On tattoos and whiteness

Seeing my name in (digital) print, I can’t help but to comment a bit further on this piece published by Tricycle on Buddhist tattoos. I’m not going to comment too much on the meat of the issue, but I did want to comment a bit on what I was trying to do when I spoke with Mr. Hay a couple months back.

Fundamentally, I wanted to complicate the idea of “Western.” This has increasingly become the name of choice among people who practice or study Buddhism in Western cultural contexts, and I’m concerned about the lack of sustained critical reflection that has been given to this term. (If I’m wrong about that — I try, but can’t possibly, read everything — if someone has written a recent scholarly or popular article examining taxonomy, examining what to call this thing we’re all so invested in, please let me know in the comments. And I’ll get to RKP’s piece in a minute.) To my mind, the term “Western” is simply too broad to have much value. What are its limits? Where are its boundaries? Who is included in this category and who isn’t? On what criteria?

The simplest response, of course, might be to fall back on country-specific designations, following in some way a traditional Buddhist Studies/area studies model (Buddhism in Japan, Buddhism in Thailand, Buddhism in the US, and so forth). But I can already hear those who take transnational issues seriously (myself included) chomping at the bit to remind me that in this increasingly interconnected and globalized world, geo-political borders scarcely matter.

To which I reply, that’s not true. Virtually everyone who’s theorized about globalization over the last several decades has always been quick to point out that globalized culture is always locally enacted. To study the global is to study the local.

But I’m getting away from myself here. Let’s go back to complicating “Western.” The reason I want to complicate this term, or more to the point, the reason I want us to critically examine what we mean by this term, has much to do with Natalie Quli’s excellent article “Western Self, Asian Other.” It seems to me that all too often when people deploy the term “Western,” they are merely swapping out the word “white.” I applaud Mr. Hay for being up front and honest about the fact that folks in the West are subject to their own cultural biases and influences. And I don’t believe he is necessarily intentionally replacing “white” with “Western” in his article. When we spoke, I had hoped to point out that there are plenty of folks in the West — that is, Westerners — who are not coming to the Buddhist tradition as “outsiders.” In other words, when I said (as he reports in his article) “There are also Westerners who don’t claim to be Buddhist but who have extended family who are” I meant people who were born and raised Buddhist, whose parents and grandparents were Buddhists, and have been Americans for three, four, or five generations. Sometimes, these folks happen to be Asian American. Sometimes they’re white. But they’re both Westerners. It just so happens that some of their ancestors crossed the Atlantic to get to North America and some crossed the Pacific.

So I think it’s worth critically engaging and examining what we mean by “Western” Buddhism, what this category implies, and — most importantly — who’s included and who’s excluded.

I suspect, at the risk of putting words in his mouth, that this is why Richard Payne has adopted the phrase “white Buddhism” in a recent series of blog posts. Unsurprisingly (to me at any rate as someone who’s been accused of being a race traitor), there were folks who assumed that he was critiquing “white people” and found it odd that Chade-Meng Tan was included in this category. “Hey,” some seemed to be saying, “he isn’t white!” A more cogent version of this critique was the assumption that by critiquing white Buddhism (and/or white Buddhists), Payne was suggesting that the Buddhisms they practice are inauthentic or invalid.

It seemed clear to me from the get go (and, full disclosure here, I know Richard, pretty well, and my closeness to him as a person and his body of work may color my interpretation) that Payne was not taking about persons per se but a cultural discourse. In other words, he was critiquing a rhetorical and discursive field that is culturally and historically situated, one that relates to Buddhist thought and practice in a particular way, a way that can (and should) be unpacked. Because we’re talking about a discursive field, anyone can participate. I can participate in white Buddhism not because I happen to be white but through employing the rhetorical devices of that rhetorical field. Mr. Jolly Good Fellow does the same when he claims his practices and teachings are more “authentic” (or at least more appropriate to this time and place) than those “degenerate” practices of Asia. For Payne, that’s white Buddhism (the discursive field or rhetoric), not the ethnicity of the person participating in it (white or otherwise).

Moreover, as I’ve said before, I believe that it is possible to critique something and still find value in it, still love it. In fact, I’d argue that it’s necessary and vitally important to critique those things that we love and find value in precisely because of our commitment to them. Criticism does not necessarily lead to rejection but can, if done well and out of compassion, lead to a deeper and fuller appreciation as well as positive change. By interrogating and critically analyzing what we mean by “Western” or “whiteness,” we put ourselves in the (often uncomfortable) position of critical self-reflecton; we force ourselves to examine the unexamined skeletons in our closet. And then we have the opportunity to do some house cleaning.

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