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date: 03 July 2022

Western Buddhism and Racefree

Western Buddhism and Racefree

  • Joseph CheahJoseph CheahDepartment of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies, University of St. Joseph
  •  and Sharon A. SuhSharon A. SuhDepartment of Theology and Religious Studies, Seattle University


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.


  • Buddhism

Defining Orientalism and Orientalist

Edward Said’s landmark work, Orientalism, proves invaluable for locating the emergence of 19h-century Western Buddhist representations of Asian Buddhisms as less authentic forms of an “essential” and “pure” Buddhism. The emphases on textual translation and linguistics that led to the formation of Oriental Studies on Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam have colonial encounters as their starting point and therefore are located in regimes of knowledge and power. Building on Foucault’s assertation that discourse becomes knowledge, Said famously described “Orientalism” as “a Western style of dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.”1 Said further argued that this knowledge, supported by institutions and “regimes of truth,” became an entire way of interpreting and understanding “Orientals,” including their religions. This knowledge, shaped by cultural perceptions and widely circulated in scholarly networks, constituted a kind of discursive power exercised over objects of study that included non-Western, non-White Buddhists themselves. Orientalist scholarship formulated and employed a set of concepts by which the Orient could be made familiar for Europeans. Orientalist constructions of Buddhism also emerged in relation to social Darwinist and eugenicist conceptions of race that were prominent in Europe and the United States. The constructions of race and racial difference in this era resulted in a collusive bifurcation between Europeans and non-Europeans, whereby the former was placed at the apex of culture and civilization. This demarcation reshaped the concept of race and ethnicity, becoming what theorist Homi Bhabha notes as “one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge.”2

Scientific Racism

In Racism, Robert Miles states that prior to the Age of Exploration (early 15th century to early 17th century), group differences were largely based on religion, language, and geography. European colonialists identified themselves in terms of their religious identity (e.g., “Christian”) or ties to a particular geographical or ethnic group (e.g., “English”), rather than in terms of a racial category such as “White.” With the advent of the science of taxonomy in the 17th century, however, the modern conception of race emerged to dichotomize the differences between Europeans and non- Europeans.3 François Bernier (1625–1688) was the first scientist to classify human beings into groups: Europeans, Negroes, Far Easterners, and Lapps. However, it was not until 1735 that the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) proposed a comprehensive system of categorizing humans that resembles the modern conception of race. In the 19th century, scientists built on the elaborate systems of human classification developed in the 18th century to further support the superiority of the European race over Native Americans, Africans, and other non-White races.4 This pursuit of categorizing human beings would later become known as “scientific racism,” or the manifestations of falsely constructed biases, purportedly based on evolution, which further substantiated the positional superiority of the White race and its morality. The “racial projects” of imperialism further divided Whites from non-Whites and reinforced the concept of the West’s positional superiority discussed by Said. While Europe came to function as the centerpiece of all societies, others were subjugated to the margins. By the end of the 19th century, scientific racism and evolutionary bias were implicit to the formation of racial categories, and White superiority became naturalized and entrenched in European notions of race.

Orientalist Construction of Buddhism

Said’s study of Orientalist scholars and the Eurocentric positional superiority perpetuated through the widespread acceptance of Victorian scholarly discourse proves invaluable to understanding the rearticulation of “Orientalist Buddhism” as a scholarly phenomenon. In the context of Victorian Buddhism, characterizations of Orientalist Buddhism and Orientalist scholarship as superior to its Asian counterparts reflects the logics of colonialism and imperialism that sought to disenfranchise others by highlighting differences between White and non-White methodologies and practices. In other words, the promulgation of a putative bifurcation between “Asian Buddhism” and the “Orientalist’s Buddhism” reproduced the tendency to proclaim an essentialized difference between the East and the West, and between Asian and Western forms of Buddhism, Buddhists, and scholarship. Within the Orientalist framework, the former was held to be to inferior and ignorant, and the latter promoted as superior and scientific. Such simplistic characterizations are misleading and perpetuate the Orientalist reliance on monolithic categories to maintain dominance.5 This imperialist drive to categorize indigenous peoples and cultures functioned in a strikingly similar acquisitional manner akin to the extraction of raw materials and other natural resources that colonists sought to acquire, possess, and exploit.6 The extraction of knowledge, including many Buddhist sutras as sources of ancient wisdom, by colonial administrators and Orientalists, mined ideas from the contexts of non-Western practitioners and cultures to appropriate and filter the religion and philosophy through a Western framework, re-represented to Westerners to bolster the positional superiority of the West.

