Be the Refuge author asks why is North American Buddhism so white?

Chenxing Han is the author of Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists. The book delves into the question, why is North American Buddhism so white? Han calls out the erasure of young Asian American Buddhists while giving voice to their stories.
A fully ordained Buddhist nun, and other monastics serve themselves lunch in the kitchen in Newport, Wash. (Young Kwak/Associated Press)

Why is North American Buddhism so white? That question is at the heart of Chenxing Han's book Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists. She explored why people of Asian heritage are often invisible in American Buddhism, even though they make up two thirds of American Buddhists.

Han called out the erasure of Asian American Buddhists while giving voice to the stories of young Asian Buddhists. She also explores cultural appropriation from a Buddhist context. Chenxing Han spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about her book and her own 'gradual steeping' into Buddhism. 

You've said you can't quite pinpoint the moment when Buddhism started to call your name, but it was kind of like what happens when you make a pot of tea? Can you tell me how you were gradually steeped, the way a fine pot of tea is? 

I think I'm still steeping. I was born in Shanghai and raised in America. I came to the U.S. at the age of four, and my parents are non-religious, like many of the people of their generation who lived through the Chinese Cultural Revolution. And so I say, we connect the dots in retrospect, but sometimes I think there's always dots further back that, you know, even we can't see. 

At first I was kind of reluctant to call myself a Buddhist for a myriad of reasons that I get into in the book. But at a certain point I realized, I'm probably more Buddhist than not just because I've been influenced by so many good friends and Buddhist places, people, temples. 

This project of yours began with a question: Where are all the Asian-Americans, and I'm sure you could say Asian Canadians as well, in Buddhism today in North America? In other words, why is Buddhism in North America so white? What sparked that question for you? 

I started this project more than a decade ago now, and especially then I would say, just looking at Buddhist magazines in particular, seeing who was on the covers and feeling like the representation of American Buddhism was predominantly white. And I would say that this is really starting to change in the last few years, which is really heartening. But part of my inspiration came actually from this blogger named The Angry Asian Buddhist, someone who actually became a dear friend before he passed away. 

Chenxing Han is the author of Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists. (Sarah Deragon)

I'm glad you mentioned Aaron Lee, the creator of the Angry Asian Buddhist Blog, and how he sort of helped shape your outlook and in the blog. 

He was writing about these very issues of representation — of thinking there's a BBC documentary on Buddhism, for example — and it's almost entirely white narrators. 

That's a piece of the picture of American Buddhism but it's far from the whole picture, especially when people of Asian heritage make up two thirds of American Buddhists. And who gets to speak for American Buddhism? Why is it that it's not people who look like myself or not people who, these are my interviewees speaking, look like my parents or my grandparents?

You wrote your master's thesis on Asian-American Buddhists and that meant interviewing almost 90 young Buddhists. Can you tell me about someone you remember from that research? 

I remember this great quote by Shubha, one of my interviews, someone of South Asian heritage and just talking about why it can feel so uncomfortable to be in meditation centers where it's predominantly white. And they were saying, I guess it's just the mix of people. It's easy to feel out of place when you're one grape in a bowl of apples, but a grape in a bowl of mixed fruit feels welcoming. 

It's funny to me that anger has come up a few times already in our conversation, both in the angry Asian Buddhist blog and in some of your own responses to what you encountered in your research. And the stereotype, of course, is the belief that if you are a good Buddhist, you've somehow moved beyond anger or you're above getting angry. Tell me what you've learned on that front. 

I think a lot I learned from Aaron, just that very title: Angry Asian Buddhist, as you pointed out, it gets people to stop and sit up because you don't expect Buddhists to be angry. But we also don't expect Asians to be angry. They're expected not to rock the boat. 

I should say maybe Asians in the U.S. because the Asians I've encountered in Asia are all kinds of people and get to express themselves fully, emotionally and in all kinds of ways. But there's something about these insidious, racialized stereotypes within North America. Who do we expect to be angry? 

And so I think what struck me was that Aaron wasn't afraid to think about anger in the ways it can be like a skillful means. There's a flame on the cover of the book. And of course, the flame that gets out of control is a wildfire and devastating. But a flame can also be a spark. It can also warm us. And I think of that metaphor often when it comes to anger. 

Who gets to speak for American Buddhism? Why is it that it's not people who look like myself or not people who, these are my interviewees speaking, look like my parents or my grandparents?- Chenxing Han, author

I actually personally am someone who tends to be conflict-avoidant and wants to shy away from anger. But anger is often a protective energy. It's often telling us something that we need to know. And I think Aaron's anger again, I actually think it was rooted in a place coming from deep love. When we see people we love or care about get hurt, when we see injustice, I think anger is a very natural response. And then the next question is: how do we channel that? 

And what about your own anger? Are you getting in touch with it? Is it something you still try to keep at bay? 

I think that through chaplaincy training and through writing this book and just connecting with so many people and realizing, I'm not alone, it's totally normal and even healthy to feel this anger and to be able to experience the anger but also then channel it in creative ways, in ways that are not destructive — and I think keeping it bottled up actually feels kind of destructive — but really channeling anger or frustration. I don't particularly enjoy dwelling there forever but I think again as a spark, as a launching off point, I've come to be able to embrace it much more. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Produced and written by Kent Hoffman.


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