It’s said all the time, especially at funerals, that when someone dies, it should make you appreciate your own life more. I haven’t had much appreciation for my life lately if you’ve seen my recent posts, sounding eager to make my exit. But maybe the death of Aaron Lee (Oct. 21, 2017) is a call for me to find a way to live my life despite all the sh*tty circumstances going on these days (such as backlogs and clashes at the temple).
I engaged with Aaron in person only a couple of times. He came to our temple when Rev. Nori Ito from Los Angeles Higashi Honganji was a guest speaker. At that time I heard about how Aaron energized the young Asian Americans at LA area campuses to get involved in Buddhist associations and that he hoped to do the same in the Chicago area. There may have been another time I ran into him either in Chicago or LA.
Since that time, I thought our only connection was Facebook. In September 2016 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma and needed a bone marrow donor, I shared the “Be the match” posts and tried to bug my Asian friends with Jewish spouses to have their kids register. It moved me that despite all the medical ordeals Aaron was going through, he posted words of encouragement to me through my cancer journey and often gave the thumbs up “like” response to my posts.
Yet it wasn’t until his death was announced on Facebook that I saw on Mushim Ikeda’s page that Aaron’s secret identity all this time was “Arun,” the author of the Angry Asian Buddhist blog. http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com I remembered it was just a week ago that I got a notification from Twitter that Arun had hit the heart icon to “like” my last tweet and when I went to my account, I saw that in fact he hit the heart on most of my tweets, sometimes the only person to do so.
So besides the many thumbs up on Facebook, Aaron was giving me the heart sign on Twitter. I knew the Angry Asian Buddhist blog referred a lot of people to my blog posts but last night I decided to scroll through his whole blog from its start in 2008.
I felt embarrassed to see he mentioned my name many times and included my picture twice. But in reading his posts I saw what an important voice he was – a celebrating voice that cheered on Asian Americans as Buddhist leaders and activists but also a fierce voice that decried the portrayal of Western Buddhism as led by privileged whites (mostly male) claiming their practice was more “pure” than what the backward immigrants from Asia did. Because he raised this voice of outrage and supported other Buddhists who felt ignored and denigrated by the mainstream media presentations, there’s hope that the next generation of Buddhist leaders and teachers in America and Canada will be a diverse group, encompassing the gender spectrum, various racial identities (including mixed race) and representing all socio-economic levels instead of the white baby-boomer elites who’ve dominated the scene for so many decades.
To me, it’s not just about the little piece of turf called “Buddhists” in the American religious landscape of mostly Abrahamic faiths. It is a continuing mission to uphold the basic principles of Buddhism (and I’d say most religions) to respect the dignity of all peoples, their cultures and histories, and consider all lives as equal in intrinsic worth. Buddhism in the West as been too long dominated by those who consciously or unconsciously claim superiority over the “others” and in today’s political climate, it’s too easy for Buddhists to retreat into their sheltered meditation bubbles, deluding themselves that they are apart from and above those in the fray.
Where does this leave me? I’d like to hurriedly fade into the sunset in hopes that the young ones are already in place, ushering in the new world of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Aaron/Arun did much to encourage and promote those vocal young folks, especially the women, but he kept in touch with old fogies such as Mushim and I, letting us know we need to be around to give our support to the up and coming generations of North American Buddhists – not just Asians, but the Latinx, African and Native Americans and the “woke” European Americans who want it pointed out to them when they are carelessly flaunting their privilege.
Not sure how I’ll ride out the turmoil with things around me going to hell in a handbag but I’ll cherish the electronic hearts and thumbs up I’ve received from Aaron Lee. Let them remind me to keep raising my voice, if only just here in my blog.