Privileged, Persnickety Buddhists

Well, here we go again…and it is a good thing, I suppose, since the last run at this topic didn’t seem to go anywhere. We need to flesh this issue out and the author of this specific, new expose seems more than willing to dive straight into the interworkings and seedy underbelly of Buddhism…
There’s no corresponding “Buddhophobia”. A white Buddhist is rarely regarded as a freak of nature. Instead of being hated and feared, symbols of my religion are commonly sold in the Home & Garden section of chain stores! Buddhism appears to be eminently compatible with modern American society.

But if you look closely, you’ll see some ripples on the surface…

The overall aim of this series is to discuss how issues of race and ethnicity intersect with the image and reality of Buddhism in the United States. It’s a huge topic so I’ll try to make it more manageable by establishing what this series won’t do. After I provide a very brief historical introduction to Buddhism, I won’t go much deeper into teachings or philosophy, especially since I’m ignorant about so much of it beyond the basics and have zero qualifications as that kind of teacher. I’m going to stick to the surface, to superficial perceptions, stereotypes, illusions, skin color… although what’s on the surface usually connects to other issues which go very, very deep.

Oh, Jesus H. Christ this is going to be interesting. I’m confused, aren’t the teachings of Buddhism the exact things we, as Buddhists, need to delve into? I know this is a touchy subject and all. Race always raises everyone’s hackles and gets the blood flowing but to say that you are going to go straight to human nature (illusions, stereotypes and superficial perceptions) without tying it together with the fact that we basically, in the end, believe in the same thing, seems somewhat irresponsible…almost like muckraking. But then again, it is a blog.
However, lets see where the tone of the introduction goes before we make any snap judgements. So far it sounds interesting….

I’m going to be discussing a lot of generalizations about different religions. I’ll try to be as sensitive as possible and differentiate my own fairly neutral views. I might offend various kinds of believers, but once I get farther along, I think that the most passionate objections are going to come from other Buddhists. Contrary to popular belief, we’re a fractious bunch. I’ll try to steel myself.

Good. Sensitive is good. Most of us are not sensitive to other viewpoints. I am not sometimes. I try to be but I tend to go with a knee-jerk response at first followed by a smoldering anger and then finally some sort of understanding. But the author will be as sensitive as possible.

My own background in Buddhism is rather unique. I was half born into it,half converted.

That is interesting since I think that is probably the largest division in Buddhism. Well beyond race, ethnicity or other such constructs, I think this issue is a large divide for us. It divides us along whether or not we have a cultural constuct for Buddhism already developed in our family. This peppers our viewpoint of Buddhism.
I’ll skip the author’s recap of the history of Buddhism and her own family history. To be honest though, if there is any excuse to read this introduction, it is the story the author outlined of her family’s history and her own early upbringing into Buddhism and also unfortunate experience with American Fundamentalism. Her family story was engrossing and spoke much to what I thought the tone of the series was going to be. However, the postscript.

Postscript: Although this really belongs more to the later part of the series, I have to mention that there has been a recent blog tempest over some remarks by C.N. Le at Asian Nation.C.N. Le is Vietnamese-American professor with a PhD in sociology. He’s very well-known and respected in the Asian-American blogosphere. On July 15th, he wrote a post describing his family’s experience at a Buddhist retreat. He mentioned a couple of white Buddhists who did not clean up after themselves, and suggested that just possibly maybe occasionally provisionally perhaps perhaps perhaps… white privilege was involved.

The right of C.N. Le to make this rather mild criticism was noted and defended by the few Buddhist bloggers who have a sophisticated awareness on racial issues (the ones I know about are Angry Asian Buddhist and The Buddha is my DJ). Thank goodness for them. Otherwise, the reaction from Buddhist blogs appears to consist entirely of ridiculous racial hysteria and sanctimonious dharma-beating. For example, This person’s post can be summarized as “I AM A PERSECUTED WHITE MAN!! C.N. LE IS THE ASIAN KKK!! AND I BET HE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A REAL SOCIOLOGY DEGREE NYAH NYAH NYAH!!”. And this is from a blog called “Progressive Buddhism”. Sigh…

I didn’t want to get to this sort of stuff until the later part of the series, but I’ll provide a brief preview right now. Below is a mathematical equation containing elements that combine to form my perspective as an Asian-American Buddhist contemplating the persecution of a white American Buddhist.