Among the founders of the study of Buddhism in the West, well-known linguists and historians such as Brian Houghton Hodgson, Eugene Burnouf, Thomas William Rhys Davids and Caroline Rhys Davids, Alexandra David Neal, and others contributed to the construction and reception of Buddhism as a predominantly textual tradition, with scant attention to the practice of the religion among the laity. John James Clarke argues that much of the early written sources on Buddhism from the 19th century contributed to the promulgation of Buddhism as an example of an “Oriental (Asian) wisdom,” which could be deployed as a “corrective mirror” for the West by providing the means to revive the moral degradation of modern Europe.7 Hodgson furthered the emergence of textual Buddhism as “the real Buddhism” by recovering, collecting, and bestowing Buddhist sutras to European linguists and the Asiatic Society of Bengal, a scholarly association composed initially of some thirty British civil servants working in Calcutta under the auspices of the East India Trading Company. Eugene Burnouf, the eminent linguist of Pali and Sanskrit, translated some 147 Sanskrit manuscripts into French, and his 1844 influential book, Introduction a l’histoire du Buddhisme indien, became the definitive work on Buddhism in the West for many years. Burnouf promoted the idea, common among Western Orientalists, that the scientific methods by which they examined textual Buddhism was more legitimate for determining the essence of Buddhism than the lived Buddhism practiced by Asians.8 The emphasis of textual translation facilitated the exclusion of rituals and practices of Asian Buddhism. This transfer of power from an original indigenous source to Eurocentric intellectual expertise became an integral part of the Western appropriation of Buddhism.

By the middle of the 19th century, the location of textual Buddhism and its discursive counterparts that were rooted within Western institutions and their scholarly reinterpretations of Buddhist texts had already been forged in the confluence of colonialism and imperialism. In direct correlation to the idea that others should be subjugated and relegated to the margins of legitimate forms of knowledge, native scholars of Buddhism were often discredited as they translated Sanskrit and Tibetan manuscripts for Orientalist scholars.9 Philip C. Almond thus argues that Orientalist Buddhism

provides a mirror in which is reflected an image not only of the Orient, but of the Victorian world also . . . [T]he essence of Buddhism came to be seen as expressed not “out there” in the Orient, but in the West through the control of Buddhism’s own textual past.10

In effect, the first generation of Orientalist scholars discounted Buddhist rituals and practices embodied in the sangha and practiced by the laity as nonscientific irrational forms of worship that had little place within the greater social sciences and reputable scholarship.

Through a network of European scholarly exchange, Sanskrit manuscripts such as the Lotus Sutra were sent by Hodgson to Paris, translated into French by Burnouf, and eventually traveled to the United States to be translated into English by transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, in an article titled “White Lotus of the Good Law.”11 In this network of exchange from European scholars to American transcendentalists, Asian forms of Buddhism were further encoded with modernist values of individualism, freedom, and European romanticism. The pioneering works of Orientalist scholars such as William Jones heavily influenced the literary writings of American transcendentalist poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and the poet Walt Whitman. Thus, Americans discovered a modernist Buddhism—one that prized meditation and individual freedom and was shaped by Orientalist scholars and European romanticism—through the transcendentalists nearly fifty years before the first Buddhist teachers came to the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.12

During the late Victorian era, new scientific discoveries called into question the ability of Protestant Christianity to rise to the challenge of science and rationalism; a resultant crisis of faith led some Euro-Americans toward more esoteric spiritual movements such as spiritualism, theosophy, and Buddhism. The Buddhism that appealed to Euro-Americans differed greatly from the popular and monastic forms of Buddhism practiced in Asian countries of origin; instead, the type of Buddhism that appealed in the United States was filtered through Orientalism and underwent a certain Protestantization to imbue it with similar structures to Christianity—such as an attractive founder, a sacred text, and a set of ethical rules.

In addition to the formation of Buddhism through Orientalist and Protestant frameworks, toward the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian Buddhist missionaries such as Shaku Soen, Anagarika Dharmapala, and Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki reshaped modern Buddhism in a reverse-missionary effort to spread Buddhism to the West. This Buddhist missionary effort, however, also displayed several characteristics that identified its roots in colonial encounters in Asia that promoted the religion as rational and scientific. Dharmapala, for example, asserted that Buddhism was a better religion for modern man because it was scientific and did not depend on the belief in miracles such as Jesus walking on water or turning water into wine, and other purportedly irrational aspects of Christianity. It is notable that many of the stories of the Buddha’s miraculous feats of levitation and his past life stories were left out of these newer constructions of Buddhism.

