Some Buddhist writers have an unquenchable fascination with Western Buddhism. Perhaps it’s due to a flaming sense of entitlement, zealous evangelism or cultural elitism. Regardless, I unfortunately seem to have an undying fascination with these people.
Barbara O’Brien addresses Stuff White People Like, a blog and book by Christian Lander, noting that “Lander mentions Buddhism as a popular choice.” She then writes that “[w]hile Lander’s description of western Buddhists is exaggerated, I think it reflects how most westerners view western Buddhists.” But Landers was writing about white people, not Western Buddhists.
After all, Western Buddhism isn’t white—or is it?
The issue here really has to do with what “Western” means. I typically hear this term with reference to the countries of Western Europe and the white-dominated nations that sprung from their erstwhile colonies. In this case, it’s easy to see where this term might overlap with “white.”
Faced with increasingly globalized cultural and demographic changes, Western societies have come to struggle with what “Western” (or “French”, “American”, “Australian”, etc.) really means. Is the British-born daughter of Punjabi immigrants a Westerner? And what about the Indian/American/Englishman who lives in Kyoto? Is Mitch McConnell more Western than Steven Chu?
In North America, Asian Americans in particular have had to wrestle with the perception of being perpetual foreigners. We may enjoy a heritage of five generations in the West, only to repeatedly face the question, “But where are you really from?” And sometimes we get killed just for being who we are.
Common sense tells me that I can be Asian and a Western Buddhist without being a contradiction. So when a writer like Barbara O’Brien makes a casual assumption that a man talking about white Buddhists is talking about Western Buddhists, I am quite disappointed in her.
As I have made the point before, most Western Buddhists are of Asian heritage. We comprise the majority of Western Buddhism. If you’re talking about white Buddhists (and Lander writes about Americans in particular), then you certainly aren’t talking about most Western Buddhists.
I am not against a discussion of Western Buddhism, but it is exasperating when individuals use this topic as a medium for marginalizing Asian American Western Buddhists. O’Brien has an established track record here. To talk about Buddhism in the West while focusing on non-Asians is like discussing Israel without talking about Jews.
I have a great deal of faith that Western Buddhists are generally not outright racists, and in fact affirm very noble and egalitarian values. I would like to attribute most of the rhetoric of marginalization to misplaced biases and stereotypes. These subtle habits of the mind manifest even when we believe we know better. But we can only change our biases if we are willing to acknowledge them.
The best way to overcome our implicit biases is not through sheer willpower but through experience. We can educate ourselves. We can promote our disadvantaged brothers and sisters. There are several cases of such programs already underway, at least in some Buddhist communities here on the West Coast.
There’s no obligation, of course. We are all free and entitled to write as we will—just keep in mind there might be an Angry Asian Buddhist lurking round the corner.