Monthly Archives: November 2012

Religious Rootlessness

‘Sand Drifting Trees’ by (r)DS via Flickr.com

I’ve been dreading having to write this post since it was first assigned at the start of the semester. Despite efforts to convince myself that it’s just a blog post and there are way scarier things in life, it still felt like an insurmountable task. Why?  Maybe, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that I’m a Jamaican-born Canadian of Chinese ethnicity, who was raised Catholic and is not currently practicing a religion.  What could I possibly have to say about Buddhism in the U.S?

Furthermore, my interest in studying Buddhism has been mainly to gain an intellectual understanding of the teachings and practices for how to live and to inform my work as a future mental health practitioner.  That, in a nutshell, is what drew me to the University of the West and to this class.  Truth be told, I feel like a bit of an imposter in the company of people who seem to know much more about about this topic, many with direct experience as practicing Buddhists and/or Buddhist scholars.  At times I’ve had to remind myself that I’m here to learn and should expect to feel challenged and even a little intimidated.  What I didn’t expect, was to be thrown into a deeply personal exploration of my own religious/spiritual identity.

It started with a class discussion on Buddhism coming to the West by way of migrant workers from Asia.  The topic of ancestor worship came up and it got me thinking about how little I actually knew of my ancestors.  All I can say for sure is that they were Hakka Chinese and left China to settle in Jamaica over three generations ago, where they opened and ran businesses selling everything from hardware supplies to groceries.  But I knew nothing about how they lived, their customs, religious beliefs or practices.  As I contemplated this, I became aware of a longing to know, connect with, and honor them.  The only problem was, I didn’t know how.

It became clear to me then that the religion I had grown up with was not the same religion that was practiced by my ancestors back in China.  What was that religion?  I wondered.  How was it practiced?  What were their beliefs?  Did they have rituals?

With these and other questions swimming around in my head, I called my parents on the break, hoping they’d be able to shed some light on the big dark void I saw when I thought of our family history.  They weren’t able to say for sure, but believed that my ancestors in China practiced some form of Chinese folk religion.

Then came the next question, which I’m a little ashamed to say I’d never thought to ask before, “How then, did we become Catholic?”   Well as it turns out, when my grandparents were born, in order to get a birth certificate one needed to have a “recognized” religion.  I wasn’t quite sure what to think in that moment but I was saddened by the idea that the transmission of religious traditions over so many generations came to an abrupt end because of a legal requirement.

There were more questions, addressed to my father, “Did they pass on any beliefs or rituals? Do you remember anything of their practices?”  I was desperately hoping he’d say “yes”, willing to settle for whatever fragmented, faded memories he could conjure up.

He had none.

Since that day I’ve called home to Canada at least half a dozen times with even more questions, hoping with increasing desperation to make some kind of spiritual connection to the past and feeling disappointed as I came up empty each time.

An internet search into the history of Chinese people in Jamaica provided some explanation for why many of them abandoned their traditional belief systems and “took up” a form of Christianity.  Many first generation Chinese parents came from poor families and recognized the importance of education as a primary vehicle for a better life for their children.  They also realized that they stood a better chance of success if they were highly acculturated, so they were reluctant to pass on any cultural or religious practices to the next generation.  A conversion of convenience was further necessitated by the desire for children to attend English-speaking schools, the majority of which were Christian-based.

My parents, like their parents, adopted Catholic practices and did their best to pass these onto their children.  We attended mass most Sundays and my brother and I went to Catholic schools.  Sure, there were rituals.  We were baptized and received all of the sacraments one often does when growing up as a Catholic child.  My parents didn’t play a very active part in our religious upbringing and relied heavily on the school system to educate us on and instil religious practices and beliefs.