The Orientalist, Protestant, and modernist influences of Buddhism are still quite evident in contemporary forms Western Buddhism that include primarily White practitioners who continue to privilege meditation over chanting, merit-making, and other rituals that are viewed as examples of cultural accretions muddling the original teachings of the Buddha. Ann Gleig notes, however, that such efforts to highlight authenticity of meditation as the original practices of the Buddha at the expense devotional rituals were not just a product of Orientalism and Buddhist modernist leanings. Instead, the relegation of Buddhist rituals, cosmology, and devotions to the sidelines of “real” Buddhism occurred as an “Asian reformist movement spanning a number of geographical areas and schools that demythologized Buddhism and reinterpreted it as a rational religion that was linked to social reform and nationalist movements.”13 This intentional effort on the part of Asian reformers emerged within the context of colonialism, thus complicating the tendency to assume that the demythologization of Buddhism was simply a result of Western scholarship. Similarly, Charles Hallisey argues that the Orientalists’ dismissal of the rituals and devotional practices of Asian Buddhists, their exclusion of vernacular source, and the input of native informants in the construction of Western Buddhism did not silence the voices of Asian specialists. Orientalist discourse about Buddhism was therefore not an entirely Western construct, but also reflected patterns of “intercultural mimesis,” or “aspects of a culture of a subjectified people influenc[ing] the investigator to represent that culture in a certain manner.”14 Hallisey recounts Thomas Williams Rhys Davids’s interactions with Ven Waskaduve Subhuti, Yataramulle Unnanse, and other monks who devoted their lives to scholarship rather than the rites and rituals of Buddhism. Rhys Davids’s subsequent scholarship furthered the belief that Singhalese Buddhism was free of interpretive ritual. The Singhalese monks with whom Rhys Davids interacted were themselves partially “Westernized,” and they saw their own religion from the perspective of Western scholarship.15 The representation of early Buddhism as a tradition devoid of ritual and magic can be found not only in Orientalist scholarship but also in native specialists’ understanding of their own religious practices.

For “armchair” Orientalist scholars, “true” Buddhism is devoid of rituals and other cultural accretions associated with Asian Buddhism. This attitude extended to the second-generation of the founders of Western Buddhism, many of whom worked in a thoroughly Buddhist environment within Asia, but still preferred textual Buddhism over rituals and practices of Asian Buddhists. Rhys Davids, scholar of the Pali language and the founder of the Pali Text Society, who lived and worked with his wife, Caroline, in Ceylon for many years, is the case in point. The Rhys Davids became captivated with Singhalese people and culture, learned the Singhalese language, and spent time with them. In his writing, however, Rhys Davids remained indifferent toward the religious practices of the Singhalese Buddhists, whom he saw on a daily basis. A Singhalese biographer, Ananda Wickremeratne, commented that

as much as he loved Sinhalese Buddhists, he also felt that they had betrayed Buddhism. Their idolatry had led them to regard the Buddha as an all-powerful being—a God—just as other men had deified the progenitors of their faiths.16

Rhys Davids, Burnouf, and many other Orientalists assumed that Asian Buddhists were trapped in their own cultural accretions and Asian Buddhism needed to be rescued from its degraded state within Asian cultures. In other words, Asian Buddhists were too incompetent to be guardians or caretakers of Buddhism, in part because they were ignorant of the original teachings of the Buddha. The sacred texts and key teachings could be rescued or made invigorated with the aid of Western scholars and their superior analytical perspectives.17 In short, Christian normativity underlies the academic discipline of Buddhist studies because Western scholars of Buddhism have focused far more on studying and translating sacred texts than on studying rituals, art, or material objects.

Perceptions of Buddhism in the 19th century were far more complex than a simple translation of Asian traditions into Western modes of knowledge; instead, the rise of Western Buddhism occurred through a global interchange of ideas between Asian Buddhist reformers, traditional scholarly monastics, Western scholars, Buddhist popularizers, and Buddhists traveling abroad from Japan and South and Southeast Asia. In “Seeking Sakyamuni: Travel and the Reconstruction of Japanese Buddhism,” Richard Jaffe examines the travels of Kitabatake Doryu (1820–1907), Shaku Kozen (1849–1924), and Shaku Soen (1859–1919), three Meiji-era Japanese Buddhists to South and Southeast Asia during 1880s and 1890s. Japanese fascination with Buddhist sites in India was prompted by Kitabatake’s journey to Bodh Gaya, and the travels of Kozen and Soen to Sri Lanka gave rise to a renewed interest in Sakyamuni as the founder of the Buddhist tradition. The Japanese emphasis on Sakyamuni was a response to Orientalist projects to recover the historical Buddha—an effort to find common ground with their Asian coreligionists and to reconsider the role of Sakyamuni in Japanese Buddhism itself. Unlike Burnouf, Sylvian Lei, Oldenberg, and other European scholars, Kitabatake, Kozen, and Soen were not armchair scholars relying on the circulation of knowledge among Orientalists. For the Japanese clerics, Sakyamuni was not merely an object of scholarly study in the search for an authentic expression of Buddhism, but rather the foundation of Buddhist belief, worship, and practice. This Buddhist faith-inspired conviction gave Kozen and Soen greater impetus in their attempt to “save” Buddhism in Asia by building a coalition of Asian Buddhists to resist colonialism and the spread of Christianity in Asia.18

