Monday, January 5, 2015

The Continued Exoticization of #Asians and #Buddhism in America: On Brad Warner's CNN Interview About #NYPD Officer Liu's Funeraln

The recent funeral of NYPD Officer Wenjian Liu offered, among other things, a clear window into race relations here in the United States. Occurring in the middle of the current police "slow down," the funeral also was used as another opportunity for members of the more conservative wing of the NYPD to protest NYC Mayor DeBlasio's fairly mild reform agenda. With plummeting arrest rates, and no real rise in public safety concerns in New York, the NYPD's actions demonstrate the highly bloated quality of the department. Indeed, some of the very issues being raised by the #BlackLivesMatter protests - the hyper-excessive arrest rates for black and brown folks, the Broken Windows policy, and the general state-sanctioned violence of police forces - are being shown for what they truly are: racist, classist oppression.

Meanwhile, this morning I saw the video above floating around my Facebook feed and I had a moment of "huh," followed by a sigh. The choice by CNN of Zen teacher Brad Warner as the face and voice for Buddhism in the US, and in particular, the one to speak about the rituals at Officer Liu's funeral, speaks volumes.

1. The Asian as perpetual outsider narrative is totally upheld here. Not only does the mainstream media choose a white male to represent Buddhism, but they also cast the funeral of a Chinese-American officer as "exotic" enough to require explaining to their audience.

2. The ignoring of, and/or deliberate suppression of, Asian-American Buddhism narrative is upheld. Numerous Asian-American Buddhist teachers and community leaders could have been selected to do this interview, but they weren't. Furthermore, the robust Chinese-American community as a whole is ignored here, not deemed worthy enough even after several generations on the continent of narrating the story of one of their own.

3. The narrative of celebrity worship. While Brad Warner is barely known outside of Buddhist circles, he's something of a celebrity amongst convert Buddhists. And while Brad's a sincere practitioner and serious student of the dharma, the public persona he's developed, and which his almost cult-like following has propped up, easily comes off as superficial and rebellious in a boyish, teenaged sort of manner.

4. Which serves to uphold the narrative that Buddhism is either trivial or not really something to be taken seriously by the rest of Americans. I have a feeling that Brad's choice to don the robes he rarely uses for this interview was in part coming from an understanding of this issue. He probably knew that the punk rocker turned rebel Zen priest image just wouldn't cut it for national TV news.

Here's the thing. I'm guessing Brad simply responded to the call from CNN and did his best to offer folks watching some insight into Buddhism. I think he did pretty good actually of giving some Buddhist basics in a forum that's horribly prone to superficial sound bytes. In fact, he sounded heartfelt and caring as well, something that often gets downplayed or erased in these interviews. So, understand that this post isn't about bashing Brad; it's about the complexities of systemic racism, and also the dynamics behind marginalizing minority religions and spiritual traditions in a still overwhelmingly Christian nation.

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...


It is sad that CNN didn't ask someone closer to the officer or his community to speak. While Mr. Warner should be thanked for spreading the Dharma he is not a monk. A monk or nun should've been interviewed. I know at least a half dozen monks and nuns of Asian descent, who's accents are understandable and work in that community that would've offered much more insight. In the end the producer went to their list of people that will speak in sounds bites that the public can digest. Lazy words appeal to lazy minds and something not conducive to a quality discussion.

But isn't that the problem: we only want what we want to hear and as quickly as possible. Mr. Warner's style seems to appeal to that crowd.

Thank You.

n. yeti said...

Nice Zen Buddhism is being featured, too bad Zen Buddhism isn't being featured. The OP is worth likes, but seeing Brad Warner touted as the face of American Zen makes me want to weep. Beats working, I suppose.

Nathan said...

"A monk or nun should've been interviewed." I do think that given how prominent lay Buddhist practice is in America, regardless of racial background, it would be just fine to interview a lay teacher. There are numerous Asian-American lay Buddhist teachers that could have been chosen, in addition to monks and nuns.