Thinking back on it now, it seemed like there was something missing.  Perhaps it was the meaning behind the religious practices that my parents were unable to provide.  In fact, I recall when I was a teenager being asked by my mother if I believed in God and Heaven and Hell and all that.  She was looking for answers from me.  Over the years as I’d searched for a religious identity, it seemed so too did my parents.  There was a time when they took a greater interest than I did in the books on Buddhism that I brought home.  Not long ago my mother expressed a desire to learn more about meditation and we visited a Tibetan meditation center together.  My father recently engaged me in a discussion about Buddhist and Christian views on evolution.  I can’t speak for them, but I hypothesize that my inability to feel connected to the religion I was raised with is due in part to spiritual rootlessness and a lack of real meaning.

For most of my life, I’ve felt free to explore and create my own religious and/or spiritual identity.  The journey seems to have brought me full circle and sparked a longing to connect with my Chinese roots.  I don’t know if I‘ll ever be able to make that spiritual connection with my past, which seems to have been lost generations ago.  For now, I continue to remind myself that I am everything that came before me and try to connect with and honor my ancestors through everything I do.

Post by Stephanie

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Another ‘Lonely’ White Chick With a (Buddhist) Blog

“Lord Buddha on TV in front of two monitors,” by Wonderlane via Flickr.com

Buddhism in the 20th and 21st Centuries has taken on a new medium, perhaps its first new medium since the introduction of television a century ago. That new medium is the internet, a connective web born from a U.S. Department of Defense research initiative in the 1960’s.  So one could say that digital Buddhism is, in a way, American Buddhism.

Of course, the internet is now no more American than the printing press is Chinese. Scott Mitchell, in his MA thesis for GTU, argues that the internet, by it’s nature, is a tool for 1) democratization and anti-authoritarianism and 2) commercialism and the growth of passion/greed, both of which are, in a sense, “anti-Buddhist.” A very interesting theory. Regardless, one could also argue it is a global tool which reflects the character of its users to at least some degree. It is that subject I wish to explore.

In that sense, although the internet is no longer uniquely American, it is rather dominated by the English language, which accounts for 57% of all websites.  What’s really interesting, though, is that English speaking users only account for 27% of the people on the internet.  The next largest user group is Chinese, at 24%, but only 5% of the internet is written (or spoken) in Chinese, according to W3Techs (W3 is the international consortium that standardizes web programming language, so they’re pretty reliable).  In fact, according to Internet World Stats, Asia accounts for 45% of all internet users, while North America comes in at a piddly 12%.

Given the language dominance, it’s no surprise then that we see a dominance of English-language Buddhist blogs.  In fact, when you translate the phrase “Buddhist blogs” into Asian languages (using Google Translate) and do a web search with the translation, the number search results in Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, and Tamil combined don’t even amount to half of the 79.6 million search results for the English-language phrase. (This is a highly unscientific study, which would get you a solid “F” in any academic paper, but I still think it’s interesting.)

The other factor which may be contributing to this market dominance is what we might call “market penetration.”  Internet use among North Americans was 79% in 2011, according to Internet World Stats.  So more than three out of four people you know (if you’re North American) are on the internet.  It is similarly high in Australia/Oceania at 66% and at 61% among Europeans.  In contrast, Asia is much closer to the world average (33%), with just 26% of all Asians having internet access.

So what does it mean for the character of “digital Buddhism” when the vast majority of practicing Buddhists aren’t contributing?

Every technological revolution in history has spread unevenly, with the most affluent societies leading the way – from the mastery of fire to the fires of industry – from the transportation revolution of the 20th Century to the telecommunications revolution of the 21st Century.  This uneven spread of technological revolution has a nasty history of cultural hegemony (word of the day!) and even outright war, colonialism, and enslavement.

But we’re Buddhists, so we should be better than that, right?

Well, the Angry Asian Buddhist doesn’t think so.  He points out in his blog that

…it’s common parlance among English speaking American Buddhists to use the term American Buddhist or Western Buddhist to refer to White people—or at the very least at the exclusion of American Buddhists of Asian heritage. I can certainly concede that the prototypical “American” in the media is a White American—but I hold the American Buddhist community to a higher standard. Especially since most American Buddhists are not White.

