Young Asian American Buddhists reclaim the narrative after decades of white rule


When Mihiri Tillakaratne was young, a white scholar visited the Sri Lankan Buddhist temple where she had grown up. The Los Angeles Temple was a vibrant hub for many Sri Lankan Americans scattered across Southern California, but the academic’s fieldwork instead focused on the experiences of white converts – which Tillakaratne will achieve. later was representative of how Buddhism is often represented in the United States.

“It was really frustrating,” Tillakaratne said. “And I thought, ‘OK, I can do better’. “

So she went to college and studied Pali and Sanskrit – “so I knew exactly what I was singing,” she said – then to graduate school, where she studies the Sri Lankan community. American and filmed a documentary about Sri Lankan youth at her home. temple, a group the white scholar had ignored decades earlier. Today, she occupies a unique position at Lion’s Roar, the largest Buddhist publication in North America, as one of two editors who explicitly focus on covering the Asian-American Buddhist community.

She said that through her post, which was created this year, she wants to “dismantle the mainstream narrative of what Buddhism is”.

“My big dream,” Tillakaratne said, “is that it’s not just about having that symbolic Asian voice.… It’s about normalizing the voices of color in Buddhism in America up to what we got to where, when you open Lion’s Roar or any magazine and see the photos of the contributors, of course there are people of all ethnicities and backgrounds and they have equal weight and that we no longer think of Asian American Buddhists in particular as inferior. ”

A May 4 ceremony honoring the victims of the Atlanta-area shooting was the first Asian-American Buddhist gathering, bringing together monks of various ethnicities and lineages.Tauran Woo

Asian immigrants introduced Buddhism to the United States over 150 years ago, and Asian Americans now make up two-thirds of Buddhists in the United States. But popular depictions of religion have long centered white voices – from actor Richard Gere’s much-publicized conversion to magazine covers like an issue of Time titled “America’s Fascination with Buddhism,” with a photograph of Brad Pitt from the movie “Seven Years in Tibet”.

Narratives of the history of Buddhism in the United States also center on white practitioners; it is often said to have started with white converts who traveled to Asia and the 1960s counterculture movement. When Asian American Buddhists are recognized, it is often to create a binary between Buddhism “True” or “pure” of white meditation practitioners and the “cultural baggage” or “superstition” of the Asian ritual, experts say.

But in the racial calculation unleashed by Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, anti-Asian racism growing during the pandemic, and the coming of age of a younger and more outspoken generation, American Buddhists of Asian descent like Tillakaratne challenge white dominance Buddhist narratives and refocusing Asian American identity on what it means to be Buddhist in the United States

“Asian American Buddhists are tired of being ignored,” said Chenxing Han, author of “Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists.” The toll is long overdue, said Han, whose book, published this year, is one of the few on Asian-American Buddhists as a pan-ethnic, pan-sectarian group.

“How come it’s 2021 and it’s only now that people are focusing on Asian American Buddhists? ” she said.

Young Buddhist Editorial has launched the “Humans of Buddhism” photo series to show Asian American Buddhists beyond the stereotype of a “shaven-headed monk in a robe”. Courtesy of Devon Matsumoto

One of the reasons is the maturity of Gen Z. As the most racially diverse generation in US history, Gen Z has often taken a more open stance on racial and social justice – and that s ‘also applies to their religious communities, according to experts.

Devon Matsumoto, 23, a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area, grew up attending his Japanese Buddhist temple almost every day. But when he saw Buddhism portrayed in Hollywood or in the news – usually a white person meditating in the mountains, he said – it didn’t match his own life experience. So last year, Matsumoto and a dozen others created Young Buddhist Editorial, an online forum for Generation Z and Asian American Millennial Buddhists to share their own writing and art. The group also organized book clubs on social justice and virtual workshops on anti-darkness; organized a photo exhibition “Humans of Buddhism”; brought together stories, poetry and art to commemorate people of Japanese descent incarcerated during WWII; and organized a healing circle after the shooting of eight people, including six Asian women, in the Atlanta area in March.

“We’re trying to say, ‘This is how we as an Asian-American Buddhist community, this is how we say we want to go, this is how we say we want to be represented.” , said Matsumoto, chairman of the group. “We’re not really trying to change the narratives about how people see us – that would be great, but people are going to see us as they are going to see us – but how do we mobilize our own community to unite and have a strong ethnic identity as well as a religious identity?

