May is Asian American Heritage Month – actually, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month as proclaimed by President Barack Obama in 2009. During May all Americans, not just Asian-Americans, celebrate “The vast diversity of languages, religions, and cultural traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” May was chosen so to mark the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843 as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, the tracks of which were laid in large part by Chinese immigrants.
In reflecting on this celebration, I find it extremely sad that there seems to be a real division between Asian-Americans and non-Asian Americans in the Buddhist community, as evidenced by a recent online discussion. I have heard many times that Asian Americans are in search of a sense of identity. I don’t know if that is at play here or not, but I feel that through my study of the history of Asians in the United States, I have a fairly decent understanding of the challenges Asian Americans have had in that regard.
What I don’t understand, specifically in relation to Buddhism in America, are accusations of colonialism and white supremacy because frankly I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And I’ve been around Buddhism quite a while. What does seem to be a factor is a certain amount of revisionist history. An example is the case of Henry Steel Olcott, who, up to now, was widely respected for his efforts to foster a revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I recently became aware of several books which attempt to paint Olcott as a sort of white supremacist. In one, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation, Joseph Cheah, a Catholic priest, writes, “Olcotts representation of Buddhism illustrates the assumption that Euro-American values and frameworks were vastly superior to those of Asian Buddhists.” This statement contradicts everything previously known about Olcott, whom a Sri Lankan prime minister once proclaimed as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.”
I’ve read Cheah’s book and it’s full of inaccuracies. Furthermore, it seems that the bulk of the book is simply rehashing the somewhat dubious theories of other scholars and researchers. For Olcott, Cheah’s primary source is The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Steven Prothero, who is not a Buddhist but calls himself a “confused Christian” and who has written at least one other “terribly flawed book.”
White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds.I just don’t believe that very many white Americans who are attracted to Asian philosophy have that in their hearts, and I don’t believe they would even be interested in Asian spirituality if they did. My experience has been the opposite. I have been interested in Buddhism for over forty years and during that time I have often reached out to Asian Buddhists and on many occasions I have felt that they have been standoffish, almost unfriendly, and have long suspected that it is they who feel superior and that they really don’t consider non-Asians as real Buddhists, or that we can ever truly fathom Buddha-dharma.
Well, there you have it. As Dave Mason once wrote in a song, “There’s only you and me and we just disagree.” There is a divide and the question is how to bridge it. While I don’t buy the claims of colonialism and white supremacy, I cannot negate the feelings of those who sincerely, without twisting facts, hold that view. Yet, I feel it only makes matters worse to engage in a war of words by taking exception to certain terms and labels when their use is well-intentioned. I think it’s a case of everyone talking and nobody listening.
Perhaps we should take our cue from an Asian Buddhist who is not an American, Thich Nhat Hanh, who advocates “deep listening.” This is the practice of listening with compassionate intention, using compassion and understanding as an antidote to conflict. Thich Nhat Hanh says,
Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.
Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion.”
Maybe that was what has been missing from my own experiences.
I hope that during the month of May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we can stop talking at and begin talking with one another, practicing deep listening as we do, and hopefully by the time June rolls around, we will be a few steps closer to the bridging this gulf between Asian and non-Asian American Buddhists. I feel that Buddhists should try to set an example for the entire world, that we should be leaders in making substantive contributions to the collapse of racial barriers, and if we, the Buddha’s children, aren’t capable of doing that in our dialogues with each other, then maybe none of us understands Buddha-dharma.
For more on APAH visit the home page at the Library of Congress.