The rhetoric which has led to the normalization of the “American Buddhist” as a white convert has also led to the exclusion of Asian American Buddhist voices from the table, according to AAB.

They are angry when they hear people write about the history of Buddhism in America without reference to the hundreds of thousands of Buddhist Asian Americans who have been and who continue to be the greatest part of American Buddhism. Who will speak out for them when they’re ignored? Who will stand up to let them know they’re not alone?

That’s why I’m the Angry Asian Buddhist.

Does he have a point?  I think so.

A quick Google search of “Buddhist blog” will show what I mean in the top 10 search results.  Three are themselves lists of the “best Buddhist blogs,” but those which are personal blogs have a distinct flavor.  Only one is operated by a person(s) of Asian decent, while the other six are quite obviously white folks (four guys and two gals).  Results 11 through 20 are little better, a few personal blogs, a few group blogs (still dominated by white folks), and one Asian person’s blog. (Please note: This evidence is cursory and far from conclusive.  However, if that’s what I find in a cursory search, it’s what others will find in a cursory search. Consciously or unconsciously they may draw certain conclusions from the results.)

Does it matter?  Or am I just race-baiting here?

This is where it gets personal.  I have a blog dedicated to Buddhism.  And what am I? A white chick.  So am I contributing to the white digital Buddhism dominance?  Maybe.  That’s not why I started blogging, but you could say the two are related.

I started blogging as a way to reach out to other Buddhists.  As a white chick living in a very white part of the country, surrounded by Christians and hemmed in by cultural homogeneity, there simply weren’t very many other Buddhists for me to talk to.  Those I found were often as lost and clueless as I was, relying on books and the occasional retreat at a distant meditation center to try to build a sangha-less practice.  So I used the internet to reach out.  And I found that there were a lot of other lone Buddhists who were also reaching out – and most of them were like me.  Go figure.

In fact, there is actually research to show my anecdotal experience is not even remotely unique.  A study by Ostrowski in 2006 (in Contemporary Buddhism, volume 7) found that a third (33%) of people looking for Buddhism on the internet did so because they didn’t have the ability to become involved with teachers or sanghas in real life.  A further fifth (20%) turned to the internet simple because it’s convenient.  (Nor is this phenomenon unique to the United States.  Kim found similar behavior in 2005 among urban Koreans due to the fact that most Buddhist temples in Korea are located in rural areas.  However, Korea may be a unique case in Asia.)  Ostrowski found that people using the internet to learn about Buddhism were overwhelmingly white (72%) and over half (53%) had been raised as Christians. Yet despite their obvious interest, three-quarters (74%) were not members of a Buddhist center – just like me.

So why is that?  Is geography really so powerful?  What about white converts who live in big cities with lots of temples?

Even in large cities, where Buddhists can gather and build temples and centers, those of us who are converts  to Buddhism tend to continue living in our culture of origin.  So while we may be able to build a sangha, that sangha is spread out and geographically diluted.  Rarely are our sangha-mates also our physical neighbors, let alone family.  And we tend to build sanghas with those who have similar experiences to ourselves, people with whom we can relate.  This may explain not just some of the unfortunate racial segregation in American Buddhist sanghas, but some of the socioeconomic segregation as well.  It’s no wonder Buddhists of color, Buddhist women, and LGBTQ Buddhist retreats have become so popular.  Everyone wants that experience of mutual empathy only a shared background can bring.

In many ways, I think the Asian American sanghas have an advantage.  I live in a mixed Latino/Asian immigrant neighborhood.  The Vietnamese Buddhist temple three blocks from my house is supported and patronized by the Vietnamese families who live in my neighborhood.  In contrast, my fellow convert Buddhists frequently drive long distances to their centers.  The Chinese temple I sometimes visit on Sundays is patronized by the Chinese families who live in its surrounding neighborhood and practice Tai Chi and Qi Gong and tennis in the park next door.  When I see them, I always think how nice it must be to have fellow Buddhists all around you like that.  Perhaps if I had that feeling, I wouldn’t see the need to reach out to other lonely Buddhists on the internet. (Perhaps not.  I’m kinda a geek.)

