American Buddhism’s Racial Divide

Posted on March 6, 2011. Filed under: Editorial |

Buddhists in the United States are split into two camps: Asian Americans and ‘New Buddhists.’ Can they be brought together?

BY: Kenneth K. Tanaka

Is Buddhism in America split into two camps along ethnic, racial, and cultural lines? Some leading scholars of Buddhism think so. And a recent survey confirms their opinions.

Pennsylvania State University’s Charles Prebish believes Asian and non-Asian Buddhists represent “two completely distinct lines of development in American Buddhism.” And Indiana University’s Jan Nattier sees the divide as being between “ethnic” and “elite” Buddhism.

When Tricycle editor-in-chief Helen Tworkov wrote in 1991 that Asian-American Buddhists have “so far…not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism,” it drew an angry response from Ryo Imamura, an Evergreen State College professor and Jodo Shinshu priest whose grandfather and father were bishops of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.

Both made enormous contributions to the “Americanization” of Buddhism in Hawaii and California. Imamura noted that it was his father and mother, playing the vital role that minister’s wives have always played, who in the 1950s created the Buddhist Study Center in Berkeley, California, where Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Alan Watts initiated their Dharma study. Imamura said Tworkov completely ignored 100 years of Japanese-American efforts to create an American form of Buddhism.

Japanese Buddhists are not the only ones feeling the racial divide. The eminent teacher of the Tibetan Nyingma lineage, Thinely Norbu Rinpoche recently observed that Euro-Americans are unwilling to listen to Asian Buddhists because they believe “they can do this without depending on the East’s Buddhism.”

He called that attitude “racist and patronizing.”

Americans, he said “are very arrogant and their.habit is to think they are very superior to everyone else. They don’t respect other races, other cultures. They are nationalistic.”

While non-Asian American converts to Buddhism generally know little of what innovative “ethnic” Buddhist churches have done–or continue to do– it’s not their fault alone.

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