White Buddhism: on the formation of a category

In light of comments about the previous two posts (“White Buddhism: A Skeptic’s Guide” and “Religious Imperialism and that grandmother“) it seems that some further clarification of the category “White Buddhism” is in order. A preliminary step was to revise the opening of the skeptic’s guide piece so as to make it just a tad more difficult for readers to mistakenly think that I intended to either

  1. propose a new category of Buddhism, correlating to such categories as “Burmese Buddhism,” or “Thai Buddhism,” or “Japanese Buddhism”—categories that are themselves artificial, and in need of dismantling, or
  2. claim that white people own Buddhism—in fact, just the contrary.

The stipulative definition of “White Buddhism” that is, how I’m using the phrase, is: the discourse regarding Buddhism that holds a hegemonic domination in present-day society as a consequence of the socially privileged status of those who promote it. Please note that this more carefully phrased definition refers to a particular discourse about Buddhism. It does not refer to anybody nor does it refer to any lineal, sectarian, or institutional form of Buddhism.

Joseph Cheah has noted the role of white supremacy in the formation of a representation of Buddhism that effectively treats the Buddhism of Asians as inauthentic. “This arrogance is a manifestation of racialized history repeating itself because the ideology of white supremacy, rooted at the level of white normativity, has been allowed to pass on unimpeded from one generation to the next.” ( Race and Religion in American Buddhism, White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation, Oxford, 2011: p. 133) While one of my general goals in naming “White Buddhism” was to allude to the way in which minority and immigrant communities are almost always marginalized and erased by the discourse of White Buddhism, unfortunately the focus on discourse was lost amid presumptions that I was identifying categories of adherents, and doing so in an insulting fashion. The careful reader will find that I was not talking about membership in a category.

What has long been known in religious studies as the “insider–outsider problem”—that is, who belongs, is a member, has the authority to speak about—has been grappled with as if it were an epistemological problem. In this form it is in fact a pseudoproblem, one created by the bad metaphor of “religion is a container.” Instead of a (nice, clean) epistemological problem, it is a power struggle over authority—a power struggle that has political implications. (see for example the ban on Wendi Doniger‘s writings in India, and the battle over textbook representations of Hindu/Indian society, religion, culture, and history in California textbooks) For these reasons, the phrase “White Buddhism” has not been proposed as a way of categorizing people. It is not about who is or isn’t a good Buddhist, a true Buddhist, a representative of Buddhism for the present world, or whatever. All such claims—and I would assert interpretations of what I said as if that is what I was saying—are strategic moves in a power struggle. Rather than essentializing people in such a fashion, the category is proposed as an efficient way of referring to what is said about Buddhism. “What some people say” rather than “what some people are.”

Cheah’s analysis does not use the phrase White Buddhism in the sense that I’ve proposed here, but it is what he is referring to when he talks about:

the Buddhism presented by white Buddhists who regard themselves as true Buddhists assume overarching postulates of what constitutes true Buddhism and use them as the sole standard by which to evaluate the cultural elements and nonnormative aspects of ethnic Buddhism. This is nothing short of the reinscription of the racial ideology of white supremacy internalized in the Orientalist interpretation of Buddhism. (p. 135)

The phrase “White Buddhism” was conceived in light of the terminology of Whiteness Studies. In other words, the examination of “the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the social construction of whiteness as an ideology tied to social status.” (Wikipedia, sv. “Whiteness studies“)  I had assumed, mistakenly it seems, that stipulating that the phrase was being used to enable a “focus specifically on the cultural imperialism at work in White Buddhism’s representations of itself and others” would be sufficient to clarify that the category was intended to delineate cultural patterns of domination—the hegemonic character of the discourse of White Buddhism.

The racist character of White Buddhism is not (or perhaps more accurately, should not be) news. For example, the racism fundamental to the various typologies deployed in categorizing Euro-American Buddhisms was thoroughly analyzed by Shannon Hickey in her “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism” (Journal of Global Buddhism, 2010). The role of white supremacy in Western Buddhism was examined in detail by Joseph Cheah in his work cited above—a work that deserves to be very widely read. And the invisibility of immigrant Buddhist communities was explored in my own essay, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invisibility of the Shingon Mission to the United States” in Buddhist Missionaries in the Era of Globalization, Linda Learman, ed. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004). Perhaps, however, the indignation expressed in accusations that by naming White Buddhism as a racist discourse I am somehow being racist myself indicates a continuing preference for ignoring that fact—as if somehow a nod of the head to Goenka, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh is sufficient to show how free of racism one is.

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3 thoughts on “White Buddhism: on the formation of a category

    • Thank you, Ed. The latest issue of Buddhadharma arrived on Sat., and I was gratified to see that the issue is devoted to issues of race, power and white privilege. Good to see. best, rkp

  1. Pingback: bad penny: the return of “White Buddhism” | Richard K. Payne

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