At the Asian American Coalition of Chicago’s annual Lunar New Year banquet, awards are given out to recognize adults and youth for their exemplary community service. This year as they read the bios of the awardees, there was no shying away from mentioning religious affiliations. There were a few Christians, some Muslims and Hindus and several Buddhists. The youth awardee for the Japanese American community, Lane Mita, said he was active at both Christ Church of Chicago and the Midwest Buddhist Temple. For Japanese Americans, so many families identify as both Christian and Buddhist (due to the affiliations of parents and grandparents), that hardly anyone sees a conflict.
[photo from Japanese American Citizens League, Chicago chapter]
As we hear at all the different entertainment and sports award shows, people grabbing their trophies are quick to say, “I want to thank God” or “Thank you, Jesus,” so it was refreshing to me to hear the awardees in their bios express gratitude for Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings. They specifically stated that it was those teachings that inspired them and guided them in doing community service – making medical and mental health services more available, working for social justice for the economically disadvantaged, bringing not just traditional arts to young people but giving them opportunities to express themselves in the current American culture.
To me this shows how wrong the Western stereotype of Asian Buddhists is. The “convert” Buddhists think they’re the ones who actually read the teachings and implement them in “engaged Buddhism” while they see the Asians as trapped in their old-country modes of rituals and superstitions. For the awardees at the banquet, American-born or long-time residents of the U.S., they have been receiving the words of the Buddha most of their lives and taking them to heart, hearing Shakyamuni’s call to identify with the sufferings of others and find ways to alleviate them.
Asian American Buddhists are American Buddhists and are and have been engaged in American society in more widespread and effective ways than those non-Asians who recently identified as Buddhist. Somehow the notion is out there in numerous books and articles that Asian Americans are just a small segment of American Buddhism - for example the cover of The Lion’s Roar, sparked a lot of discussion http://www.buddhistpeacefellowship.org/5-responses-to-the-new-face-of-buddhism/. But just as in the past century there were Asian American Buddhists who brought their practice of Buddhist principles into their work places and social circles, there’s a new and growing crop of young people making their voices heard and organizing for change in society. Let’s not dismiss their grounding in the Buddhist teachings as “outdated” because they didn’t learn from white teachers who claim transmission from charismatic gurus. If anything, their grounding is more grounded because they have an appreciation of Buddhism as a tradition that goes back many generations, many centuries, not just something that popped up in the U.S. when beatniks started reading D.T. Suzuki.