Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why "Western" Buddhism, among other terms, often fails

We humans love to make distinctions. We really want to have things put into nice, tidy categories that we can then employ whenever a situation arises that seems to call for category x. This is what our mind likes to do, sort and tidy, sort and tidy. But the problem is that every category, every label we make up is always at best partial, and usually not very accurate at all. A well thought out label may point at the truth, but it can never actually account for all the complex mixing and intermingling of our lives each moment. This doesn't mean we should toss out labels all together; that's a complete impossibility really. However, it does mean that we should pause when employing words that may generalize, stereotype, marginalize, or just plain misrepresent that which we want to speak about.

One of the categories that has been causing a lot of angst lately is that of "Western Buddhism." Sub-labels that have been spawned from the larger one include "convert Buddhist" and "Western Buddhist," and then, in an attempt to differentiate groups, the labels "Ethnic Buddhist and Ethnic Buddhism" and also "Traditional Buddhist and "Traditional Buddhist" have appeared. I'm not sure which came first, but they all seem to be tied together, and none of them really have a clear meaning when you start to dig below the surface.

I always find digging up some history to be a good approach to beginning to understand what is happening today. Usually, the more I trace historical events linked to a particular issue, the picture becomes much more nuanced and harder to pin down. This isn't a bad thing; it's our life.

First Arrivals
The first arrivals in modern history to arrive from Asia into the United States came around 1820. More significant numbers, especially from China, began arriving after the California Gold Rush in 1849. The first Buddhist temple in North America was built in San Francisco not long after in 1853 (Buddhism in the U.S.). So, in terms of Buddhism in North America, we are looking at a period of a little more than 150 years at most. In Canada, where the first temples were established in Vancouver around the turn of the 20th century, the history is only a little more than one hundred years. There is also a small Buddhist community in Mexico - about 100,000 total in a nation of over 100 million - but I haven't been able to find any historical records about it.

Great Depression of 1873
Back to the United States, where during the 1870's, several events changed the landscape and began to set a direction for both Buddhism in America and for Asians in America. The first event was the Great Depression of 1873, which lasted nearly six years, caused the economies of several nations to tank, and elevated unemployment rates to at least 14% in the U.S. as a whole. It was much worse along the West Coast though, where railroad jobs were at a premium and where white migrants were often in competition with Chinese immigrants.

Here's an interesting quote from an article about that period, which gives some parallels between that economic crash and the current one.

Another factor setting off the crash was the implosion of the Jay Cooke & Company. This was a major component of the banking establishment. It collapsed when it found that it was unable to market several million dollars in Northern Pacific railway bonds (does this sound familiar?). At the time, much of the investment banking establishment was salivating for railroads much like our recent investment banks went off the edge with real estate. When the funding source dried up or too much over building occurred, multiple external forces collapsed the market.

After the Civil War many people found employment in the railway boom. Outside of agriculture it was the largest employer and also had the most money at risk. In fact, there are many parallels with our current employment situation and how many people are dependent on the finance and real estate industries. Once that industry imploded, many people found themselves out of work.
See:The Long Depression of 1873

So, what does this have to do with Buddhism or with the Asian communities in the U.S.? Well, first off, there was a huge backlash against Chinese laborers, who were blamed for driving down wages and causing the economic collapse. (Never mind that it was the rich, white male bankers who bought into the rich, white male railroad owners speculative deals. And never mind that the same white railroad owners deliberately drove down the pay for their workers to make more profit, and hired Chinese immigrant laborers because they could pay them significantly less.) This backlash spread across the nation, and into the halls of Congress where, in 1875, the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts were written into law. This is really the beginning of U.S. immigration law in many respects, and the fact that it began by excluding based solely on race and country of origin says a lot about the problems we still have today when it comes to immigration law and racial biases. A similar, if slightly less harsh act was declared in Canada in 1885, which set a financial penalty on any Chinese immigrant coming into Canada. All of this points to the fact that Buddhism, which originally was transplanted in North America by these same immigrant communities, already had a strike against it.

Efforts to "fit in" from the start
Beyond the issues of race and immigration, Buddhist communities had to deal with the perceptions of their religion by Christian majorities in both the U.S. and Canada. Following the Parliament of the World's Religions, held in Chicago in 1893, and during which Buddhism became more "on the radar" for the average North American, the first Jodo Shinshu priests arrived in San Francisco. Six years later, their first temple was built, and the Buddhist Churches of America formed.

