Update: Aaron Lee, who went by the pen name “Arun,” died on October 21, 2017. He was 34.
For the author of a blog called “Angry Asian Buddhist,” Arun isn’t as angry as you might expect. And it isn’t like he doesn’t have cause to be upset. He was diagnosed with lymphoma last July, just after his 33rd birthday. He might not live to see his 34th.
Nonetheless, when Arun (that’s a pen name) answers the phone, he’s friendly and considerate, if not a little tired-sounding.
I’ve wanted to know who Arun was for years — in particular since he once called me out for promoting an all-white panel discussion about women in Buddhism. “There are many virtues to the discussion,” wrote Arun in his blog post at the time. “But as you might have guessed, I noticed something missing. Namely, Asians.” It’s a fair point, to be sure.
But right now, the discussion is about Arun himself. “What are you most interested in asking,” he asks me. Now that the curtain has been pulled back, I’m most curious about the basics. “Where are you from?”
Arun tells me that he lives in California, where he develops innovations in healthcare. He loves his job because it gives him the chance to help people live healthier lives. About his cancer, he says with a laugh, “I joke with my colleagues that I’m on a ‘patient-experience sabbatical.’”
I laugh too, and note that Arun has a sense of humor about his illness. “I see life as absurd,” he says in response.
He’s definitely not wrong: Arun has spent much of his adult life trying to convince white Buddhists — who’ve often tended to avoid discussions about race — that race matters. Now, his greatest chance of surviving cancer depends on finding a bone marrow transplant, which requires a donor with a compatible ethnicity. The odds of finding that match, the doctors say, are literally one in a million.
“The only cure depends on finding me a match based on ethnicity,” says Arun. “My fate rests on the notion that race matters!”
Absurd, indeed. And yet, despite the weight of all this, it seems to me that Arun is smiling at the other end of the line. Why isn’t he angry?
Arun’s odds of finding a bone marrow donor are exceptionally slim because of his mixed ethnicity — something that has always had a big influence on him.
“Potentially, some of my focus on race and Buddhism in America is because I’m multi-racial,” he says. “I think about it a lot more because it’s part of my multiple identities.”
There are about 100 times as many Asian Buddhists in the world as white Buddhists. Why would Asian Americans feel out of place in American Buddhism?
Arun was raised Jewish; his mom’s heritage is Polish-Russian Ashkenazi Jew. By the time he got to high school, he’d learned Hebrew and Yiddish. Arun’s dad is of Chinese heritage and Arun has also always identified as a Buddhist. His grandmother would take him to temple, his mom meditated, and his dad would slip Buddhist ethics into his parenting lessons.
“When I was a kid and I got angry at him, he’d be like, ‘You’re not angry at me. You’re holding on to anger. We’re the masters of our anger.’”
Arun’s interest in identity and community bloomed in college, when he started a Buddhist association at his university. From the get-go, he wanted to build a community that was inclusive of both white and Asian Buddhists. In his outreach, he discovered that a lot of Asian Buddhists felt connected to Buddhism, but didn’t feel they had a home in most Buddhist communities. This struck him as paradoxical: there are about 100 times as many Asian Buddhists in the world as white Buddhists. Why would Asians Americans feel out of place in American Buddhism?
The reason crystallized for Arun one day in 2008. His friend Sumi Loundon Kim had been recruited for a panel discussion in Buddhadharma magazine on “the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world.”
Arun was thrilled for Sumi and for the discussion. He waited months for the issue to come out. When it did, he took his lunch break to go buy a copy of the magazine and then snuck off to the bathroom at work to read it. From the first words of the discussion, Arun was crushed.
“The Buddhists in North America referred to as ‘convert Buddhists’—those who did not inherit it as a part of their ethnic background—are largely baby boomers,” began the moderator. “Are enough younger people coming up through the ranks to sustain healthy Buddhist communities?”
The rest of the article seemed to focus solely on non-Asian Buddhists. “I remember the shock,” says Arun. “I thought, They’re talking about a next generation of Buddhism that has nothing to do with me. That was the first situation where I could say clearly, ‘We’re being excluded.’”
Arun had started a blog called Dharma Folk with a friend, so he wrote a post, titled “Angry Asian Buddhist.”
