Racial Problems In Buddhism Cannot Be Solved With Bunk History

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.”

H.S. Olcott
H.S. Olcott

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.

Cheah writes,

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.”

Anagarika Dharmapala (3rd from right) at the Parliament of World Religions
Anagarika Dharmapala (3rd from right) at the Parliament of World Religions

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



7 thoughts on “Racial Problems In Buddhism Cannot Be Solved With Bunk History

  1. I’m a little surprised at your reaction to this book, given some of your posts in the past. It seems to me that you’re underestimating the power of institutional racism and the extent to which colonialism has influenced the way the world is now organized. Cheah’s book overreaches, in my opinion, in the focus on “deliberateness”. I highly doubt that modern white, convert teachers have made choices that alienate others deliberately. In fact, my guess is that most sincerely desire to do the opposite, but end up flubbing for various reasons. I’d also agree that from what I’ve seen of Cheah’s book, the picture is too black and white, ignoring the complexity of things like the praise of Olcott by Sri Lankans, or the mutually beneficial exchanges between Buddhist teachers across the continents. He’s offering a hardline slant, but I don’t think that calls for outright dismissal.

    “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.” This statement feels very similar to ones white folks make towards Native Americans or First Nations folks that object to their desires to practice Native spiritual traditions. It’s something I rarely if ever have seen from a person of color. This kind of comment. I think because there’s a recognition of the need to demonstrate respect, and to not assume you have any “right” to anything per se. I agree that Buddha’s teachings aren’t “exclusive property,” but the way I see it, it’s vitally important to recognize that Asians have upheld and maintained the practice for over 2500 years. Without all of their effort, we would have nothing. Or something entirely different. A lot of white Buddhists seem to have a romanticized notion about Asian Buddhists in particular, and about Asia in general. On the one hand, there’s a sort of an “OMG, I love everything Eastern” kind of simplifying that erases the complexity and diversity of folks and cultures. On the other hand, there’s the sense that things are “backwards” in Asia, that Buddhism is basically dying over there, and that “we” Westerners are the new, true keepers of practice. The desire to strip out everything “Japanese” or “Thai” or “Tibetan” to get to some mythical essence is one way this plays out. Which is different, in my view, from making necessary adaptations to reach the people you’re working with. The Asian teachers that came to America certainly did that, as do white teachers worthy of respect.

    To me, that’s one of the main things underlying books like Cheah’s. That lack of respect is a major tenant of colonialism. Once you erase or minimize the need for respecting differences, and respecting cultural boundaries, it’s open season for everything from appropriation to oppression and even efforts to eliminate. The thing is that you’re right that the Buddha dharma is for everyone, but that’s the absolute truth. There’s also the relative truths of racism, colonialism, and the fallout from all that to consider. Which doesn’t mean that you and I should stop practicing Buddhism and go become Christians, for example. That’s nonsense. And although there may be a small minority of Asian Buddhists out there who think the rest of us should quit, it’s really not what the heart of the matter is about. The way I see it, it’s about balancing the absolute and relative.

  2. Thanks, Nathan, for this terrific comment. I agree with you completely about balancing the absolute and the relative. And without a doubt there should be respect, and offer a continual acknowledgment of our debt to Asian Buddhists for preserving and promoting Buddhism for 2500 years. One of the reason’s I object to Cheah’s book and the whole idea of colonialism on the part of the Orientalists is because it is disrespectful to rewrite history. Wasn’t the title of Dharmapala’s paper “The World’s Debt to Buddha”? In what way did the Orientalists slight Asian Buddhists? I just don’t see it. Those guys were not perfect, but I don’t think they deserve the treatment they are getting these days. We owe them a debt, too.

    This feeling of Western superiority over the East seems to me to be a recent phenomena. Perhaps it is a sentiment underlying the approach of some Insight Meditation teachers or even more contemporary groups like Buddhist Geeks, I don’t know. But I don’t feel it was the mind-set of the Orientialists, and certainly not in the cases of those who appeared on the scene in the mid-Twentieth Century like Alan Watts, Christmas Humphries, Robert Aitken, Robert Thurman and so on. The desire to strip out everything Asian is something I don’t agree with.

