Buddhists must take a stand against the wave of racism and violence against Asian Americans. One way to do that, says Zen priest Cristina Moon, is to support Asian American spiritual institutions.
In the past year, there has been a sharp and alarming rise in reports of attacks against Asian Americans. In just the past few weeks, particularly horrible acts of violence targeting elderly Asians—ending in injury, disfigurement, and death—have been captured on video. Anti-Asian discrimination is not new—we have a long, shared history of people using the Model Minority Myth, the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype, and diseases to justify anti-Asian xenophobia and violence. But these latest attacks are the clear product of this longstanding bias being exacerbated by both the pandemic and rising white nationalism.
Seeing news reports, public statements, and social media posts about anti-Asian violence has made me reflect on my own experiences being on the receiving end of racist comments and microaggressions—mostly innocuous stuff like being greeted with “Konichiwa” (I’m Korean), but also encounters that left me reeling. Early last year, my college roommate was interviewed on TV about how she was screamed at on the New York subway, told to “go home.” Even my friend, Korean American Congressman Andy Kim (NJ-D), has spoken out about being yelled at and hit while riding the train home from Washington by a woman who was afraid he’d give her Covid-19.
Seeing important Asian spiritual institutions hollowed out by the subtle forces of white supremacy should pain all of us.
It’s easy in light of all this, to feel angry, frustrated, powerless, and depressed. I have been buoyed, though, to see many concrete policy actions articulated by leaders like Congressman Kim. I have also been happy to see many AAPI organizations double down on a message of pursuing true safety not through increased policing or by scapegoating other communities, but by looking outside of ourselves to foster interracial healing, collaboration, and community building. These priorities point to the true roots of anti-Asian hate as not just white supremacy or Trump, but the delusion that something as arbitrary as the color of our skin can separate us—or that we are, indeed, separate at all.
As my Zen teacher, Sayama Daian Roshi, has put it, “there’s no such thing as a thing. As Shakyamuni Buddha said, ‘All things interpenetrate without obstruction.’” In this context, this fundamental Buddhist principle underscores our interdependence and the contiguity of all of our existences. From here, I am able to find compassion for the perpetrators of anti-Asian violence who smite themselves when they attack us, acting on and perpetuating their own unfortunate karma.
Remembering this core teaching also makes it that much more heartbreaking that many of my Asian brothers and sisters feel isolated and unseen right now, even in their pain. Indeed, if you’re not Asian, you may not have even heard about these recent attacks; they haven’t gotten much airtime outside the AAPI community. But now that you know, this moment presents itself as a test of allies’ Buddhist training: If you have committed yourself to internalizing the interdependence of all phenomena, are you reeling, as we are, in light of this hate? Can you feel our pain as your own? In the same way that the AAPI community and other allies have stood up for Black lives, can you speak out and take action because this isn’t just about anti-Asian violence but about the seeds of hate and violence poisoning us all?
As a Zen priest, I am concerned with social and political change. My greater commitment, though, spans a longer time horizon: elevating the conditions of people’s spirits, and helping them realize their True Selves and their greatest potential for good in the world. That’s why I’ve been reaching out to younger Asian Americans over the past days to check on them and ask how I can be of support. To my surprise, they want more than anything to know about my journey to becoming a Zen monk and priest. It makes sense—there aren’t many well known Asian spiritual leaders out there, and even fewer Asian Buddhist leaders. As a community reeling from these attacks, we’re hungry to see Asian voices and leaders lifted up. We want to feel strength not just in numbers, but from the wisdom of leaders who can make sense of what’s going on, even if it’s horrible.
But as I mentioned, Asian spiritual leadership can be hard to find. This was certainly true for me, as I looked for role models on my own Buddhist journey that looked like me and to whom I could more easily relate. Sadly, young Asian Buddhists are leaving religious institutions they grew up in—namely, Buddhist temples and churches—at a higher rate than any other group in the US. Young Asians who have distanced themselves from their families’ Buddhism often comment with a mix of hurt and resentment about how being Buddhist made them feel foreign and “other” growing up. And now, even as Buddhism grows in popularity as more white and other non-Asian people identify as Buddhist or Buddhist-leaning, the erasure of Asians and Asian culture in Western Buddhism leaves many of us feeling even more bereft of safety, strength, and community.
Our Asian American community is currently asking itself some tough questions. In particular, people want to know how we can grow, rather than just feel beaten down, in the face of a deeply challenging moment like this. I believe we must start by reinvesting in the institutions where the Asian American community has historically developed strength—physically, mentally, and spiritually. Our Asian Buddhist temples and churches are dying. Other places for spiritual development like martial arts dojos are also closing their doors. Where will we turn in the next crisis if we’ve lost these places for spiritual resilience and strength forever? Will our bodies and our minds be ready for the challenges that lie ahead?
Buddhist temples and martial arts dojos may feel like strange places for me to lift up in the midst of this conversation. On the surface, neither may seem to have a clear connection to stemming the tide of anti-Asian violence. But it’s worth noting that, during World War II, the first Japanese Americans to be sent to internment camps were priests and other Buddhist leaders. After the war, occupying US forces outlawed martial arts in post-War Japan.
Both Buddhist temples and martial arts dojos have historically been places for young Asian Americans to develop strength—physical, mental, and spiritual strength. This alone may be one of the reasons that young Asian Americans, seeking to distance themselves from the cultural roots that make them feel so “other,” have left them. When you dig beneath the surface of what the missions and goals of these institutions are, we also find that they can flip how Western culture approaches religion and fighting, or sports. The final aim of Asian martial arts is not just to learn the techniques of fighting. Rather, the true goal of many martial arts is to teach people how to succeed in an encounter without ever having to fight at all. At the same time, we treat meditation and other practices at my temple, Chozen-ji—which was founded by Asian Americans and continues to be led by Asian Americans—as the tools to build strong and sensitive leaders who can move through the world like huge boulders, continually moving forward without getting stuck on small slights and obstacles. People are often surprised when they see how physically rigorous and disciplined Zen training is, and that there is no personal time, even for journaling and contemplation.
As Malcolm X said, “If you’re interested in freedom, you need some judo, you need some karate. You need all the things that will help you fight for freedom.” Malcolm X wasn’t speaking to Asian Americans with that statement, but to everyone interested in freedom.
Seeing important Asian spiritual institutions hollowed out by the subtle forces of white supremacy should pain all of us, not just Asian Americans. Historically, they were resources for all of us. If we let them disappear, it will be a loss to us all. It will be a loss to the possibility of freedom. And we are in dire need of deep spiritual training.