Missionary Encounters with Buddhism

While Burnouf, Rhys Davids, and other Orientalists focused on textual Buddhist study to the exclusion of Buddhist rituals and practices, Protestant missionaries in Asia immersed themselves in local Buddhist communities and left detailed ethnographic records of Buddhist beliefs and practices. Although their understanding of Asian Buddhism was filtered through a Christian framework, their descriptions and recordings of temple life, rituals, and practices functioned as ethnographic data for future missionaries as a way to understand Buddhist beliefs and practices prior to their arrival. Far from being an objective field of knowledge about Buddhism, the information gathered served as a means to facilitate the conversion of Buddhist natives to Christianity. Thus, in seeking support and funds for their missions in Asia, American Protestant missionaries often focused on what they deemed the negative aspects of Asian cultures, which furthered the racialization of Asian difference. In China, for example, American Protestant missionaries often emphasized the misery caused by pagan culture: gambling, opium addiction, foot-binding, polygamy, infanticide, and other forms of depravities. For many missionaries, Chinese religions were held to display marks of paganism, and many associated Asian religions with a degenerate form of “Tauism [sic], Boodism [sic], ancestor worship, and opium addiction.”19 The assumption of Christian supremacy was deeply ingrained in these early missionaries who circulated ideas of Asian religious beliefs and practices as hopelessly superstitious and therefore in need of Christianity as a means to overcome and convert the natives.20 In this manner, Christian missionization embedded itself in Orientalist and colonial endeavors to assert their control over Asians.

The presence of Christian missionaries on the Asian continent in the 19th century can also be seen as a reflection of the messianic impulse of that period. The normative Western perception of “the White man’s burden” was deployed to couple the purported benefits of Western civilization and Christian faith within non-Eurocentric cultures. In Burma, Sri Lanka, and India, missionary schools introduced Eurocentric forms of knowledge that emphasized particular European languages, histories, and vocations and effectively dislodged the local transmission of indigenous knowledge to the next generation.21 In Burma, for example, prior to the establishment of missionary schools during the colonial era, monasteries (phongyi kyaung) had been the primary sites for the production of knowledge and culture, as well as the transmission of Buddhist values and the dissemination of a monastic way of life. With the advent of modern education under British colonialism, it was more advantageous for middle and upper-class Burmese parents to send their children to missionary schools in order to secure their children’s future as bureaucrats and civil servants. The underlying assumption of this colonial education was that one had to become a European or a Westerner in order to become a Christian. Many Westerners considered this responsibility as necessarily ordained by God; Westernized Christian natives were then perceived as “more civilized.”22 Furthermore, encounters between Christian missionaries and Buddhist monks and lay devotees took place on an unequal footing. The Christian assumption was that Christianity, a revealed religion, had access to the fullness of divine grace, whereas Buddhism, a gnostic religion, offered at best, only partial glimpses of the divine reality.23 The uniqueness and the finality of Christian beliefs were deemed unquestionably superior to the naturalistic beliefs and “superstitious” practices of Buddhism. Within this context, the missionaries’ task was clear: to convert the Buddhists and other “pagans” to become Europeans and, thereby, Christians. By the 19th century, the cultural and religious assumptions of Europe were the norm throughout missionary schools and colonial institutions in Asia. This Eurocentrism presumed Christian supremacy and granted Europe positional superiority over other races and nationalities and their cultural and religious practices.

The new era of Buddhist studies began with the arrival of scholar missionaries in the middle of the 19th century. Many of these scholars could read and write in Pali and Sanskrit. Unlike the Orientalist scholars, however, missionary scholars did not ignore the commentaries and other sources produced by Asians. For example, some of the works of Robert Spence Hardy—Eastern Monachism (1850) and A Manual of Buddhism in Its Modern Development (1852)—offered well researched studies that drew upon a variety of Singhalese sources and texts. These texts were intended to help missionaries to gain a better understanding of Buddhism and became some of the main sources of information about Buddhism for many Westerners. Ironically, works such as A Manual of Buddhism in Its Modern Development ended up popularizing in the West the very religion they sought to displace in the East.24

Christian Normativity in Western Buddhism

In The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox, Professor Emeritus of Harvard University, declares that our religious and cultural traditions shape our language and thought forms to the extent that “they seep into the marrow of our bones and the synapses of our brain.”25 He refers to this process as “living in a haunted house,” whereby the convert’s prior religious imagination continues to exert its influence, “suffus[ing] . . . Buddhism with Christian or Jewish overtones.”26 These remnants of the past religion haunt the present by exerting a subtle influence over decisions that people make in their everyday lives. Regardless of what culture, faith, and tradition they come from, their past will always haunt them. Many works of textual Buddhism developed by European scholars were similarly influenced, perhaps unconsciously, by Protestant assumptions about the location of “true” Christianity in the printed Word of God. Scholars such as Burnouf, who viewed a translated Buddhism as authoritative and more authentic than its Asian counterpart, seemed to depend more on his imagination as a Western linguist than on how Asian Buddhists actually practiced their own religion. In other words, Burnouf privileged Orientalist Buddhism as more “authentic” by essentializing it in texts in a fashion similar to Protestant Christianity.

