Mindfulness meditation has become so mainstream that it’s not just doctors who prescribe it. A couple weeks ago, Boston University had a workshop on mindfulness for its information-technology staff. Google made a splash for having an in-house mindfulness coach, Chade-Meng Tan, who was recently interviewed in Religion Dispatches.
Tan makes some startling claims in the interview – most notably that American Buddhism is “purer Buddhism” because mindfulness is its “source teaching”, which temples in Asian countries have supposedly moved away from. I have spent plenty of time debunking such an approach in Ken Wilber and others, and there’s no need to say more here. What does need a response is a recent discussion of Tan by Richard K. Payne. Payne says:
The recent interview of Chade-Meng Tan appearing in Religion Dispatches provides an opportunity to examine—oh yet again, sorry—the nature of what now seems appropriate to call “White Buddhism.” This purposely annoying phrase can serve to displace the more academically respectable “Buddhist modernism,” which of course remains a useful category. But the phrase White Buddhism allows our attention to focus specifically on the cultural imperialism at work in White Buddhism’s representations of itself and others. While it seems that Tan is quite aware of his status as the only mindfulness teacher who is not white, the kind of Buddhism he promotes is quite White.
We return here to the question of what to call the kind of Buddhism whose history goes back to 19th-century Sri Lanka and now expresses itself in the likes of “secular” mindfulness meditation. “Buddhist modernism” is a good enough term, as is “Enlightenment Buddhism”. I’ve previously discussed what is wrong with the godawful and hopefully waning term “Protestant Buddhism”. But let’s think about the “White Buddhism” that Payne proposes as an alternative.
Readers will recall that I coined and generally use the term “Yavanayāna” to describe this new strain of Buddhism. Yavana is the Sanskrit term for Hellenistic Greeks and therefore for Europeans generally. I have used this part of the term in the hopes of playfully highlighting the roots of this tradition in European thought, to indicate that it is a tradition rooted in the European-rooted cultures we refer to as “the West”. But for me the more important part of the term is the yāna: portraying this newer Buddhism as an emerging Buddhist subtradition, in the footsteps of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna before it. As Theravāda Buddhism came to find its geographic home to the south of India (Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia), Mahāyāna to the east and Vajrayāna to the north, so the past two centuries have seen the emergence of a new form of Buddhism at home to the small- and capital-W west, outside of Asia. It is, to my eyes, a form of Buddhism as legitimate as Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna. And while I am critical of many aspects of it (especially of Engaged Buddhism), there is enough of it I accept – especially the rejection of rebirth and other supernatural elements – that I am at least to some extent a Yavanayāna Buddhist myself.
Like many premodern terms (and some modern ones) for what we might now call ethnicities, the term yavana has both a racial and a cultural dimension. I have always intended “Yavanayāna”, however, to refer only to the cultural side. Obviously, referring to “White Buddhism” does the exact opposite. What purpose does the racial meaning of this “purposefully annoying” term serve? In Payne’s terms, the term “allows our attention to focus specifically on the cultural imperialism at work in White Buddhism’s representations of itself and others.”
This “cultural imperialism” is a phrase that could be defined many different ways, and Payne does not attempt a definition. Commenter Lyone used the term in a previous exchange on a related subject, and the problems I noted to her remain the case here. The use of the term “imperialism” is always at least questionable when one is not dealing with actual occupations conducted by military empires. As I noted regarding Deepak Sarma’s related accusations, the US never conquered India; except for a very short-lived occupation of Japan, it did not conquer any Buddhist countries either. So it is far from clear what sort of “imperialism” would be at issue here. Moreover, it is strange to claim that the term “White Buddhism” puts the focus on cultural imperialism when it specifically and intentionally moves our focus away from culture and instead toward race. As far as I can tell, the main purpose of using the “White Buddhism” term seems to be to insult it and its practitioners, a task at which Payne has certainly succeeded.
When Payne says more about “cultural imperialism” in the post, it is this: “The promotion of it [White Buddhism] is a form of cultural imperialism, no different from nineteenth century missionaries who while bringing the Gospel to the colonies, also participated in the destruction—whether intentional or not—of local cultures.” There is something rather worrying about this phrasing, one which echoes contemporary Indian right-wing polemics against Christian conversion. What does it say about freely converted Indian Christians to claim that their local culture has been “destroyed”? ̇What respect does it have for their agency and their culture to view their choices and self-determination as a destruction?
This is not even to begin to discuss the disrespect he implies toward “White Buddhism” itself and the people who practise it. Parallel to Sarma, Payne repeatedly condemns the “condescension” that White Buddhists express toward older forms of Asian Buddhism, but if you can read his piece as exhibiting anything but condescension toward “White Buddhism”, you have a far more generous spirit than I do.
The ones particularly effaced by the “White Buddhism” label, of course, are non-white White Buddhists like Tan – and myself. Since his article is about Tan, Payne appears to be thinking of this effacing as a feature of the label rather than a bug. For Payne, despite the colour of our skin, despite the racism we have experienced, our Buddhist practices – if not we ourselves – are to be labelled “White”. With a capital W.
To portray our Buddhism as “White” – especially when attached to the label of cultural imperialism – carries with it more than a whiff of an accusation that we are race traitors, complicit in some sort of imperialism against ourselves. What we brown-coloured White Buddhists are doing, for Payne, is “a form of cultural imperialism, no different from nineteenth century missionaries who while bringing the Gospel to the colonies, also participated in the destruction—whether intentional or not—of local cultures.”
This sort of accusation could be dismissed if it was simply an isolated insult from one person, but it isn’t. It is part of a pattern that is very familiar to me. I have received accusations of not being brown enough before, from Rajiv Malhotra and other Hindu nationalists outraged that Western academics dare say something critical about their traditions. “European soul in an Indian body”, “sepoy in training” – yeah, I’ve heard those terms before, from the people who wish we Western academics would shut up about like annoying details like caste and sex, and just let the brahmins tell everyone their version of what India is. The “White Buddhism” label also calls to mind how a Chinese-Canadian former friend of mine, who spoke (as I do) with no Asian accent, told me other Chinese-Canadians would refer to her as a “banana”: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. It saddens me to see this kind of accusation reproduced by people who seem to think themselves left-wing fighters against racism, but I can’t see Payne’s description of Tan in any other light.
Śāntideva tells us not to feel offended at others’ words, and I take his advice seriously. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel insulted by Payne’s words – my practice is not as effective as Śāntideva’s – but the insult is not the point. What is the point is that modernized or Westernized forms of Buddhism should be judged by the truth of their ideas and the effectiveness of their practices, not by unfair attempts to tar them by association with imperialism and racism.