“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.


Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism: AAR seminar, 2018/Denver

AAR has opened submissions for proposals for its 2018 meeting in Denver. This will be the fourth of five years of meetings for the seminar.

The seminar has announced the following topic (go here for online information from AAR: <https://papers.aarweb.org/content/economics-and-capitalism-study-buddhism-seminar&gt;) and for links to submission process.

Statement of Purpose:

The seminar will allow an extended and focused examination of the historical background of Buddhism in networks of exchange, under colonialism—the previous global socio-economic system—and the present-day effects of global, or late, capitalism with its ability to transcend traditional national boundaries. In the same way that previous eras saw transcontinental and transoceanic patterns of trade as agencies in the transmission and transformation of Buddhism, there is an integral connection between the ability of contemporary consumer capitalism to make a presence in societies over the entirety of the globe and the technological changes that have contributed to increasingly globalized systems of communication and travel. There are two major areas of inquiry that the seminar explores. The first is the economic formation of Buddhism as an institution, such as the ways that Buddhism is represented, commodified, and marketed in capitalist society. The second area of inquiry is the ways that economic relations and capitalism have influenced the conception of Buddhism as an object of academic study.

Call for Papers:

The seminar in Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism has developed three themes for paper topics for 2018:

• Economics of Buddhist Utopias: Then and Now

• Creative Imaginations in Asia’s Past, Present, and Future

• How Buddhists Have Responded to Capitalist Situations, Realities of Wealth and Excess, and Altering Institutions

These represent a wide range of possible topics for study, reflecting the multidimensional character of the seminar’s topic. We solicit submissions from a wide range of scholarly specializations.

PAPERS (this is AAR code for the online submission system, a secret teaching)
Proposals are anonymous to chairs and steering committee members until after final acceptance/rejection


  • Fabio Rambelli,
  • Richard K. Payne,

Steering Committee

  • Charles D. Orzech, Colby College
  • Courtney Bruntz,
  • James Mark Shields,
  • Kin Cheung, Moravian College
  • Megan Bryson, University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism: Pacific World

The first of two special sections for the 2017 issue of Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies has now been posted on the Pacific World site: http://www.shin-ibs.edu/publications/pacific-world/pacific-world-third-series-number-19-2017/. The special section is titled “Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism,” and is guest edited by Dr. Gordon Bermant, University of Pennsylvania and Institute of Buddhist Studies. The section comprises seven essays and an introduction by Dr. Bermant. The essays are:

Introduction to the Special Section on Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism
Gordon Bermant, University of Pennsylvania

The Subjective View of the Student: Aṅgulimāla and Myōhōbō
Patti Nakai, Buddhist Temple of Chicago

Subjectivity at the Heart of Jōdo Shinshū Spirituality and Doctrine: Defining the Meaning of Subjectivity
Kenneth K. Tanaka, Musashino University

The Nature and Importance of Subjectivity in Shin Buddhism
Gordon Bermant, University of Pennsylvania

Cross-Cultural Contributions to Psychology and Neuroscience: Self, Mind, and Mindfulness in
David Bryce Yaden, University of Pennsylvania
Mostafa Meleis, University of Pennsylvania
Andrew B. Newberg, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital
Dave R. Vago, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and
Justin McDaniel, University of Pennsylvania

Constructing the Self in Pure Land Buddhism: The Role of Ritualized, Embodied Activity in a Social Context
Richard K. Payne, Institute of Buddhist Studies

The Stories We Tell: The Study and Practice of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism
Scott A. Mitchell, Institute of Buddhist Studies

Subjectivities, Fish Stories, Toxic Beauties: Turning the Wheel Beyond “Buddhism?”
Galen Amstutz, Independent scholar and Institute of Buddhist Studies instructor

A second special section on Recent Research on Tantric Buddhism will be appearing in the near future.


Chinese and Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism

Review from Reading Religion, AAR: here
Editor(s): Yael Bentor, Meir Shahar


Comprising seventeen essays divided into seven sections, this collection makes important contributions to the study of esoteric Buddhism in two geographical areas: China and Tibet. However, the collection provides a perspective in which the two are seen as interrelated, rather than separated by the default tendency to organize research according to contemporary nation-states. Yet in addition to the divisions implicated by the categories of Chinese Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, there is a political and intellectual history that serves to separate the two as well.

