[Guestpost by Kunsang Palmo]
I had sat with the White Buddhists for at least thirty minutes. It was a frustrating experience. I sat in silence watching the gross fetishization of Tibetan Buddhism. I told my friend I couldn’t watch the head lama doze, bored by the dullness of the affair that he had legitimized and sanctioned, any longer. As far as I was concerned at the time, that space had nothing to offer to me. It was not going to satiate my need to be among my people. It was so simplistic in its understanding of Tibetanness, so naive and thoughtless, it was insulting.
As we were walking out, the wife of the head lama suspecting that I was Tibetan, invited my friend and me to tea. We began to speak and she asked me questions about my family as if in search for some sort of connection to the Tibetan community. It could be possible that she felt as distanced from the monastery as I felt even though it belonged to her. At least, I hoped I was not the only person who felt awkward. I watched her dismiss the White women as they walked in and out. I also comfortably ignored my friend. Did we both equally feel the need to reclaim our space or was it us relieving ourselves from the awkward circumstance that we were put through? It could be that my observations are nothing more than projections and a result of my own personal desire to connect to her in the way I am used to connecting to people in monasteries. However, the fact that she spoke to me in Tibetan, despite the fact there were more non-Tibetan speakers than Tibetan speakers, had the effect of actualizing what I desired from the monastery at that moment. Sonam provided me the comfort that I had come to expect from monasteries and built a protective barrier around me from the foreign practices which had, till that moment, alienated me completely. They looked at us curiously and prepared tea for us, but since we were speaking only in Tibetan, there was no way for them to join us. She was completely engrossed in the conversation that we were about to begin.
They were the kind that I used to have with my grandmother as I laid my head on her lap. She would list all the people in our immediate family, which she had narrowed to include twenty six people. Then she would list the people who she considered were close relatives. She would talk about the people who claimed to be relatives but were actually not because of their mother’s promiscuity or mistake in calculations. What had been nothing more than long, never-ending lists of people to me, could have been my grandmother’s way of speaking about herself without actually doing so. This listing of people is a very common practice among Tibetan refugees.
So, when I entered the conversation with Sonam, I knew exactly the sort of descriptions she was expecting from me. She wanted to know my blood ties, my people, and through that she would know me and we would know each other. She asked me what refugee camp I was from. I said I was from the Tibetan refugee camp in Jawalakhel, Nepal. She excitedly replied that she knew people from there. I said I was the granddaughter of Pulu and Tacho. She said the names sounded familiar but she was expecting a more detailed account of who I am and how I came to be. I explained that I was from the Derge County of the Khampa region on Mother’s side, and from the Nangchen County of the Khampa region on father’s side. She waited for me to give her more clues so that she could put together the puzzle that was in her head. I said that my mother, like me, was from the Jawalakhel Camp in Nepal and that my father was from the Bir Tibetan Refugee Camp in India. I explained that my biological father and my mother were not together, and that I had never known him my entire life. A fire sparked in her eyes and she told me that I was Rabsel’s daughter. Finally a name, I thought. From various gossips, I have heard stories about him but no one in my family will ever say his name. Even the most gregarious of people will avoid uttering his name in front of me, always too afraid to remind me of my half-complete blood line. She introduced herself as the sister of the woman who my father was supposed to marry but refused to because he was in love with my mother and could not imagine himself with a sanjor, which is the Tibetan equivalent of FOB (Fresh off the boat) and is used to describe people right out of Tibet. His elder brother, the more responsible one, married her sister instead, who had gone all the way to India for the marriage. She explained that my uncle is a good man, described my grandfather as a devout Buddhist and a practiced yogi, and my aunt, it turns out, is a famous, Nepali pop singer who also happens to be a nun. The woman whose ethereal voice dominates the Boudhanath stupa with “Om mani padme hum” is my aunt! She explained that Ani Chonyi, the pop singer, gave my father a job at her nunnery when he was down on his luck and that he was kicked out because of his crazy antics.
She used the word crazy a lot when talking about my father. At the end of the conversation, she gave me phone numbers, told me where she lived, asked me to visit, and then officially introduced me to head lama, Rinpoche Kunsang. The Rinpoche looked at me and said my nose looked uncannily like my father’s, which explains why my grandmother always pinched my nose and frowned. I was no longer sitting in utter discomfort looking at the women who had cloned themselves to be Tibetan; their aesthetics so impeccably Tibetan that it was disturbing. I remember speaking to a person who told me that he believes he was a Khampa in his previous life. In the face of such sincerity, I couldn’t laugh openly, but it made me wonder about how Tibetans represent themselves and the popular understanding of the Tibetan that make a lot of people believe that with effort and sincerity, they too can be Tibetan.
