on the passing of friends

For several years, back in the waning days of Bush II and the rise of Obama, I blogged incessantly. It began as a way of letting folks who lived far and wide know what I was up to, since these were pre-social media days. It developed into a way to collect my thoughts about all things academic, Buddhist, and political as I finished my doctorate. In hindsight, there were a million better ways to spend my time, to be sure. I could have read more, I could have spent more time on scholarship, I could have channeled these energies into a journal article or course prep. God, anything, really. This is not to say that blogging is a waste of time; any writing we do improves our skills more generally. Trying — and especially failing — to get one’s point across (even in a blog post) makes one a better writer.  But I’m also aware of the mistakes I made not only in logic and reasoning (and typos) but the mistakes in time management and creating positive relationships. I don’t regret these things, per se. I’m just aware of my own limitations as a human being and owning up to those limitations.

At the same time — because life is complicated, because there’s always awesome things mixed in with the less-than-awesome — there are some things about my blogging life that I cherish, that I wouldn’t trade in for all the money in world. And one of those things was the chance to meet and get to know the Angry Asian Buddhist.

When you blog a lot, you read a lot of other blogs, and I first became aware of “arun” when he was posting at the long-defunct Dharma Folk blog. His initial post on the lack of representation of Asian Americans in the mainstream Buddhist press was perfectly in synch with my own frustrations about the genre, and it wasn’t long before he and I were directly riffing off each other’s work, responding to each other’s posts, or engaging in conversation (and debate) in the comments sections. Those debates spilled over into other blogs; his “anger” had a way of riling people up, and I was often happy to follow his lead or rile up others. Mistakes were made, to be sure, but a virtual friendship was forged.

This virtual friendship crossed into the real world fairly quickly. On a visit to the Bay Area, arun reached out to me to see if I’d like to meet for lunch. We had Vietnamese food at a place near my office I’d never been to before and that has since closed. I was honored to have been given the privilege of meeting the man behind the anonymous online handle, and I kept his identity a closely guarded secret. I never told anyone who the “real” Angry Asian Buddhist was (without his permission), and would always be amused when I saw people online assume things about him that I knew weren’t true.

Some thought arun was a woman. Many took his blog title literally and assumed he was angry, angry, angry all the time. Many assumed he was from this place or that, practiced this type of Buddhism or that type (or didn’t practice at all). And when the dust settled about whether or not he was right about his analysis of race and representation (which he often was), the familiar refrain was always lobbed — “well what’s your solution, then? You just complain about this on the internet but you never do anything!”

None of that was true of course. In real life, arun was Aaron Lee. A man of extraordinary humility, joy, compassion and openness. His use of the moniker “Angry” was deliberate and skillful. He not only reimagined the stereotype of the passive Asian American in classic civil rights activist style, he played on the Angry Little Asian Girl animated shorts, a multi-layered intertextual approach to social criticism that was lost on many and reflected a deeply incisive intellect. Aaron laughed, a lot, and generously. And has now been reported multiple times across the Buddhist media landscape, he didn’t just complain about things on the internet — he was a community organizer; he created refuge for fellow Buddhists regardless of their tradition or their ancestors’ birthplace.

I was deeply grateful that Aaron trusted me with his identity, and I did my best to never betray that trust. I had the honor of working with Chenxing Han on her thesis which was a study of young adult Asian American Buddhists. She said to me one day that she wanted to interview the Angry Asian Buddhist. Timidly, I said, “Well, I might know who he is. But I’ll need to check with him to see if I can put you in touch.” When I was writing my book and knew that I needed to include arun’s blog and insights into race and representation, I kept his identity a secret even then, even as we headed toward press and I knew that his identity might be revealed sooner than any of us would have liked.

Even though Aaron wasn’t a classically trained Buddhist scholar, he nevertheless inspired me to be a better scholar. When the Pew Forum first released its Religious Landscape survey and claimed that the majority of American Buddhists were white, not only did he argue that was wrong, he did the math. He sat down with the data, with other sources including U.S. Census numbers, and hashed out an alternate hypothesis. And here’s the kicker: he was right. It’s this attention to detail, attention to data, a willingness to question the results of other’s work, and run the numbers that represents the best of what we do as scholars. And knowing Aaron, if he’d run those numbers and come up short, if the Pew had been right, he’d have been honest and gracious enough to admit it. Would that I could say that for all Buddhist scholars.

