Stumbling around the webosphere, jumping through the magic doors of links, I came across a post by James Ford on his blog Monkey Mind on Patheos, titled “The Problem of Our Suffering: A (Modernist) Zen Buddhist Meditation.” (here) There is a great deal of information to be gleaned from the extensive citations he provides regarding the category of “modernist Buddhist.”
In the opening, however (you knew that a “but” was coming didn’t you?), we find this statement:
So, modernist Buddhism. Other terms that have been used in addition to modernist Buddhism are “liberal Buddhism,” “secular Buddhism,” “naturalist Buddhism,” (my personal favorite) and also generally as a pejorative, “western Buddhism,” and always as an insult, “white Buddhism.” But it is the term “modernist Buddhism” that appears to be settling as the term of art to describe this emergent school of Buddhism.
While I cannot be responsible for how others use the phrase “White Buddhism,” I do know that my usage was not intended to be an insult. I will grant that there was some heat motivating my original posts on the matter (first here, and follow up here); however, I did work to focus on describing White Buddhism as an ideology. The heat was generated by the condescension some converts to what Ford is calling “modernist Buddhism” manifest toward populations of people who have been born into and grown up in cultures where Buddhism is the norm, i.e., natal Buddhists. The history of religion is replete with instances of converts who claim to be more pure, more authentic, more true XYZ whatevers, than anyone who is a natal XYZ whatever. The dismissive attitude toward immigrant communities of Buddhists, or even moreso the nonchalant ignorance about those communities, is ample evidence of that condescension.
First, the phrase is not simply a synonym for all the other terms Ford lists. The phrase is intended to identify an ideology, a category that is not itself an insult:
Ideologies thrive in the imagination and in the desires of different social groups. Ideologies move in the space between thought and knowledge that every society generates. Ideologies reflect in oblique ways the standpoint of social groups and spring from the interests of those groups. They create opinions and dictate both mundane and ritual behaviours in order to validate those interests. They make these interests look real by turning assumptions into beliefs, transferring them into the taken for granted notions of everyday opinions, and reiterating them to reinforce them as an indispensable entity for social life and for its analysis. … ‘ideology’ is not a coherent sphere of collective thought that can be investigated like a landscape or group of material objects. Instead, it refers to a complex set of relations between people and their surroundings that is centred on power differentials. (Randall McGuire and Reinhard Bernbeck, “Ideology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, ed. Timothy Insoll, Oxford University Press, 2011, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199232444.013.0013)
As indicated, an ideology serves the interests of some group with power. Being an ideology, White Buddhism works to preserve the privilege of those who hold it and who repeat it by validating their views through the complex of mutually supporting ideas, claims, assertions, beliefs that network together to make up the system.
Here, rather than focusing on justifying the heat of my original posts, or explicating the content of White Buddhism as an ideology, I am more concerned with the act of dismissing the phrase as “an insult”—a designation that is no doubt comforting since it inoculates against thinking about race and class.
If rather than protecting oneself from these dangerous thoughts by dismissing White Buddhism as an insult, one chooses to look at the location of Buddhism in Euro-America in terms of race and class, as many sanghas and teachers (Ruth King, here) are doing, there are additional resources. Predominant among these is Joseph Cheah’s Race and Religion in American Buddhism, White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Oxford, here). Since the phrase “White Buddhism” was created by analogy with other racially coded designations, such as Black Christianity and White Christianity, the topic may be pursued by reading Christopher Driscoll’s White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion (Routledge, review here). And, importantly, Wakoh Shannon Hickey’s “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism” (Journal of Global Buddhism, here).
Addendum: also quite valuable in this regard–
Scott Mitchell, “‘Christianity is for rubes; Buddhism is for actors’: U.S. media representations of Buddhism in the wake of the Tiger Woods’ scandal” (Journal of Global Buddhism, here), and
Donald S. Lopez, Jr., “Foreigner at the Lama’s Feet,” in his Curators of the Buddha: Buddhism Under Colonialism (Chicago, here), and indeed the entire collection of essays.