querying “White Buddhism”

In a comment on the post regarding naming White Buddhism, Andrew Furst raised several relevant questions. Rather than specifically answering each question as raised, I take them as providing stimuli for additional reflection.
At the very outset, however, let me acknowledge the substantial attention that these issues have received from Buddhist teachers, individuals, publications, and sanghas in the last few years. I know that Ann Gleig has been working on this and other topics, and I appreciate that she has reminded me of this recent work toward creating more open, more truly inclusive sanghas. An upcoming event on this topic is the symposium titled Interdependence/Intersectionality at IBS, April 14, 2017.
Why give it a name?
If you don’t have a word for something, you can’t talk about it. The converse danger is that, as Tom Pepper reminded us recently, having a word doesn’t guarantee that something exists. White Buddhism does seem to me, however, to have a consistency and coherence indicated by the fact that—although poorly bounded (there is no unitary authority determining orthodoxy)—it is frequently replicated. It has been naturalized for many parts of the American Buddhist community—not just a convenient way of packaging the teachings to make them accessible to a wider audience, but also with more impact as the truth of Buddhism.
But why bother naming it?
As indicated previously, ideologies have consequences. Some consequences are direct: White nationalist rhetoric creates an atmosphere that enables hate crimes. Some consequences are less direct, and even perhaps unintended. White Buddhism has had the presumably unintended consequence of making large numbers of present-day Buddhists in the Americas invisible. Over a century old, and the largest single Buddhist institution in the United States, the Buddhist Churches of America remain largely unknown and invisible to many.
In some cases claims about Buddhism (or worse, presumptions about what Buddhism really is) are made out of this ignorance. And such claims then become further justification for such ignorance. For example, ignorance of immigrant Buddhism in the Americas meshes with claims regarding the (putative) authority of (putatively) original and pure Buddhism—creating a relation of mutual support. (Important qualification: important critical historical work on the textual stratigraphy of early Buddhism is being done by Gil Fronsdal, see esp. his The Buddha before Buddhism, Shambhala) If your teacher is telling you that s/he is providing the pure, original and authoritative teachings of the founder Śākyamuni Buddha, and that the entire history of Buddhist praxis for 2,500 years is mere cultural accretions that need to be shed, this short circuit for claims to legitimacy automatically dismisses the immigrant communities of Buddhists from any relevance.
Is this an accusation of heresy?
No. Accusations of heresy are basically ploys in a struggle for power. While I am (intellectually) concerned with the ways in which White Buddhism systematically distorts Buddhist history, such distortion is a regular part of the history of Buddhism.
One example of such distortion: over the course of a small conference, I once had extended interaction with a representative of a prominent American Buddhist organization deriving from the Tibetan traditions. I was struck by how frequently she made two Janus faced errors. First, elements that are common across wide ranges of the Buddhist tradition as a whole were claimed as somehow the unique property of her own tradition. Second, elements that were in fact unique were claimed to be Buddhist without qualification. A critical lack of critically informed historical knowledge resulted in these distortions. These were not intentional distortions, but rather reflections of the sectarian frame of her training. The relation to White Buddhism in this instance is simply the extent to which the form she represented claims to be a “new” version of Buddhism, made specifically relevant to contemporary American society. It is, in other words, Buddhism recast for upper-middle class white American consumption.
(Note: this is not to claim that critically informed historical knowledge of Buddhism is the truth about Buddhism, but [a] that there are truer and falser understandings, and [b] a value judgement that truer is better—the image is that of being more adequately grounded instead of floating in a cloud of misinformation comes to mind.)
Why “White”? 
This is in keeping with “Whiteness studies” generally. Whiteness studies focus on “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, “Whiteness studies”). Relevant works are:
Christopher M. Driscoll’s White Lies: Race and Uncertainty in the Twilight of American Religion (Routledge, 2015), in which he talks about both “White religion” and “White Christianity.”
Wakoh Shannon Hickey, “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism,”  (Journal of Global Buddhism vol. 10 (2010)), in which she discusses the effects of white racism on the formation of American Buddhist communities, and of unconscious white privilege in the formation of ideas about Buddhism.
Funie Hsu’s essay “What is the Sound of One Invisible Hand Clapping?” in Purser, Forbes and Burke, eds. Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context and Social Engagement (Springer 2016), in which she discusses neoliberalism, white conquest, and the invisibility of Asian and Asian-American Buddhists.
and, in relation to the development of my own thinking on these matters, the most consequential work is
Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation.
(Personal aside: As a member of Cheah’s dissertation committee, I was deeply challenged about my own understanding of Buddhisms in the Americas—an experience I feel I benefited from greatly. While I was cognizant of the reality of “systemic racism,” I was nevertheless one of those white liberals who thought that racism is primarily an issue of personal beliefs, and that it is manifest in visible discriminatory laws and social practices. In other words, one of those “white moderates” identified by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter from a Birmingham jail. Working with Cheah, though personally difficult, provided me the opportunity to view American Buddhisms in a different light—that of entrenched privilege, and self-satisfied ignorance.)

Why ideology?

White Buddhism, the ideology, is different from Buddhism, the religion. This distinction should not be taken to imply that there is some authentically religious form—Buddhism, the religion—that the ideology refers to, and is therefore derivative from, in which case the issue would be making the ideology more accurately representative of the religion. The relation is just the reverse: it is the ideology that constructs and constitutes, and, therefore, encompasses Buddhism, the religion.
The distinction makes visible the fact that a central part of the ideology is the idea that Buddhism is a religion. The social construction of religion in relation to society (as a legally authorized subset) and individual (as a private choice of conscience) is deeply naturalized. This is evident in that calling into question the status of Buddhism as a religion is greeted either with incomprehension (what else could it be?) or with anger (my Buddhism stands on an equal footing with all other religions!) or as a claim of exceptionalism (Buddhism is not like all those other religions, and therefore better).
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3 thoughts on “querying “White Buddhism”

  1. Just adding some rhetorical question to this:

    • But why bother naming it?

    Why are you reluctant or afraid of naming it? Who or what gets by unaffected by not naming it, who or what doesn’t?

    • I’m not reluctant, but rather covering two different ways of reading Andrew’s questions—treating the “why” question as creatively ambiguous, allowing for discussion of two different sets of issues.

      • You may not be reluctant *now*, but you have certainly been reluctant in the past. That speaks to your (and my!) privilege and our resistance to naming it and having to come to terms with it, no? It may be particularly difficult for you, given your position in academia and the inevitable political complications that position has entailed. I feel your pain in having been confronted with Cheah’s work up close and personal. But of course our pain is merely the ghost of the real pain of racism experienced by persons of color. Bottom line: thank you for engaging in this reflection in this public way. I hope it helps in the emergence of a freer dharma.

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