Buddh-ish Bitchings #1 — An Introduction
Some people are surprised to learn that, while a Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity major, I don’t really care for identity politics. That’s a post for another time, but there are few identity labels I feel entirely at ease in. “Buddhist” is one of those words I don’t embrace easily. Like first-generation or survivor, it’s a word I dance around. I feel like a fraud if I proclaim it too loudly, but I also feel incomplete if I do not try to hold it in my hands and mouth, at least for a little bit. I feel more at ease saying I’m a Vietnamese-American woman, but religion and spirituality are realms in which labels terrify me. My journey has been messy and complicated. The shorthand is to say that my parents are Buddhist so I grew up with many practices, I went through a boatload of feelings and identities as a young(er) person, and now I’m trying to find a place for myself. I don’t want to say I’m a Buddhist because I don’t really know where I am going to land, and I’m not convinced that I will land there quite yet. Maybe I will. Maybe I am.
But I can say for damn fucking sure the Buddhism I grew up with is not what I see here in the Bay.
Even though I’ve been on this journey to explore Buddhism on my own terms for a little over two years now, I’ve been rather private about the depths of this process, because I have felt inadequate, ashamed, and out of place. I don’t feel at ease going to temples oriented more towards immigrants like my parents. I don’t quite get the ancestor worship, eating vegetarian on certain days of the calendar, or other aspects of the Buddhism my parents grew up around. It just doesn’t click with me. But it certainly feels more familiar to me than the “Buddhist practices” I see here in the Bay.
Here in Silicon Valley, I see ‘mindfulness’ thrown around everywhere. Stanford Nutrition offers thoughts on mindful eating. Google, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley companies offer classes, retreats, and lecture series on mindfulness so workers can be more whole and productive laborers. People feel comfortable having decapitated Buddhas in their homes (or joyful Budai statues, who isn’t even a Buddha or bodhisattva, but rather a Chinese deity of prosperity. He’s obviously conflated with the Buddha though, as illustrated in the Zendesk mascot I’ve chosen to illustrate this post. I wonder how many people at Zendesk can say they know what the vitarka mudra their mascot models his fingers into even means.) . They pay immense amounts of money for silent meditation retreats. They develop and profit off of “Zenware” —
I could go on.
These people — and I will be frank here and say by that I mean mostly crunchy quinoa White liberals — love to benefit from Buddhist practices. They reap the joys of being more at ease with the self, the health gains of breathing deeply, the increased focus in taming the monkey mind, the management of stress, the facade of open-mindedness to Eastern thought and philosophy.
And yet they remain so cold to the reality of suffering in this world. They refuse to connect Buddhist practice to social justice. These folks use the third of the Four Noble Truths, niroda, that liberation comes from releasing ourselves from desire, as a means to enable privilege and an abundance of power. But the fourth and final of the Four Noble Truths is magga, that liberation from suffering comes through the Noble Eightfold Path, the Right ways of living. So it pains me to see people attend yoga classes wearing Lululemon with their hands in namaskara — a mudra of greeting, of welcome — and watch as they fail to recognize how unwelcoming that very space is to fat folks, the working class and poor, people of color, gender nonconforming people, etc. Are you truly living mindfully if you attend a company meditation retreat, but you don’t interrogate how your commuting habits contribute to gentrification? Are you living mindfully if you sip that cup of coffee slowly and deeply in the morning, but say nothing as yet another new cafe displaces a swath of immigrant families in your neighborhood? Are you living mindfully if you evangelize the power of meditation to reduce suffering, but turn your eyes away as systems of power enact violence on marginalized people?
Can you truly engage magga if you believe you have detached from your own suffering, and fail to see that your suffering is deeply linked to that of all beings?
So that’s why Buddhish Bitchings is here. I don’t really know how to be Buddhist, but I definitely know how to bitch. Hopefully in making visible my many confusions and hypocrisies, together we can lift the delusions to which we are all subject. I am here to make everyone uncomfortable about how they understand Buddhism, myself included. In future bitchings, I’ll go more in-depth about particular aspects of Buddhist ideas I’m mulling over, like the Zen notion of samu or labor in generous service, social justice and bodhicitta, anti-racist Buddhism, how you’re probably masturbating instead of meditating, the idea of the Angry Asian Buddhist, the insights of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh, and more. I’m sure some people will be struck by how blunt I am about this, but I’m tired of this notion that Buddhism is pleasant or easy.
Suffering runs deep in our lives. Our suffering is deeply rooted and interconnected. So yes, I absolutely invite you into the practice of deep reflection and deep compassion. But I believe that the path of peace requires the whole engagement of my spirit, mind, and body.
I ask — and welcome — the same of you.
To the light in you,
I am grateful.