Thursday, January 3, 2013

Radical Buddhist Reflections: White American Buddhist Temples

I was wary of writing this post.  This part of my interview with Dolma Sherpa was very enlightening, but it's not a subject that I feel particularly authorized to speak about.  My anthropological training tells me that there is wisdom to be found if we listen to people explain their experiences in their own words.  As a race activist and an ally to people of color, I find that the challenges of white guilt and appropriation causes a lot of pain and confusion for both white folks and people of color.  So I'd like to offer this to you: one young Nepali woman's perceptions about her experiences engaging with White American Buddhism.

I avoid White American Buddhist temples. 
I don't go to yoga classes here.  There are things I avoid.  And it's also my own stereotypes of them, which I'm fully acknowledging. But I often avoid those because every time I've been in White American Buddhist space, there is this very uncomfortable tension.  I get this sense of, "Oh, she's real!  She's from Nepal." There is this weird tokenizing and essentializing.  They make me feel like they see me as the "Real" Buddhist, which is totally problematic.  This is followed by another weird tension, where they decide I'm not an authority after all.  It becomes this sense of, "We're the real Buddhists and you are just a girl from Nepal." This is not all White American Buddhist spaces, but it's so common that I have just decided to avoid them all together.  I also have not gone on retreat in the US.  Partially, this is because they are super expensive.  Who can afford to go?  Who can afford to take that much time off of work?  But even more, I don't go because I know what I'm going to find.  I'm gonna find a lot of wealthy American White people who end up in this really awkward conversation with me where they will say things like, "Oh my god, you are from Nepal, you must be so mystical." This is so awkward.  Why would someone say that?  It's tokenizing but it comes with this removal of agency and power.  It's this very strange place for me.  I simply don't know how to interact.  Most of the times I've tried, that's the reaction I get.

I find this to be very interesting.  After she mentioned these things, we had a nice talk about the destructive power of white guilt.  As we talked, she agreed that often the cause of these weird interactions comes from people feeling uneasy and concerned about appropriation.  There is a strange deference to her strictly because of her skin tone and the location of her birth, followed by a harsh removal of this unrequested authority.  It's powerful to notice that Dolma isn't even really involved in any of this.  She is a placeholder for all Asians, which is deeply disconcerting.  She went to the temple to learn what they were doing and see if she could share in their spiritual practices.  Instead she gets used as an unwilling participant as people work out their unresolved feelings about being white and participating in a non-white religious tradition.  It's not unusual, but it's really unfortunate and speaks strongly to the important work that white folks (regardless of religious persuasion) have in front of them.

I have met White American Buddhists who I have had a lot of respect for.  One of my really good friends from school is SGI Buddhist.  She's a White American and we have really wonderful conversations.  She's a wonderful Buddhist.  Also, there is a really amazing priest at a Chinese temple in Berkeley who is white.  He's an awesome Buddhist and his Mandarin is amazing.  It's not like I think white people have to prove themselves.  But I think there is sometimes a lack of sincerity in the casual communities of White American Buddhism.  I can't even put a name on it.  I'm still working this out for myself. I don't know if it's solely the Orientalism of it, but I think it might also be the robbing of agency.  Not to say, I am more authentic, cause that's not real.  Authenticity is not a real thing.  But I think there is an important difference between someone who reads Siddhartha and meditates once and then tells me what Buddhists believe versus someone who says, "Oh hey, Buddhism is really interesting.  I'm going to study this.  Oh wow, this is actually really cool and works for me.  I'm gonna study this a little more and maybe I will try temple."  Everyone has their own journey, but sincerity is required for any religious tradition.