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Race & Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation

Adaptation by Joseph Cheah Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism

The author is a researcher who takes his time for clarity and purpose. He is kind to his readers in his attention to the detail of his work. Joseph Cheah attributes the historical development of American Buddhism not to the rise of Euro-American fascination with Buddhism emerging in the countercultural generation of the 1960’s alone, but further back to Victorian-era Orientalist and colonial projects in Sri Lanka and Burma that sought to purify Theravada Buddhism of its purportedly superstitious devotional practices and elevate vipassana or insight meditation as the definitive marker of authentic Buddhism.

“A significant contribution of Cheah’s book is its analysis of the European positional superiority and Protestant suppositions operative in American Buddhism’s Southeast Asian antecedents, whose pernicious influence can be found in the white supremacy or “hegemony of whiteness at the core of the racial divide between white Euro-American and Asian American Buddhism. Drawing from classic ethnic studies and Asian American Studies models, Cheah utilizes Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory and concept of racial re-articulation along with Ling-chi Wang’s dual domination paradigm to offer one of the first detailed and much needed studies of Burmese American Buddhism that locates Burmese Americans in the contexts of local and transnational immigration history.”

The book itself is divided into two sections with six chapters that demonstrate Cheah’s solid historical research, survey data, interviews and ethnographic research. The first half of the book focuses on European transformations of Buddhism in Southeast Asia and the increased attention paid vipassana meditation by both Western converts and Burmese monastics as the “true” practices of a Protestant, modernist, and authentic Buddhism that shapes later iterations in the United States.

Chapters 1-3 reveal the positional superiority of Western Buddhists who developed a form of Buddhism That could only exist in contradistinction to a native Asian Buddhism that was deemed childlike, backward, and an untrustworthy source of authentic Buddhism.

Cheah is careful, however, to move beyond the Buddhism by examining the intercultural mimesis that occurs between European scholar-practitioners and Buddhist monks in the development of a modern Buddhism extracted from devotional rituals deemed irrational and superstitious. He does so by locating nationalist and modernist impulses within the Theravada Buddhist nation of Burma that developed in response to and yet were shaped by colonialism through the teachings of three renowned vipasana masters.

This work is crucial for Cheah’s subsequent theorization of a critical agency on the part of Burmese American Buddhists to resist the hegemonic effects of white supremacy. American Buddhists are not very y religious and therefore are potentially dangerous to U.S. American religiosity when measured by the frequency of attendance of worship services. Data from the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s study of Asian Americans and religion.

Only 12% of Buddhists attend weekly services, only 27% of Buddhists claim that religion is very important in their lives, and 60% claim that they don’t meditate. Without detailed studies of Asian American Buddhist religiosity such as the author’s book would be easy to assume that Asian American Buddhist are not very religious, a dangerous characterization that revives anti-Asian sentiment earlier on in U.S. history, when Asian Americans were often considered heathens.

Cheah’s study reveals that the home is just as significant a site of worship, if not more so, and that if one wishes to determine the level of religiosity among Asian American Buddhists, it behooves one to visit the home altars rather than the temples on a Sunday.

In short, the book, is an excellent contribution to the fields of religious studies, Asian American Studies, ethnic studies, immigrant religions, Asian studies of American Buddhism that lays bare the white supremacist assumptions of privilege in the definition of what makes a real Buddhist (meditation) and what makes a less authentic Buddhist. Such a book-length study as this stand to transform the discourse on American Buddhism and Asian American religions in significant and much needed ways.

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