For the Buddhism in America column this month I have asked Harvard scholar and Buddhist practitioner Rutdow Tanny Jiraprapasuke to share in her own words some of her journey growing up Buddhist in the United States. — Harsha Menon.
“Do you believe in God?”
I was six years old, standing in the middle of the playground at our elementary school in Temple City, California, when Danny asked me this question after catching sight of my Buddha amulet. He stared at me, waiting for my answer. I knew at that moment that I was in trouble. I did not know who “God” was, but I knew that I did not believe in one.
Already segregated because of my ethnicity, my small size, and my “strange and smelly” lunch, my answer to Danny’s question could add yet another obstacle that made me an outsider—that made me less American. With full faith in the protecting powers of my amulet I answered, “No, I don’t believe in God.” Immediately, Danny started to make fun of me, loudly taunting, “Ooh, you’re going to Hell, you’re going to Hell! If you don’t believe in God you’ll go to Hell!” I was scared. I didn’t know what this “Hell” was, and I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong to deserve such a punishment.
For most of my life after that incident, I hid my Buddhist beliefs to save myself. I couldn’t hide my yellow face, but could keep secret the fact that I take refuge in the Three Jewels. Today, I’m not afraid of “Hell,” but I am still afraid of not being American.
My name, Rutdow, was given to me by my father. In Thai it means, “land of the stars”—in other words, America. I am an American citizen and have the right, if I choose, to run for president, yet I never dared to dream of it because the white citizens of this country have yet to recognize me as a real American. As a Thai-American Buddhist, I have been practicing my religion in the privacy of the Thai community for most of my life. I have had to separate my practice from my daily life. The diasporic Thai community is small in comparison to other communities, such as the Chinese. As a result, the nearest Thai temple to my parents’ house was about an hour away, so we went monthly. The distance made it easy for me to publicly deny my faith.
America sees itself as a pluralistic nation, yet the thread of Christianity is woven through its currency, its Pledge of Allegiance, laws, and its identity. As a Buddhist I was angry at my own existence, of always feeling like a second-class citizen. I was reminded of this feeling every day in school as I stood with my right hand over my heart and pledged allegiance to the flag, uttering the words, “One nation under God.” These words burned painfully within me: I not only had to betray my own faith, but the pledge confined me to a God I don’t believe in. From the age of six to 27, I resented all white people and I hated God.
I would spend the next 20 years of my life fragmented. From the age of six, I compartmentalized every aspect of my life. My Buddhist activities were separated from my daily life, and my American life was separated from my Thai life. I had Buddhist friends, white liberal friends, Taiwanese friends, Thai friends, and African-American friends. Each fragment of my life represented only a small part of me. The compartmentalizing did more than just separate aspects of me; it took away my humanity. I became increasingly angry and found myself making white Christians my enemies, taking me further away from the Three Jewels.
White Americans are referred to only as Americans; everyone else requires a hyphen. Like an appendage, the hyphen in Thai-American is a constant reminder of how easy it is to remove the American part from my identity. It is for this reason that my Buddhist practice has been kept to one side. I have had to compromise by trying to force the Three Jewels into the mold of the American Christian context. I have had to water down the depth of my faith in order to create an illusion for evangelicals and Protestants. To give them a sense that I share their Christian values as a way to prevent insulting questions like, “What do you mean you don’t have a soul?” or “Isn’t Buddhism a philosophy and not a religion?”
I was not, and am not, scared of such confrontation. When it comes to my faith, such insulting questions do not attack me, but my defenses rise when the people I love most—my parents—are attacked. The need to hide my religious practice created a sense of shame, of inferiority. I always felt that I had to protect myself from being Orientalized and exotified by my peers. This point is more difficult to explain because, for the most part, the comments and actions these people made would seem complimentary or positive. The fact that the American identity, by default, is wrapped up in whiteness and Christianity means that many of my white friends, without realizing it, treat me with disrespect. For example, I have received many compliments on my “Zen-ness,” my “Buddhist lifestyle,” my “good karma,” and my “mindfulness.” These misappropriated “Buddhist” terms hurt me because they objectify what is most sacred to my existence, my Buddhist faith.
When the attacks and discrimination against Muslim Americans by white Americans were amplified after 9/11, I could no longer hide my faith. It was clear that all of us “hyphenated Americans” had to make a statement that “we are real Americans and we will not hide.” I had to stand tall, proudly waving my Buddhist banner. Hiding my religious identity was hiding my love for my family and my culture. As an active member of my Thai Buddhist sangha, I see how the walls of a temple contain not only the Three Jewels, but also the goodness and kindness of a community that works together to preserve and protect what sustains them. As I allow myself the freedom to be a Thai-American Buddhist, I find that the fears I once had about not being American enough begin to dissipate.
Even though I’m still harassed by “Dannies” and white liberals who think they’re complimenting me, the strength I have from living a whole, unfragmented life allows me to experience compassion rather than pain. As a result, I’m able to perceive people for who they are and not judge them based on my preconceived notions. I can say with complete honesty that I’m no longer resentful of all white people, and I do not hate or reject the notion of God. This does not mean that I’m so “Zen” that I no longer “see color”—what it means is that I’m mindful of my own prejudices, which helps me siphon out the lies that create those negative thoughts.
To live life fully within Buddhism allows for a deeper understanding of the Dhamma, and this has given me hope for a better future. One day, perhaps, we will no longer need the “hyphenation” as part of our identity, and maybe an American whose faith is not Christian will be welcomed as president of the United States. Until then, it’s important that we not only embrace ourselves as who we are, but that we also appreciate those who are different from us.
I write this not to express the collective experience of Asian-American Buddhists, or even Thai-American Buddhists. I do not pretend to know or to assume that other Buddhists share the same, or even similar, perspectives. I pen my own experience because I will not be burdened by their discomfort about me.
As the United States reckons with its fraught racial and religious history, and contentious contemporary climate of suffering, may our collective voices contribute to a better and more harmonious future, for all beings. — Harsha Menon.
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