do you have anything to declare?


A much respected colleague and dharma friend, Funie Hsu, is starting an important conversation at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship on how we might take the topic of anger seriously, to hear in expressions of anger a call to address unacknowledged, unresolved injustice suffered by Asian American Buddhists in a society with a history of white supremacy. Read: “Lineage of Resistance: When Asian American Buddhists Confront White Supremacy

I share here an excerpt from a forthcoming paper (co-authored with Ron Purser and Zack Walsh) for the Journal of Global Buddhism. Funie’s writings provide an important pivot for the paper and I’d like to take this occasion of Vesak to acknowledge our indebtedness to those who have come before and from whom we have received the precious gift of the Triple Gem.

May these hopes and aspirations bring benefit to all.


We reiterate that we are not against secularizing adaptations of mindfulness; any potential benefits of mindfulness ought to be shared. We are asking if the easy claims of authenticity used to sell secular mindfulness are speaking with response-ability towards the un/intended ideological-political consequences of their actions; because the addressing of such consequences is a matter forongoing momentary and situational responsiveness—otherwise how would any means become skilful? Consider the concerns voiced by the Dalai Lama’s long-time translator and interpreter Thupten Jinpa Langri (2013), who is troubled by the discursive habit we have been tracing in mindfulness discourse: “It is either secular, or you want to say its the essence of Buddhism, therefore it’s a Buddhist practice. You cannot have it both ways.” We want to read Jinpa’s concerns through Richard King’s arguments about epistemic border control in the broader cultural translation of non-Western systems of understanding:


[The Western philosophical tradition] has had a key role to play as a kind of intellectual border police or ‘Homeland Security’ office, making sure that any foreigners crossing the border are properly classified as ‘religious’ rather than ‘philosophical’ (that is, in the ‘proper’ western sense of the term). In effect, indigenous wisdom traditions of the non-western world are separated from their western counterparts at customs and forced to travel down the red channel. This is because, unlike western philosophies, they are believed to have ‘something to declare’—namely, their ‘religious’, dogmatic or ‘tradition-bound’ features which mark them out as culturally particular rather than universal. Before being allowed to enter the public space of western intellectual discourse, such systems of thought must either give up much of their foreign goods (that is, render themselves amenable to assimilation according to western intellectual paradigms), or enter as an object of rather than as a subject engaged in debate (King 2009: 44-45).


The habit of taking on and off the Buddhist label in mindfulness discourse is complicit with the epistemic violence King describes. Because in repeating the Janus-faced rhetoric of laying claim to the authentic essence of Buddhism to bolster one’s own branding prestige, whilst proclaiming that one has superseded Buddhism because the (Westerncentric) scientific approach has allowed access to an even more universal understanding of mindfulness—this discursive habit plays a epistemic border control function to mark and police Buddhism and bodies and lives marked as “Buddhist”as something to be wary of or embarrassed about because it is saddled with “cultural” or “religious” baggage. Yet, this discursive habit has no qualms about flaunting the symbolic cachet of Buddhism for its own convenience, but only if Buddhism’s essence of the dharma is duly purged of its “foreignness” (though clearly exoticness still sells) by being assimilated under a scientific paradigm not native to Buddhism. If this is a sign of a new lineage of the dharma in the making, shouldn’t we be concerned? We are not suggesting ill intent on the part of any individual because, to borrow Butler’s phrasing from earlier, we are talking about the condition of being conditioned. The literature on Buddhist modernism along with the writings of King and others, remind us of the need to be vigilant about the ongoing effects of epistemic violence un/intentionally accompanying the habits of meaning-making conditioned by the colonial legacy of Buddhism’s encounter with the West. Why isn’t the history of Western imperialism and all the shameful effects of violence (including white supremacy) impacting on how we relate to non-Western heritages, why isn’t this a cultural baggage to own up to? Do you have anything to declare?


White supremacy and cultural erasure/appropriation in American Buddhism

We read in Jinpa’s remarks a deeper concern that is not about claiming ownership of mindfulness, but about the potential harm of easy claims of dharma authenticity that also trivialize Buddhism at the same time. We wonder if he feels this concern more acutely because he is a spokesperson for displaced and dispossessed people, whose ancestral heritage and cultural identity and plight of immense exposure to vulnerability cannot be disentangled from Buddhism. The easy taking on and off of the Buddhist label is not an affordance they can wield because they are at once persecuted and accorded legitimacy or refuge with this label. We mention the exposure to vulnerability facing displaced or dispossessed people because the dangers we are highlighting relate tothe problems of white supremacy and cultural erasure/appropriation with which the history of American Buddhism is entangled. Funie Hsu (2016a) argues for the need to interrogate the unacknowledged operations of white supremacy alongside the neoliberal logics of governmentality in the adaptation of mindfulness in the educational context. She connects analogous critiques of the intersections of race and cultural appropriation in the mainstreaming of yoga (Antony 2014; Puustinen and Rautaniemi 2015) with Jospeh Cheah’s study of white supremacy vis-à-vis the Burmese American Buddhist experience (2011). Cheah argues that a system of white racial superiority functions invisibly as the “standard of normality for many white Buddhists and sympathizers” (2011: 4). He draws a distinction between cultural rearticulation and racial rearticulation. The former refers to the necessary work of finding reciprocity and mutual recognition between the cosmological understandings and customary practices of a different cultural tradition and those of a host culture; while the latter refers to a process whereby the knowledge-practices of others are infused with “new meanings derived from one’s own culture in ways that preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony” (2011: 60).