“It’s insulting for a magazine like Buddhadharma to discuss the future of the Buddhist community in America without talking about Asian Americans,” wrote Arun. “We’re not some alien species in the Buddhist community — we brought Buddhism to America.”
The post inspired a flurry of conversation — including a response from Buddhadharma. After a few months and many more posts on the subject, it became clear that there was a larger conversation to be had, so Arun broke out the “Angry Asian Buddhist” thread into its own blog.
The blog was born out of anger about under-representation of Asian Americans in American Buddhist media, says Arun. Over time, his personal anger faded, but with the very word in its title, “anger” remained a defining quality of the blog. Despite the generally even tone of Arun’s writing, readers assumed he was always raging — no doubt in part thanks to a persistent subconscious stereotype: “Buddhists are not supposed to be angry,” says Arun. “Especially Asian Buddhists.”
When readers of the blog met Arun in real life, they would say, “You’re much less angry than I thought.”
In the years following, Arun regularly called out Buddhist publications, including Lion’s Roar and Buddhadharma, for under-representing Asian Buddhists in their coverage. Arun sought to provoke a response by pointing out an absurd — and somewhat angering — truth: Asian Americans are under-represented in a tradition that they imported to America.
“Where did the anger come from?” Arun asks himself. “It came from the spirit of Asian Americans pushing back against stereotypes.”
Buddhists sometimes talk about the idea of “skillful anger,” where one lets go of vindictive preoccupations and uses the energy of anger compassionately. I ask him if that’s what the Angry Asian Buddhist represented.
“I don’t think you need skillful anger,” says Arun. “I think you can just be skillful. The anger will be there. It will come and it will go.” He echoes his father’s advice, adding that we choose what to do with our anger.
“Am I using skillful anger when I write on the Angry Asian Buddhist?” he asks. “Or am I using the concept of anger, skillfully? I feel like I’m using the concept of anger.”
To illustrate, Arun throws back to an old commercial for Molson beer: a Canuck on a stage declaims everything that makes him proud to be Canadian. When Arun saw the commercial on a TV in a bar in Montreal, everyone in the bar went wild.
“There was a sense of being able to stand up for your community, like We’re a real people who have a real heritage, and we’re proud of it. Writing on the blog was like, Hey, we are real people. Our experiences are real. Let me tell you about it. Sometimes you just need to reaffirm your identity and experience.”
Arun confesses that he also likes to be provocative, and worries that could sometimes be a bad thing. In a 2012 podcast discussion about the distinction between “convert” and “ethnic” Buddhists (a particular point of contention on Arun’s blog) Buddhist scholar Charles Prebish (who is credited with inventing that typology) said of Arun, “he seems to hate white Buddhists.”
In response, Arun wrote a blog post titled “Charles Prebish believes that I’m racist.”
“I spent a week on that title!” exclaims Arun, amused that it reads like something he scribbled out in the middle of the night. “From my perspective, it’s really cool that I can spend a lot of time thinking about this, but you see something that looks like I barfed up indignation.”
Then Arun reels around to come to Prebish’s defense. He admits he regrets things he said about Prebish’s work, and goes on at length about his admiration for him.
Arun wonders if it’s possible to be provocative without being mean. He goes back to a question he once asked of Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu: was it possible to be funny without being false?
“Life is so absurd,” was Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s reply. “You don’t have to be false to be funny. You can just talk about how absurd life is.”
One can also be provocative by just pointing out the absurdities of things. As an example, Arun points out how North American’s see themselves as tolerant and open-minded, yet chronically under-represent minorities.
“Angry Asian Buddhist exists to get to the bottom of that,” says Arun. “It’s kind of absurd.”
There’s one other quality of Arun’s writing that seems to make it provocative: anonymity. Originally, the blog was anonymous because Arun wanted to protect his career. But, over time, he realized that anonymity has power. Readers have no way of knowing that Arun is Jewish, a thoughtful and deliberate writer, and known for his smile. Instead, he becomes whatever the reader wants him to be: “When I am anonymous, I am whomever you want to think I am. I just fit into your stereotype. I’m often this hyperbolic icon that people create.”
So “Angry Asian Buddhist,” in that sense, isn’t a description of Arun. The title was Arun’s way of representing the experience of Asian Americans. Anger is one defining characteristic of that experience. The Angry Asian Buddhist stands in for every Angry Asian Buddhist.
Now, Arun worries less about the blog.