Now, you might ask, “Why don’t you go to the Vietnamese temple? Or make friends with the people at the Chinese temple?”  It’s a fair question.  After two and a half years of living in such proximity to so many wonderful Buddhist resources, the more I learn about Asian culture, the more I come to appreciate how truly different they are from my own.

I’m becoming more and more aware that Asian American Buddhists look to their temples and sanghas differently than I do.  I come loaded with Protestant presuppositions about the role religion should play in one’s life, presuppositions which look very different from how Asian and Asian American Buddhists actually engage with Buddhism. (At least, according to Wendy Cadge and Carolyn Chen, as well as my own ignorant observations.)   When I left the United Methodist Church at the age of 15, I created a gap in my pscho-social life that I’ve been trying to fill, consciously or unconsciously, ever since.  So trying to engage with an Asian American sangha on my terms is unlikely to leave me feeling fulfilled.

I also worry that the presence of an outsider like me would not be entirely welcome.  That may just be my projection, but it creates a strong anxiety.  Finally, I don’t speak the language and that’s a huge barrier.  I appreciate different cultures, but I’m too intimidated to try to scale that wall just yet.  At least, not while I still have the internet.

In fact, the very notion that I could fill in the gaps in my relationships and connections by reaching out online may be a product of my upbringing. I have noticed a curious reluctance in my Asian classmates and coworkers to do business and communicate via the internet that may speak to deeper cultural biases, my own as much as theirs.  It may well be that white, middle-class Americans are simply more comfortable with the internet.  Just like my Asian friends are more comfortable with chopsticks.  (Stereotypical, I know.  Please forgive me and remember I looked stupid trying to use chopsticks for a very long time.)

In conclusion, my personal experience (backed by a modicum of research) leads me to believe that Asian and Asian-American Buddhist voices on the internet are not being intentionally excluded or ignored at any systematic level (although certain projects or sites may be in need of scrutiny).  The internet is rather brilliant in that it has a very low barrier to entry (Scott’s criticized democratization).  Literally anyone can get a blog (myself, case in point) with even the most limited of resources.  Of course, not being ignored is a far cry from being heard and an even greater distance from being heeded.

However, my experience attending an ecumenical Buddhist-founded school, where I am exposed to a plethora of Asian, Asian-American, and “American” (white, black, brown, and rainbow) Buddhist voices also leads me to conclude that “digital Buddhism” is not an accurate representation of Buddhism.  It’s skewed and biased, lacking broader perspectives and concerns which are valid and valuable.  With such a large demographic chunk of Buddhists under-represented, it must be.  I want to see more Buddhist bloggers of all backgrounds sharing their experience and teachings in the medium to which I typically go to find those teachings.  And I honestly think we’ll get there, but it’s going to take effort.  That’s why I’m so delighted that this blog will feature the voices of my fellow students, who are most assuredly not all white chicks like me.

Post by Monica Sanford

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Exploring the Digital Face of Buddhism

Buddhist Websites

While a great many studies, articles, and books have been published about Buddhism in America, both as a whole and from the perspective of specific Buddhist communities, scholarship on digital Buddhism is far behind the curve.  Charles Prebish has authored a few articles, the Buddhist Geeks podcast has covered the internet-based work of various teachers, and there are a few graduate theses and dissertations in recent years (see Bibliography).  But this is nothing compared to the in-depth monographs and quality anthologies about other aspects of American Buddhism.  Perhaps this is because Buddhism on the internet is a moving target, as with all things web-based.  Therefore, rather than summarize a batch of academic papers which were out of date within a month of printing, I would like to challenge my classmates and readers of the blog to help construct the digital face of Buddhism today.