Why the use of the word "Churches"? First, the white public backlash that had began during the Depression years extended into the next century, targeting the "invasion" of an "alien" religion. Newspaper accounts regularly used phrases like this. Here is an example, taken from an otherwise fairly respectful (for the times) article on the first temple, from the Atlanta Constitution, July 1901.

"the outpost in San Francisco is not all of the invasion. Already the founder of the mission here, Sonoda, is in Berlin, where on April 7th, Japanese officers, legation attaches and travelers joined in the celebration of Buddha's birthday. Nishijima, who came as Sonoda's assistant, is in the interior of California, paving the way to the establishment of missions at Sacramento and Fresno. At Sacramento a temple is about to be erected, $6,000 having been raised already for buying the ground. In London is the Right Reverend Kozui Otani, son of the titled High Priest Kioto, who will return to Japan after a long tour of the world, devoted to close study of social and religious conditions." See: First Japanese Temple

Even though the Christian majority viewed the small Buddhist minority with great suspicion, what's fascinating is that Buddhist Churches of America, from the very beginning, attempted to open their doors to non-Asians interested in Buddhism. In addition, they deliberately modified their temples and services to fit in more with the greater, Christian dominant communities they had moved into. Writing about the founding period nearly 100 years later,the Rev. Masao Kodani comments:

An important part of this was the growing Buddhist temples and Christian churches. Following the example of the Young Men's Christian Association, the Buddhists formed the Young Men's Buddhist Association. Buddhist gatherings took the form of the chanting of sutras followed by sermons, informal talks, or more formal lectures. Study classes were conducted on Saturday nights with services and more formal lectures on Sunday. With growing non-Japanese interest in Buddhism, services and lectures for "non-Asians" were conducted on Monday nights. From its very beginnings, Jodo Shinshu Buddhism was purposely adapted to Christian America. This can be seen in the format of its "services," its lectures, and in the name of its temples as "Buddhist Associations (bukkyokai)" or "Buddhist Churches (bukkyo kyokai)" rather than the more proper title of temple. This ambiguity would have greater implications in the future when later generations, whose understanding of Jodo Shinshu was not as great and whose inability to access the Japanese language resources that helped explain the doctrine, would take over. It was not, for example, until the 1970s and the growing publication of English materials explaining the doctrine of Jodo Shinshu that these Buddhist Churches began to change their names to Buddhist Temples.
See:The History of the Buddhist Churches of America

Early White American Interest
In addition to the issues presented during the establishment of the Buddhist Churches of America, another interesting trend occurring during this period (approximately 1870-1920) was the growing interest of white North Americans in "Eastern philosophy and religion." The Theosophical Society, dedicated to the study of Hinduism, Buddhism, and mysticism of all forms it seems, was founded in 1875. The first fairly well known white American to publicly convert to Buddhism, Henry Steel Olcott, a former U.S. army colonel during the Civil War, also occurred around this time. And even before this, such prominent figures as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson gave large nods to both Buddhism and Hinduism in their writings.

A little later, in 1905, the first Zen Buddhist priest, Soyen Shaku, was invited to stay in the United States by a wealthy white American couple. One of Shuku's students, Nyogen Senzaki, came over from Japan soon after, and in 1922, began giving dharma talks in English. Another zen priest linked to Soyen Shaku, Shigetsu Sasaki, eventually settled in New York and established what would become the First Zen Institute of America. Among those who would become active in this group were Ruth Fuller Everett, and her son in law, Alan Watts, both prominent figures in the rise of interest in Zen amongst future white converts in the 1950's and 1960's. Ruth Fuller Everett eventually married Sasaki, and spent most of her later years hopping between Kyoto and New York, doing Zen training, and translating Zen texts into English.

So, the blurring of lines began well over a hundred years ago, long before the arrival of what are often considered to be the first "convert" focused Zen Buddhist communities in the late 1950's. Who is a "Western Buddhist"? What is "traditional"? Can the terms "The West" and "The East" have any meaning, given this kind of history? These are just a few of the questions that should come to mind after reflecting on this history.

