This is the second essay in The Angsty Buddhist, a series about being Chinese American, nonbinary, and finding my own relationship with Buddhism, in a country where so many of its ideas have been whitewashed.
My college roommate taped a poster of Dalai Lama quotes on the ceiling over her bed so that she could lie down and reflect on them. I didn’t think much of this at a time. She did a lot of things that I thought were odd, like drinking fruit-flavored tea and insisting we end each day by listing three good things that had happened. I was and still am the kind of person who copes by stress eating potato chips and making jokes about death and was kind of annoyed at being forced into gratitude by my roommate every night, but I just went with it.
Despite our differences, A. and I were close for our first year living together, mostly because we went to a school where neither of us felt like we fit in. A. was the child of Ukrainian immigrants, and I was a nonbinary Chinese American weirdo. The school we went to was named after a former owner of the East India Company who made his fortune off of slavery. The students there were wealthier than I had known was possible, the children of CEOs of huge corporations, and Wall Street bankers. One of the kids in our freshman dorm was the son of the third richest man in India. The university used the protection of the student body to justify the heavy policing of the Black and brown communities in the surrounding city. For those of us on financial aid, we were told both directly and indirectly that we should be grateful to the billionaires who had funded our education. Weren’t they generous for deeming us worthy of becoming like them?
I appreciated having A. around because even though both of us were bad at articulating why exactly we felt so uncomfortable in our environment, it was nice to have someone around who also felt awkward trying to make small talk with the children of corporate attorneys. For the most part, we were both absorbed in our own lives. A. threw herself into her pre-med classes and extracurriculars, always running between meetings and study sessions. Because I had grown up middle class, I had more wiggle room to make questionable decisions, like taking an ancient Greek history class and falling in love with a boy who kept miniature busts of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton on his desk. When our schedules overlapped, I liked hanging out with A. Mostly, we sat on our Ikea futon and drank cheap tequila out of mugs we’d stolen from the dining hall while complaining about classes.
A. had grown up Ukranian Catholic and struggled to find religious community during the time we lived together. Every Sunday, she seemed to go to a new church and reported back each week that something had felt off. At the time, I had started sporadically attending meditation sessions held by the campus Buddhist life organization, Indigo Blue. Indigo Blue was run by a white man but one that I actually liked. He was, for the most part, conscious of his privileges as a white man and didn’t presume to know more about Buddhism than any of the students — many of whom were Asian and Asian American. Instead, he opened up the space for people to practice the way they wanted, in keeping with their own cultures and traditions. We didn’t even have to meditate. I appreciated this because I had grown up with a type of Buddhism that didn’t center meditation and I’d felt alienated before in spaces where meditation and Buddhism were equated. Mostly, I spent my time arranging the candles into smiley faces and chattering at anyone who was willing to be distracted. I felt at ease there in a way I didn’t feel anywhere else on campus.
A. attended one of the meditation sessions one night I wasn’t there. Later, she told me, “It just wasn’t what I was looking for.” She seemed mildly offended by this. I remember thinking, So what? What does it matter what you were looking for? It wasn’t made for you.
A. said a lot of things I told myself weren’t a big deal, like the time she joked about me being a “generic Asian girl” or how whenever I tried to talk about race, she said, “That’s something you’re into. It’s not what I’m into.” I was used to dismissing my own anger.
I brushed this off, though. A. said a lot of things I told myself weren’t a big deal, like the time she joked about me being a “generic Asian girl” or how whenever I tried to talk about race, she said, “That’s something you’re into. It’s not what I’m into.” I was used to dismissing my own anger. Wasn’t she going through a lot? I should be less sensitive.
Eventually, A. found a church, sort of. One Sunday, she came back to our room to announce that she had gone to the Black Church at the campus African American Cultural Center. “I know it’s weird,” she said to my perplexed face. “But I really like the preacher.” There were many things I should have said to her then and every Sunday afterwards, when she came back complaining about how people didn’t seem to want her there. “It’s like I’m the white girl,” she said once.