I thought about how different my dynamic with Sonam was compared to the one she had with the White women. I thought about my memories and how much they conflicted with what I had experience at the monastery. There is a Buddhist monks who visits our college every two years to build a sand mandala. During his visit, he usually makes time to give a talk on Buddhist philosophy. He stressed to his audience the importance of the heart and how its presence is lacking in the modern world that is preoccupied with developing the mind. During his talk he essentialized Tibetan Buddhism into compassion and the practice of Buddhism to be nothing more than a strong focus on the development of the heart alongside the mind. After his talk, I had a lengthy conversation with him where we mostly exchanged jokes. When I asked him about his talk, he responded with “you kind of have to say that.”
It is a phrase that Tibetans often use when they are in a foreign space, where they believe they are expected to say certain things. He knew his audience and knew what they expected from him. He also knows the educational tradition that he is entering and is mindful not to disturb it. It is a source of his livelihood and has proved itself to be relatively lucrative. The purpose of this paragraph is not to accuse him of being a liar. I don’t think he is lying. It is true that the way he speaks to me is different from the way he speaks to English speakers and I noticed the same behavior from Sonam, the wife of Rinpoche Kunzang at KPL. However, I don’t think he believes that he is proselytizing because the sort of Buddhism that he is speaking of is not the same as the one he practices. It is a Buddhism that has been designed specifically for the West and it is one that is aware not to disturb Western sensibilities. It is not the Buddhism he knows.
When I walk around campus, I will pass by several windows decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. One time, I even found a window with the Tibetan national flag. I went all over campus looking for that person because people hang Tibetan prayer flags but no one hardly ever hangs the Tibetan national flag; too political and not as attractive as the spiritualism associated with Tibetan Buddhism. Turns out, it is another symbol of my community decontextualized. It is like seeing someone else’s cooking pot. It is a personal item when in our own homes. It is what a parent or a guardian might use to feed us. However, we don’t attach meaning to it when we find it in someone else’s home. It is mass-produced and although food is personal and the pot, integral to creating that familial space which is always designed around food, the pot itself is decontextualized from family because it is sold in the market. Anyone can buy a pot. Similarly, the monastery was decontextualized from the Tibetan identity. It had been sanitized of all the things that I had always considered it to represent. It successfully alienated me but through the process of sanitation and decontextualization, the monastery was made accessible to all who were interested; another commodity, ready for consumption, in the great capitalist market.
[This piece is a continuation of “A Tibetan Refugee Visits an American-Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.”]
Yes! This is so great!
I think you’re spot on about the Buddhism that is designed for the West. This watered-down pander-Buddhism comes straight from the top, from the Dalai Lama himself. But you say the Rinpoche doesn’t believe he’s proselytizing. That’s straight hypocrisy from him. Especially when this pragmatic proselytizing to Westerners hypocrisy is one way the male monastic elite has so much money—and power—in exile. I don’t think you should let him off the hook so easily.
Also, I love what you said about the listing of names: “What had been nothing more than long, never-ending lists of people to me, could have been my grandmother’s way of speaking about herself without actually doing so.” This is the sort of community those white Buddhists crave but will never have hehe. #bornthisway
You know, I live in a suburb of LA which has a heavy Chinese population. I fly the Tibetan flag outside my house although I am as white as a ghost and not a Tibetan Buddhist (American Zen Buddhist would most accurately describe me). I do it to express support and appreciation for Tibetan culture to which I have committed a lot of study and Tibetan statehood in the face of people who are at best apathetic or in some cases hostile to the Tibetan cause. I too lament the fast food version of the dharma served up in the US to folks who are attracted to the mysticism of a romanticized culture, and yet, must tell you there are many non-Tibetans whose interest and engagement and concern for the survival of Tibetan culture and religion is sincere, heartfelt and in many cases very well-informed. I would discourage you from making assumptions about others’ motivations, of which you know — truly know — little!
The comments section of this post seems to have become a litmus test for white Buddhists’ defensiveness, fragility, and antagonism towards Tibetans! Two things are clear and not in dispute 1) Vajrayana is available to more than Tibetans. Tibetan lamas actively teach it to non-Tibetans and have for a very long time. 2) This piece is about the author’s individual feelings about white converts and their spaces. She has described how she probably won’t ever feel comfortable with those people or their versions of Tibetan Buddhism.