Gregory Schopen, Professor of Buddhist studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that the primacy of textual sources in Buddhist studies emphasized by Orientalist and modern Buddhist scholars reflects Protestant suppositions rather than the values and history of Indian Buddhism. He thus broadened the field of Buddhist studies by studying material objects such as reliquaries, devotional inscriptions on stupas, and other archaeological evidence as legitimate sources of academic inquiry. Schopen reveals the methods whereby Western intellectual tradition assimilated the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura and presumed that all other traditions could and should be approached from this perspective. Schopen illustrates how the Protestant assumption of the location of “true” religion in the printed sacred text “has determined the history of the study of Indian Buddhism and that—as the consequence—our picture of Indian Buddhism may reflect more of our own religious history and values than the history and values of Indian Buddhism.”27 Schopen brings to light the “haunted,” yet deep-seated Christian normativity and Christian hegemony that operates within Orientalist discourses of Buddhism. His analysis provides an important framework to understand how Christian supremacy informs racialized interpretations of Buddhism and the interconnection between Christian normativity and White supremacy.

Race and religion were and continue to be bound together to represent Buddhism through the lens of Protestantism, Orientalism, colonialism, and scientific racism. Anglo-Protestant normativity came to haunt 19th-century scholarship by exerting subtle and not-so-subtle influence over assertions made about Buddhism, in general, and Asian Buddhism, in particular. The Christian upbringing of Orientalist scholars and the Protestant emphasis on the printed word buttressed racialized claims that the locus of “true” Buddhism was found exclusively in textual Buddhism and not in the rituals and practices of non-European adherents. Such assertions continue through the 21st century, albeit with notable differences from contemporary scholars of Buddhism who engage critical race theory.28

Jeanne Hill Fletcher, a constructive theologian at Fordham University, has adapted Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s concept of “racial project” or “what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning.”29 Fletcher expands this concept to draw attention to the ways in which Christianity functions within the construction of Whiteness. Using Fletcher’s framework of a religio-racial project, we can see how the founding figures of the Western study of Buddhism delineated what constitutes “true” Buddhism by asserting that the essence of Buddhism was in the Pali and Sanskrit texts, translated and interpreted by Orientalist scholars for the consumption of Westerners.30 This was not the lived Buddhism of Asian Buddhists, but an Orientalist Buddhism with the trappings of Protestantism. Buddhist converts and sympathizers in the United States of the late Victorian era gravitated toward this framework, as many former Protestants sought religious alternatives. This kind of Buddhism, constructed from the framework of their inherited faith, resonated with deeply held values within the recesses of their subconscious. In a classic example of Cox’s “haunted house,” Euro-Americans who left Protestantism to embrace Buddhism in the late Victorian era suffused their newfound faith with the “ghosts” (or framework and norms) of the religion in which they had been raised. While this process may be unconscious for many Euro-Americans, the connection between Christian normativity and Whiteness is clearly evident in the experiences of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the 19th-century United States.

Religion and Race in America

When Burnouf published his landmark book, Introduction a l’histoire du Buddhisme indien in 1844, based on his encounters with Orientalist scholars, it outlined how Chinese migrants had arrived in the United States to search for gold and, later in the 1850s, served as indentured workers to build the transcontinental railroad. They settled mainly in California and elsewhere on the West Coast. Because racial segregation was the norm, they were forcibly separated into racial and ethnic enclaves popularly referred to as Chinatowns; however, their religious differences also contributed to this racialized separation. Since Chinese indentured workers were not Christian, their Buddhist and syncretistic Chinese religious expressions were deemed alien religions, which further flamed anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese immigrants, whose syncretic folk religion included Buddhist elements, established temples that were often mocked as “joss houses” and further denigrated their religious sites of worship as indices of their racial and religious difference and inferiority. Few Whites visited these sites of worship, and when they did it was “only as tourists at some of the more public temples in Chinatown.”31 However, there were anti-Chinese vigilante groups that took pleasure in burning down these joss houses. Indeed, the “strangeness” of Chinese customs, the assumed unassimilability of their way of life, and the so-called superstitious elements embedded in their religion were precisely some of the rationales used by Senator Aaron Augustus Sargent when he argued before the Senate in 1878 to prohibit immigration from China to the United States. The primary motivation for this ban stemmed from the fear that the Chinese could not assimilate into a White Christian nation, due to their religion and ways of life. Religion and culture were deeply intertwined, and concepts of Whiteness and Christianity were bound together to reflect the association of Whiteness with Christianity and being American.32 In short, the stereotypical depictions of Chinese as foreigners, unassimilable, and racialized others led to discrimination and violence; these views culminated in the first Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882, restricting immigration from China and rendering Chinese people ineligible for naturalization. This was the first in a series of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian legislation including the Geary Act of 1892, and the Immigration Act of 1924 (which included the Asian Exclusion Act and National Origins Act).