Nathan said...

An added wrinkle in all this is that apparently, Officer Liu wasn't really religious.

David said...

From what I read elsewhere Warner has been on CNN previously and received an email Friday asking if he would appear Saturday to talk about Buddhist funeral customs. Since I don’t think we know much more than that about what led to CNN’s decision to use him, I personally would be a bit uncomfortable about making such a rush to judgment and holding this out as an example of negative race relations because it may not be that at all. Maybe they asked others, including Asian-Americans, and no one else was willing or available – who knows? I don’t.

I’ve never been too impressed with Brad Warner for the simple fact that most everything he does ends up being more about Brad Warner than about dharma. However, he is an ordained Zen priest and therefore I wouldn’t describe him as a lay teacher or assume that a monk or nun would make a better interview subject.

n. yeti said...

True. And at least he got a chance to wear his ordination robes one more time.

Nathan said...

"Maybe they asked others, including Asian-Americans, and no one else was willing or available – who knows? I don’t."

Yes, this is possible. However, we could say that whenever media issues like this come up. Not just in mainstream media, but in the American Buddhist media as well, which has also shown similar biases.

Beyond that, let's look at the situation. You have a story about a Chinese-American immigrant in a city with the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia, and a white American who lives in LA, and practices in a lineage that traces back to Japan is selected to be interviewed. Little adds up there, other than that Brad is a Buddhist.

Nathan said...

There are almost 100 Buddhist temples in New York, many of them serving the Chinese-American community, which has been a prominent part of NYC for well over a century. There are countless people who could have been approached, just in NYC.

I may be wrong, but I really do think that Brad was selected because he's on their list, and getting him to come on didn't require much effort.

BrightHeart said...

Nathan, I believe you're right, a minimal amount of thought was put into CNN selection of Brad. In my experience living in an intentional community in the 70s, regardless of the interviews with journalist, the extraordinary footage of film taken, the final presentation reflected only the preconceived notions of the media outlet, i.e. Gay Pride parades network coverage is often one person with smeared makeup and uncomfortable shoes.

David said...

Nathan, I am sure you are correct about CNN's methodology in picking an interviewee for the piece. Nonetheless, and despite how it reflects the usual media bias, there is still an element of judging by appearance that bothers me. I think it is because I have a tendency to do the same and it is something my Buddhist teachers always cautioned me again, and indeed, it is a rather major point of Buddhist doctrine.

Nathan said...

"I think it is because I have a tendency to do the same and it is something my Buddhist teachers always cautioned me again, and indeed, it is a rather major point of Buddhist doctrine." Yes, I hear you. I do think we are always working from partial information and so whatever conclusions we make about situations need to be considered partial as well. And sometimes it's best to not say anything at all. I actually skip over writing about a lot of possible "hot" topics on this blog these days for the very reason you bring up. Namely, that I don't want to just offer up a bunch of unfounded stuff based upon superficial appearances. Back when I was writing 4-5 times a week, I fell into a pattern of reacting to whatever was the hot potato of the day. Sure, it made for more posts and more attention, but not much else in the end.

Along those lines, I have to wonder though if our teachers (I say "our" because I've heard similar things from my teachers) are interpreting the Buddhist doctrine from a position of privilege.

I've grown really weary of the way a lot of folks in our sanghas talk about judgement, judging, Right speech, etc. Particularly when it comes up in the face of uncomfortable topics. Bring up racism and you're accused of judging or being "divisive." Bring up classism, and you're accused of judging the rich. It's classic spiritual bypassing, mixed in with an utter denial to recognize the grand scale suffering happening on a systemic level across the planet. But particularly right in our own neighborhoods and sanghas even.

The challenge, in my view, is to be able to see these patterns clearly enough to expose them without simply falling into low end forms of judgement. It's really an outer form of the kind of "seeing" we cultivate in meditation. The witnessing and beneficial responding that we learn to do in our own lives is also direly needed (in my view) in our social spheres.