Some Current Statistics
Just to muddy the water even more, here are a few current statistics. C.N. Le writes "According to the 2000 U.S. census, Asian Americans make up 4.3% of the total U.S. population -- that's about 12 million people who identify themselves as at least part Asian" Population Statistics. In an article on Buddhism in America, Ryuei Michael McCormick writes the following, attempting to get at the number of Asians, Asian American or Asian immigrant, that practice Buddhism in the U.S.: "The Ethnic Buddhists consist of an estimated 2.2 - 3.2 million immigrants from Asian countries who have established Buddhists temples (or churches) to meet the social, cultural and religious needs of their many diverse communities. This group includes the older Chinese and Japanese communities which go back to the 19th century, and the new waves of immigration from Korea, Vietnam, other Buddhist countries in SE Asia, as well as fresh waves of immigrants from China"Buddhism in America First, it should be noted again noted that there are far more non-Buddhist people of Asian descent living in the U.S. than there are Asian-American Buddhists. Second, the statistics given by McCormick are somewhat flawed, given that, for example, Asian-Americans who converted to Buddhism in adulthood aren't included. In addition, the languaging here focuses in on ethnic community-based religious practice and uses race and national origin as a defining marker of such groups. Yet, this can easily leave out the complex interplay of origin cultures and U.S. cultures, among other things, giving a false impression that what happens today in a Buddhist temple in San Francisco started by Japanese immigrants a century ago is somehow "traditional" and what happens in a Zen Temple founded primarily by white Americans half a century ago in the same city is somehow "Western" or "modern" or whatever label you wish to attach to it.

Among groups that tend to fall into the category of "convert" Buddhist groups, there are probably over a million followers of Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, and the Theravadin derived Vipassana meditation practices. Although some efforts have been made at diversifying these groups, they continue to be primarily white, middle to upper class, and highly college educated. Another larger, but lesser known group, the Soka Gakkai Buddhists, have upwards of 300,000 members, and are much more racially and socio-economically diverse. As of 2002, according to their survey, SGI-USA's membership is 42% white, 15% black, 23% Asian, Pacific Islander, 6% Latino, and 15% mixed race (Buddhism in America. Groups like Soka Gakkai on the convert end, as well as the many groups whose predominant populations are people of Asian descent, by and large receive much less coverage in mainstream American media than do the convert groups dominated by white Americans. As such, getting an accurate picture of the many Buddhisms being practiced on the continent is a difficult task, and can definitely be one reason people are relying on terms like "Western Buddhist," which sound nice, but fail to convey clarity.

Provisional Labels
In my opinion, we are just starting to actually sort all of this out, and terms like Western Buddhism will someday be viewed a provisional labels that served as markers of the times, and not as very accurate reflections of what actually is going on. It will be very interesting to watch how Buddhist practice continues to unfold in this newest of its homes: North America. May we find more accurate ways to speak of this diverse path, and may we see all the struggle to uncover those more accurate ways as another dharma gate among the myriad of dharma gates.


Hugh said...

Interesting post - I shared it on the Buddha's Wish for the World fan page:

Nathan said...

Thanks for sharing it Hugh. I just updated it, reorganizing, adding some more info, and clarifying some statements.


NellaLou said...

Well done piece Nathan. I didn't know the connection between Watts and Sasaki before (or many of the other things you wrote about actually).

I am wondering what does one call white Buddhist people who are living or born in Asia? I am thinking of the many converts who have gone to Asia (like me)? More particularly though the monastics like Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tenzin Palmo, Muhô of Antaiji and many others. Not Asian, not "Modern"...white converts in Asia is all I can come up with. And for those born in Asia-children of white converts in Asia I suppose...sort and tidy!

Nathan said...

Hi NellaLou,

"I am wondering what does one call white Buddhist people who are living or born in Asia?" Hmm, there's another group blurring the lines. I sure don't have any better terms than what you came up with at this time. It's all very interesting, isn't it?


Anonymous said...


"I am wondering what does one call white Buddhist people who are living or born in Asia?"

It's funny, as a white Buddhist who has lived in Asia for most of the last ten years (Thailand and Korea), I look with some bemusement at these dabates on race raging across the Buddhist blogosphere.

And I think you are right in your implied conclusion - the only word for ALL of us is..... Buddhists.

With palms together,