It’s simple.  Below I have posted my five favorite Buddhist websites.  In the comments, please tell us about five other awesome Buddhist websites without duplicating what’s gone before.  I know that may be a hard task, so the sooner you comment, the easier it will be to find a Buddhist website or blog which hasn’t been listed yet.  If you feel like being an overachiever, you can even tell us why you like these sites and how you use them in your study and practice.  Otherwise, just list them.  Here are mine:

Monica’s Favorites

  • Buddhanet – Buddhanet was there for me when I was just a baby Buddhist blogger trolling the internet for things I didn’t even know how to pronounce.  They have a wonderful set of resources on both Theravada and Mahayana teachings as well as a global directory of Buddhist centers.
  • Access to Insight – This has lately become my go-to source for the Pali suttas and commentary from Theravada teachers.  In addition to a large portion of the Tripitaka available in English translation, it frequently provides multiple translations of a single sutta for comparison, as well as collections of sutta verses and/or discourses on various topics, such as stress (dukkha) or jnana (meditative absorption).  Most articles have been published elsewhere in print and are entirely suitable for citation in academic papers.
  • Dhamma Talks – A great collection of audio recordings from Metta Forrest Monastery, a Theravada center in an avocado grove just outside Escondido, California.  In addition to both long and short daily talks by the abbot, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the site also hosts beautiful recordings of Pali chants by the resident monks and their texts and translations.  I highly recommend the chants and guided meditations.
  • Wikipedia’s Buddhism Portal – The Buddhism Portal on Wikipedia is a handy place to get started when exploring any topic in Buddhism for the first time.  I find it pretty reliable.  Of course, it is Wikipedia, so read critically and always check the citations.
  • My Google Reader RSS Feed – I subscribe to a number of Buddhist blogs and news feeds using Google Reader, which delivers all their content to one spot.  This includes: American Buddhist Perspective, Angry Asian Buddhist, Buddhist Geeks, New Books in Buddhist Studies, Off the Cushion, Wildmind Buddhist Meditation, and more.  If you have a Gmail account, setting up a Google Reader feed is easy and convenient.  It’s a good way to keep up with your favorite Buddhist bloggers (like me?).  If not Gmail, their are a number of other RSS aggregaters out there to choose from.

(Yes, I know, that brings me to more than five.  What’s in your RSS feed? Tell us. We’d like to know.)

If you want to read more about the history of Buddhism online, you can check out some of the resources I unearthed listed below.

Bibliography

Connelly, Louise. Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation, and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs. Doctoral dissertation for the University of Edinburgh, 2011.

Fenn, Mavis. “Teaching Buddhism by Distance Education: Traditional and Web-Based Approaches.” Teaching Buddhism in the West. Hori, Victor Sogen, Hayes, Richard, and Shields, Mark J. eds. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Greider, Brett. “Academic Buddhology and the Cyber-Sangha: Research and Teaching Buddhism on the Web.” Teaching Buddhism in the West. Hori, Victor Sogen, Hayes, Richard, and Shields, Mark J. eds. New York: Routledge Curzon, 2002.

Hayes, Richard. “The Internet as a Window onto American Buddhism.” American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. Williams, Duncan Ryuken and Queen, Christopher S. eds. Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press, 1999.

Mitchell, Scott A. Indra’s Cyber Net: The Impact of the Internet on the Development of American Buddhism. Master’s thesis for the Graduate Theological Union, Berkley California, October 2002.

Prebish, Charles. “The Cybersangha: Buddhism on the Internet.” In Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet.
Edited by Lorne Dawson and Douglas Cowan. New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 135-147.

Prebish, Charles. “Indra’s Net and the Internet,” Religious Studies News, 10, 1 (February, 1995), 14, 41. Co-authored with Wayne Husted and Damien Keown.

Post by Monica Sanford

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The Unexpected Gift

Vietnamese nun at Wat Metta Monastery. Photo by Monica Sanford, 2010.

