In a conversation with my friend Franz Metcalf last week, I found that I’d finally come to the conclusion to resuscitate the phrase “White Buddhism” as a label for a particular ideological interpretation of Buddhist thought. (see tangential aside #1 below) The relevant previous posts are here and here, once again open for public access. As Edwin Ng commented when the retraction was posted, people who are not white can be complicit in White Buddhism.
I’d made the two previous posts private in a reaction to the massive publicity attendant upon the Trump election some months ago. My fear at that time was that the phrase might be taken as warranting a sense of racialist ownership of Buddhism. That had, it seemed, certainly been the understanding of the phrase by many who rejected it when it was introduced. And, it seemed quite possible that instead of rejecting it on those grounds, there would be those who embraced it in a positive fashion.
My fear was not simply a panicked response to the continuing role of racism in American society. The history of fascist religiosities (for the category, see here and here) does include overtly racist understandings of Buddhism. (see #2 below) The emphases on the “Aryan” and symbolic use of the swastika were not accidental, but part of the attempt by British as well as German activists to build a conception of Western Civilization that excluded Jews. (see #3 below)
What finally convinced me to make the previous White Buddhism posts public again, however, was the realization that ownership is part of the White Buddhist ideology. The mythology (not in the sense of false, but in the sense of powerful narrative given the status of fact) regarding the founding looks almost exclusively to white people. From 19th and early 20th century figures such as the Rhys Davids, Col. Olcott and Evans-Wentz, to contemporary founding figures of mindfulness and insight. [Please NOTE: I’m not saying that there is anything wrong or bad about these people, or their teaching and propagation. I am rather pointing to a characteristic of the mythology of founders.] It is much easier to find information about any of those white people than it is, for example, about the missionaries who founded the Buddhist Churches of America, or the Shingon mission, or the many temples established more recently by Thai, or Vietnamese, or Sinhalese immigrants. In that sense, the ideology of White Buddhism does promote the notion that it is that Buddhism established by white people, and the ideology does therefore entail a sense of ownership within it.
[Three only slightly tangential asides:
(1) This terminology is not only in keeping with Whiteness studies generally, but with Christopher M. Driscoll’s White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion more specifically.
(2) There is an all-too-common and very unfortunate lack of historical perspective on the part of many proponents of mindfulness and Secular Buddhism. While I found Matthew O’Connell’s post on how the concept “spiritual” is a poor-fit for much of Buddhist praxis: “Against the Spiritual” to be a very insightful analysis of those problems, the idea that a spiritual interpretation of Buddhism can be lain at the feet of those of us active in the 60s and 70s overlooks the much lengthier history of that interpretation.
(3) In ongoing contemporary discourse this kind of anti-semitism is implicit in the Axial Age theory that the present world is formed from a transformation of society and thought around 500 BC +/- that took place in Greece, India, and China. No Jews, no Arabs, no Africans, no Native Americans, etc. and etc. The Axial Age theory is an ad hoc ideological formation that privileges certain peoples, not an empirically informed historical description—much less causally explanatory.]