Hovering in the atmosphere of Buddhism in the West is a certain amount of tension between “white convert” Buddhists and Asian/Asian-American Buddhists, some of whom may also be converts. It seems that this is not unique to Buddhism, it is a problem that Islam is also addressing. Unfortunately in discussing these tensions, there is a great deal of revisionist history that distorts the past bandied about.
It starts with the sloppy research of religious scholars, the unsupportable theories of literary theoreticians, and theologians straying into unfamiliar territory, and then is picked-up by journalists, bloggers, and others with notions they believe are politically correct, or perhaps with some axe to grind, and it just muddies the waters for those who are sincerely searching for answers, or naive enough to believe that if something is in print, it must be true.
Case in point: Michael Muhammad Knight, an American novelist, essayist, and journalist, who recently posted an article on vice.com, “The Problem with White Coverts.” Knight begins his piece with this:
You’d think that two white American guys embracing Buddhism and Islam in the age of colonialism could have become awesome champions of antiracism and solidarity with oppressed peoples. But no. Unfortunately, they treated their new religious affiliations like other white men of their time treated entire nations: they marched in and immediately claimed to own them.”
The two men Knight refers to are Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), regarded as America’s first convert to Buddhism and Alexander Russell Webb (1846–1916) who was an early American convert to Islam. Both were associated with Theosophy, a society founded in 1875 to promote spirituality. They are therefore tainted by this association. Theosophy in recent years has been branded with the racist tag. This stems in large part, I feel, from the fact that the latter half of the 19th Century gave birth to a number of convoluted religious and social theories that are misconstrued to some extent by a lack of familiarity of the idioms of that era, along with a tendency to judge according to today’s standards. By today’s standards, some of the comments of Abraham Lincoln’s comments would qualify him as a racist.
I don’t know anything about Alexander Russell Webb, but I am familiar with Olcott. Knight says,
Olcott thus took part in a Euro-American reinvention of the Buddha as a modern empiricist philosopher and argued that the Buddha’s teachings were based on science, rather than supernatural claims, and that Buddhism opposed rituals, ceremonies, idolatry, and belief in miracles. This was not a Buddhism based on Olcott’s encounters with Buddhist tradition as people actually lived it in the world, but only the ‘true Buddhism’ that he found in the Buddha’s original message.”
It is generally accepted that the many of the supernatural elements, rituals and so on, were not taught by the Buddha. So, in substance, Olcott was correct. Historically, there have always been two Buddhisms, one for the literate, upper classes, and one for the illiterate lower classes. One is based on intellectualism and the other to a large part on superstition. Recognizing this fact does not make one racist or a colonialist.
Knight is actually kinder to Olcott than some others. Another Olcott critic is Joseph Cheah, an Asian-American and a Catholic priest who sits on the faculty at St. Joseph College in Connecticut, and who is author of Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Oxford University Press, 2011). In his book, Cheah argues that “Asian meditative practices have been rearticulated into specific but deliberately chosen forms that helps preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony.” Pardon me for being blunt, but Cheah is full of hot air.
Frankly, I can’t understand how Cheah’s book got published. It’s full of inaccuracies. The first section of the book is little more than a presentation of the dubious theories by other scholars and researchers.
The publisher says “Cheah offers a complex view of how the Burmese American community must negotiate not only the religious and racial terrains of the United States but also the transnational reach of the Burmese junta.” If that were actually the case, the book would be better titled “Race and Religion in Burmese Buddhism in Burma and the United States.” And with that part of the book, I have no great problem with, although, I wonder what makes Cheah, who family is from Malaysia, as an expert on the Burmese Buddhist experience, and being a Catholic priest, what his qualifications as a Buddhist historian might be. Unfortunately, he does not share that information.
But it seems that Cheah has a big fish to fry, using the lens of Burmese Buddhism to indict all of Western Buddhism for the sin of white supremacy. His chief argument is that for well over a century “white supremacy has fundamentally shaped Buddhist religious practices.” I just don’t believe white supremacy has been deliberate in the growth of “Western Buddhism” as Cheah contends. From the 19th Century on, Western Buddhists have been unsparing in their praise of Eastern wisdom and culture. Moreover, I am sure that competent research would reveal that people with white supremacist notions do not, and never have, made up the bulk of those attracted to Buddhism.
There is an element of truth in the statement Cheah quotes from bell hooks’ “Waking Up to Racism” that some white liberals “are so attached to the image of themselves as nonracists that they refuse to see their own racism,” but I also believe that the problem with Western Buddhism’s lack of diversity is a complex problem that cannot be reduced to the single mantra of white supremacy.
