bad penny: the return of “White Buddhism”

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.]


6 thoughts on “bad penny: the return of “White Buddhism”

  1. Hi there Richard,
    I see you linked to a recent blog post of mine and I wonder if you could enlighten me further on your comments. You write in your post above;

    The history of fascist religiosities (for the category, see here and here) does include overtly racist understandings of Buddhism. (see #2 below)

    And then state that the post I wrote is sign of ‘an all-too-common and very unfortunate lack of historical perspective.’ I’m not sure if you are implying I am racist in the first case (if so it would be the first time it’s ever happened), or simply grouping me together with the secular mindfulness folks, whom I see little affinity with, or both.
    Living in Italy and having participated in numerous anti-fascist marches here, it would be odd to be indirectly associated with fascism. Funnily enough (and perhaps this is further sign of my own ignorance), I wrote that blog post after reading up on Traditionalism last month, specifically your own fantastic piece on the subject titled ‘Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism’, so it’s ironic that I should be lumped together with these folks, which I can only surmise means I am missing a fair few pieces of the picture still!
    I’m a fan of your work and am happy to be pointed to the errors of my way. If you should have the time to do so by indicating the specific sections that betray the failings you hinted at, I would be happy to learn and reconsider my position. I shall re-read my post myself to see if anything stands out.
    All the best for now,

    • Dear Matthew, Oh, sorry, If it reads like I meant that you are racist or fascist, that is not at all what I meant and I will need to rewrite. I was more reacting to the idea that it was convert Buddhists of the 60s, 70s, & 80s that introduced the notions of spirituality into the interpretation of Buddhism, when those go back to probably 19th century. My apologies for not being clearer, let me look at that again for clarity. I did find your comments regarding spirituality as a problematic category for Buddhist praxis very apropos. best,
      okay, rewritten, is that clearer?

      • Hi Richard, that’s clear, thank you. I don’t mind being accused of something as long as it’s clear why. I did note the positive comment towards my blog post so thank you for that too.
        By the way, the 19th century roots you mention can also be seen in neo-Shamanism with very strong parallels with the history of Buddhism in the West and its later comfortable relationship with the New Age. The historian and anthropologist Andrei A. Znamenski wrote a fascinating book called The Beauty of the Primitive which explores the history of Shamanism, neo-Shamanism and Paganism in the West and the same figures and themes pop up again and again as those found in David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism and other historical accounts of Buddhism’s arrival in the States and Europe.
        Additionally, as a European, I think Jayarava’s comment below is insightful and the distinction he makes between The States and the old continent an important one.

  2. Richard, I will admit that I have certain disadvantages and affordances in addressing certain matters, this is why I have made it a point to consciously position and publicise myself as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist”. My comment is very simple and it picks up on the comments I’ve made before.

    White people in general who have professed concern about issues like racism, would typically accept that it is not up to them to decide when terms or concepts or labels like “white people”, “white supremacy”, or “white privilege” have outlived their uses or if they are inadequate.

    So my comment/rhetorical question is very simple: why do white people thing it would ever be up to them to decide whether a term like “White Buddhism” is adequate or not?

  3. To the best of my knowledge all my ancestors are English. At least 5 generations of them. Except for one branch they are all working class. I myself was born in a colony and emigrated (back) to England in 2002. Where I grew up it was clear that “white” and “black” were offensive terms and not accurately reflective of ethnicity anyway. Having lived in England for nearly 15 years I am daily reminded that I am not English and that my roots are working class. I don’t really fit here and England will never let me forget it.

    One of the things I found strange about Britain is the use of “white” as an ethnic term. For example English people marked me as different from day one and made it clear that I was not one of them. But I have a fair complexion. An Irish friend, also living here, has more than once likened Cromwell to Hitler in my presence. The Irish relationship with England is ambivalent at best. “White” lumps me in with people who reject me; but also with people who reject the values of the English who are supposed to be the prototype of the category.

    My anthropologist friend, Dr Sally McAra, wrote in her book “Land of Beautiful Vision” (Hawai’i University Press) that as children of colonists, we lacked a strong sense of identity. And especially in contrast to a renewed sense of Māori identity in the indigenous people of the land we grew up on (which politicians of a previous generation had taken at gunpoint), we felt a sense of insecurity. Indeed when UK joined the European Community in 1973, Europe rejected my country. Our exports to UK fell by 90% and we lost many privileges that former colonies used to enjoy.

    McAra argued that those of us who were Buddhist converts sought to enact a sense of identity through our religious conversion to offset our disconnected colonial past. It was not so much an assimilation as an attempt at syncretisation – and syncretisation is the dominant feature of Buddhism throughout its history. What is modern Shingon, for example, if not a syncretisation of Japanese, Chinese and Indian religious ideas?

    I’d *never* describe myself as “white” under any circumstances. And for anyone else to do so would be offensive. I understand the legacy of colonialism because I grew up amidst dispossessed indigenous people and was the daily victim of the violence that colonialism engendered. Just as I am the daily victim of English prejudice against foreigners now. I look at these broad generalisations like “white Buddhist” and I cannot take them seriously.

    The issues of Americans are often portrayed as the issues of WEIRD countries generally. But this is not true. It’s particularly not true for Buddhism. The dynamics of US Buddhism are quite different than those in Europe. Both historically and presently. Just as the dynamics of ethnicity are different.

    Its a trope of American writing that America *is* the Western World. It’s clear that by “white” you mean fair-skinned *Americans* and write as though what applies in America applies universally. Whereas the rest of the industrialised world sees American as an isolated and often extreme case. Europe is not the melting pot that America is – Polish, Irish, and Italian, for example, are very distinct ethnic identities here. Each has their own languages and nation states. For most of history Europe has been at war with itself, and any common European identity is deeply threatened by ongoing economic disaster (caused by the takeover of government by conservative businessmen – with whom I have almost nothing in common).

    To my mind the issues here in Britain are as much about class as any other social factor. English xenophobia does come into it, but class goes much deeper. The fact that Buddhism is a religion that mainly attracts the petty bourgeoisie of the baby-boomer generation is far more relevant to my mind than skin colour as a metonym for ethnicity. Power is vested in class. It is the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie, who displaced the aristocracy in the 19th Century that dominate Britain. Not “whites”.

    The Buddhist teaching that I learned was never presented as “pure” or “original”; it was explicitly presented as an adaptation of the tradition for a modern, Western audience. Then more recently we had to drop the “Western” because a quarter of our Order are Indians, mainly from Dalit backgrounds. We are simply modern these days.

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