Just Human: rhetoric, representation, and identity in American Buddhism

So Jason Lay and I connected on twitter yesterday and he brought up some important topics that he's interested in on race and privilege in American Buddhism. I just wanted to share some of my thoughts on each topic and open up the discussion in case anyone wanted to add their two cents. Also, I would like to say that I am still in a process of learning about everything in life and if anyone wants to call me out on something, please do! 

So here are his tweets followed by my responses. View the whole conversation here.

Personally, I don't think the core message(s) of Buddhism change BUT I think that the rhetoric of Buddhist teachings and which teachings are used must change depending on who is being taught. 

It's important to recognize the rhetoric/language/words of Buddhism as being a form of Upaya in itself - and one of my criticisms of American Buddhism (and Buddhism as a whole) is using the rhetoric of meditation, no-self, non-attachment, etc. as a way to quell complaints of legitimate socio-economic problems rather than actually dealing with the problem. For example. telling someone in dire poverty that all they have to do is meditate to solve their problems is, in my opinion, irresponsible and counter to what the Buddha himself would have done, which is to ACT to end poverty. This is something that I have personally witnessed before.

And since socio-economic lines in the US are intricately tied to race, I think it's urgent that we educate ourselves and our sanghas on all matters of oppression and oppressive language so that we can properly deliver the message of Buddhism rather than use Buddhist rhetoric to further the systems of oppression.

As for how it's being done and who it's being done by - I am a strong proponent for listening to and learning from those who fall under the burdens of oppression. However, not everyone shares this view and that is perfectly fine and incredibly important! Just as children learn in different ways, the ways we tackle Buddhist rhetoric and delivery must be different too.

So this is something that I'm hoping to explore a lot in Dharma in Color. It's a HUGE topic with a lot of intricacies but let me give a brief overview of my views. The concern of the marginalization of Asian Buddhists within the American Buddhist community is very valid and it's one that is intimately tied to the history and cultural/political landscape of the US. Since the first large wave of Asians were tricked into coming to the US for cheap labor immigrated to the US, we have always been viewed as the 'other' - a perpetual foreigner - and never as legitimate Americans. I was born in the US and have lived here my entire life and I am constantly asked to prove that I am an American. "Where are you really from?" and "No, but I mean, you don't look American" are statements that I hear all the time. 

So, for me and many other 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, generation Asian Americans, the concern isn't necessarily of representing Buddhism but of being represented. Why, after being in the US for over a century and a half, are Asian Buddhists still considered the 'other' instead of being labeled as American Buddhists? Why is convert Buddhism the face of American Buddhism when it has a shorter history than Asian 'immigrant' Buddhism in the US. And why do major Buddhist news sources only publish views from this convert community when Asian Buddhists comprise the majority of Buddhists in the US? 

These question and their answers are steeped in the politics of race and racism in the US. It's not (and never will be) an intra-Buddhist issue but it's something that is brought on by centuries of cultural conditioning and history. I think to phrase the issue as being about 'who gets to represent Buddhism in this country' is naive because it's not currently something that's up for debate. The representatives have been decided for a long time now and they so happen to look 'typically American'.

I identify as a cis/straight woman so in terms of gender/sexual identity, I am in a place of privilege. I consider myself an LGBTQ ally though and from my limited understanding of gender politics, gender/sexual identity is very complicated and taboo in the US. I think when we are working from a place of non-attachment to identity, we oftentimes start from the position of a 'normal' identity - ie. cis/straight. Yet when we talk about non-attachment to identity in regards to sexuality/gender, I find that it's most often pointed to the oppressed - those in the LGBTQ spectrum. So we say 'don't be attached to your gender/sexuality' but we don't consider 1) that gender and sexuality are not choices and 2) to whose benefit this non-attachment is really serving. Is it helpful for the LGBTQ person to feel that they shouldn't embrace themselves or is it helpful to the systems of oppression that create a society in which this LGBTQ person feels uncomfortable with themselves?

I think we also have to have the wisdom to see deeper than just the umbrella concept of non-attachment to identity - because in many cases where LGBTQ persons are suffering, it's not their attachment to identity per say but the oppression they receive because of their non-normative identity. Like in my example with using appropriate Buddhist rhetoric to address the needs of a person in dire poverty, I think the key here is to actively fight against the systems which are perpetuating this suffering. However, it is vitally important to give individuals tools to use for their own liberation to ease personal suffering. So I think, instead of non-attachment to identity, some helpful rhetoric/tools might be to learn non-attachment to the views of others. The fundamental difference here is how we relate to the self - the self isn't demonized but rather loved. You are perfect just as you are. 

Also, might I add, as a woman of color, my identity is not something that I can willfully drop. My being a woman and my being Asian is constantly being pushed on me by the society in which I live. When I leave the house, someone reminds me that they view women as sexual objects. When I meet a new person, they remind me that to them I am just a set of racial stereotypes. It's not the attachment to the identity of Chinese American woman that creates suffering but of other people's reactions to it. And since it's very difficult to learn how to love and value yourself in a society that is constantly trying to beat you down, as Buddhist's we shouldn't add to that burden.