Aaron passed away this past week, succumbing to lymphoma. Even though his one-in-a-million shot of getting a bone marrow transplant came through, it wasn’t enough. His friends, his family, those who knew him only in passing or only as the Angry Asian Buddhist are left to do the only thing we can — keep him in our memories and share our stories with each other. Celebrate and honor his life.

It had been years since Aaron blogged regularly as arun when he was diagnosed with cancer. Occasionally he’d pop up online, most recently to celebrate the publication of a pair of essays in Buddhadharma magazine about Asian American Buddhists. There’s still room for critique (there’s always room for critique) of the mainstream Buddhist press — of Buddhism itself — but the mere fact of these publications points to Aaron’s influence on American Buddhist discourse. Would these publications address these issues had the Angry Asian Buddhist not badgered them for so many years? Perhaps. But he did badger them. And people are having important, necessary, and often painful conversations.

Others who knew him better, who shared a life with him as parent or friend, will remember him and honor his life in their own way. Our virtual connection and shared commitment to inclusion is how I’ll remember him. The landscape of American Buddhism has been changed forever by his presence. And for that I am profoundly grateful.

The book

coverI sent off the final page proofs of my forthcoming book to the publisher earlier this month. I assume that means it’s all said and done, that’s all she wrote, whatever mistakes were made and not caught will just go to press, and I’ll have to live to this thing for the rest of my life (or, buddha willing, I get the chance to write a second edition). In honor of that, here are some reflections on the book. Continue reading “The book”

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?

Continue reading “On tattoos and whiteness”

Numbers

Wilson is right (as is Silk) that the Washington Post map is wrong.

I don’t think we should throw it away, though. Or, at the very least, I don’t think we should thumb our noses at it and say “their methodology is flawed, to hell with it.” Rather, and I say this as a teacher, I think we should use it as an opportunity to discuss the limits of our knowledge and our assumptions. After all, you only ever get answers to questions you ask, and to the extent that this survey was designed by asking questions about institutions (or congregations), it necessarily reflects that bias. Continue reading “Numbers”

Chart

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to give a talk to a group of BCA folks about Buddhism in the United States that is not Jodo Shinshu. An easy task, sure. No. Wait. Not an easy task. There is a dizzying diversity and variety of Buddhist tradition in the US; assuming it can be summed up in a reasonable way is preposterous.

Having said that, I still had to give the presentation. So I did what you do when you have to give a presentation; I created a PowerPoint. Actually, I created a Prezi because I’ve been toying with the software a bit lately and thought this was as good an opportunity to test it out as any. Specifically, I wanted to create some sort of chart or graphic or map that would help orient my audience to the diversity of Buddhist traditions in the US. So I created this — wait! Before you click on that link, read the rest of this post. Continue reading “Chart”

Non-ethnic

Everyone is ethnic. Let’s start there.

The Angry Asian Buddhist’s most recent post critiques another blogger’s use of the word “ethnic.” In many discourses about race and ethnicity, the use of the term is in juxtaposition to some “non-ethnic” category, though rarely is this made explicit. In this case, the blogger in question explicitly uses the term “non-ethnic.” There are two things to note here.

First, discursively there is no distinction to be made between “race” and “ethnicity.” Whereas the latter has come to the fore in the last few decades, in practice, it is used in the same way that race has been used in the past. Both terms are social constructs, arbitrarily defined categories with fuzzy, shifting, and permeable borders. Sometimes a distinction is made between race-as-biological marker and ethnicity-as-cultural marker; but this distinction is absurd the closer one looks. There is no biological basis to support racial categories. And, much more to the point, it is not the legitimacy of the categorization scheme that matters as much as how the scheme is deployed and enacted in the social and legal realms. It was not the legitimacy of the category that mattered when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ferguson; it was the state’s desire to control persons marked by racial categories that was on trial.

Continue reading “Non-ethnic”

Criticism

I am very late to the non-Buddhism/x-Buddhism party, let alone the post that inspires what I’m about to say. So the following isn’t mean to comment on, one way or the other, that ongoing discourse. Something written on the Speculative Non-Buddhism Blog that I happened to read over this past weekend triggered some other memory in my brain, and I felt compelled to write about it. So here goes.

Back in May 2013, Glenn Wallis listed pieces of advice they’d received regarding the non-Buddhism project, a subtext of which was the advice that they should “do something productive.” I’m paraphrasing here, mostly points #1 and #4 of that piece that call on the non-Buddhists to be “substantive” and “address alternatives.” This sort of reaction to criticism, this advice that one should “do something,” is one I’ve seen in other contexts, and it’s one that always gives me pause.

Continue reading “Criticism”