Her feelings may well be shared by many other Tibetans. This is how it is, no matter how defensive white Buddhist may feel, no matter how much they may feel her perspectives go against their idea of proper Buddhist practice, or universalism, or what Buddhism is really about. It seems to me that given that this a reality, white converts ought to take this into consideration without trying to dismiss, invalidate or shut down this perspective.
Kunsang’s previous post generated a lot of hostility from white converts, who accused her of being racist, of being clouded by anger and other afflictive emotions, and of ‘not knowing what Buddhism really was’ (which these convert commentators of course did). Many commentators lashed out at Kunsang, and she lashed out back. It’s kind of insane to me, given the circumstances of Tibet’s occupation, and Tibetans’ ongoing resistance, and their lives as colonized people and refugees, and well, the fact that Tibetans are Tibetans, that any non-Tibetan convert could actually say that they understand or appreciate Tibetan Buddhism better than any Tibetan, but anyway. Lay exile Tibetans’ relationship with their own religious or cultural life or non-Tibetan converts may be quite different to that of Tibetan lamas, and that’s legitimate, and worth acknowledging.
White converts who have responded to Kunsang’s original articles less dismissively have also ended up asking her to provide them with advice for improvement, but I’m not sure the article was written to supply white readers with that, especially given LD’s commitment to being primarily by Tibetans, for Tibetans. Often white people’s reaction to these kinds of critiques is to express guilt, defensiveness, to demonstrate they are good allies, and then to say ‘So tell me what to do!’ Unfortunately, what that reaction effectively does – under the guise of listening – is to pretty much immediately shut down already very limited, tenuous spaces and opportunities for Tibetans to express themselves without self-censorship or moderation, and swing the conversation right away back to white people’s priorities, to their hurt, and difficulties. It ends up meaning that the onus is on Kunsang Palmo to not only find ways to deal with her own reactions to the alienation of her culture, but also to solve converts’ feelings of discomfort or guilt as well (let alone respond to critiques about her hating all white people, misrepresenting Buddhism, ignoring the evils of Chinese colonialism, and appropriation of Tibetan Buddhism, or being a violent Buddhist nationalist!)
The way I read this article was as a description of the author feeling alienated by her encounters with ‘Western’ Buddhism. I read it as her realizing in a quite jarring way that this Buddhism is not the one with which she is familiar, is not the one that gives her comfort. This community of practitioners is for the most part not her community. She does acknowledge that it is others’ community though (and those others might be Tibetan too). She herself does not appear to be comfortable with or appreciative of the way these communities are operating or the structures and dynamics that shape them.
Seems to me like white converts might benefit from taking her position into advisement. Or maybe they won’t. This piece is not an ultimatum. It’s one Tibetan’s encounter with the new, strange and fledgling beast that is Tibetan Buddhism in ( and for?) the ‘West’. For me, as a white reader who is interested in the study of Tibetan Buddhism, I take Kunsang’s pieces as food for thought – as useful material for anyone who finds themselves in these kinds of uncomfortable cultural crossover situations, as an opportunity to sit quietly with the discomfort and ‘take it onto the path’ if you like, as something that might give white converts (and Tibetans) pause. As something for each to use as material around which to generate their own discussions and reflections, internal to their own communities, communities that are distinct but still hopefully in meaningful respectful dialogue with one another.
This article seems like it might be useful here. It deals with the need for white Buddhist converts in the US who belong to sangha that are often considerably, if not willfully homogenous in terms of race and class, to reach out to American Buddhist groups that are more diverse (because they absolutely exist).
“Meanwhile, the so-called Asian American and the Asian immigrant U.S. Buddhist organizations and groups are doing what they’ve done, in some cases for over a century in this country: serving their communities. I always knew better than to try to reach my late friend, Ven. Thich An Duc, an African American senior Buddhist monk who resided in Chua Dieu Phap, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in San Gabriel, California anytime around Buddha’s birthday or other major Buddhist holidays. The venerable, who also went by the name Bhante Suhita Dharma, told me that Chua Dieu Phap would easily draw 2,000 people for Buddha’s birthday, and that the temple had a system in place so that services were held, everyone got fed, bathroom facilities were provided, and people of all ages, from babies in arms up to elderly folks in wheelchairs, were well cared for. Similar thriving, multigenerational scenes that fluidly include laypersons, monastics, married clergy, and visiting Buddhist dignitaries, albeit perhaps with smaller numbers, can be found – should one have the consciousness to look – at hundreds and probably thousands of Asian-descended American Buddhist centers and communities that have impressive infrastructure, including Dharma schools for young children and teenagers, in the U.S.
