Whiteness, Buddhism and History

White Buddhism is a term that has been used to name the domination of Buddhist practices and ideas through the practices and perspectives of mainstream white American/Europeans, explicitly and implicitly denying and demoting other perspectives.  It has largely become this way due to the predominantly white European and American people interested in non-Christian spiritual practices taking it up and carrying the translation of Buddhism from Asia to the so-called ‘West.’

When confronted with this issue, of course many teachers and practitioners were uncomfortable while a minority of white teachers embraced the possibility of a Buddhist practice that were not based on the white interpretations of Asian Buddhism(s).  It must be mentioned that not all white people and people who pass for white,  believe or practice the same things.  Some resist.  The term ‘whiteness’ is used in cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology, to mean a whole series of worldviews and systems put into place from the legacy of colonialism and white supremacies that have become normal in order to create liberal nation-states.  Since the world is mapped in our minds as self in nations, with their parallel ethnic markers–this groups versus that group etc.,  most of us are entrenched with a normal way of looking at things and desiring things and ways of living in the world that are increasingly, but never totally–‘white.’  For anyone to truly understand whiteness and grapple with what it is, I think there is one term-thing-situation-history-perspective-reality, that people must be willing to visit.  That is: colonialism and its legacy in the way we structure reality including our interior selves and constructions of identity–any identity.

Whiteness is not ‘evil’ or ‘good.’  Also, it is not embodied in white bodies while ‘non-white’ being embodied in non-white.  It is more complex.  This is because ‘whiteness’ is a set of assumptions and views and positioning tactics, not about the color of skin. Some people of color may be more white than a white person and a white person may be very not-white.  It is about making certain ideas privileged, while others automatically or systematically get demoted or marginalized–over and over and over.  Even through the most kind and thoughtful mechanisms, the same results occur.  The same values show up.  This is because it is reinforced.

Histories and their political constructions of struggle and victory and how ideas become dominant and therefore oppressive, must be part of Buddhist training if we are to talk of mindfulness.  But I rarely encounter anything like this in Buddhist circles.  Occasionally, yes.  I was lucky to be at the Rochester Zen Center in the 1980s where sometimes, social issues and the struggle of cultures were addressed in talks given by teachers.  But the usual things would happen at most of the centers I know of, as well as reading Buddhist books written by teachers in the West.  It is often filled with the reconciling of social issues with meditative (and therefore individualistic and ‘interior’) practices. It has never been about be-friending people-of-color, talking about the issues.  And on another level, we must look at assimilation and how becoming middle-class has assimilated all people toward the idea of acquiring things (including ‘good ideas’) as a part of the self in order to reach enlightenment (becoming parallel with reaching heaven or God, escaping trauma).  So in this way,the struggle for racial/ethnic liberatory possibility in Buddhist practice, is either individualized and retreated into interiors by meditation or as usual, becomes the job of the one person-of-color at the western Buddhist centers – to ‘take care of the diversity issue.’  This is very white.

Advocacy. Does that have a place in Buddhist practice?  In the West, social activism is about missionary work  (making others come into your belief-system and practices for the better) and doing things for the downtrodden through ‘giving.’  The dominant does not change, but needed work  in feeding, housing and empowering the downtrodden.  But this isn’t social change.  In this way, Buddhist centers often do the same things as the traditionally Christian ways of working in society has taught.  And these are truly important, so that is not my point.  The point is, this links whiteness with Buddhism, limiting what ‘compassion’ and ‘mindfulness’ are – and in particularly Christianized and individualized and condescending ways.  What other ways can we work? Of course I am generalizing.  I want to put out there, that to historically and politically look at and into things; to really study dependent origination — the doctrine of Buddhism in which everything exists because of everything else and not by themselves–is for me, one of the most important actions that we must do for social change.  Shall it just be relegated to Engaged Buddhism?  So if there is engaged Buddhism, what are the other Buddhists doing?

Historical and political constructions of self through struggles of dominance and destruction, violence and victory, defeat, disempowerment;  the way we govern ourselves and others is fraught with violence which was done in history. And most often this life of ‘normal’  is not recognized as either violence or history. In the same way, Buddhist practice as it is focused on the interior mechanisms of self in relation to emptiness, or compassion or wisdom, has a history in violence as well.  It is not personal violence that I am talking about, but a social violence.  This is also not about inclusion.  Everything cannot be included. However, everything must be accounted to–including those that are not present before us–Our ancestors, those that toiled for us in the past and who have done so without you knowing.  And those on the other side of the street, or the neighborhood, town, or the other city or across the continent or oceans, those that have passed on recently — they must be here in order to account for our lives.  Our lives includes our spiritual practice.  Privileged lives usually come from the exploitation that created that suffering in the past and in the present (real estate deals that displace poor people from homes and raking in profits for it, as one of trillions of examples).  Meditating it away is not a solution but unfortunately and ignorantly, this is done everyday at the Buddhist centers.  Let us bring whiteness into the light of colonized minds.  We must come down from our little mountains.  It must begin without the judgement of ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or ‘scary.’  It can be faced.  With this, we can practice de-colonizing the world we live in and continue to create.

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