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My upcoming paper on disengaged Buddhism focuses on classical Indian texts that engaged Buddhist scholarship has generally silenced. As I read more, though, I come to see that contemporary Asian and Asian-American Buddhists also have politically disengaged tendencies, which modern politically active scholarship – not only Buddhist – also tends to silence.

I first noted this tendency of silencing in Judith Simmer-Brown’s introduction to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the leading engaged Buddhist organization she helped found. The group, she says, “was concerned that Buddhist practice centers and groups had become entirely removed from the social and political issues of the day: some teachers and organizations were even actively discouraging political involvement.” (69) And that’s it for those “teachers and organizations”. Why were they discouraging political involvement? What did they say? What were their names? No answers are forthcoming; they receive no voice. What we hear instead is the story of how Simmer-Brown and her American fellows put together a politically engaged group in defiance of their teachers.

The tendency plays out in a different way in Joseph Cheah‘s Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Cheah’s book, in his words, “examines rearticulations of Asian Buddhist practices through the lens of race and racialization.” (2) What is notable is that this chosen lens is not the lens through which the Asian Buddhists in question themselves see, and this point becomes quite explicit in the story Cheah tells.

Cheah tells us in chapter 4 that he conducted surveys and interviews with 100 Burmese immigrants to the San Francisco Bay Area during his PhD program. But as with Simmer-Brown, we hear very little of their voices – as far as I can tell, one can count the quotes from these hundred people on one’s fingers. More troublingly, the few times Cheah does quote them, he spends most of his time telling them they’re wrong, explaining to his readers how much better he understands their situation than they do.

So Cheah speaks to one Burmese-American Buddhist family about an incident where a coach rejected their son from the basketball team because “Asians do not make good basketball players”:

When I told the young man that this was a racist remark and that the coach should be reprimanded for it or even terminated from his job, he quickly downplayed the whole matter as unimportant…. When I pursued the matter further, the father became angry and retorted, “What do you know about racism? We suffered racism far worse in Burma. That bloody Ne Win and his cronies took away our jobs and our livelihood…. We can put up with this kind of inconvenience. It’s not worth getting involved.” In other words, “don’t make waves.” By repressing their outrage against racism and religion-based bias, these Burmese immigrants have internalized the neoconservative stereotype of Asian Americans as the model minority—a hardworking and docile group who are politically passive and therefore worthy of emulation by other minorities. (90; ellipsis within the embedded quotation is Cheah’s, the other ellipsis is mine)

Another Buddhist he quotes also says of his experiences with racism in the United States: “I guess I shouldn’t complain so much. In Burma, I wouldn’t be able to do the kind of work I’m doing now. Here I have a job and can support my family.” And Cheah chides this Buddhist as well: “to judge the powerlessness experienced in Burma as axiomatic in order to render the racism and discrimination they face in the United States as unimportant or something that can be tolerated is none other than internalization of the prevailing ideology of white supremacy.” (91)

Unlike Simmer-Brown, Cheah at least briefly gives Asian-American Buddhists a chance to speak. But like Simmer-Brown, his main concern is to push a politically engaged agenda that completely dismisses everything they have to say. Both Cheah and Simmer-Brown hear Asian-American Buddhists discourage political involvement, and neither one takes this discouragement as remotely worth listening to. Could it be that being refused for a basketball team really was small enough to be merely inconvenient and not worth getting involved with, as Cheah’s own Burmese-American informants explicitly said it was? Could it be that political participation really does interfere with tranquility of mind, as Buddhist teachers like Aśvaghoṣa explicitly said, and as Simmer-Brown’s teachers might have said to us if her chapter had let them? The possibility is just never entertained in either case.

What is more: Cheah is not a Buddhist by any standard, but a professed Christian, indeed possessing the title of Reverend. Cheah is a Christian telling Buddhist families that they are too tolerant of the world situation and they should do more activist work to change it. In so doing, Cheah joins a long history. Thomas Tweed notes how during the British colonization of South Asia, Christian writers would condemn Buddhism for its lack of enthusiasm for social change, as in this 1894 quote from the Atlantic: “The religion of the Buddha could never be brought to combine with the advancement and progressive amelioration of society. It works by abandonment, leaving the world every way as it finds it. It lacks the helpful and actively loving spirit of Christianity.” (Tweed 145) And, as George Bond notes in his chapter on engaged Buddhism, British officials and Christian missionaries took Buddhism’s “other-worldly” nature “as an argument for promoting Christianity and Christian schools. Since Christianity was identified with Western culture and knowledge, the British praised it as progressive and condemned Buddhism as backward.” (Bond 124)

The 21st-century Cheah, of course, would never be so gauche as to call his informants “backward”, let alone offer a defence of colonialism. But still, as someone explicitly concerend to historicize the relationship between race and Buddhism, he is strikingly unwilling to historicize himself. The history of Christians telling Buddhists they are not politically active enough is a long one, and given his other commitments, it does not strike me as a good idea for Cheah to have joined it. He could have done a lot better treating his interviewees as subjects of dialogue, marginalized people who resist a dominant interpretation, people who just might have something to teach him.

More generally, I suspect that we more privileged people would do well to stop viewing such marginalized Buddhists as mere sinks for our own compassion or justice, but as people with voices of their own, people from whom we might have something to learn. In these cases, those voices challenge the currently prevailing discourse among American educated élites that seeks to view racism as the dominant factor in every human phenomenon, and political activism against oppression as a universal duty. And their voices echo a long and impeccably Buddhist history of deemphasizing political engagement, a history that goes well back before the concept of race was even invented.