remain relatively the same. She may find she needs to end her clinging to the idea Buddhism, unlike a dress, is the exclusive property of anyone, anywhere. This release would likely alleviate the suffering she is experiencing by trying to grasp the water of knowledge with such a tight fist. Knowledge flows.

Nathan said...

Kimber,

I totally agree that Buddhist wisdom belongs to no one. And it might even be true that she has some strong attachment to a particular view of what Buddhism is, which is adding to her suffering.

My point is that white practitioners need to be willing to address the ways in which racism and white privilege have impacted what's happening in the North American Buddhist landscape.

This isn't just about her dealing with some anger and attachment. It's about systemic, collective karma, and the willingness of all of us to face that, apply our practice to that.

Jess Gulbranson said...

Eco Yogini said earlier in the comments "I cannot even begin to fathom what religion, faith and culture can mean to another."

This is a good starting place for everyone, especially the person who wrote the contentious article.