Also, this issue of appearances you bring up is kind of crux. On the one hand, it's all empty, fluid, and unnameable. What we see doesn't capture the full truth. On the other hand, we have police officers gunning black folks every day, for example, largely based upon appearances. Or, to bring it back directly to this post, we have a long standing pattern of marginalization of both Asians in the US and also of Buddhism itself. How do we take care of both the absolute and relative in all this?

David said...

Most of my teachers have been Asians, so I am not sure how privilege would figure into their interpretation of doctrine. Nor am I sure about reconciliation between the absolute and the relative on issues such as privilege, race, police conduct, etc at present; I am rather pessimistic, for I just see people shouting at each other, or worse, from their respective camps. What is missing is understanding, empathy for the other. And I feel that if we have police making life and death decisions based on appearance (racial profiling), then it certainly does not help to heap on criticism about situations we do not have all the facts about, I think that only creates further marginalization on all sides. But I’m not saying we should just sit back and remain silent. Rather we should choose our words wisely.

n. yeti said...

Is it possible to know how society's protectors become oppressors? I think this is a very basic question. We might look at racial or economic correlation but even so I think this question is deeper than this. What happens with someone who, it must be supposed, enters police work for compassionate reasons? Surely to protect other beings from injustice is an adornment to mind. How then does this transform into oppression and violence, where and how does this take place? Unless we are very very clear about this, I am not sure there is right understanding as Buddhists. The paramita of wisdom is really one of asking questions, of continuous refinement in the search for meaning. I must be frank that I think this problem goes much deeper than it seems, beyond such questions as race, wealth, and so on into how precisely these factors reduce the compassionate intentions of our society's guardians into society's oppressors. I do not have an answer, and for this reason I am reluctant to speak or act in criticism of that which I do not ultimately understand. Anyone can see there is a problem. The nature of that problem is quite complex and forms part of great currents of history and momentum originating long before anyone who is alive today. It seems like a topical issue but it is actually an ancient one, and difficult to separate from our own emotions and thoughts which too are part of this immense movement of phenomena. In the still place of mind there is compassion, and in the volatile world of appearances is oppression. It is difficult to solve.

Nathan said...

David, I've been struggling with empathy for those in power and in the elite currently. I need to cultivate more of this.

At the same time, I also believe that being compassionate under these conditions means saying and doing what I can to minimize, stop and/or prevent systemic oppression. Sometimes, I have to stay quiet and let waves of rage or other turbulence go. Other times, I'm called to speak out and act.

Even the most carefully chosen words will upset those who cling to power, authority, greed, hatred and violence. I think it's better to do our best, and make corrections when our best misses the mark.

Nathan said...

Yeti, as I see it, my practice calls me to keep asking the very questions you ask, while also acting and responding to the mud of everyday life. In fact, I believe that finding the deeper answers to such question requires in part placing yourself into the fire so to speak. It also requires deep silence, reflection, and study of the teachings. Monks, nuns or lay folks practicing in isolation, away from most of the challenges of the relative world, aren't the ones bringing the wisdom and compassion needed to transform things like systemic oppression. They bring a different piece of the truth to bear. One that's also needed. I try to see different ways of being/practicing in the world as informing each other, rather than being at odds with each other, or in a hierarchy of validity. Sometimes, I loose sight of that, but it's never really that far away from my awareness.

I'm not ignorant of the longstanding human history of violence, oppression, racism, etc. I've spent my entire adult life (20+ years) studying, writing about, and being engaged with these issues on a social/political level. I do so out of the same desire to get at the root causes, and to offer something of benefit in response.

I know how difficult it is to break through the entrenched camp mentality David brings up, and come to a new place and new shared awareness and way of being. I witness in fighting, backstabbing, and petty violence on a regular basis amongst social activists claiming to be seeking peace and justice for all. And of course, the same stuff is present amongst those who have become oppressors. It's the human condition. No surprise really.