Cheah lays the blame for Buddhist white supremacy at the feet of the “Orientialists” like Olcott. An Orientalist is defined as a scholar of Oriental studies. Here the author is referring to those Western scholars in the mid to late 19th century who first studied and wrote about Buddhism and translated Buddhist writings into European languages. Cheah bases his argument on Orientalism, a book written by Edward Said in 1978 that “redefined the term ‘Orientalism” to mean a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East” (Wikipedia). Said’s book caused quite a stir when it was first published. Since then, it has been roundly criticized as an extremely flawed work. For more on that, you might want to check out this article from 2006 in Salon.
Edward Said’s notion of “positional superiority” is a useful concept for understanding how knowledge about Asian Buddhism was discovered, retrieved, “stolen”, appropriated, and represented by European colonizers as a way of justifying the West’s superiority over the East in all matters.”
Now we are getting to what I think is the heart of the matter: the notion that somehow Westerners have stolen and appropriated Buddhism. As if the teachings of the Buddha were the exclusive property of Asia. I have never had anyone say that to me, but throughout my long Buddhist practice I have noticed a somewhat superior attitude on the part of some Asian teachers. They feel that Westerners should stick to their own religion. If you haven’t noticed, the Dalai Lama begins nearly every teaching session he gives with basically the same words: “I feel that for the majority of the American people, it is better, and also, in fact, more suited to their temperament and inclinations to follow the teachings of your own traditional religion.”* This Asian prejudice is the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about, perhaps because it would be perceived as “politically incorrect.”
Many Asian teachers, as well as regular Asian practitioners, feel that Westerners cannot and will not ever understand Buddha-dharma. They’re right, to the extent that we will not understand it in the same way they do. That is the way it should be. Just as the Japanese did not appreciate Buddhism in the same way as the Chinese.
I should also mention that Said’s theory is based on his study of Western colonial powers in the Middle East and North Africa during the Victorian Era, and therefore, I am not so sure his conclusions even if they are valid could apply to Buddhist Asia. Cheah, by the way, gets his ages mixed up a bit in this section. At one point, he places the Age of Enlightenment in the middle and late 19th century (the Victorian era), when in fact that “age” occurred nearly a hundred years before.
Cheah also says,
By extracting, translating, and appropriating Asian Buddhism, Western Orientialists assumed the values, beliefs, ideals, and practices of Euro-American culture were the norm according to which Eastern realities were to be evaluated.”
This is just nonsense. Cheah borrows this bit from Philip Almond’s theories about the Orientalists. He quotes Almond,
The essence of Buddhism came to be seen as expressed not ‘out there’ in the Orient, but in the West through the control of Buddhism’s own textual past.”
Here the implication is that by translating ancient Buddhist works, the Orientalists took control, took possession of them. They stole them. And that this theft continues. The truth is there was nothing to steal. Buddha-dharma is for everyone, regardless of race or nationality. Furthermore, as the book points out “cultural rearticulation is an ordinary means of taking Asian religious practices and rerepresent them in terms that are recognizable and meaningful for Americans in the mainstream culture.” So, how is that a sin? It is consistent with the principle of zuiho bini or “adapting the teachings to different cultures” which is said to have been taught by the Buddha himself.
As I mentioned, one of Cheah’s targets is Henry Steel Olcott:
Olcotts representation of Buddhism illustrates the assumption that Euro-American values and frameworks were vastly superior to those of Asian Buddhists.”
This is just not the case. In Sri Lanka, Olcott is praised for initiating the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival. According to aryasangha.org, a Sri Lankan prime minister once proclaimed Olcott as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.” Olcott went to Sri Lanka in the late 19th century because he wanted to learn more about the Eastern religions that had inspired him. He found that Buddhism was on the decline in British Sri Lanka, and almost single handedly, he set off a renaissance that swept throughout the entire Buddhist world. Just last month, on the 106th anniversary of his death, Sri Lanka’s national newspaper, Daily News, wrote, “There were a numerous sacrifices that Colonel Olcott made to protect Buddhism in Ceylon and give Buddhist Children an English education in a Buddhist environment to keep them away from Christian influence. It was in appreciation of his tireless services in Ceylon that he was honoured with the title National Hero of Ceylon.”
Cheah also sets his sights on Anagarika Dharmapala and the meeting of the World Parliament of Religion in 1893, stating that Dharmapala offered a “repackaged Orientialized form of Buddhism to his American audience.” This is rather slanted way of saying that Dharmapala tried to explain Buddhism in terms that his audience could understand. On September 18, 1893 Dharmapala read his paper “The World’s Debt to Buddha”, and in his first sentence he implies that Buddhist philosophy is “the greatest the world has ever seen.” He provides a brief overview of Buddhist dharma that seems reasonable to me, a few comments about Western Buddhist scholarship, mentioning that “a systematic study of Buddha’s doctrine has not yet been made by the Western scholars.”
