Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Buddhism and race, from a guy of European descent nearer to it than most...

I'm not big on identity politics, which is to say I don't often write about race matters exclusively.  I often do write about cultural matters on the other hand, and to the extent race is a social construct (and race is a social construct to an extent that it's almost useless, as far as I'm concerned to deny the proposition) I guess in that sense I do write about race as culture.

As a guy with very frequent contact with Asian folk, who's conversant in Japanese (in limited topic areas; I can't really do botany, Jungian psychology and art criticism in Japanese), with an Asian wife, with Asian in-laws, with a 1/2 Asian grand niece (who's beautiful & bears a slight resemble to my son), who travels to Asia frequently, I'm quite sympathetic to Arun's point here (among other places), though I don't think he actually goes far enough, or perhaps he, too is too provincial (sorry Arun).

As I noted on my comment on that post, I don't think many Buddhists from American institutions don't quite get what they're missing (though in many cases the American-of-European-descent flavored Buddhism is light years beyond no Buddhism at all.)  The narrative is pretty pervasive: The Asian Teachers of Old came to America; They Taught a Select Group of Americans (mostly of European descent), and The Great Teachers of Old had all this Strange Asian-ness that - don't worry - the next generation of teachers has washed away so it's not as strange as it may appear, dear newcomer.

There's may be a reason there's also these stories about "how come there's no new young people coming into the temples anymore" by the way. And I think that reason's connected to the changing notions of race and minority in America; of course I have a particularly distorted global view of things; I bet I have seen more CNN International than everyone else in the Buddhist blogosphere combined.   Maybe more sumo wrestling, too (which, for the record, when your're jet-lagged, can keep you up on a Saturday afternoon with the same ethos that one brings to rubbernecking in a traffic jam, but I digress.)

People, I think, want more of the "real thing."  They don't see the "exotic" as "alienating" like they used to, except perhaps in Alabama.  At least that's they way that I see it on the coasts, in my admittedly rarefied circle of people in which I circulate.  But, suffice it to say, that circle mingles with people who mingle with other people who...you get it...6 degrees and all that. 

I spent the "Black Friday" day entertaining folks who I'm proud to call my friends and their families.  One family consisted of a Chinese immigrant who met her Lebanese immigrant husband at some company in the Bay Area.  An other family consisted of two immigrants from China who immigrated when they were kids (if I recall correctly it was both of them); both of whom had had a grandparent who...wait for it...was an American or Canadian.

It's all mixed up. 

Like I said, many of the folks don't seem to know what they're missing.  Some folks - like Danny Fisher - do seem to have somewhat frequent contact with Asian Buddhists (but I can't really tell; I don't know him personally, only blogosphere-ly.)  But - and here I kind of part ways with Arun - the notion of Buddhism and racial constructs, whether consciously observed, ignored, or otherwise - is about as impermanent and empty as you can get.

I've sat zazen in temples in South Korea, China, Japan, Hawaii, and numerous other places in the USA.  I've spoken with clerics and practitioners from all those Asian countries about the way Buddhism is practiced in their country.  Do I have a better handle on "Asian Buddhism" than Arun? Than Danny Fisher? 

I don't really know, and I largely don't care; I am grateful though that I have, within the confines of my Platinum Elite status, been able to meet and converse with a very diverse group of teachers.   I'm sure though that my particular experiential deformation doesn't make me or Arun or Danny Fisher any more or less Buddhist than they are or are not.

But this I'll say: much of what I see in the Buddhist blogosphere, and in American-of-European-Descent Buddhism is like the Buddhist analog of  Chinese food in American restaurants.  Sure, it's made according to a recipe that's been in restaurants for years, but the Chinese folk order stuff that "Westerners" wouldn't touch.

And they don't know what they're missing.  Not that what the Americans are ordering isn't Chinese food; it's just that there's so much more.

I do think Arun has a point, or at least is in the direction of a good point; I don't really know his background, but I do know that race and cultural issues are more complicated than a simple paean to "diversity" or denial that there's an issue in the first place would imply.  I also think there's another larger point behind what Arun's saying too - which I'll tangentially bring up here.  Much of the "Buddhist media" to me is reminiscent of a phenomenon that the defunct Spy magazine used to satirize with the recurring feature "Logrolling in Our Time."  In that feature Spy would present book-jacket blurb recommendations from authors of books who also wrote books which had book-jacket blurb recommendations from the authors of the first-mentioned books...if you catch my drift...It all sometimes seems like a Hey Let's Pat Everybody on the Back Club for Being Good Buddhists!

Of course, I'm not a member of that club...and I think, after all these years,  there might have been some wisdom after all in Groucho Marx's dictum that "I wouldn't joint any club that would have me as a member,"  though I guess the popular kidz evidently feel otherwise.    But it is really true about that old saw about the flower doesn't have to shout out loud to be fragrant and beautiful. It's really true.  But it's sad about the popular kidsz.

I think that's enough for today, but I'll  leave with one point, that underscores this, that I've not seen mentioned ever in the Buddhist blogosphere. Maybe Kobutsu Malone can corroborate what I'll say and expound further on my point, which is: Did you know Eido Shimano had Japanese students?  What ever happened to them? What ever happened to Seung Sahn's Korean students?

I've no idea.


NellaLou said...

Just an FYI. Shimano does have Japanese students and they contribute substantially to his funds. They have not been told what has gone on. That is why items from the Shimano archive are being translated into Japanese and circulated there for the past year. It's not easy finding the translators from what I gather. Due to this translation effort several of his appearances there have been cancelled and that is likely just the start.

Mumon said...

Thanks for the update. I hadn't heard about that, and certainly haven't heard from his students since I met them back in the early 90s.

maha said...

A lot of the "whiteness" is marketing more than anything else. Tricycle, for example, probably makes most of its profits from selling seminars and tour packages to people "seeking enlightenment." And that's mostly going to be upper-income newbies, who are mostly going to be white. If you've been practicing for awhile, the stuff in the glossy brochures is less compelling.

I agree with you about not knowing what they're missing.

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