Japanese immigrant laborers began arriving in Hawaii in the 1860s to work in sugarcane fields. Later, many moved to the mainland United States, where they worked mainly as farmers and fishermen. They brought their Buddhist traditions with them; the most prominent were the Higashi Honganji and Nishi Hongwanji branches of Jodo Shinshu sect, popularly known as “Shin Buddhism.” These branches became known as the Buddhist Churches of America in the United States and Canada. In 1898, the Reverend Doctor Shuya Sonoda and the Reverend Kakuryo Nishijima arrived in San Francisco and, in 1890, they established the Buddhist Mission of North America, a precursor to the Buddhist Churches of America.

Identified as non-White and non-Christian, Japanese immigrants and their children experienced both racial and religious discrimination. They were characterized as unassimilable aliens based on their race and Buddhist religion, which was equated with being un-American. Moreover, following the outbreak of the Second World War and attacks on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor by Japanese naval planes on December 7, 1941, Japanese Americans became classified as a threat to US national security, and with the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, over one hundred thousand Japanese Americans, a majority of whom were Buddhists, were rounded up and incarcerated in internment camps. In his book, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, Duncan Ryūken Williams examines the near interchangeability between the categories of religion and race as they pertained to Japanese American Buddhists whose religious affiliation rendered them vulnerable to anti-Japanese American racial violence, loss of civil liberties, jobs, and properties despite their status as US citizens. Because their religious difference signified pro-Japanese sentiment, Japanese Buddhist priests were the first to be rounded up and arrested for suspicion of “anti-Americanness.” Over 110,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII in camps that further marginalized Buddhists by limiting their ability to gather together, by prohibiting the use of Japanese during worship, and by refusing Japanese American soldiers a Buddhist funeral and burial. These anti-Buddhist actions signified the conflation of religious and racial identities that marked Japanese American Buddhists as hostile subjects. Thus, Japanese Americans endured relentless pressure to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. Despite the hysteria, suspicion, and discrimination, Japanese American Buddhists sought to adapt their religious practices to prevailing Christian norms as a means of survival and as a symbol of their resilience. Hence, with the cooperation of White convert clergy, such as Julius Goldwater and Sunya Pratt, Japanese American Buddhists translated their services and service books into English, incorporated hymns, and introduced several adaptations as a form of survival and resilience in the face of extreme violence and anti-Japanese sentiment.33

In 1944, the Buddhist Mission of North America was intentionally renamed the Buddhist Churches of America at the Topaz War Relocation Center to avoid further racial hostility. As a result of anti-Buddhist discrimination in the camps, Shin Buddhist temples followed a model of adaptation to Protestant culture, which had begun in Japan prior to World War II. This involved adopting more Protestant forms of architecture and liturgy through the use of pews, setting gathas to hymns, introducing choirs, and Western musical instruments (e.g., organs).34 In so doing, Japanese American Buddhists contributed to the survival and unique iteration of Buddhism in America. Like the many non-Christian traditions in the United States studied by Khyati Y. Joshi, Japanese American Buddhism needed to adapt to the forces of White Christian privilege and hegemony to sustain itself during and after the war.35

Buddhist Modernism

Buddhist modernism emerged in the context of 19th-century colonialism and included both Western efforts to translate the tradition to fit scientific, individualistic, and romanticist leanings and Asian Buddhists who, in response to the threat of Western modernity, reaffirmed aspects of their native spiritual traditions over and against the perceived strengths of the West.36 The Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw (1846–1923) was one such Asian Buddhist modernist who played a pivitol role in the revival of Burmese Buddhism and opened the practice of vipassana or insight meditation to the laity.37 Within the context of British colonialism, Ledi Sayadaw and other Asian Buddhist modernists contributed to the promotion of a scientific, demythologized religion that valorized meditation and made rhetorical claims of textual purity. Religion was thus deeply connected to nationalistic movements of social reform in Asian modernist projects.38 David L. McMahon also identifies the phenomenon of Buddhist modernism as a movement instigated both by Asian Buddhist sources and Western scholars who collectively sought to connect Buddhism with a science of the mind and rationalism, while preserving Buddhism’s connections with meditation and mysticism, and its connections to nature.39