There's a need for some folks to be a direct witness to all of this, and to be willing to slog through it all to (hopefully) help everyone get to "the other side." Some of the most revered dharma teachers of today - Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Bhikku Bodhi, Sulak Sivaraska, Bernie Glassman, Joan Halifax ... - have done just this. And they are who they are in part because of that willingness to step into and stay with the mud.

Of course, plenty of others have not chosen this route. There are many paths to the truth. We need them all to be engaged to some degree or another.

Nathan said...

This article speaks a lot as to where I'm coming from.

n. yeti said...

"Monks, nuns or lay folks practicing in isolation, away from most of the challenges of the relative world, aren't the ones bringing the wisdom and compassion needed to transform things like systemic oppression. "

Buddha did.

Nathan said...

The more I learn about the life of the Buddha during the "sangha years," the more I think it's an error to see him (or the others of the original sangha) as practicing in isolation, totally away from the social strife of the period. Buddha clearly interacted with secular leaders, and in at least a few cases, made direct appeals against clan warfare, among other things.

I see the "home leaving" Buddha and the original followers did not as disengaging or disappearing from the struggles of the relative, "lay" world, but more as a deliberate severing of all attachments to it. Which allowed the Buddha at least to stand freed wherever he was, with whomever he was with. The "distance" - psychologically, spiritually, and physically - between the original monastery and the "regular people" was a lot less than it often is today.

n. yeti said...

I don't think seclusion was ever presented by the Buddha as the goal, but the means to vanquish Mara. The bodhisattva stages are pretty clear in that inward realization is the path, no matter what we engage with in the world. Sadly not even the ordained teach this anymore, whereas a pop culture mentality and political activism are very faddish among both lay and ordained. My concern is the emphasis on worldly buzz has eclipsed what Buddha actually taught about how to view such things (as a bubble, a mirage, a dream). Instead, here we have Brad Warner, a nihilist, who denies the doctrine of rebirth, talking about what Buddhists are doing at funerals! What a shameless heretic. He apparently has no problem sticking his hand out for religious donations and free vehicles even though he cannot for some reason convince himself the Buddha's teachings are true and tells his followers instead to "f..k religion"! Those who point the way (and by this I include Nathan) are the light of the world, but sadly many people in the name of Buddhism are pointing the other direction. Amid so much confusion, where should one turn? I would hope at least some consideration for the basic tenets of Buddhism would still enter into the discussion about what it means to be socially engaged as a Buddhist. Otherwise I see this as nothing more than political activism, which is a perfectly valid secular proposal...but why dress it up as a Buddhist thing?

Nathan said...

"I would hope at least some consideration for the basic tenets of Buddhism would still enter into the discussion about what it means to be socially engaged as a Buddhist. Otherwise I see this as nothing more than political activism, which is a perfectly valid secular proposal...but why dress it up as a Buddhist thing?"

Yes, I totally agree. And I think amongst those who fall under the "socially engaged Buddhist" label, it's a mixed bag. The need for ongoing practice, and continuous reflection on the teachings, is lacking for a fair amount of folks no doubt.

One thing I'll say about Brad's "fuck religion" comment is that it points to the fact that religion is pretty easily corrupted. He's choosing to be noisy and reactionary about the issue, but it's easy enough to see how deluded people filled with greed, hatred, and ignorance are good at taking profound teachings and turning them into tools of delusion.

Overall, I think a lot of folks are simply attracted to flash, drama, and/or whatever maintains comfort. Plenty of modern spirituality provides these things. Social activism can also provide these things. Many possible traps and obstacles.

I sometimes think the "degenerate age" teachings common in Pure Land are right on. That we're in an age where it's just really tough to hear and practice the dharma. However, the rest of the time it seems like this has always been true. Just different kinds of obstacles are present in different time periods.