In reproducing the conditions of epistemic border control, the Janus-faced rhetoric we have traced in mindfulness discourse is complicit with racial rearticulation. Another instance of racialrearticulation can be seen in the response given by insight meditation teacher Trudy Goodman when she was asked about the critique of mindfulness. Rather than address the logics of the critique she says:


I think these critiques come from Buddhist fundamentalists. I mean, if you really want to see watered-down Buddhism, travel to the beautiful Zen temples of Korea, a country where Buddhism is still alive and well, and you’ll see all the ladies in temples working their malas, chatting about their kids, sometimes shucking peas; the temples are very much village and urban gathering places. How many people are deeply practicing? (quoted in Lion’s Roar 2015).


It shouldn’t be difficult to see how the claim that critics are fundamental Buddhists is an ad hominem logical fallacy. But we submit for your consideration just how well Goodman understands traditional or classical Buddhism, which must be presupposed as an evaluative point of reference if one is to make judgments about “fundamentalists”. Does Goodman display a sense of historicity about the development of diverse Buddhist lineages, when she evokes here the anachronistic idea (one emerging out of the historical trend of Buddhist modernism) that a meditation-centric approach to Buddhism has always been the norm as “deep practice”? Does Goodman display an understanding of the differing orders of social obligations or familial ties that bring carers and children to the temple, when she dismisses their merit-making or devotional practices as superficial dharma? What is the purpose of trivializing the spiritual and emotional and material labor of women marked by the intersections of race and religion as foreign and other, when she evokes the imagery of non-white Asian women shucking peas? Because for all her reasoning and excuses, we’re left with no examination of the substantial issues, just the deflecting of critique with dharma one-upmanship and even (unintentional) racism.


We want to make an argument about not taking the critique of white supremacy/cultural appropriation/erasure as a personal attack, with a seemingly contradictory move of speaking personally about our disagreement. In an autoethnographic analysis of his conflicted subjectivity as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist” convert, Ng (2012; 2016) has evoked recollections of his childhood with his Buddhist grandmother to interrogate the ambivalent feelings of duty/betrayal/obligation he feels being at once inside and outside intersecting genealogies. When Trudy Goodman travelled in 2015 with Jack Kornfield as esteemed guests to a Buddhist temple in Singapore (Ng’s county of birth and the temple Goodman visited is where his late grandparents were cremated), we wonder if she encountered lay Buddhist mothers or grandmothers on the premise.[1] Did lay Asian Buddhists with all their “cultural baggage” welcome them with hospitality (perhaps with a vegetarian meal cooked with peas)? We raise these rhetorical questions not to cast aspersion on Goodman’s personal intentions (we affirm her work in sharing insight meditation), but to underscore the complacency by which habits of discourse conditioned by Western imperialist systems of epistemic violence are reproduced in casual, careless ways. These habits, which can be located across specialist and nonspecialist discourses, perpetuate the ongoing ideological subversion of non-Western and/or non-white lifeworlds and histories. They enact epistemic violence towards the spiritual and emotional labor of generations of Asian Buddhists, who in practicing “superficially”, have provided the material conditions for the teachings of mindfulness to be received anew today. Whose or what purpose does it serve to disavow this legacy with self-serving claims of dharma authenticity or of the failure of others to be authentically authentic?


Hsu has communicated these issues beyond academic circles in an article for Buddhadharma/Lion’s Roar entitled “We’ve Been Here All Along” (2016b) which makes a plea for greater recognition of the effaced contributions of generations of Asian American Buddhists in the transmission of Buddhist teachings in the West. She recounts the stories of the Kimura family and Reverend Ryo Imamura to remind us of how Asian American Buddhists have historically been oppressed and policed because their intersections of race and religion are marked within a culture of (unacknowledged) white supremacy as suspicious and perpetually foreign. To avoid persecution or discrimination (as was the case with the recurring fears of Yellow Peril and the internment of Japanese Americans), Asian or Asian American Buddhist have had to suppress or hide the dharma inheritance and cultural specificities of their ancestral heritages; while convert white Buddhists (if they are not embarrassed about taking responsibility for this label) enthusiastically declare their expertise over the true essence of Buddhism with universalizing claims about human nature and by dismissing the “cultural baggage” of Asian or Asian American Buddhists. Why are the false universalizing affordances of white supremacy secured at the expense of others, not a cultural baggage to own up to? Do you have anything to declare?


By considering Kabat Zinn’s and Goodman’s communication habits (as indices of broader tendencies in mindfulness commentaries) alongside the writings of King, Cheah, and Hsu, we are trying to show that if some people more than others can easily make claims of dharma authenticity whilst disavowing indebtedness to Buddhism, it is because there are prevailing structures and systems of oppression and exclusion according some certain privileges over others. Just as vulnerability ought not be considered a subjective disposition but a condition of being conditioned arising inrelation to a field of objects, forces, and passions that affect us in some way (i.e. vulnerability is not-self and co-dependently arisen) —when we call out the affordances of privilege conditioned by a history of white supremacy/cultural erasure/appropriation in American Buddhism, we are not blaming any individual but trying to invite critical mindfulness of how un/intended effects of harm might be perpetuated, because of the differing capacities of relationality affecting diverse bodies in a field of objects, forces, and passions conditioned by unequal material conditions of exposure to vulnerability (i.e. privilege is not-self and co-dependently arisen). How might we bear truthful witness and become responsive to the un/intentional complicities of our actions and subjectivities without taking it personally?

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