(almost all the problems experienced by white Buddhists) +(extra problems experienced in general by people of color Buddhists) +(extra problems experienced only by Asian-American Buddhists) – (-white privilege) =STFU

I can’t speak for all other Asian-Americans but I imagine more than a few of them share my reaction. It’s why I don’t bother participating in these sorts of communities. I don’t feel like being insulted, ignored and erased when I try to connect to my religion. My only message to them: I’ve already heard everything you’ve had to say. I’ve even experienced it along with you. You haven’t done the same for me. Let me know when you’re ready to start listening.

Yes. *sigh* indeed… this is the sensitivity I can expect from this series that was promised from the beginning? To “Shut the Fuck Up”? I commented on these threads and I commented honestly. I did not like Le’s tone and I exactly explained why. Le took from one experience with some white people at a retreat not cleaning up after themselves and brought to the level of a racial incident. And I don’t buy Le’s supposed objectivity over the issue either. He stated directly that…

…the second “racial” incident at the retreat [concerning the whites] does not involve much ambiguity at all…[from Le’s posting]

You are right that does sound that Le maybe, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, slightly inferred white priviledge. Just a little. To me it sounds like his mind was made up. Le also stated that…

…the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.

Again these are gross generalizations and not “inferrences”.

So to the author I say “Thank You”. Thank you for marginalizing my opinion and my comments along with my views. I will, after this, do exactly as you recommend and “Shut the Fuck Up”. I have nothing more to say and have little interest in this thread. If this is your fairly neutral view and your level of sensitivity then I am dissappointed. I will read future posts and hope that the tone of your postscript ends with your postscript but I am fully prepared, at this point, to be dissappointed.
My experience in multicultural Sanghas have been much better than Le’s. I went to school on the East Coast and while not very active in Buddhism, I did try to attend the local Zen group. It was roughly 50% Asian 30% White and 20% African American and Hispanic. We all cleaned up after ourselves and we all got along. This example is just as valid as Le’s. One experience with one group. That only difference is that I am not generalizing.

We need to work on these issues and as Barbara’s Buddism Blog stated we need to take these issues, after they are exposed, and treat them as “teachable moments” and get past what are obviously preconcieved notions about each other. Whether those notions are coming from a minority or the majority; they are toxic to us as a sangha. That is what we are – one big-assed, struggling, North American sangha.
[My Own Postscript: Sometimes, I think this is the danger of blogs…too easy to rant and throw information out while at the same time losing the human connection of an interaction. I have little doubt that most of the people that have been bantering back and forth would probably be able to ease these issues with a simple beer and some (maybe heated), conversation.]

8 thoughts on “Privileged, Persnickety Buddhists

  1. Microcosm – a representation of the real world only on a smaller scale. Those at the retreat thus represent the whole. None stayed. If Le represents this situation as a representation of the actual world and those peopling it then he just generalized most Whites as acting in a similar manner thus "generalization".

    Since that retreat group was no where near representative thus "gross".

    Thus my arrival at my conclusion. Le could have said that just those individuals "typified" White Privilege in which case I would agree. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. But to say that they present the whole is a generalization without much proof.

    So without getting into a linguistic or philosophical arguement about this I think it is safe to say that Le chose his words poorly.

    Coming from a sociologist on such a touchy subject as race you would think he would know better.

    I can quote a similar situation with a multiracial retreat that I was involved with and can safely say I saw nothing of this sort. However, I would not state that my experience is a microcosm or representative of society at large. The best I can say, and the best Le can say is that he or I saw an example of something.

