Healing Orientalism: An Exploration of White Supremacist Spiritual Practices
Facilitators: Chilan Ta and Michelle Kleisath, April 13, 2013
[Personal Note: My stupid tablet unexpectedly turned off and I lost first 1/2 hr of notes. Basically, there are two presenters. Chilan Ta came to Buddhism through her family and culture; Michelle Kleisath came to Buddhism through travel and curiosity.]
Kleisath relates how living in Tibet and then Seattle highlighted the differences between Tibetan/ Asian Buddhism and American Buddhism. She found herself wondering why Tibetan/ Asian Buddhists do not meditate, but it’s so central to American Buddhism. Sought answers, and was really disturbed by the answers. The white American Buddhists were dismissive of the understanding/ awareness/ faithfulness of Tibetan Buddhists in their answers, saying things like Tibetan Buddhist didn’t really understand their own religion, or took it for granted and weren’t very faithful. Kleisath was disturbed by this and began investigating the issue for her thesis. She shared two personal experiences that illustrating cultural differences between American and Tibetan Buddhism.
Experience the First
An Asian friend went to the home of a white American male, and walked in to see Tibetan decor all over the walls. She feels small and shamed at seeing how much of her cultural history he is aware of, and how she doesn’t have that kind of culture and history in her own home. She feels like less of a Tibetan, and intimidated by his knowledge/ fascination with her culture.
[Personal Note: I imagine this would be like going to India or Japan and discovering that they are intimately aware of aspects of my country’s religious and historical events in a way that wasn’t even on my radar. I’d feel really off kilter and a bit panicky that someone might ask me a question thinking I’m an expert when I’m really not.]
Experience the Second
Another Asian friend went to the home of an American woman, and needed to use the bathroom. When she went in the bathroom, she couldn’t use the toilet because her hostess had placed a statue of Buddha right above it. She was in great discomfort, and could not explain to the hostess how sacrilegious and awful it was for fear of rudeness.
[Personal Note: It is also kind of odd that Westerners are so happy to hang pictures of Jesus in their bathroom. I wouldn’t shit in front of my husband, so why an image of my god? Seems disrespectful. I’m an atheist and I wouldn’t put someone elses’ religious iconography in my bathroom.]
Kleisath explains the history of cultural approbation and imperialism regarding Buddhism. Sacred caves in China, British explorer discovers giant statues of Buddha and cuts the heads off to take back to Britain, heads now in British museums and archives. Wealthy elite use the Buddha heads to decorate their homes/ show how well traveled and cultural they are. Jump forward a few decades to the Vietnam war. Elite white men joined the Peace Corps to dodge the draft. This put them in Tibet during the transformative social movement in the US and the trauma of Vietnam. Same time frame has elite young Asians dealing with the trauma of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and they joined forces. The elite Americans pushed/ campaigned through college programs etc. to get the Tibetans (people and culture) imported to America, which is how we ended up with Americanized and misunderstood ideas of Buddhism as taught through the lenses of the elite/ wealth experience.
Small Group Discussion
My group: Zach, Dylan, Bob, myself. All white middle-upper class. Zach and Dylan do not practice Buddhism and are surprised at the history just shared; they were unaware of it. Bob does practice Buddhism (apparently a sort of Christian/ Buddhist mixture) and claims to know most of the history just presented. He is uncomfortable with their casting of American meditation (kneeling/ sitting, mindful contemplation) as an American interpretation, not a traditional Buddhist practice. He is uncomfortable. Says the lens he is hearing this through is a lens of questioning why you’re engaging in Buddhism and the value of meditation. Says he came to workshop because he felt confronted by title and wanted to lean into that discomfort. He says so many mainstream religions have oppressed and practiced cultural approbation, but the spiritual is still valuable and meditation is very meaningful. He feels uncomfortable with negativity toward Buddhism.
I shared my history/ perspective on religion, and my relief that they are not casting Buddhism as either wholly good nor wholly evil. Said it’s good to question narratives and whenever anyone represents a belief or culture as wholly good or wholly evil, they are purposefully ignoring facts that derail their version of truth.
Dylan pointed out that presenters are not saying to stop meditating, just to stop referring to it as a “traditional Buddhist practice.” Points out that she stated several times that meditation as Asian Buddhists practice it is very different from the American Buddhist tradition of sitting and practicing mindfulness.
[Personal Note: LOST MORE F*CKING NOTES.]
Summary of Lost Notes
Basically, we broke for total workshop discussion. Someone liked the presentation and someone didn’t. Someone mentioned the commercialization and approbation of Buddhism and other religions without any deep understanding. Someone said they were involved in one of those interfaith movements that promotes picking and choosing the religious traditions you find most valuable, and this presentation has changed his perspective on his participation in this group. Someone said they really liked Buddhism and it helps their mental/ psychological/ emotional health, and they do not want to stop practicing it just because it’s cultural approbation. Someone else got really angry and confrontational about their terminology of the Tibetans in this history as “elites” and became super yelly about how they suffered and lost a whole lot. Someone who works in therapy talked about mindfulness within the therapy community as a means of dealing with oppression. Someone else pointed out that you can be elite and still have suffering/ oppression happen in your life, and it’s important to realize and recognize that mentioning or acknowledging the elite aspect does not discount the later suffering.
Back to Presentation
Ta supports this by talking about her ancestors. They came to America in part because of the cultural revolution in China, and the shrinking gap between the wealthy/ elite and the poverty stricken when communism came in. Her family fled communism, and were only able to do that because their elite status provided them with the wealth, means, and connections to escape. In this way, they were both elite and oppressed.
Ta talked about the baggage of conservatism, racism, sexism, etc. in Asian spaces, and how they can be very damaging. People often don’t recognize this aspect of Asian culture because they have romanticized the perceived spiritual/ connectedness of the culture.
[Personal Note: An Asian spin on the nativism/ noble savage trope?]
Then she talks about how meditation as Americans practice it totally be beneficial and good and valuable, but it is MISTERMED when it is sold and marketed and referred to as “traditional Tibetan Buddhist meditation,” and that undermines both the actual Buddhist religion and its traditions by ascribing false actions/ meanings/ and values to it. Cracked an off-hand joke that I didn’t completely hear — something about how maybe the elite young white guys learning Buddhism had trouble standing still, so they sat instead and that’s where the difference came from.
Several self-identified American Buddhists in the audience are still confrontational/ upset/ aggressive about the lesson, which is apparent through their mutterings, but they do not actually try to argue back to her.
Kleisath wants to share a final story/ twist. Kleisath and Ta are actually partners and live together. When they first moved in was when Kleisath had just returned from Tibet, and she had put all her baggage on the walls as a means of dealing with how much she missed it. Ta was kind of weirded out by it, but had the attitude of okay, if it makes you happy. Over time, Kleisath realized how uncomfortable and unhappy this made her Buddhist and Tibetan friends, as well as her partner. Made her re-assess why she was doing it, and what meaning it had for her. She decided to take it all down, and shared with a laugh how Ta had not helped her put any of it up, but she sure did help her take it down!
Ta takes over the story and explains how the removal of Kleisath’s Tibetan baggage/ decor left the walls bare and clean, and opened up a space in her home where she finally felt relaxed and able to breathe or even fart in her own home without having Buddha staring down at her. By opening up that space, Ta was finally able to start reaching out and connecting to her own cultural connection with Buddhism forming a mode of neo-traditional practice that links her to her family, race, and heritage while shedding the racism, sexism, and oppression endemic to the religion. She says neither American Buddhism nor traditional Asian Buddhism had afforded her that opportunity, but by creating their own space they were able to create their own traditions.