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Lions Roar : May 2019
so accustomed to being a minority that I was sur- prised to learn, in a 2012 Pew Forum report, that two thirds of Buddhists in America are of Asian heritage. Just four years prior, the Pew Forum had reported the percentage as less than one third— the researchers had neglected to conduct inter- views in any languages besides English and Span- ish. In 2012, they added seven Asian languages to the survey, and the percentage of Buddhists of Asian heritage doubled. And yet, a 2015 Washington Post article about 125 U.S. Buddhist leaders gathering at the White House reports on the “mostly white convert com- munities who make up three-quarters of U.S. Buddhists.” Passing mention is made of “immigrant-based Bud- dhist communities.” Everyone quoted in the article is white. The photo at the top of the article shows a “popular meditation teacher and writer” who is, you guessed it, white. How does it feel to be erased? Until his untimely death in 2017 at the age of thirty-four, Aaron Lee answered this question again and again in the blogs Dharma Folk and Angry Asian Buddhist. Many who knew him joked that “Aaron knows all Buddhists.” He formed friendships with Buddhists from many different backgrounds (a short list: Thai, Vietnamese, Bangladeshi, Taishanese, Burmese, Japanese)—not just in America, but all around the world. I didn’t realize how much of Buddhist Asian America I was missing until I met him. When he died, I grieved the loss of a dear friend who had refused to allow Asian Americans to be erased from the story of American Buddhism. In 2016, Lion’s Roar magazine published an article in which a famous Korean Canadian actor interviews two white “leading Buddhist teachers.” This interview then reappeared online in early 2019, perhaps because the actor had been nomi- nated for a Golden Globe. Seeing “the Future of Buddhism” in the title immediately raised a red flag for me. All too often, such articles celebrate how white spiritual seekers learned meditation from teachers in Asia in the 1960s and have since established uniquely “American” sanghas where people are free to “not wear robes, and chant in English”—an improvement on the overly “patri- archal,” “devotional,” and “strict” monasteries in Asia that fail to meet the needs of “psyches that are very different in the West.” Sadly, this article was no exception. What are Asian Americans to make of these statements? Are our psyches Western or Eastern? Is the Japanese American-founded Buddhist Churches of America, despite its six-decades head start, less “American” than meditation communi- ties established by white lay teachers? Are sexism, devotion, and strictness really absent from pri- marily white sanghas? Do the many Asian Ameri- can Buddhists who show respect to robe-clad nuns and monks, who chant in Pali and Chinese and Tibetan and other Asian languages, practice a more backward form of the religion? Indeed, are they missing out on Buddhism’s “essence,” which is “not religion” but “a science of mind?” When we read that white meditators “were free to bring Buddhism into the twentieth cen- tury” in the sixties while “in certain cultural forms Buddhism hadn’t changed since the Middle Ages,” how can we view the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in Asia today as anything other than retrograde? How does it feel to be misrepresented? A series of punches; always bracing for the next one. Even if no harm is meant, it still hurts. My Buddhist teachers and friends are diverse in age and generation, gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity and nationality, class and ability, language and culture, education and profession, practice and belief. Some I have met in person; others in the pages of books. I have practiced with Insight and Zen meditation communities and was once on welfare as a young immigrant from China. But I do not know what it is like to be a Chinese American gay man and Insight meditation teacher who came of age in the six- ties, a bisexual black woman who became a Zen Buddhist priest, or a disabled working-class white meditator and activist. Awareness of inter- sectionality helps me locate my blind spots. For this article, I was asked to write about “the gulf that exists between Asian American and so-called convert Buddhists and how to bridge it.” I have failed in that assignment. I am an Asian American convert Buddhist (I was raised by non- Chenxing Han is a writer whose work has appeared in the Journal of Global Buddhism, Pacific World, and Buddhadharma. She has a Master’s degree from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley. PHOTOBYGAILWALKER LION’S ROAR | MAY 2019 68