According to Ann Gleig, 20th-century Buddhist modernism in Asia included the following revisions: stricter monastic regulations; the revival of meditation; mass meditation movements for lay and monastics; the discarding of the popular forms of practice; claims to a pure tradition and teaching; further rejection of the strict separation between laity and monastics; claims that nirvana was attainable in this lifetime by monks and laity alike; and increasing popularization of Buddhist doctrine.40 These Asian-inspired modernist transformations aligned with Western modernism’s emphasis on individualism, freedom, and scientific inquiry, which, in turn, shaped American Buddhism and the rise of “American Buddhist meditation-based convert lineages in the 20th and 21st centuries.”41 While much of the American Buddhist meditation-based convert lineages share in modernist reifications of meditation as the most authentic forms of practices, and the privileging of White forms of knowledge and the perceived superiority of non-Asian White teachers and scholars, scholars like Gleig argue that American Buddhism can no longer be identified by and limited to distinctions between Western and Asian Buddhism and the association of meditation with convert Buddhists and popular Buddhism with Asian and Asian American forms of Buddhism. Instead, American Buddhism has matured beyond modernism to postmodern form that includes the decontextualization of traditional Buddhism through the rise of technology and secularization, and the simultaneous desire to revalorize traditional rituals, sangha, and cosmological structures ignored in modernist interpretations.42


The rise of mindfulness as a scientific practice beloved among neuroscientists and business culture alike reflects one of the most recent developments of Western Buddhism as it pertains to the issue of race, for in the process of medicalizing and marketing mindfulness, its Asian roots needed to be severed. Ronald Purser argues that MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) programs created by Jon Kabat-Zinn needed to decouple from Buddhism and avoid using words such as “mindfulness” and “meditation” in order to evade rejection by the medical establishment.43 Wakoh Shannon Hickey’s study of mindfulness, Mind Cure: How Meditation Became Medicine, traces the medicalization of mindfulness further back from the widely held belief that it originated in the 1970s. Instead, as Hickey argues, meditation as an efficacious “mind cure” originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the efforts of women who believed that transforming one’s mind could in turn transform external forms of suffering and oppression. However, in order to support mindfulness and meditation as a scientifically backed practice, its religious origins were largely suppressed and a more “universal” mindfulness was popularized.44

According to Ronald Purser, decoupling mindfulness from its Buddhist roots, rebranding it to fit into a nonreligious mold, and marketing mindfulness to patients in hospitals, students in schools, and people in other institutions as a secular therapeutic practice resulted in “privatizing mindfulness.”45 By removing explicit connections to spirituality and the sangha in order to focus on the benefits of the individual and personal needs, the popularization of mindfulness led to the further erasure of Asian and Asian American Buddhists and repacked this traditional Buddhist practice for mass consumption by a primarily upper-middle-class to upper-class White clientele. In so doing, the privatization and secularization of mindfulness cannot be decoupled from the politics of Whiteness and White privilege within non-Buddhist and American Buddhist meditation-based convert lineages.46

Buddhist Taxonomies

The study of Buddhism in America has resulted in the creation, utilization, retirement, and recreation of several taxonomies of Buddhism by scholars attempting to account for the wealth of diversity of Buddhists in the United States. These taxonomies that often delineate between convert Buddhists (usually assumed to be White) and “ethnic” or Asian heritage Buddhists tend to obscure far more difference within and across different groups. In her essay “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism,” Wakoh Shannon Hickey critiques the tendency to rely on these models that unwittingly reproduce the “unconscious White privilege” that drove their formation in the first place and argues that “a long American history of White racism, and minority groups’ concomitant distrust, have contributed to the development of racially segregated Buddhist communities in the United States.”47 Hickey’s study of the lineage of taxonomies indicates that “some of the assumptions underlying taxonomies of American Buddhism reflect unconscious White privilege,”48 which shapes how we approach Buddhist difference. There is a historical tendency in American Buddhism to locate a fault line between Asian and Asian American Buddhists—who are often viewed as backward, insular, overly devotional, and less authentic—and convert Buddhists—largely determined to be White, educated, economically well-off meditators, with little interest in the ritual merit-making activities of popular Buddhists. Hickey traces the development of these various taxonomies beginning with Charles Prebish’s “two Buddhisms” model, which distinguished between more stable forms associated with heritage Buddhists and convert Buddhists that developed following radical social change.

Paul Numrich later utilized a model of two Buddhisms that explicitly employed the labels “ethnic” and “immigrant” Buddhists in distinction to convert Buddhists, viewed predominantly as White practitioners. Such divisions were insufficient, for they did not account for Asian Americans who may have converted to Buddhism and obscured more integrated services that draw from Asian and non-Asian Buddhists. That White privilege operated in the use of the taxonomies came into stark relief when Helen Tworkov introduced her own model of two Buddhisms that distinguished between American Buddhism or White Buddhists and Asian American Buddhists that she placed under the category of Buddhists in America. In so doing, she infamously claimed that “Asian American Buddhists . . . so far . . . have not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism.”49 Tworkov’s remarks raised the ire of many Asian American Buddhists who had been living in America as Buddhists for over a century. The legacy of the two Buddhism’s model continues to impact the popular view of Asian American Buddhists as somehow less worthy markers of American Buddhism, as Funie Hsu’s 2016 essay title in Lion’s Roar magazine attests—“We’ve Been Here All Along.”50