Anti-Asian racism linked to the pandemic – which has included temple vandalism – has affected the way Asian American Buddhists speak, but this is not the first time marginalization has been exposed, Funie said Hsu, Assistant Professor of American Studies at San Jose State. University. Since the 1990s, Asian Americans have publicly questioned white-centered representations of Buddhism, often with great hindsight.

“The seeds for these current conversations around Asian American Buddhists and our position in American Buddhism were planted in the 19th century when the first Chinese immigrants came and brought Buddhism,” she said. “So they planted these seeds, and they’ve grown slowly over the centuries and decades, and now we’re starting to see a lot of plants start to sprout.”

May We Gather was held at Higashi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, which was vandalized in February.Tauran Woo

More recently, the Angry Asian Buddhist blog – a nod to Phil Yu’s popular Angry Asian Man – has been “the hub” of the conversation, Hsu said. For nearly a decade from 2007, the blog has documented the erasure of Asian American Buddhists, in part by counting the number of Asian American signatures in major Buddhist publications, in order to quantify marginalization from the community. A 2010 blog post, for example, showed that only 21 of the 163 authors of “The Best Buddhist Writing,” an annual book published by the editors of Shambhala Sun magazine – now called Lion’s Roar – were originally Asian.

Asian American Buddhists “are unhappy with the perceived injustice of predominantly white Buddhists to ignore Asian Americans, who make up most of Buddhist America,” wrote Aaron Lee, whose the last blog entry was in 2016, a few months before his death at the age of 34. “They get angry when they hear people writing about the history of Buddhism in America without referring to the hundreds of thousands of Asian Buddhist Americans who have been and continue to be the largest part of American Buddhism. Who will speak? for them when they are ignored? Who will stand up to let them know that they are not alone? “

Han, who was friends with Lee, said his writings helped lay the groundwork for the calculus that Asian American Buddhists know today. “He was one of the first explicitly Asian-American Buddhist voices,” she said. “His vision was that we could all connect as Asian Americans across ethnicities, through sects, but also that we have something important to say to American Buddhism at large.”

That vision came to life in May, Han said, when a multi-ethnic, multi-lineage group of Asian-American Buddhists gathered in Los Angeles – as thousands of people across the United States watched online – to mark the 49th day after the shooting in the Atlanta area. One of the victims, Yong Ae Yue, was a Buddhist, and for many in the religious tradition, 49 days after death marks a point of transition for the deceased.

The ceremony, titled May We Gather, also paid tribute to other Asian American Buddhists who have been victims of racist violence throughout history, including Sia Bun Ning, who was killed in the 1885 anti-Chinese massacre of Rock Springs in Wyoming; Kanesaburo Oshima, who was killed in the Fort Sill, Oklahoma, concentration camp in 1942; and Vicha Ratanapakdee, who died after being attacked in his San Francisco neighborhood this year.

Held at the Higashi Hongwanji Temple, which was vandalized in February, the event was the first gathering of Asian-American Buddhists, organizers said, which included Han, Hsu and Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Zen priest and professor of religion. and East Asian languages ​​and cultures. at the University of Southern California.

The gilding of a kintsugi lotus was the ritual centerpiece of May We Gather.Tauran Woo

While the event featured traditional rituals from several Buddhist lineages, the centerpiece was distinctly Asian American created by Williams for the occasion: the gilding of a kintsugi lotus. The lotus, a flower that grows in muddy waters, traditionally symbolizes the awakening of the Buddha and the idea that enlightenment comes in the midst of suffering; Kintsugi is the Japanese art form of repairing broken ceramics with golden lacquer. With these metaphors, the ritual was meant to show how to turn “the breakup into beauty.”

May We Gather was a first, but for the organizers it also showed a way forward for the community.

“It can be difficult for Asian American Buddhists to find each other,” Han said. “There is a hunger for it, but there are not these structures in place to be found. May We Gather was like, “No, we’re here. It is possible to meet again. It may take some work to get us connected. And through that connection, we protect each other, we take care of each other, we take care of how we’ve been hurt. “


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