Dharmapala is also considered a hero by many Asians for his contribution to the Buddhist revival in India and Sri Lanka. Indeed, when he first arrived in the East, he could not find a single Buddhist in either India or Sri Lanka who could teach him how to meditate. It had become a “lost” discipline. Read about it in How the Swans Came to the Lake by Rick Fields. If fostering a revival of meditation is “appropriation” or theft, then that conclusion is reached with logic I cannot fathom.
Anagarika Dharmapala is judged a racist simply because he called on the Sinhalese to resist the British sponsored Tamil-Muslim rule. This does not sound like someone who promoted European colonialism. In 1909, Okawa Shumei, editor of the journal Michi (“The way”), published an article written by Dharmapala, who was visiting Tokyo at the time. According to Cemil Aydin (The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought, Columbia University Press, 2007) the article was critical of racism and colonialism and “devoted to a critique of the ‘white supremacist’ ideology, affirming the equality of colored races with the white race.”
Yet another Western Orientalist singled out by Cheah and Almond is Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852), a French scholar whose expertise was deciphering Old Persian cuneiform, but who also translated the Lotus Sutra. Cheah and Almond both accuse Burnouf of having a “demeaning attitude toward Asian Buddhists” with absolutely no proof offered to support this accusation, only opinion. Apparently, Burnouf felt that Western culture was so superior to Asian culture that Buddhism could only be viewed through a Western perspective.
Some people disagree. For instance, in Katia Buffetrille’s introduction to Burnouf’s Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism, she writes that Burnouf set about to demonstrate “that the life of the Buddha and the tradition he founded can only be fully understood as a product of Indian culture, and expressed in an Indian language.” That would seem to belie the argument put forth by Cheah and Almond.
According to Cheah and Said, the Orientalist interest in Buddhism was nothing more than a “Oriental racial project.”
Elsewhere, Cheah discusses the “rearticulation” of Vipassana Meditation by convert Buddhists and sympathizers to “the Western context.” This is the bulk of his first three chapters and it seems to have little to do with his stated subject, Burmese Buddhism in the West. I don’t believe it is reasonable to suggest that Insight meditation teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg, “stole” or “appropriated” anything. Again, there is nothing to steal. Misguided or not, Westerners have as much right to transform Buddha-dharma as the Japanese and Chinese did. And, as I recall, most of these Insight Meditation teachers were welcomed, encouraged, and empowered by Asian teachers. In another work of his, Cheah argues that “some of the adaptations of vipassana meditation practices to the American context have been racially rearticulated by many white Buddhists and sympathizers in specific but deliberately chosen forms that help preserve the racial ideology of white supremacy.”
Some of these individuals may have been motivated by a desire to make a name for themselves, become big gurus and make lots of money, however, I cannot accept that they were deliberate promoters of white supremacy.
Because the first half of Cheah’s book is so utterly flawed, it casts a shadow of doubt on the remainder. However, I cannot really speak to that as the Burmese Buddhist experience is far beyond my own experience and understanding.
The point I wish to make, having gone round the mulberry tree several times, is about the trend in current Buddhist scholarship and discussion toward revisionist history as negationism. Western Buddhism does face significant challenges, but to slant the historical record, blame the problems on “stupid white men” of a century ago, or beatniks and hippies, and to continually whine about it, does little to address the issues. I sense that much of this sentiment arises from the lack of racial diversity in many American Buddhist sanghas.
Why Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan sanghas do not have as much diversity as the Soka Gakkai International-USA, which is incredibly diverse, or say, Buddhist Geeks, is something that should be investigated by the more traditional sanghas. They might learn how to create a presentation of Buddhism that resonates with more people.
There’s also the problem of two Buddhisms in America, and by that I am referring to the curious phenomena of having two Buddhist congregations under the same roof. In Los Angeles, there are a number of places where Asian Buddhists and “American” Buddhists practice somewhat different forms of dharma separately at the same location. Since these temples and centers are operated by Asian Buddhists, I don’t how it qualifies as another example of white supremacy. I can say from my own experience that Asian Buddhists can be suspicious and unreceptive to interest by non-Asians. At the same time, non-Asian Buddhists, particularly whites, can be self-centered and dismissive of non-whites. In other words, there is plenty of blame to go around.
Engaging in a fanciful rewriting of history, however, serves no purpose. It does not bring us closer together but only drives us further apart.
Today, I saw a headline on CNN that read: A New Pope Gives the World New Hope. I have my doubts that it will translate into any real change. Evidently, after he was elected, the New Pope told the cardinals, “May God forgive you.” At least he has a sense of humor. My hope is that you will forgive me for such a long post.
Now, what do you think about these issues? Your responses, pro or con, are welcome. You can leave them by clicking on the “Responses” link below.
* Dalai Lama teachings on The Precious Garland (“Ratnavalli”) of Nagarjuna, UCLA June 5-8, 1997