Thursday, September 30, 2010

Just Who Do You Think You're Standing Up for?!

Over at the Reformed Buddhist, Kyle has a strongly worded post taking aim at the lack of public commentary from American Buddhists about a pair of Buddhist centers being denied legal support from local governments for new buildings. He contrasts this with the clear, and sometimes very visible public support some convert Buddhists have given to the U.S. Muslim community in general, and to the Park 51 project in New York specifically.

Personally, I think there is a fundamental difference between the Mosque issue and these other issues of religious intolerance. From the Mayors office in New York City, to the Governors office in Albany to even words of encouragement by President Obama, the group building the Mosque have been given the green light to start construction in NY since all the necessary statutory requests and permits have been approved by each of the governmental agencies involved. Conversely, there are currently two very significant religious freedom cases in progress, one in Walnut, California and one in Rankin County, Mississippi, where Buddhists have been denied by the local governmental officials the right to build religious buildings, and therefore have been blocked from their constitutional right to exercise and practice religion freely. What ever my personal feelings are towards taking a side in the New York Mosque public debate, how we act as a untied front can not and should not overshadow the very real, illegal, baseless and cowardly governmental interference in Mississippi and California. One issue signifies direct actions against our rights and freedoms guaranteed to us in the United States Constitution, the other, the NY Mosque controversy, is ultimately nothing more than taking sides in a public debate.

I disagree with Kyle about the utility of publicly supporting members of another religion that has been routinely demonized in this nation. Staying silent because something has become a political spectacle and doesn't have any other clear and direct action isn't my style - period. (Although, I wholeheartedly support sitting silently when that is what's called for :)

Let's consider the rest of what Kyle says. He's absolutely right that in both of the Buddhist center cases, people have an opportunity to speak up and perhaps influence a specific action of discrimination. We can write officials in these two towns, write blog posts, get the word out to others. And I support all of that, which is part of why I'm writing this post.

FYI: Kyle has a previous post with contact info available for the Walnut, California case.

However, one thing I'd like to point out is that in great contrast to the Park 51 project, which has been front page news for months, the first time I - a fairly big news hound - heard about these two Buddhist center cases was a few weeks ago. How many American Buddhists have any idea about them? Probably not many. How many know about the NYC Islamic Center debate? Probably a vast majority.

It's not at all surprising that Buddhists are commenting about the very public debate over Islam, but not about these two Buddhist center cases, or issues like them. Buddhists aren't the "sexy enemy" that many consider Muslims to be. The mainstream media won't make a ton of money reporting about such issues, and even though the Federal government is intervening in at least of the cases, there's zero public pressure for the kind of statement President Obama made about the Park 51 project.

Oppression manifests in many different ways, and much of it occurs outside of the general public's eye. Which makes it that much more difficult to address. This is why I believe it's important to not only tackle specific instances of oppression, but to do what we can to promote a more just and liberated world in general. It's much less tangible, and we may never see the results of said actions, but sometimes a meditation for peace in the middle of an angry crowd is the most skillful offering one can make.

Update: here's my letter to the Walnut, California officials.

Dear _______,

I'm a Zen Buddhist living in St. Paul, MN. I recently became aware of the conflict over a building permit for the Chung Tai Zen Center. I'm not in the practice of writing local officials about building permits; in fact, I don't recall ever having done so. However, the debate over the Cordoba House Project in New York City has brought renewed attention to legacy across the United States of religious discrimination, especially when it comes to non-Christian religious communities.

I honestly don't know the actual reasons for denying the permit for the Walnut,California. What greatly concerns me is that at least two members of your Planning Commission, according to the U.S. Department of Justice filing, appear to have unreasonable objections to the permit. Mr. Hall's suggestion that the center would be used to "recruit and influence" nearby middle school students is not only outrageous, but would probably never be uttered about a Christian church community in the same proximity. And the argument that the Zen Center would be a "tourist attraction" seems very similar to me.