I will end with this perfect quote from bell hooks from her book Killing Rage: Ending Racism
The notion that we should all forsake attachment to race and/or cultural identity and be 'just humans' within the framework of white supremacy has usually meant that subordinate groups must surrender their identities, beliefs, values, and assimilate by adopting the values and beliefs of privileged-class whites, rather than promoting racial harmony this thinking has created a fierce cultural protectionism.
I'd love to hear what everyone else thinks about these topics and the issue of race/racism in American Buddhism in general!

Scott Mitchell wrote a really great response to this post. He goes into Buddhist philosophy and addresses some common misunderstandings on the Buddhist concepts of identity and self - mainly the illusion that there is a self to let go of to begin with. Seriously worth reading - Socially Constructed Buddhist Selves.

Also, Katie Loncke over at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship wrote a similarly great post on the topic of identity as well: The No-Self of Identity Politics.


What the Living Do

I spent the past 5 hours sending out emails for Dharma in Color and I'm straight up exhausted. In one of my emails, I was reminded of an essay by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel in the book 'Dharma, Color, and Culture'. In it she mentions how, through chanting, she was able to work through her pain from a traumatic experience in her life.
"There were times when I simply sat on the floor in front of my altar and cried. I was afraid that I would not be able to bear the pain that was being excavated. I contemplated suicide. However, my teacher encouraged me to continue and to develop an intimacy with who I was in the pain. Living in the Buddha's teachings, there was no fixing the pain. At first, it felt like torture. I needed to understand the nature of my life as it was. The path of Dharma became a simple question, how was I going to live with myself?"(p. 40, Earthlyn Marselean Manuel. "Bearing Up in the Wild Winds." Dharma, Color, and Culture.)

Reading the essay and my notes on it over again, I immediately thought of a poem by Marie Howe that floored me when I first heard her reading it (on NPR). At the time I was going through a lot of pain and the poem gave me life in the way that only poetry can. Reading it again today, I felt a lot of love and compassion for my former self and for my pain.

What the Living Do

By Marie Howe

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won't work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven't called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

It's winter again: the sky's a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat's on too high in here and I can't turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I've been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss — we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I'm gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I'm speechless:

I am living. I remember you.


Microaggressions and Compassion

Apologies for the month long hiatus. I've spent much of this month recuperating from an intense cold. But I'm better now and throwing myself full force back into work (can you call it work if you're spending your own money on making something happen?). 

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about microaggressions. Microaggressions are something that I, as a WoC (woman of color), experience everyday of my life. I live on a very busy street and every time I walk out the door, I get honked or hollered at. Having experienced this everyday over the course of the past three months, I now become extremely anxious when leaving the house. If I'm wearing a dress or shorts, I make sure to put on pants and a jacket. If it's rush hour, I will stall as long as I can until rush hour is over. If my partner doesn't seem terribly busy, I will ask him to come with me to walk the dog. Sometimes I will watch through the window until there is a green light and cars are driving by rapidly because a red light means a bunch of stationary cars (and stationary eyes) right outside my door. At some point comes the inevitable acceptance of what I'm about to experience and I must put on an extra mask for protection - the blank face. If I react in any way to the honks and hollers, I only get more honks and hollers, and sometimes I get outright aggression and threats. Names of 'bitch' and 'cunt', threats of physical and sexual violence. So I pretend I can't hear, I pretend there are no cars, and I walk as quickly but inconspicuously as possible to my destination - a side street, any side streets. 

This kind of daily battle has left a permanent traumatic mark on my being. And in the grand scheme of my life's sufferings (let alone the grand scheme of human suffering), it's nothing. So accustomed have women (and especially women of color) grown to microaggressions that if we let ourselves be affected by every single instance, we would never be able to function as human beings. 

I know by now some of you must be wondering why this post is on the Dharma in Color blog and not on my private blog. Here's the thing - our sanghas and our understanding of dharma have to address issues that are unique to the beings who suffer them. In this instance, microaggressions are something that are intimately tied to gender, sexuality, ability, and race. When I tell my partner, a man of color, about my intense anxiety over leaving the house due to street harassment, he can sympathize but he cannot truly understand because those thoughts never cross his mind when leaving the house. He rarely, if ever, experiences street harassment. This acknowledgement of privilege is why I feel safe telling him about my feelings and experiences. This acknowledgement is also why he would never dismiss my anxiety by telling me that what works for him would also work for me. 

That kind of acknowledgement and understanding is key to creating and sustaining a diverse and compassionate American Buddhism. When critics call PoC sanghas/retreats/groups 'divisive' or unnecessary or even (can you believe it?) racist, what they are really saying is that they don't want to confront their own privilege and conditioning in this world. But isn't that what Buddhist practice is about? Coming to an understanding of your conditioning and accepting how it marks your worldview, your place, and your life? Once you arrive at this understanding, I think the compassionate thing to do would be to try and level the playing field a bit, to create safe spaces and opportunities for all to flourish. 

Doing nothing is a luxury that most cannot afford. As Buddhists we act out of compassion and only through compassion can we build spaces where all voices are heard and respected.