Given the importance of India as the source of legitimacy and authority in Tibetan traditions, it is the axis between India and Tibet that has tended to receive the majority of scholarly attention in the study of Buddhism. Attention to that relation is of course deserved. For the history of esoteric Buddhism, however, the relation between Tibet and the Buddhist traditions of neighboring societies also deserves attention, more than it has received to date. An important exception to this neglect is Matthew Kapstein’s Buddhism between Tibet and China (Wisdom Publications, 2009). While Kapstein’s collection is wide-ranging, Bentor and Shahar focus specifically on esoteric Buddhism in their collection.

The first part, “Chinese Perspectives on the Origins of Esoteric Buddhism,” gives us three essays that examine this question from different perspectives: subjectivity, the use of spells, and lexical considerations. Also explored is the long-standing contentious debate over the relation between tantra and Chan in the three essays of the second part, “Chan, Chinese Religions, and Esoteric Buddhism.” “Scriptures and Practices in Their Tibetan Context” is the third part, and includes three essays that look at Tibetan Buddhist practices as such. As is the case today, Tibetan Buddhism is not only to be found within Tibet, but also has its own history within China. This is the subject of the two essays of part four, “Tibetan Buddhism in China,” examining Ming and contemporary instances of that history.

Importantly, the last three parts shift attention away from “China,” which has tended to be a rhetorically dominant category, structuring our ways of thinking about a very diverse history in such a fashion that diversity is instead interpreted as variety within a single coherent tradition. Instead of a uniformity based on the category of “Chinese Buddhism,” the important archeological finds from the cave-temple complex near the city of Dunhuang on the Silk Road in western China reveal a complex site of cultural interaction and contestation, evidencing great diversity. Dunhuang is the theme of the two essays of part 5, “Esoteric Buddhism in Dunhuang.” The two essays of part 6 turn to “Esoteric Buddhism in the Tangut Xixia and Yugur Spheres,” domains with their own cultural histories, separate from “China.” And, to the southwest, the Dali Kingdom is the focus of the two essays in part 7, “Esoteric Buddhism in the Dali Kingdom (Yunnan).”

These essays provide a rich resource of new information and new analyses that will continue to contribute to future research for years to come. At the same time, the study of esoteric Buddhism can provide challenges to the dominant theoretical presumptions of religious studies more generally. One such challenge here is to the conceptual structure of center versus periphery.

In her essay, Megan Bryson makes a key methodological point, which, though phrased in relation to the study of estoteric Buddhism, is relevant to religious studies generally: “The rulers of the Dali kingdom, like Buddhists everywhere, combined texts, images, and rituals from multiple sources with local practices to create a distinct regional tradition of esoteric Buddhism. In fact, I suggest that rather than ascribing a distinctive hybridity to Buddhism in so-called border regimes such as the Dali kingdom or Western Xia kingdom, this hybridity should be taken as a characteristic of Buddhism in political centers as well. Rather than treating border regions like centers, we might be better served by treating centers like border regions, with expectations of fragmentation and variety instead of wholeness and homogeneity” (403).

No matter what area of specialization one has in religious studies, we have inherited a now centuries old prejudice that privileges center over periphery, seeing the religious forms of the former as normative, against which the latter’s forms are irregularities to either be ignored or explained away. Such a static structuring of thought along implicit hierarchies of legitimacy obscures the dynamic and interactive connections, the network relations that if taken seriously would not automatically orient our understanding of history in favor of politically select sectarian understandings, implicitly authorizing and replicating those as if they constituted accurate representations of history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata professor of Japanese Buddhist studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 

November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yael Bentor is Professor Emerita of Tibetan Studies in the Departments of Comparative Religion and Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has published monographs, translations and many articles on Tibetan Buddhism, including The Essence of the Ocean of Attainments: Explanation of the Creation Stage of the Guhyasamāja, King of All Tantras, 2017.

Meir Shahar is Professor of Chinese Studies at Tel Aviv University. His research interests span Chinese religion and literature, Chinese martial-art history, and the Sino-Indian cultural exchange. Meir Shahar is the author of Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Literature; The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts; and Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and his Indian Origins.