You are the white girl is something I could have said. Maybe you should think about how you being there makes other people feel? What makes you think you’re entitled to be in a Black space? But by that point, our friendship was strained, and I had given up on feeling responsible for her, though in this situation I realize now that I should have tried. I still think about A. sometimes. About how white people turn to cultures and spiritualities that are not their own when they are looking for solace or trying to fill a void in themselves — how they do this carelessly without realizing how violent that can be.
In college, I was obsessed with white Buddhism in a wrathful sort of way. Whenever I heard someone saying something like “Buddhism is a peaceful religion” or “Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion,” I felt myself seething. Then I would tell myself to calm down. What’s wrong with them thinking Buddhism is peaceful? Think about Islamophobia. This is not a big deal. And I thought you didn’t like organized religion, so isn’t it better for it to be a philosophy?
I have always had a hard time allowing myself to feel anger. I always think that I am being selfish for expecting more of people, and I don’t want to center my own feelings when there are other people we should be focusing on. When it comes to the cultural appropriation of Buddhism, I feel this especially — if people are feeling like whatever version of Buddhism they’re practicing helps them, then why should I care? Aren’t there more important things to be thinking about?
Then around my junior year of college, Indigo Blue was suddenly shut down. Students arrived at the shrine for the nightly chanting session and found a sign on the door that said, “This event has been cancelled.” Later, we found out that all Buddhist life activities had been suspended without a replacement and that this had to do with some internal politicking and office drama. After a couple of weeks, a group of students got the head chaplain, a white woman, to meet with them. At the meeting, she started crying and said, “I didn’t know there were any of you going to those Indigo Blue things. How was I supposed to know?”
Eventually, they hired teachers from a nearby Zen center who came to give dharma talks and hold meditation sessions. These teachers were, like the head of Indigo Blue, all white and mostly men. I only went to one of their events, a dharma talk given by one of the white men. The talk started with meditation, but I didn’t feel like closing my eyes and relaxing in that room. I remember that it felt overly philosophical and that part of it was about dealing with anger. I didn’t like that a white man was telling me what to do with my anger. There were other Asian and Asian American students at the talk who I chatted with after, and they seemed to like it. But I never went back.
I remember that it felt overly philosophical and that part of it was about dealing with anger. I didn’t like that a white man was telling me what to do with my anger.
I hadn’t realized how much Indigo Blue had meant to me until it was gone, and the way it had been replaced by this whitewashed version of Buddhism made it hurt even more. Still, I felt self-conscious about how much this had affected me. Why are you so upset about not being able to go to meditation sessions where you didn’t even meditate?
At the same time, I got obsessed with proving that white Buddhism is bad. I took a bunch of classes on Buddhism and latched onto anything that suggested Buddhism wasn’t really peaceful or rational, that it was an actual religion and not “more of a philosophy.” I was really into Buddhist depictions of hell, which often involved demons dismembering humans, and would show pictures of Buddhist hell to people in the dining hall who annoyed me.
But it was in learning about how imperialism has shaped Western ideas of Buddhism that I finally was able to articulate a lot of the problems I had with white Buddhism. In one of my classes, I learned about how Western ideas of Buddhism originated in Sri Lanka in the nineteenth century. Leaders there decided to frame Buddhism as rational, not as ritualistic or spiritual as other religions, so that Sri Lanka would seem civilized and worthy of independence from British colonialism. Many of the cultural aspects were toned down in order to be more accessible to a Western audience, instead highlighting practices that we now associate with mindfulness and meditation. These ideas underlie why I think white people find it so easy to claim Buddhism. The version most know was made to appeal to them.I also learned about the violence Buddhists had committed and continue to commit against Muslim and Hindu communities in countries where Buddhists are the majority.
I also learned about the violence Buddhists had committed and continue to commit against Muslim and Hindu communities in countries where Buddhists are the majority.
I also learned about the violence Buddhists had committed and continue to commit against Muslim and Hindu communities in countries where Buddhists are the majority. Once in a class on Himalayan cultures, we talked about the ethnic cleansing of the Lhotshampa in Bhutan. Most of my classmates were white, and I got the feeling many of them were in the class because they wanted to go backpacking in Nepal or had gotten into Tibetan Buddhism. It was obvious that thinking about the atrocities a Buddhist country had committed against a Hindu minority made them uncomfortable, and they quickly rushed through the discussion and onto the next reading. It made me think about how people would rather cling to their orientalist fantasies than start thinking about the real violence that their fantasies obscure.
