“White Buddhism”: it’s not an insult, it’s an ideology

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.


4 thoughts on ““White Buddhism”: it’s not an insult, it’s an ideology

  1. I appreciate how you are keeping this issue alive for scholars, Richard. It is *very* alive for the overwhelming majority of Buddhists in the world, even in America. (On that subject, if I believed in rebirth, I would wish a fabulous one to Aaron Lee!). I just want to put in a quick word for James Ford: I think his dismissal of the term as an “insult” was imprecise language that did not capture his authentic view. I think what he meant was that the term is intentionally critical, both in the sense of being evaluatively careful and also being inevitably (and appropriately) judgmental. These two qualities capture the term’s intent pretty well, I think.

    I’m prompted to ask what makes the mere words “white Buddhism” sound so bad to us that a person as wise and compassionate as Ford Roshi would immediately perceive it as an insult when used to describe a form of Buddhism. The obvious answer is that, for self-reflective white people, the qualifier “white” has been revealed to be the tool of oppression it has always been and we no longer want to be associated with it. That’s progress. And there’s a long way to go.

    • Thank you for that clarification regarding Ford. (and yes, a stick of incense for Aaron Lee) I do hope it was clear that my post was not an ad hominem.
      I wonder though about the adjective White–do some of us react to the term because we associate it with oppression? Maybe so, but certainly it also strips away the pretense that one is just doing Buddhism–in the same fashion that by labeling White Christianity in contrast to Black Christianity subverts the presumption that White Christianity is just Christianity, that is, normative as the unmarked category. And just to be repetitive, I don’t mean the term to identify a kind of Buddhism (on a par say with Japanese Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Secular Buddhism…all of Glenn Wallis’ x-Buddhisms), but instead an ideology that can be deployed by adherents of any of those, and by Buddhists of any race–therefore also meaning, White Buddhism is not identical with the Buddhism of white people.
      again, thanks for the feedback, yours, etc.

  2. A generous post, as ever, thank you. Not to add another term to the mix, but I’ve been reflecting recently about the emergence of Buddhism in our liberal societies and how it’s difficult to divorce it from the prevailing culture – that is, the people I tend to meet in my practice are white, liberal and middle class and would be horrified by some of the associations that a natal Buddhism has with prevailing culture (think Myanamar!).

    Historically, my limited understanding is that the tendency to Westernise Buddhism has been there for the last century and a half, since the Victorians, but as mindfulness and wellness have moved into the mainstream, Buddhism has increasingly become middle class in the way it’s perceived. How many people say what a ‘nice’ religion Buddhism is! Of course, we in the UK are obsessed by class …

    • Thank you, Ed. Indeed, as you suggest, the formation of Westernized middle/upper middle class forms is of long-standing. And along those lines, I wonder why some kinds of Buddhism become fashionably acceptable (Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn) while others don’t. Is it purely historical accidents? Did the sympathetic portrayal of the Tibetan lama in Kipling’s Kim subtly influence a generation? And, perhaps the Theosophists concocting a mystical Tibet, as captured in the image of Shangrila in the movie Lost Horizon (an earlier generation’s Wakanda) do the same?
      This leads me to reflect on the importance of not treating sociologically descriptive categories, such as race and class, as causal factors in themselves. That would seem to lead to circular thinking about the issues. Instead, as you indicate, it may be something as simple as being comfortable with what you know that is causal, and simply manifests itself in terms of class and race.
      An introduction to philosophy book I once used in teaching made a distinction between “neo-philes” and “neo-phobes.” That is, people who like new things, and people who don’t. Maybe a personality difference of that sort informs the actions of those who go toward the unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and those who avoid it. It certainly seems like the US today is being dominated by neo-phobes.
      sorry about wandering off topic here…

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