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Buddhadharma : Summer 2016
54 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2 0 1 6 Sunday services. In a Japanese internment camp in 1944, the BMNA was renamed the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). Duncan Williams argues the “camp dharma” of interned Japanese Americans “had the paradoxical task during the war of simultaneously serving as a repository for Japanese cultural traditions and as a vehicle for becoming more American.” Michael Masatsugu’s research demonstrates that the boundaries between Japanese American and white convert Buddhists were remarkably fluid during the 1950s and 1960s; for instance, the BCA’s Berkeley Bussei published Jack Kerouac’s first poems in the 1950s. This his- tory is largely erased from popular conceptions of American Buddhism, showing how, for more than a century, Japanese American Buddhists have had to navigate their “perpetual foreigner” status as a group marginalized by both race and religion. The Shin Buddhists I interviewed also acknowl- edged their tradition’s invisibility to the Buddhist mainstream. During an interview with Kristie, a Shin Buddhist minister, I asked whether she thought of Zen as a Japanese tradition. She paused before exclaiming: “I don’t! I don’t think of Japanese Americans in Zen; I think of Caucasians.” Point- ing to a photo collage from a blog post entitled “Why Is the Under 35 Project So White?,” Kristie explained, “When I think of Zen Buddhists, I think of the people pictured here.” The collage of twenty faces was created by the Angry Asian Buddhist to critique the lack of Asian American writers featured in a Shambhala SunSpace project aimed at promot- ing a new generation of Buddhist voices. Kristie’s comments corroborate a trend that Jane Iwamura has called “Asian religions without Asians.” Examining the role of the Oriental monk in popular culture in her book Virtual Oriental- ism, Iwamura argues that Asian Americans are only allowed a minor role in narratives about the devel- opment of Buddhism in America. She highlights how California-born Japanese American Mihoko Okamura, D.T. Suzuki’s secretary from 1953 until his death in 1965, is relegated to the margins by virtue of her race and gender. Okamura “does not conform to the racial script,” throwing off a writer for the New Yorker who seems to have a hard time reconciling her “almond eyes and porcelain com- plexion” with her being “an American girl with ideas of her own.” Sadly, more than half a century later, “two Buddhisms” would still have us puzzling over Okamura, an Asian American for whom fluent English and a sharp mind need not be at odds with dedicated assistance and devoted discipleship. “Who are the most famous Buddhists in Amer- ica?” The BPF group shouted out names faster than I could write them down: the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh; for Buddhists living in America, Jack Kornfield, Robert Thurman, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Richard Gere, Tina Turner, Pema Chödrön, Joan Halifax... “What about famous Asian American Bud- dhists?” An embarrassed silence ensued, in stark contrast to the flurry of answers a moment ago. I recalled how Brian had responded to this question during our interview: “The only ones I can think of are in Asia or dead.” The group finally named EBMC teachers Larry Yang and Anushka Fernan- dopulle. Someone mentioned Tiger Woods. I added George Takei, better known for his role in Star Trek than for being a Shin Buddhist. At the end of the workshop, Lisa, who was raised with Chinese Buddhist influences, told me she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She wanted to laugh because she was happy and relieved to find her experiences and struggles shared by other Asian American Buddhists; she wanted to cry because she was saddened and angered by the rampant media misrepresentations of them. “It’s like we’re invisible not only to the mainstream but also to each other,” she sighed, shaking her head. Becoming Culturally Engaged Buddhists It saddens me that many Asian Americans—myself included—are reluctant to “come out” as Buddhist. Sometimes this reluctance arises from a fear of