…How to cross this great divide? It’s probably evident that some additional factors that keep it so firmly in place are cultural differences and needs, as well as negative perceptions and judgments on both sides. There are people who freely cross the divides in U.S. Buddhism, feeling welcomed and at home everywhere they go; these folks, however, aren’t usually the voices that are heard in convert U.S. Buddhist media. We can become these folks if we make the effort. Start small and identify a Buddhist group that’s quite unlike your own; ask if you can visit and go with a friend. Take a donation of food or flowers or money. Ask lots of questions and make it clear you’re interested in their culture and what they’ve achieved in building their temple, undoubtedly persevering through many difficulties. Then, although of course nothing is ever 100% guaranteed, be prepared to be the recipient of warm hospitality, and gain transformative insights into new worlds, and to make new spiritual friends. It probably won’t feel 100% comfortable to you to be there, but learning new things doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.”
I really do appreciate this post and your thoughts. I recently attended a “Buddhism and Race” conference (aimed at practitioners, not academics) at Harvard Divinity School which dealt with many issues regarding the experiences of white and PoC Buddhists in Western convert communities, but touched very little on the interactions between convert and Asian(-American) people with Buddhist cultural background. I’ll send the link to this and your other piece to one of the organizers so they can help plan next year.
If you don’t mind my asking, what do you think Western converts could do differently? If the answer is “stay away from Buddhism,” that’s a totally fine answer and I wouldn’t mind hearing it. But if they do seriously want to practice Buddhism and don’t want to pretend to be a different nationality (i.e. be Kagyu without being Tibetan, or Zen without being Japanese, or Theravadin without being Thai), are there better ways to go about doing this?
I remember being sorely disappointed when I heard the Dalai Lama respond to a question posed by Carl Sagan with the famous line: “If science can disprove reincarnation, Tibetan Buddhism would abandon reincarnation”. In order to appeal to the objectivity of Western science, the Rinpoches are taking painstaking measures to strip Tibetan Buddhism of its esoteric elements, hence ridding one of imagination, the con
juring up of alternative realities. As a Hindu, I see Tibet as a country that has retained all that India has lost over the centuries. It would be a shame to let Western rationality entrap a people who hail from a society, where its yogis roamed wild and free.
i agree with you. i am white and a nun and i feel alienated often by whiteness of many–not all–but probably most Dharma Centers and Monasteries. it isn’t so much the shade of skin, but the lack of authenticity–but i feel that more often in Monasteries in India also. usually i live near a Monastery in Mirik, India. i loved the Monastery in the early 1990s and 2000s. but everything has changed. is it the money? is it the change of ethnicity? very few of the monks or nuns are Tibetan anymore. even among themselves, well the Bhutanese stay together–the Sikkimese stay together–the Nepali monks stay separate…and the few Tibetans keep to themselves also–of course, we are all gather together in the Lhakang… and while white buddhism is often focused on publications, professions, teaching schedules, translators and translations–i find Himalayan Buddhism is going through similar difficulties. i agree it doesn’t feel authentic anymore… but, having followed this path for over 25 years…having cleaned the bathrooms, mopped the floors, prepared the visiting Rinpoche’s rooms, made the tormas, umzed, choponed, goodness washed–polished–and filled 1000 butterlamps every week…you know, i think authenticity is in the work of the Monastery. even in India, the older Lamas that I knew from 20 years ago–they did all the work–even bringing up the barrels of water from the well, pouring the concrete to build the Gompa and Drupkangs, cooking, cleaning, caring for the younger monks. i think if you find a sangha that regularly engages in the “low” work of the community, it might feel more “real” “devoted”…i am white and i often feel the same way you do…in India these days and the West. it all feels like a puppet show. a publicity stunt or simply a press kit. i hope we can return to the essence of the practice, but that will require burning the press kit, titles, publications, positions, and a lot of the jindak money.
Exactly, nothing feels authentic anymore. I once took up Buddhist studies at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery but it just felt so…..contrived….so much so that I’ve resigned myself to studying ancient Buddhist and Hindu philosophy on my own.