When I complain about white Buddhism, sometimes people ask me about white people who practice Buddhism respectfully. I’m not sure what people mean by “respectfully”, but I think they mean learning the correct practices and not simply buying into Western, commercialized ideas of Buddhism. I think this is important, but it isn’t enough.
Right now, I’m quarantining with family in San Francisco Chinatown. People have varying and sometimes infuriating ideas of what it means to behave respectfully towards other people in a pandemic, especially the white people. The white people are much less likely to wear masks, and they always seem to be jogging or walking their dogs, oblivious to the people around them. In the whiter neighborhoods adjacent to Chinatown, there are fewer people on the sidewalks. I guess that’s an excuse to not think about how your body takes up space. Occasionally, I’ll see a white person jogging mask-less towards one of the busier Chinatown streets, and I’ll wonder why I’m so conditioned to shrink out of their way than scream, “Wear a fucking mask!”
It is not just how much knowledge you have of the religion, how much you respect the teaching themselves, but also how we engage with the histories that have shaped our views of Buddhism and our relationship to it, how we take up space, how entitled we do or don’t feel to take up space — how this is related to legacies of white supremacy and imperialism.
Then there is the outdoor dining, the white restaurants that spill out on the sidewalks. I try to avoid the streets with lots of these restaurants because it’s impossible to walk on the sidewalk without passing through a large clump of laughing, mask-less white people. I don’t begrudge the restaurants this. It’s not like they have much of a choice. But most of the restaurants in Chinatown don’t have room for outdoor dining. The sidewalks are too narrow. There are too many people walking around. It makes me think again about who is allowed to take up space and the ways in which people take up space can be a matter of survival.
This is similar to how I feel about what it means to practice Buddhism “respectfully.” It is not just how much knowledge you have of the religion, how much you respect the teaching themselves, but also how we engage with the histories that have shaped our views of Buddhism and our relationship to it, how we take up space, how entitled we do or don’t feel to take up space — how this is related to legacies of white supremacy and imperialism. Grappling with this is an ongoing process, and it makes me think about the idea of interconnectedness, not in the white hippy way where we hug trees and braid flowers in our hair, but the kind where we refuse to ignore the complex webs of power that we are all oppressed by and complicit in, the ties that bind us all together.
When it comes to Buddhism and cultural appropriation, I still sometimes worry that I’m making a big deal out of nothing, that I’m angry for no good reason. But I also think that dismissing my own anger is dismissing the histories that have shaped our ideas of Buddhism in the West — that even if my own anger is only a small blip, it still points to a larger system. Ignoring it is not useful because then I won’t be able to see how I fit in.
I mediate now, not in a religious way but to manage anxiety and chronic pain. Sometimes, the meditation recordings will reference Buddhism, usually when they’re talking about finding calm or learning not to be attached to negative emotions. I’m often invited to “cultivate inner peace,” which I think is funny and kind of irritating. If Buddhism has taught me to cultivate anything, it’s anger, the kind that gives clarity. This isn’t always something that is easy for me to access, but I would never give up the moments I can touch anger, even in exchange for enlightenment or whatever. It is something I will hold onto, earthly and overly attached, as long as I can.
Thank you for sharing. I began my therapeutic journey by learning dialectical behavioral theory, which was founded by marsha linehan (a white Buddhist woman). DBT is deeply rooted in “buddhist principles” that encourage the nice parts of buddhism that you talk about like mindfulness and acceptance. DBT was crucial to my healing, but I am cautious to remember that I like these aspects of buddhism, but i am by no means a Buddhist. This article is a good description of the nuances of why i feel like DBT has great ideas but is not equal to being a buddhist. Your experiences with anger are so valid and enlightening. I also appreciate you sharing your experience with anger as an asian american person because I’m a black woman and it’s often seen as “our burden” to be constantly enraged. This article really spoke to me. thank you!