For many scholars utilizing the two Buddhism’s model and its subsequent variations, “ethnic Buddhist” tends to refer to Asian immigrant and Asian American Buddhists, while “convert Buddhist” usually denotes White practitioners. As scientific categorizations based on “race” generally carry with them negative connotations, many Western scholars of Buddhism have conveniently reduced race to “ethnicity,” which is meant to be nonevaluative, or as not having any of the negative trappings that race ensues. Although the diffusion of tensions surrounding the discussion of race is, in part, one of the goals of using the term “ethnicity” over “race,” it remains the case that race and racialization formed the construction and continued acceptance of the two-Buddhism typology in the first place.

Emergent Scholarship

In an effort to disrupt the perpetuation of White privilege in the production of knowledge about Buddhism and Buddhists, several contemporary works have emerged to counter and transform the historical legacy of Whiteness and White supremacy that have largely shaped the field. They largely fall under three subcategories: those focusing on (a) Asian American Buddhism and Buddhists; (b) critiques of Buddhism and Whiteness through a critical race approach; and (c) the works of Black Buddhist scholars, teachers, and practitioners. Recent examples of these works include Duncan Ryūken Williams’s American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, which reveals the adaptation and resilience of Japanese American Buddhists incarcerated during WWII and the racialization of their religion as un-American; and George Yancy and Emily McCrae’s coedited volume, Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections, which brings the philosophy of race and critical Whiteness studies to bear on the study and practice of Buddhism in the West. Also significant are the volumes Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, by Angel Kyodo Williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, and Dharma Matters: Race, Women, and Tantra, by Jan Willis, which explore race, gender, and the dharma in contemporary culture.51

Further Reading

  • Almond, Philip C. The British Discovery of Buddhism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Bogdan, Robert C., and Sari Knopp Biklen. Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theory and Methods. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1988.
  • Cheah, Joseph. “Buddhism, Race, and Ethnicity.” In Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism. Edited by Michael Jerryson, 650–661. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Cheah, Joseph. Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Clarke, John James. Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter between Asian and Western Thought. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Cox, Harvey. The Future of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
  • Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.
  • Fletcher, Jeannine Hill. The Sin of White Supremacy: Christianity, Racism, and Religious Diversity in America. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017.
  • Gleig, Ann. American Dharma: Buddhism beyond Modernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.
  • Gleig, Ann. “Undoing Whiteness in American Buddhist Modernism.” In Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections. Edited by George Yancy and Emily McRae, 21–42. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.
  • Goldberg, Ellen. “Buddhism in the West: Transplantation and Innovation.” In Buddhism in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Stephen C. Berkwitz, 285–310. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
  • Gombrich, Richard, and Gannaneth Obeysekere. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.
  • Hallisey, Charles. “Roads Taken and Not Taken in the Study of Theravada Buddhism.” In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism. Edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr., 31–61 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Hickey, Wakoh Shannon. Mind Cure: How Meditation Became Medicine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Hickey, Wakoh Shannon. “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism.” Journal of Global Buddhism 11 (2010): 35–58
  • Hsu, Funie. “We’ve Been Here All Along.” Lion’s Roar, (Winter 2016). Accessed March 26, 2022.
  • Iwamura, Jane Naomi. “The Oriental Monk in American Popular Culture.” In Religion and Popular Culture in America, rev. ed. Edited by Bruce D. Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, 23–43. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Jaffe, Richard M. “Seeking Sakyamuni: Travel and the Reconstruction of Japanese Buddhism.” Journal of Japanese Studies 30, no. 1 (Winter, 2004), 65–96.
  • Joshi, Khyati. White Christian Privilege: The Illusion of Religious Equality in America. New York: New York University Press, 2020.
  • McMahon, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Miles, Robert. Racism. London: Routledge, 1989.
  • Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2015.
  • Purser, Ronald E. McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. London: Repeater Books, 2019.
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.
  • Schopen, Gregory. “Protestant.” History of Religions 31, no. 1 (August 1991): 22–23.
  • Sharf, Robert H. “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” Numen 42, no. 3 (1995), 228–283.
  • Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 1999.
  • Suh, Sharon A. Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
  • Takaki, Ronald. A History of Asian Americans: Strangers from a Different Shore. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.
  • Wickremeratne, Ananda. The Genesis of an Orientalist: Thomas William Rhys Davids and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Columbia, MO: South Asia Books, 1985.
  • Williams, Duncan Ryuken. American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.
  • Yancy, George, and Emily McRae, eds. Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.
  • Yandell, Keith, and Harold Netland. Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2009.