    He saw an example of a poorly staffed retreat that perhaps had some dipshit white people there. I don't deny that they exist. I saw an example in my experience of everyone getting along because whatever our race or culture we are part of the same sangha and while experiences/backgrounds/perceptions are different we are all in the same sangha.

    I could put a flow chart up but frankly I don't care that much. I've said my piece. I have read and reread that post and frankly it still comes off as bad to me. For the record…I never stated that Le or anyone else was being racist. That is a bitch of word to be tossing around. I do think that I called Le an idiot though. That may have been a little knee-jerk of me. I am sure he is quite intelligent.

    I'm done. I need to get ready for a Dharma Drinks afternoon retreat at my house. I have beer, an open invite and a group of people coming over.

    I am now going back to "Shutting the fuck up" which I was so kindly told to do after I and others voiced our opinion.



    ps. you still owe me a beer for calling me a republican. not cool. ;P

  2. Microcosm – a representation of the real world only on a smaller scale. I see how you interpreted his words according to this unconventional definition, but can you then accept the interpretation that others of us came to when we read microcosm by the conventional and widely accepted meaning of a system/situation that captures the characteristic qualities of a larger system/situation?

    I never called you a Republican. You’re taking my words out of context, Senator 🙂

  3. And how are those definitions really different? Is your definition capturing the essence of an alternate world or perhaps a made up one? And who determines if the quality is actually characteristic of whites and to what extent?

    And if that quality is the "White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so" then NO I do not view that as characteristic of Whites in general or me specifically. Not from my experience.

    And while I will consede that some Whites do probably feel this way, I do not view it as the normal view of whites towards others.

    So to answer your questions.

    Are these qualities that exist in the White population?

    Are they characteristic or representative of Whites in general?

    You infered that I was republican and it still stings.

  4. Two issues.

    First, are you trying to say that a microcosm is to be reflective of a representative segment of the world? I’m not exactly sure. The difference in the definitions is that at least in the conventional sense, a microcosm can be representative of any larger system or situation, even one that is not representative of society as a whole. For example, the miscommunication over Le’s blog post is a microcosm of a larger miscommunication on race issues. As I wrote elsewhere, when out of 50 White people at a retreat, only a single one helps clean up at the end, this disparity reminds us – perhaps at least some of us minorities – of the White-privileged notion that many White people are above such work, that it should be left to people of color. The actions of those 50-odd White people seem to be a microcosm of the notion that a larger group of White people came to by means of their White privilege. (I talked about this elsewhere too.) And that segues to the second point.

    As I mentioned in another point I discussed elsewhere, Le wasn’t making any claims on what “quality is actually characteristic of whites.” That’s not what a “White-privileged notion” refers to. You seem to have little appreciation for the conventional function of that little hyphen, but it crucially distinguishes “White-privilged notion” from “White privileged notion.”

    I didn’t infer that you were a Republican in any way. At least, not by the conventional meaning of infer.

  5. I failed to mention that, yes, the way Le framed those White folk was unfair at best and malicious at worst. There are plenty of reasons why they left — they might have all had planes to catch or needed to hit the road early because they lived a long drive away. Indeed this often is the case at Deer Park. I don’t believe, however, that Le has any malice towards them, at least looking at the larger context of his writing and his comments of clarification.

  6. I'm sorry Arun. I was writing a response and then just lost it…at about the same time as you just commented.

    I think your post is helpful in clarifying what Le is trying to say. If Le's post is used to illuminate the large disparity b/t minorities and whites in manual labor jobs then I would take no offense and be incline to agree. However, the framing of his statement was clunky at best and I do not believe this was the way many viewed his post.

    I don't think that Le is being malicious in his comments

    Hopefully we can enjoy more discussion perhaps on something a little less touchy in the future, maybe small cute otters with party hats.

    …and stop trying to back out of owing me a beer for the fact that you infered that I possessed a republican mindset or viewpoint.

    …which you did and it still even after all this, stings.

Comments are closed.