    I’m not in favor of erasing or minimizing the difference in culture, either. I think one of the great things about Buddhism is that it can embrace different cultures. I’m not sure that having “two Buddhisms under the same roof” is necessarily a bad thing. Some people think there is something wrong with it, and probably it does point to an underlying culture clash, but I also feel everyone needs to grow up a bit and get over their territorial inclinations.

    I think I said this in the post, but if not, I’ll say it now, and that’s I’m not saying that there hasn’t been a element of racism and colonialism involved, but I disagree with painting the entire past with that stripe, and as far as the racism goes, it flows both ways.

  3. Shunryu Suzuki’s perspective might be relevant here. “Here in America we cannot define Zen Buddhists the same way we do in Japan. American students are not priests and yet not completely laymen. I understand it this way; that you are not priests is an easy matter, but that you are not exactly laymen is more difficult. I think you are special people and want some special practice that is not exactly priest’s practice and not exactly laymen’s practice.” Marian Mountain, who quotes these remarks in The Zen Environment (Bantam, 1983), recalls that Suzuki Roshi once asked her to think about “a new design for a Buddhist robe that would clearly manifest the true spirit of American Zen.”

    1. Thanks for that, Ben. Not too sure how relevant it is to the subject of racism or colonialism, except maybe in the sense that bringing dharma to the West presents some special issues, and our thinking is so opposite from Eastern thinking that misunderstandings easily arise. But then it’s not just Asians who are using the brush of colonialism to paint history.

      It does seem pertinent to the principle of “zuiho bini” which actually refers to adapting the precepts to the locality. I assume that when Suzuki talks about “a new design for a Buddhist robe”, he means breaking away from the old ways of thinking where, for instance, the “ordained” are the primary members of the sangha and lay people are subservient to them or if equal, not quite as equal. Now that I think about it, this might indeed be one answer to why the Orientalists and others who have followed have been accused of stealing dharma. After all, how dare mere lay people come along and not only translate sutras but interpret them as well, and what’s more, god forbid, teach dharma. Egads.

      In any case, I think lay-oriented Buddhism is the future, and it’s been a significant part of the past, too, as people can discover if they take the time to look into it.

  4. What a diplomatic and well researched article! I agree with most of your points. There is a distinct anti-Western and anti-white sentiment among some practitioners of “Eastern” religions, and no matter what you say or do, they will always view a so-called white person interested in “their” religion with suspicion. In other words, they are prejudiced. But prejudice against “white” people is okay, because we’re all evil. Every last one of us. And we’re never allowed to forget that, so we have to atone for our sin of being born with the wrong color of skin by being attracted to the ways and beliefs of other cultures. But even when we do that, we’re evil devils, because we are “stealing” their rich heritage away from them, and “appropriating” it to our own evil culture – which is forbidden. So we are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

    I believe it is a form of psychological warfare or vengeance for the real things that Western colonialists did to the Asian, African, Latin, and Middle-Eastern part of the world. It’s a way to watch us squirm, run this way and that way to atone for the sins of white supremacy, and be denied forgiveness every step of the way. It’s “punishment.” And it’s not always “people of color” who engage in this ritual. Michael Muhammad Knight is himself a white male, but he hates white people with a passion, has referred to himself as a “white black supremacist”, calls white people (including himself) “devils”, and bitterly complains how most white people are not “ready” to be called “devils.” Yes, we are horrible monsters for not wanting to be called an insulting name. How awful of us. This is how he makes his living – being one of the “good ones” of the evil white race, who is willing to tell “his own people” how awful and disgusting they are.

    In his mind, only he and those who think like him are “worthy” of taking on the religions and cultures of the superior races (everyone else), because he makes sure not to “appropriate” them towards the ends of “white supremacy”, because remember, white people and ONLY white people are “supremacists” and racists. Never forget that core doctrine.

  5. I’m not suggesting that white people don’t have plenty to atone for – what goes around comes around, and as far as I am concerned we dished out so much prejudice and hatred that if we get some back, well that’s just too damn bad. At the same time, it’s easy to take these thoughts to extremes. Malcolm X liked to call whites “devils.” He was an extremist at a time when we needed extremists to force some change. I’m not sure that’s the best way to go these days.

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