By Rev. Enkei
Over the last couple of years I have finally noticed more American Buddhists questioning the white privilege that prevails in our community. This has taken the form of both American Buddhists of color being given more prominent voices in popular Buddhist publications and in white Buddhists engaging in self-critique of how practice communities contribute to cultural norms of racism and ethnic exclusion.
This current of inquiry is encouraging, but we should not get too self-congratulatory. White American Buddhists are still creating a lot suffering in their ignorance of both the dharma and social struggles in this country. Practice communities are not integrating at a noticeable rate, we have yet to offer celebrity guru status to a non-Asian teacher of color and our leading Buddhist(“-inspired”) university continues to struggle to meet the needs of non-white students.
What is perhaps the most disturbing trend in American Buddhist racism is the bastardization of the Buddhist principle of non-violence to question protests for racial justice. The spiritual bypassing of the “everything is Buddha-nature” mentality betrays itself when white American Buddhists find themselves disturbed by the desperate actions of their black neighbors living in poverty. Rather than honoring the suffering these beings skillfully express in their wrathful outrage, employing the means to which our military-consumerist society is most likely to respond, white Buddhists callously and ignorantly beg for “non-violence.”; In speaking out against the desperate, sometimes violent protests of black Americans responding to police brutality, white American Buddhists betray how far they have yet to go in understanding how their own habitual thought patterns create suffering in this world.
No Justice, No Nirvāṇa
For better or worse, the teachings of Buddha Śākyamuni include no references to justice or reconciliation. That does not mean, however, that the Noble One had nothing to say about the dharma in relation to society. The early Cakkavati Sutta of the Pali Canon clearly puts the obligation to create an environment in which peace prevails on the privileged class. The scripture discusses how a ruler capable of spreading unity throughout the world establishes an order where life and equality are supported. Conversely, rulers that ignore this obligation sew the seeds for social disintegration that leads to strife for all people.
This might run counter to some white American Buddhists’ notion of what the Buddha was trying to teach. Many white Americans find their way to Buddhism because they feel that the teachings affirm their notion that we are all responsible for our own happiness. This may be an appealing alternative to the theology that many American Christians are brought up with that teaches that our happiness now and in the afterlife is based on the capricious whim of a judging God. Unfortunately, this movement from “victimized subject” to “liberated, self-sufficient individual” aligns almost precisely with the white American political narrative that is the cornerstone of today’s American military-consumerist ideology.
Try as they might, white American Buddhists, a generally politically liberal crowd, are no more immune to acting out this ideology than conservatives. Although many well-intentioned white Americans believe that they are countering this ideology–by voting for Democrats, buying organic foods and, of course, meditating–the fact remains that white liberals renouncing privilege in order to actively create the conditions for equality in our world is the exception, not the rule. Having deluded ourselves into believing we are cultivating peace, we ignore the truly violent nature of the state power designed to defend our privilege. When those subject to this violence cry out in agony, we beg that they join us in passively accepting this system.
This demand for “non-violence” is often based on a grievous misunderstanding of the dynamics at play in the 20th century people-led movements for freedom in India and South Africa and civil rights for black Americans. These movements succeeded because those with the power to act were inspired (or ashamed) by the suffering of the powerless. In other words, if we find the suffering of people on our televisions abominable, we must demand change on their behalf. We must wake up to the truth of the Heart Sūtra: non-violence is violence, violence is non-violence.
A New Upāya
In fairness, the delusion of white American Buddhists has as much to do with how Asian teachers have presented Buddhism to American culture as it does with white Americans’ privileged position. Scholars such as Robert Sharf and David McMahan have documented how a constellation of Sri Lankan, Burmese, Chinese and Japanese teachers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries crafted reinterpretations of traditional Buddhist teachings to appeal to (and in some instances claim superiority over) white American Protestantism. These were desperate attempts at resisting the ideological colonialism of Christian missionaries that imposed foreign cultural norms on indigenous people while foreign powers exploited their labor and stole their agricultural products and natural resources.
These historical facts are included in the causes and conditions for white American Buddhist ideology. In order to truly take responsibility for our own mental habits, white American Buddhists have a responsibility to understand the true ancestors of our ideology. This inquiry reveals that our adopted pathway to enlightenment is built on racism, sexism, imperialism and predatory mercantilism. Put another way, the forms through which Buddhism is taught and practiced by white Americans are formed by greed, hatred and ignorance.
To take the dharma seriously is to overcome the karma arising from these delusions by cultivating appropriate action, meditation and understanding. Too often, I hear white American Buddhists make some statement along the lines of, “I change the world by being kind to those around me.” This is a kind intention and I have no issue with it on its face. Where the problem occurs is when these same people refuse to acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that they decide who is around them. In our country, white people decide who exists where. When white people as individuals and communities choose–actively or passively–to live in ways that prevent them from encountering the marginalized, they are resisting the dharma. They choose not to observe, to question and to gain insight into how their minds relate to the suffering of those around them and how that suffering contributes to their own.
The tradition, going back to the time of the Buddha Śākyamuni, teaches the employment of expedient techniques to overcome entrenched mental habits. White American Buddhists have an obligation to innovate skillful means for overcoming the ignorance (in Sanskrit, avidya, or literally “non-seeing”) to racism and other ideologies of oppression. These techniques must address how we have failed to compassionately welcome the Other into our neighborhoods, businesses, homes and sanghas on their own terms and in order to meet their needs.
Taking the opportunity to see how our minds cause us to confine others to invisible prisons of inequity, we have an obligation to share this insight with others just as the devas directed the the renunciant prince to preach following his defeat of Mara. If the Tathāgata’s experience is any indication, not everyone will accept the teachings. It may be terrifying to speak out against the powers that maintain our privileged position, but sharing the dharma is the only true refuge.
White American Buddhists–with whatever emotional scars, addictions or feelings of inadequacy we may carry–are among the most privileged people to have ever lived. We carry the obligation to shape this world into one of peace and true liberation.