As many long-time readers probably know, a little over two years ago we lost an important voice for critical reflection on race and representation in American Buddhism — Aaron Lee, the man behind the blog the Angry Asian Buddhist. Aaron blogged anonymously as “arunlikhati” for nearly a decade on his own blog as well as the now-defunct group blog “Dharma Folk.” At the time, before the rise of Facebook, blogs were one of the primary ways folks engaged one another online, allowing folks from disparate parts of the world to cross geographic and sectarian boundaries and make new connections and friendships.
The use of the term “angry” was intentional on Aaron’s part to call our attention to stereotypes pervasive in mainstream Buddhist discourse — namely, the stereotype of both the (rarely by choice) passive and often voiceless Asian and the stereotype (of spiritual bypassing) that “Buddhists shouldn’t be angry.” In my view, Aaron’s anger was compassionate anger, if there is such a thing, and aimed squarely at institutional racism and injustice. He was particularly concerned with the representation (and often exclusion) of Asian Americans within mainstream American Buddhist discourse in places such at Tricycle magazine or other Buddhist publications. He was often accused of “ranting” — but his critiques were always backed up by careful analysis and fact. For example, his “Asian meter” measured the number of Asian American authors or contributors to various publications adding factual data to his analysis rather than being anecdotal or merely reactive. As I wrote after his death, these types of analyses were often right on the money, exposing biases and methodological blind spots in projects as overly-cited as the Pew Forum’s religious landscape survey.
His loss to cancer at too-young an age was heartbreaking. Not long after his death, I was approached by Chenxing Han and Funie Hsu who wanted to do something to commemorate and amplify his voice, to preserve it even after Aaron’s death. We’ve had several ideas about how best to do this, but one obvious thing to do was to preserve his work and the Angry Asian Buddhist blog.
To that end, and with the help and support of Aaron’s family, we have preserved Aaron’s work by removing it from its old Blogger confines and moving it to a new server. The website has been re-built from scratch and is archived for posterity. All the old URLs should work so that scholars and writers can continue to link to the site as they did before, without interruption.
This project was challenging for me technically and personally. On the technical side, despite the fact that his death was not sudden, Aaron did not pass along his digital information, and so wrestling control from Google and other corporate locations was neither easy nor straightforward. I am deeply indebted to his father who worked endlessly to, as absurd as it sounds, prove that his son was his son. I mention this merely as a reminder that we take seriously the reality of our own mortality and ensure that anything we want to leave as a legacy is well documented. In other words, give someone you love and trust the keys to your digital self.
More personally, the process of transferring Aaron’s writings to a new website meant that I needed to go through and read (or at least skim) most of what he had written between 2009 and 2016. The early years of his writing coincided with some of my own time as an active Buddhist blogger, and I was reminded of debates and conversations and arguments we had with other Buddhist bloggers back in the day. Reading the comments — which in this case I strongly encourage you to do — was both heartening and heartbreaking. Heartbreaking because the level of vitriol and anger and racism on the part of folks threatened by Aaron’s very existence is so reminiscent of what’s happening today (the more things change…). But also heartening in that Aaron was never one to avoid a conversation, to back down from a fight, and was always willing to engage people — even the most insulting — in an attempt to make connection and educate.
It is my hope that in preserving his work we can continue to learn from and replicate his example as someone passionately committed to justice and fairness and fair representation — as well as compassionate dialogue and community engagement and community building. Over the coming year, I hope that we can build out a memorial blog in honor of his life and work and that the “mainstream Buddhist press” — who seemed to begin to listen to him and take him seriously toward the end of his life — will allow us space and time to properly honor his work and contribution to American Buddhism.
In the meantime, please spend some time with Aaron’s work, and please spread the word about his unique and invaluable voice within the landscape of American Buddhism.