My guess is that, given the intervention of the Dept. of Justice, your office and the others will not be giving out much information about this case. So, although I would prefer to know why this Zen Center building is being blocked, I will simply offer my view that this situation could expand into something more damaging if decent reasons aren't offered in some public manner. The Cordoba House project had people for and against it, but in the end, the press coverage was a big headache for the city of New York. Perhaps your town, and this Zen Center aren't as interesting to the media, but you never know what issues they will choose to take up and exploit for profits and sensationalism.

The Walnut Planning Commission might ultimately be in the right on this issue. Since I don't know the whole story, I am willing to entertain that possibility. You need to understand, though, that being a member of religious minority group in this country isn't always welcomed, and as such, sometimes we must speak out and make sure that our freedoms are being upheld, just like anyone else in this nation.

I sincerely hope that this conflict is resolved soon, and that all parties involved are given due respect and treated with the utmost fairness.


Nathan Thompson
St. Paul, MN


Kyle said...

Thanks Nathan. I've posted an updated piece with more information concerning the case in Walnut California.

Just as a side note, I think it is very important that we speak our minds in support of other discriminated religions, I just disagree about doing it as a Buddhist movement. Who knows, I could be wrong.

Thanks again!

Algernon said...

I'm sure Kyle will appreciate the humor when I ask if there are any ladies in the "untied front."

But seriously.

Paul Lynch over at had a good post not very long ago about discriminatory road blocks faced by Buddhist centers. It happens fairly frequently, as a matter of fact. As you point out, however, Buddhism is not subject to the degree of demonization and villification that has been inflicted upon Islam and its adherents.

How do I say this final point? Kyle, I don't get this constant complaint about what other Buddhists choose to talk about. If some Buddhists have chosen to write about Cordoba House in NYC, why not let them be? And who says that this constitutes "a Buddhist movement?" This seems like a manufactured controversy.

Kyle said...

@Algernon - Not only do I think it is great that Buddhists are speaking out, I think it is something that bring great benefit to the Buddhist community. Certainly everyone has a right to comment on what they want.

Which item do you think is manufactured? I was just pointing out that 2 obvious incidents of religious intolerance seem to gain little interest when compared to the vocal out pouring about the Mosque. Nathan is right, Buddhist temples being shot down isn't sexy, it doesn't render images of planes flying into buildings.

You know my point, that I feel we need to be careful in the realm of politics and religion. I engage society in my own way, others engage society in different ways, and our practice does color how we see the world. There is a lot of talk of 'socially engaged Buddhism' as a directed effort, which is great, but people shouldn't forget that all Buddhists may not come to the same conclusions and in reality, every Buddhist is socially engaged. How could life be any other way?

Nathan said...

I actually think there are many socially engaged Buddhisms - when you start to look around the world, you see that it's not some unified front. In fact, I don't even believe what's going on in the U.S. is unified - it just appears that way because a handful of "prominent" Buddhist publications and organizations get the word out about some of the more "liberal" or "progressive" actions. Everything else, regardless of where it might fall on the political spectrum, occurs mostly under the radar, like these Buddhist center blockings.

Kyle said...

Whelp, I just received a not so friendly email from the mayor. Bah, too bad I can't share it. Good times!

Brikoleur said...

Why not? The Mayor is a public figure, and this is a matter of public interest. Unless the email contains information of a confidential nature, any journalist would consider themselves free to publish it.

Kyle said...

Because at the bottom of their email is a disclaimer "CONFIDENTIALITY NOTICE: This communication with its contents may contain confidential and/or legally privileged information. It is solely for the use of the intended recipient(s). Unauthorized interception, review, use, or disclosure is prohibited and may violate applicable laws including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. If you are not the intended recipient, please contact the sender and destroy all copies of the communication."

Which means that I need to get express permission before posting the contents. He also directly expressed a wish for me not to share the information, and I will honor that.

Nathan said...

I also received an e-mail from him this morning.

Mumon K said...


Thanks 4 the heads-up. It's trivial to word the e-mail in such a way as to avoid that stuff at the bottom added by lawyers.