I have learned a lot as a new board member of Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). Today I would like to quote my colleagues as they expand our wisdom about Buddhism in the US/west, and seek to heal centuries of violent erasure.
Heritage Buddhist comrades at the first of Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s spiritual activism retreat ❤
Heritage Buddhists are Buddhists whose Asian ancestral and cultural heritages have historically preserved Buddhism. Heritage Buddhists of diasporic communities in white-dominant societies like the US embody complex intersectionalities. On the one hand, they must honor the ancestral obligations and cultural identity of their Buddhist-inflected heritage, while negotiating feelings of tension and distrust towards the oppressive habits that can sometimes entangle Buddhist teachings with nationalist or patriarchal agendas. At the same time, they face the harms of racism, erasure, and cultural appropriation from living under white supremacy.
Inspired by the work of the late Aaron Lee, as well as others like Funie Hsu and Chenxing Han, 兄弟 brothers Ed Ng and Zack Walsh are planning a gathering with the purpose of amplifying the voices and visibility of diasporic Asian heritage Buddhists, and their allies. Quoting Funie, “To be clear, Buddhism belongs to all sentient beings. Even so, Asians and Asian American Buddhists have a rightful, distinct historical claim to Buddhism.”
‘Why,” you may ask, “is this important to you, Sarah, if I’m not Buddhist?” To me it is important because, “white supremacy affects all of us and how we relate to our faiths. Christianity, for example, hardly honors heritage Christians, Palestinians who currently suffer under a cruel US-Israeli military occupation…and often Christian practice in the US fails to recognize that it is not a western religion at its origin. White supremacy is the system of power behind this. We must attempt to free ourselves from it for the health of our worship and devotion. Funie says, “behind the suspicion and exclusion of Asian and Asian American Buddhists is the same system that justified the founding and building of the U.S. through the genocide of indigenous peoples and the labor of enslaved Africans” and I am adding Arabs and heritage Christians to that list. “Undeniably, America has been created by excluding people whose differences were deemed inferior—a process known as racial othering—so as to establish a seemingly natural superiority of white people.” In Christianity this led to waves of Crusades that have attacked the indigenous home of Christianity in Jerusalem, pillaging the land and killing/re-converting heritage Christians (as well as their neighbors Muslims, and Jews). These attempts have taken different forms throughout the generations and continue today. Sabeel and Dar al-Kalima represent the efforts of some autochthonous heritage Christians.
The same process of white supremacy has created an American culture in which other practitioners, namely white practitioners, have been granted the freedom to be Buddhist in safer and more public ways. Moreover, instead of facing systemic injustice for embracing a spirituality that departs from the Judeo-Christian norm, white Buddhists are often lauded for this difference. They may attain a certain cultural capital for their practice, for donning Buddhist symbols and using dharma names in Asian languages, all of which mark them with distinction as “interesting,” perhaps even “worldly”—anything but “suspect” or “foreign.”
This is white supremacy and privilege in Buddhism.
This particular angle of racial justice and intergenerational healing within Buddhism is often overlooked in the West, and here we have an opportunity to heal some of that harm.
This gutsy and visionary group will work with Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s national offices, building power and focus to intervene in the erasure of Asians from Western Buddhism, and forward a Buddhism that honors Asian practices, ancestry, and people.
So, your financial contribution to BPF to support an initiative of Buddhists raising this issue at the Parliament of World Religions or nearby site is one small wave in the oceanic shift away from transactional thinking, toward transnational thinking and gift and solidarity economies, so treasured by Buddhists everywhere. Donate here!
Ending with quotes from Chenxing Han’s article, that I resonate with as a person alive at this moment on planet Earth:
“The fact that there is no one face, no single voice, of Buddhist Asian America frees us to be “real Asian American Buddhists” in a multitude of ways. We can see our religious identities not as fixed labels but as ever-shifting processes. As Holly, a Buddhist chaplain of mixed Japanese and Jewish heritage, eloquently stated:
I think young Asian American Buddhists I know, including myself, face challenges in integrating and expressing multiple cultural identities—as young, American, Buddhist, and Asian. Yet I think we are all moving toward a more pluralistic world in which multiplicity of identity will be the norm. As a Buddhist, I know that the self is always inconstant and interdependent, so in a way my Buddhist practices help me be at peace in the midst of the tensions in multiplicity and diversity.”
I resonate with this as having strong multiplicity in identity requires a lot of bridging. At the spiritual activist retreat, we talked about the bridges of solidarity we wished to build between people of Asian descent/diaspora and people of African descent/diaspora. It was a healing time of discovering and recovering deep layers of our transcendent humanity. My work (as one with Christian roots) in learning and listening has continued since then…
(Back to Chenxing) Bridging—“constantly straddling cultural and spiritual worlds,” as one interviewee put it—is possible for Buddhists of all races and ethnicities. As culturally engaged Buddhists, we must contemplate the histories and intersections of the cultural and religious traditions we have inherited/adopted. If we are to weave different narratives about American Buddhism, we must also critically examine the racism and Orientalism that shape our perceptions of Asian American Buddhists.
We must “recognize the harm in erasing Asian American Buddhists from representations of Buddhism in America. Whether Buddhism is the religion of their family of origin, a religion they have sought out for themselves, or both, they recognize that Asian American Buddhists are not solely responsible for their invisibility. Remedying misrepresentations of American Buddhism must be a collective effort, one that includes Asian Americans and others who have been largely absent from mainstream portrayals of American Buddhism, as well as white allies who are willing to cede control of the Buddhist mediascape in which their voices currently prevail.”
From whatever path you walk, you can “actively work to give dana (generosity) by expressing gratitude for the Asian and Asian American Buddhists who have shared their indigenous ways of being as integral expressions of their practice.” Offer dana here.