Monday, August 3, 2015

Short Rant: The Marginalization of Non-White Buddhists

I’m very busy right now – in between the annual Maida Center retreat and the 2015 International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference, both in Berkeley, California. But I wanted to post a short rant about a conversation I had on Sunday.

The woman I’ll call “A” doesn't make it to our temple very often for various reasons. When she came this past Sunday she said it was great that Rev. Miyamura and I could represent Jodo Shinshu and Chicago at the Buddhist-Catholic Dialogue in Rome this past June and that we should be doing more to play up our meeting with Pope Francis, such as sending our photos to the Chicago Tribune.

What surprised me was when I told her the Vatican wanted to reach out to the Asian communities in the U.S. and gave preference to nominated delegates with Asian names (only two white people represented the Buddhists of the five major U.S. cities – Fleet Maull as the official representative of the Sakyan of the Shambhala group and Alan Senauke whose name passed as “Asian” according to what he told us after the conference), “A” was outraged. She said if the Vatican wanted to focus on Asians, they should have invited Asian Americans of different religious groups – Hindu, Muslim, Christian etc. She said a truly representative group of “American Buddhists” should have been made up of mostly non-Asians. She felt as someone who was Buddhist all her adult life, not a “convert,” she represented the typical American Buddhist, a person of European descent, not connected to any Asian community.

I was really taken aback by her vehement reaction. I told her Asians are so marginalized in American society, going to the Vatican as Buddhist representatives was a rare opportunity. She agreed with me that Zen in America is heavily dominated by whites (highly educated professionals), but she felt she was the one marginalized within Jodo Shinshu for being non-Japanese. So it leads one to wonder – who is the “typical” American Buddhist? Are Asian American Buddhists to be dismissed as “baggage Buddhists” – blindly following our parents and grandparents in their religious tradition? Are only the “convert” aka “elite” Buddhists the true followers of the Dharma because they consciously sought out  the path of Shakyamuni?

(photo - after the Dialogue, marching with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship in Rome, next to Kate Johnson)
It would have been great if the dialogue included people (i.e. women) like Kate Johnson, Kyodo Angel Williams, Ven. Pannavati et al, but I can’t help feeling glad that the “big names” (well-known white guys) didn’t come, even though I said in a previous blog entry that my place should have been given to Taigen Dan Leighton-sensei. It’s the old argument for equal opportunity – of course, Taigen-sensei is more qualified but the image of my short, squat non-white self at the Vatican says more to inspire the many who don’t feel privileged, even in the arena of spiritual seeking.

8/5/2015 Post-rant regrets: I was reacting to what "A" implied - that representatives of "American Buddhists" should be people of European descent. There are men who are wise teachers and happen to be white - I'm very glad to have met and listened to Senseis Fleet and Alan at the Dialogue. But too many forums about "American Buddhists" seem to be overwhelmingly male and white. At the Dialogue it was refreshing to meet and mingle with so many ethnic Asian Buddhist leaders and they represent fairly large numbers of Buddhists who live in America. And there's a need to raise the profile of women teachers and followers of Buddhism who are not of European descent.

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