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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I'm just now getting to your post after a crazy week at school. Such thoughtful responses! I'll comment back in turn:

    1) Upaya has been an incredibly formative concept for me in my life. Built into it is a certain amount of non-attachment to view, or at least attachment to the expression of views, and it's let me listen through things I might otherwise have responded to in a more knee jerk fashion, as well as encouraged me to be sensitive to what kind of language will be heard by a listener (and to adjust as a compassionate response). Upaya needs to be a guiding principle of transmitting dharma and communicating within and outside of our Buddhist sanghas and into the larger communities in which we're embedded - that is if what we're interested in is everyone's liberation. I agree entirely that "acceptance" can be used as a tool of oppression, as a way to maintain the status quo. In following in the footsteps of Nagarjuna, it makes seeking out the emptiness in even the most treasured of Buddhist concepts that much more important, lest they become fixed in deleterious ways. I also agree that the Buddha didn't stop at acknowledging conditions. Acknowledging conditions is also an acknowledgment of their relevance, of our interdependence with all things - because this is, that is, because you are, I am. His way was to neither push nor stay still: "When I pushed forward, I was whirled about. When I stayed in place, I sank. And so I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place."

    2) You're right, it's not a question. The ones who speak are ipso facto the ones who speak for "American Buddhism." Though, my feeling is that the American converts if asked by and large would make no claims of authority over how Buddhism is practiced in this country, especially not for those whom Buddhism is their family and cultural religion. I think there is also the issue that in most of these Asian Buddhist communities there seems to not be any great eagerness to broadcast or convert which makes them somewhat inaccessible and by extension, invisible to non-Asian Americans. But perhaps I am missing a more insidious and systemic form of discrimination, blinded by own assimilation into white middle-class America (though I myself am first generation Chinese American).

    3) I think you've helped me shine some light on areas where my own privilege as a cis-male might be obscured. Surely non-attachment to identity is not the same as having no-identity, which is probably impossible anyway. I suppose to use my own life as an example, I have always felt uncomfortable adopting certain aspects of "normal" male identity and have consciously (and subconsciously) made deviating decisions about my behavior and beliefs around what it means to be a man and what that means about my relationship with other men, women and genderqueer persons. Does that mean I'm attached to whatever my version of gender identity is? From the inside, it doesn't feel that way - I've never felt like I was fighting society to carve out this way of being. It's always felt more natural, like a sculptor chiseling away the parts of the stone block that don't belong to the sculture inside. What didn't belong to my essence just seemed to fall away (especially once I left my hometown). But I suppose fighting vs not fighting is also not a very good measure. What if everyone retaliates against you for trying to brush off who they think they should be? Chances are, you'd be fighting whether you wanted to or not.