The phenomenon of Western Buddhism has its roots in colonial encounters in Asia and began in earnest with the translation, study, and transmission of traditional Buddhist texts by Western linguists and classicists. Western Buddhism refers to both the study and practice of Buddhism outside of Asia, predominantly in Europe and North America. It therefore refers to a field of study and denotes non-Asian convert Buddhists in the West. The term itself can best understood, on the one hand, within the systematic study of Buddhism in Europe beginning in the 19th century and, on the other hand, in light of the impact of race, racialization, and Whiteness in defining Western Buddhism. Thus, any discussion of Western Buddhism would do well to proceed with a discussion and analysis of race as they are inherently intertwined. Buddhist studies emerged during the height of European colonization and imperialism in Asia, and the scholarly study of Buddhism became a focus and product of colonial discovery and political reshaping. Studies of Western Buddhism and their contemporary manifestations have their origins in the efforts of Western linguists and historians who relied upon and contributed to the process of Orientalist knowledge production, epistemologies, and methodologies to translate and interpret Buddhist texts. Directly linked to colonial policy and power, Orientalist scholarship directly shaped Western perceptions of Buddhism which, in turn, also shaped Asian realities, whereby Asian forms of Buddhism, and Asian Buddhists, were filtered through and measured against prevailing Western ideological and political agendas. Western Orientalist scholars translated Buddhist texts and presented Buddhist philosophy and religion through a distinctly modernist lens that prioritized individual meditation over ritual, Buddhist cosmology and devotional practices. By prioritizing the scientifically “rational” aspects of Buddhism and meditation as a primarily psychological practice, Western Buddhism also favored a narrative of “pure origins” that emphasized the search for a “true Buddhism” beyond its purported Asian cultural accretions. Thus, much Western scholarship produced during this time period emphasized the search for an “ancient” Buddhism wisdom that could hold its own against Western enlightenment ideals. Such modernist agendas thus shaped the formation of Buddhist studies as a scholarly discipline, whose merits were measured according to textual translation and the veracity of purportedly original texts. The development of Western Buddhism is not only shaped by forces of Orientalism, Protestantization, and modernism but also by the historical context of race and racialization. Therefore, to study Western Buddhism without paying attention to its entangled history of racialization and racism would be inaccurate and incomplete. Today, several Euro-American convert Buddhists continue to hold up meditation as the most authentic component of Buddhist practice at the expense of the devotional religiosity. In so doing, this valorization of meditation reproduces the very same devaluation of devotional practice that was rendered backward both in Orientalist scholarship and its modernist inflections in the United States. Western Buddhism continues to be largely defined in the American context primarily through an Orientalist lens and has become enmeshed and nearly synonymous with largely White convert Buddhists’ focus on meditation and the continued exertion of authority within convert communities. With the primacy of meditation as the most authentic form of Buddhism and the power to continue to define the contours of legitimate practice, White convert Buddhist lineages have retained the authority to determine what counts as real Buddhism. In turn, Asian American Buddhists have been promoted in the scholarly literature as overly immersed in popular religion and therefore less capable of determining what constitutes authentic Buddhism. Historically, Western scholarship avoided utilizing race as a category of analysis in the study of Buddhism in the United States and tended toward more generalized terms such as “American Buddhism” and “ethnic Buddhism” to signify the difference between White and non-White practitioners. While these terms have certainly transpired over time and have received an increasingly healthy dose of backlash from marginalized Buddhists and White Buddhist sympathizers, in the unfolding narrative of Western Buddhism and race, labels matter; and the residue of Buddhist Orientalism remains to the degree that “ethnic Buddhism” has become a term synonymous with nonmeditating, superstitious, and overly popular forms of religion practiced primarily by Asian Americans. Through the racialization of Asian and Asian American Buddhists, Western Buddhism continues to reproduce the White privilege and White supremacy operative in earlier scholarship; however, there are many notable challenges to the problem of Buddhism and Whiteness that this article will discuss.
Joseph Cheah and Sharon A. Suh
Craig R. Prentiss
With the slow realization that race was not a category in nature, but rather the fruit of social imagination emerging from colonialism, scholars in the late 20th century shifted their focus to the cultural elements feeding that imagination, including religion and the arts. Although most studies in the field address fairly conventional constructions of religion and the arts (two categories that, like race, have also been destabilized), some studies reveal the potential for these three categories to be co-constituting. Studies addressing religiously themed music, including spirituals, gospel, hip-hop, and a significant portion of country music, have shed light on the ways in which these genres encode and inform racial paradigms. Portraits in theater, dance, and film of ideas and practices associated with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and other social groupings have proven active sites for the production of influential, and often competing, conceptions of race. Stereotypes linking religious and racial classifications are perpetuated as well as challenged in these artistic media. Given that the racial imagination in the United States is articulated using the language of color, painting and sculpture have been instrumental in conveying vivid connections between race and religion. For instance, many paintings celebrating Christianity’s triumph over America’s indigenous people concurrently depicted white dominance over them as well. A theological system rooting skin color in divine decree, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did in its Book of Mormon, helped assure a fair-skinned and fair-haired Jesus would populate its art. The politics of Jesus’ color continued to be played out in painting and sculpture in the United States to the present day, and exemplifies the interaction of racial, religious, and artistic categories.
Jamil W. Drake
It is impossible to provide a conclusive definition of the idea of black religion; however, certain themes, tropes, and characteristics are typically associated with the “black” in black religion. These ideas are inseparable from the ideas of race in American history. The ideas of the religious differences (e.g., institutions, theologies, practices, or values) attributed to black people are not objective or neutral. Rather, these ideas about the differences of black religion are value-laden and shaped by larger debates about the moral and intellectual capabilities, social status, and/or political struggles of black folk in the United States. In this sense, the idea of black religion is inseparable from the larger discourse about black people and their place in the republic. Arguably, black religion was not a formal object of inquiry until the late 19th century, yet it often includes statements about the paganism, idolatry, and/or fetishism used to define “religion of Africa” in the colonial period. By the antebellum period, a cadre of voluntary African associations continued the ideas of pagan Africa that posited a redemptive [African] race that simultaneously sought to purify American religion from slavery and to civilize Africa from the ideas of primitivism. Throughout the 20th century, early studies of “black religion” were associated with ideas of social and moral uplift; race heredity; economic stress; transmission of Africanisms; and protest and liberation. In the end, black religion is intrinsic to U.S. intellectual and cultural history.
Sharon A. Suh
Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.