“A lot of the things I’ve been working on are really starting to happen,” he says. “I don’t feel that much need for my voice to be out there.”
What Arun really wanted was to create community, which the blog did. Friends and readers connected with each other and wrote about each other’s experiences. Two of Arun’s friends wrote articles about Asian American Buddhist identity in Buddhadharma in 2016, and one of them started an online forum for Asian American Buddhists.
Regardless of what happens with his diagnosis, Arun is ready to let others take over the work he has started.
In the meantime, he is trying to do what he can to make things okay for himself and his friends and family. He reports that he sleeps twelve hours a day and is always in pain. The doctors say he might have three months to live.
“I focus more on my well being, now,” he says. “A lot of what we do in life is to accumulate memories. When you’re dying, where are these memories going to go?”
“If death comes, it comes,” he says, before adding, with a laugh, “It will come, actually.”
He takes a long pause, and draws a comparison: what if you were going on a vacation that you wouldn’t remember afterwards? What would you choose to do? “I would just take my own personal meditation and exercise retreat,” says Arun. “I wouldn’t remember it, but I’d feel really good afterwards. That’s what I focus on now.”
Despite the odds, the doctors note that Arun could still survive, and his case hasn’t yet been diagnosed as “terminal” — though it’s felt like it is.
“The hardest part, for me, was that everything you had imagined and dreamed and hoped for in the future is tossed away. It feels like the diagnosis has taken that away from you. That feeling of loss, for me, was the hardest.
“If you can bring yourself to the point when you can let go of some of those dreams, and think about how you can be happy right now — that’s what’s become important to me. That has given me a lot of freedom. I don’t feel like I’m shackled by death. If death comes, it comes,” he says, before adding, with a laugh, “It will come, actually.”
Cancer has also shown Arun that the best way to help others is by meeting them wherever they are, in the present. It was a gradual, and painful, realization. Through chemotherapy, Arun found the best way to manage pain was loving-kindness meditation. He asked visiting monks, and they told him it was okay to use metta, or loving-kindness, quasi-selfishly to ease his own pain. So, when the morphine didn’t work, he practiced metta. Hopefully, as a side effect, the loving-kindness meditation would make him more loving and kind.
But as Arun’s condition deteriorated, it got harder and harder to remain positive. First, he learned that the chemotherapy wasn’t working. Then, he learned that his odds at getting a transplant were astronomical. Despite countless hours of loving-kindness meditation, “I was really depressed, and I would get really upset with people. Then I would get upset with myself.”
But, he adds, “That’s what it means to be human. And that’s what we have to deal with in community every day. Even when we practice to the best of our abilities.” Despite anger, despite disappointment, and despite confusion, if you can meet the members of your community where they are, “the benefits are so much better,” he says.
In one sense, that’s what he was always trying to accomplish with the Angry Asian Buddhist. He recognized an anger in his community, so he met that anger online. He felt the pulse of Asian American Buddhists and tried to respond appropriately. That contributed to big changes.
Arun’s dream is for Western Buddhism to be like a family that accepts all of its members openly. He also wants Asian American writers to feel that their voices should be heard. He describes this aspiration as creating a “refuge” — an idea he’s previously written about on LionsRoar.com.
“The idea of a refuge is that, when you’re in that refuge, you feel like you have that safe space and support and nurturing. That’s what I’d really push for if I had more than six months left.”
Part way through our conversation, Arun pauses. “Sorry, one moment. Can I call you back? I’m getting called by the cancer center.”
“Sure,” I say, and Arun disappears. Fifteen minutes later, my phone rings and he’s back.
“I have a match,” he says, sounding stunned at the one-in-a-million chance. “We’re going ahead with a bone marrow transplant.”
He’s not out of the woods, but a bone marrow transplant is Arun’s best chance of survival. Whether it works out or not, he acts like it doesn’t matter. I ask him if he wants to get off the phone to talk to his family, and he declines. Regardless of his outcome, he wants to meet the moment — happy, sad, or angry — just as it is.
At one point in the phone call, Arun mentions that some day he’d like to visit Halifax, where I’m calling from. Remembering this as we’re saying goodbye, I say, “I hope you get to visit Halifax.”
Arun laughs. In his laugh, I think, is the knowledge that someday he might visit Halifax, and also the knowledge that he might be dead. And that is what it means to be human. Absurd, and true.