I am so here for this rage and conversation. I have similar feelings about white people doing hare krishna stuff. I am white passing, grew up with a variety of religions in my family, and have punjabi heritage (sikh and hindu). I am a theology nerd, and believe pretty much anything you can find in one major, large, many-varied tradition you can find somewhere in another major tradition (unless you are white and the thing you’re looking for is exoticism or something you can’t quie put your finger on [something less. . . white?]). I have found a bit of a home with Quakers, and strongly encourage white people who want a spiritual home that has a lot of openness, oneness, silence, service, etc to check out the (multiple branches!) of quakerism. Quakerism was created by working class and poor people in England, in response to egregious greed and violence. There are so many variations on christianity, and so many old european traditions for white ppl to connect with and revive (and reviving them is good, needed healing work for white ppl to do!), that I don’t buy that white ppl need to use buddhism, hinduism, or other traditions for their spiritual engagement. Not wanting to engage w white traditions bc they are problematic (quakers have been and still are problematic, ironically the thing that makes me feel less than totally at home is liberal quakers propensity for cultural appropriation) is not only essentializing non-white traditions, but actively avoiding healing work white ppl need to do internally and in community.
I guess I’d like to say I don’t think there’s a way to practice a non-white tradition as a white person ‘respectfully. Period. The way to respect non-white traditions as a white person is to revive, create, adapt, and heal corruption in european-based traditions that european ppl who have assimilated to whiteness have lost in that assimilation to whiteness in the US and/or the Church in europe, and/or corrupted for white supremacy.
Maybe I’m misunderstanding your point (I’m not personally from a Buddhist or a Christian background), but while I understand the argument in terms of co-opting the cultural elements that are fused to folk practices that have become associated with Buddhism in specific countries, but ultimately isn’t Buddhism a missionary religion in the same way that Christianity and Islam are?
Putting a racial requirement to religion seems too close to Hindu nationalism and neo-nazi Asatruars to my mind, but full disclosure: I’m not in the US, and most of my experience of Buddhism is from the grandparents of friends who are either non-religious or who were raised Muslim or Christian by parents who converted, so maybe it all strikes me as more neutral because of that?
thanks for your thoughtfulness and bringing in more nuance here :) i was by no means suggesting like, a rule – that would be messed up and dangerous. thanks for bringing in the missionary aspect – it would also be messed up to say buddhism and other religions shouldn’t pursue white converts. i think the root problem is white supremecy, regardless of what religion we’re talking about. i do want to put the strongest possible challenge to white ppl saying they are engaging w buddhism ‘respectfully’
First off, thanks to the author for writing this article. It’s a perspective I have not heard enough but have personally wondered about, especially the very obvious division between westernized Buddhism and the actual religion of Buddhism as practiced in east Asia.
My background is: white nb/homo who grew up in an extremely evangelical part of the US, was aware of geographically-native Buddhism from international family connections, and was also raised partly in a neo-pagan tradition with which I continue to identify. So perhaps unfortunately I have a lot of/too many opinions haha.
I mostly agree that white folks should only engage in euro-native traditions which are divested of supremacist and (I would add) patriarchal elements. Unfortunately I don’t think any Christian tradition would fit that bill unless totally divorced from its foundational texts (Unitarianism might count in that regard, although I still consider it too rooted in abrahamic/levantine tradition, which NB is also technically appropriative, even if it was often forced on our pagan ancestors). So you are looking at pre-Christian as the only alternative, but that also brings with it a hell of a lot of problems, most notably the fact that all paganism in northern europe was pre-historic and consequently the subtleties of ritual and religion are essentially lost. The modern esoteric religions have made up for this by inventing and cobbling-together a variety of traditions (in many cases losing the nuances of the ethnic and land-based practice) e.g. the standardization of the circle and direction/elemental-based ritual structure from Wicca. Although I very much appreciate, in theory, the return to earth-based spiritual practice among culturally Christianized whites, I do not consider Wicca a legitimate recreation of the religion(s) of my ancestors, nor indeed of anyone’s!
