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