I recently received ordination to become a novice Buddhist nun after a waiting period of three years.  During this time, people have asked me, “How come you want to be a Buddhist nun at such a young age?” Some of these people are strangers whom I encountered at work or at temples and some are friends who have known me before I became a nun.  This question has often been asked with different intentions.  Some asked out of curiosity.  Some people are looking for inspiration from my answer because they might have the same interest and want to take on the same journey.  Others have asked in search of understanding to why I chose to renounce many aspects of life that they consider to be enjoyable at the age of thirty such as: career advancement, making good money, dating, getting married and hanging out with friends.

The answer is “I want to be liberated like the Buddha”.  My answer may be a very common monastic response to this type of question.  It is so common that it tends to lose its value.  Because it is hard to believe that one can be liberated,  I often sense people’s doubts through their short silence or pause following my response.  However, I would rather receive silence over the voiced judgment; especially when it comes from my family and friends.  Either way, I am always perceived as an eccentric or one who is living an unrealistic life.

Honestly, I would not have given that answer if it were asked seventeen years ago, when my family first immigrated to the United States from Vietnam, or even four years ago.  My family considers ourselves Buddhist but we were not Buddhist practitioners.  We rarely go to temple unless it is for the Vietnamese New Year (Tet).   At home, we light incense every day and make offerings of flowers and fruits to Avalokitesvara  Boddhisattva and our ancestors during the full moon and the last two days of the lunar calendar months to ask for protection.  I have come to realize that I was raised with my family considers to be Buddhist, but did not know Buddhism’s transformative aspects of meditation and self-awareness.

There was a time I would answer that becoming a nun has never crossed my mind.  That was the answer to my best friend who decided to become a nun one summer, eight years ago.  She drove me to visit her temple where she would reside.  As she asked me, I did not hesitate to tell her that “I am not fit to become a nun.”  I had just graduated from high school.  My mind was only focused on getting a college degree in the field that would take the least amount of time but provide a good salary.  I chose Information Systems and then Accounting.  To make my parents proud of me and for their assurance, I decided to tailor my choices to their wishes when mapping my life’s plan.  I planned on getting a good job after completing my bachelor’s degree to make good money so we can own a house  (according to my dad’s wish) and get married one day; hopefully to a nice guy who would like my parents and they would like him.

These plans took a different turn when I got my bachelor’s degree.  Life, family, work, and friendship forced me to find the answers to these questions:  “What is the meaning of life? What is the true happiness? Will money and material things bring me happiness?”

Suddenly, I found the answer to these questions when I received a phone call from my monastic friend.  I was invited to chanting session of “The Lotus Sutra” at her temple.  After the chanting session, I felt refreshed.  It felt alive!  I found the answer to my hidden questions about life.  Buddhism has brought me the satisfaction and contentment beyond material things, and the yearning to be loved or approved.  It also has been the safe shelter from many challenges I have encountered in life thus far.  Finally, I have caught a glimpse of inner treasure.

Buddhism has been my greatest treasure up until now.  It still waits for me to uncover its total values.  It is up to me to discover and utilize its values.  Two years ago, I found the additional purpose to my choice.  I was teaching dharma for a Buddhist Youth Group.  I witnessed the positive benefits that Buddhism has on the youth once they understand the teachings.  They are able to radiate kindness, unselfish love and tolerance through their speech and actions.

This experience solidifies my desire to become a nun.  I want to be liberated like a Buddha not only for myself but for the benefit of all sentient beings.  I am grateful for the compassion, dedication and forbearance that the Buddha has granted through his teachings and admire the services and effort of the charisma monks/nuns to expound Buddhism.

I would like to follow the footsteps of the Buddha and the other monastics, including my Buddhist teacher, who are serving and making a difference in people’s lives.  I would like to become enlightened in order to offer guidance and share the dharma with our youths.  From now until the day of liberation, I will try my best to contribute to Buddhism; especially to the youth of western society who might one day have to face their inner questions and have to make a choice like I once did.

Post by Venerable Nhu Lien.

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