Into this maelstrom is dropped the “philosophical” elements of Buddhist practice. I’m referring specifically to the unmediated Dharma of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which I suppose I was always tangentially aware of growing up. To date these spiritual truths are the only ones I have seen that are wholly aligned with my own independent seeking, at least on a macro scale. (Especially when compared to the poisonous tenants of white evangelical Christianity). Interestingly because of the universal simplicity and overarching nature of the Dharma it is also able to incorporate somewhat seamlessly with pagan land-based religions, as in Tibet. It is very obvious to me why white folks severed from the ethnic religions of their ancestors would turn to this framework as a guiding star in a post-Christian, increasingly globalized world.
I don’t actually have a conclusion or answer, I guess it’s just something white folks need to think really hard about within our general religious discourse and reclamation discussions. But we probably won’t?
Meanwhile we largely continue to peddle our religious and philosophical poisons upon which the USA was built and colonized, which imo is the most damaging thing of all.
thanks for your thoughtfulness and all the nuance here :)
I was raised Quaker (my family is Quaker pretty far back) and I do really appreciate the values I was taught. They probably should have taught us about the Quaker “boarding schools” for Native kids earlier, though.
YUP! lotsa healing needed within quakerism :D
and good stuff :)
this was a beautiful piece! thank you for writing :)
Thank you for sharing your writing, and your anger.
The former Chinese history nerd in me is revived by sheer annoyance every time people say Buddhism is peaceful while some temples were literally famous for the militant monks that secured their land holdings by oppressing peasants… It isn’t quite as personal for me bc I don’t practice but I think a lot of that annoyance comes from the Orientalist undertone you described. Also religions in China is just a tricky topic to discuss like every time I wanted to mention how Tibetian Buddhism aided the local system of slavery I bite back or ppl would assume I was just brainwashed.
I don’t know if this is weird to say, but I’m always fascinated by people’s university roommate dynamics. Maybe it’s because I’m from one of those immigrant Canadian families where the best thing you can do is get into a university that’s commuting distance from home, but that it ends up being so pivotal to so many people totally intrigues me.
I read a book last week, ‘Buying Buddha, Selling Rumi: Orientalism and the Mystical Marketplace’ by Sophia Rose Arjana, about the re-packaging of spiritual elements of religions for sale to a mostly US market. I was more interested in the sections about stripping the Islam out of Sufism,so I can’t really judge how well done the Buddhist parts were (my family are secular Muslims, so I have more cultural baggage there, so that’s why I paid more attention to that side of things) but a big part of it was also about stripping the religion out of Buddhism in exactly this kind of white “mystic”-type way.
Thank you for this fantastic essay. This whole topic really speaks to the way in which ‘good intentions’ conceal toxic/violent outcomes, as all of these people think they are making the world a better place by stealing and distorting culture.
i loved this essay, and found the conclusion so powerful and insightful.
this made me go through all the kinds of persons I’ve been in college and since. As an Indian Hindu, I’ve ‘consumed’ Buddhism off the internet, mediated by tea selling white backpackers. It was only later when I got much deeper into Hindu schools of philosophy that I looked at Buddhism the way my ancestors would have (I hope).
Reading S N Balagangadhara on how ‘Buddh-ism’ was created in Western universities to manufacture an oriental parallel to Protestantism (reform and enlightenment age etc), essentially to pit it against the priestly ritualistic Hinduism (Catholicism) blew my mind.
I’m a white-ish person born into a Western sect of Buddhism, and before I left the community and the practice altogether I struggled a lot with the way whiteness, and along with it wealth, shaped the community and its practices. I feel that in this community there is a core of white people who are signed on to actually practice religion. But the image that represents the community, which they’re fine with and cater to, is the overly-psychologized version of ~mindfulness practice~ that’s directed towards white people who are afraid of religion, but are still obsessed with Eastern iconographies, foreign mysticism, and the aesthetic practice of religion. I think the way Buddhism is repackaged as self-help in the West is, on the one hand, a perfectly legitimate way of spreading the Dharma using upayas, but the fact that this psychologized/self-help/just-a-philosophy representation dominates Western thinking about Buddhism invalidates and misrepresents Buddhist practices that immigrated here with communities from other countries – communities that have historically struggled to be understood and accepted by this exact same population.
Ok so I’m a white person and a Buddhist, and Buddhism quite literally saved my life.