Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections—Book Review

From the review:

The overall mood, or zeitgeist, of academic studies of Buddhism has been changing in the last five to ten years; scholars of Buddhism, especially in its Western iterations, have begun to carefully analyze the influence of racism on Buddhism in North America and Europe. There have been scholars pointing to this phenomenon for many years, namely Joseph Cheah, but many are now beginning to pay careful attention to the influence of racism on the development of Buddhism in the West and how that continues to influence practitioners of color who are attempting to engage with Buddhist teachings only to find themselves in sanghas filled with affluent white folks. How did Buddhism in the West become so white and how do modern sanghas reproduce this racialized space? In Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections, edited by George Yancy and Emily McRae, some of the top scholars of Buddhism in the West analyze this modern phenomenon in Buddhist spaces. …

And another review:

… Even among white teachers who have explicitly expressed the intention to “diversify” and make their sanghas “more welcoming,” persistent habits of white defensiveness shine through. For example, when challenged to rethink meditation practice as “deep” and merit practice as “cultural baggage,” one such teacher suggested to me that omitting merit practice was simply part of a strategy of adapting Buddhism to “American” practitioners. It did not occur to this person that their conception of merit practice—which holds a central place in an abundance of Asian American temples—could possibly be conditioned by racist stereotypes. According to another teacher, critiquing the ways in which white sanghas have adapted Buddhism to fit the “American” context is misplaced; adapting the dharma to new cultures, this person explained, has a long history in Buddhism. Indeed it does. But as Larry Yang notes in Ann Gleig’s chapter, altering Buddhist teachings and practices to make them culturally accessible is not the problem; the problem is that the dharma is being presented in a white-dominant culture marked by white privilege and racism, such that the dharma is being shaped to adapt to, rather than alter, injurious white cultural patterns. The unquestioned assumptions of whiteness continue to manifest in the harmful, arrogant attitudes used to justify the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual authority of whites even while claiming a desire to be more “inclusive.”…

Publisher’s site (contains more short reveiws):


Enjoyed the article very much!
One thing that popped up, and a pet peeve of mine was the words

Trappings of culture, ethnic/local practices.These words are thrown about so often, as if it’s the bane of Buddhism growing in the West, or Buddhism itself. As some sort of ‘ethnic’ costume that must be first viewed as a curiosity, then ignored or done away with to reveal the ‘true Dhamma’. I see a lot of similarities with the Christian/Catholic missionary playbook in how Buddhist Asian cultures are viewed sometimes.

This view seems to forget that Buddhism has lasted long as it has because of said ‘cultures’ and their practices. :person_shrugging:t4:

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Yeah, I had never seen the term “baggage Buddhism” before although the concept is well known. I really hope Dr. Gross didn’t use that term.

I’m sure if every social-justice oriented scholar of Buddhism could have seen into my mind as I first began investigating Buddhism they would have all had every stereotype of the colonizing white man confirmed for themselves in real time. I approached the Dharma with an arrogant, imperialist attitude ready to throw out every form of superstition and cultural “bullshit” I came across as I raided the tradition of its resources in pursuit of truth.

And then I found that truth I was looking for, and it completely humbled me.

It turned out that throwing out the bullshit went both ways, and I needed to also jettison a whole host of my own cultural assumption and personal attitudes and habits in order to bring myself in line with what the Buddha taught. This is what is missing from Buddhist “whiteness” discourse. Because it is entirely focused on Buddhism as a historical, geographical, and cultural phenomenon, it does not really seem to care about the ways in which the Dhamma has indeed been distorted by millenia of cultural accretion. Of course, if you are only interested in Buddh-ism as such then any attempt by arrogant white people such as myself to get down to the Truth will be readily and exclusively interpreted through the lense of privilege and colonization. But doing this deprives such scholars of their most potentially effective rhetorical tool: turning the tables on the truth seekers. Such a reversal goes something like this:

“Sitting in air-conditioned rooms watching your breath while pining away for ‘big experiences’ of bliss, rapture, and insight before getting back in your air-conditioned cars and returning to a life filled with sex, alcohol, TV, and material comfort is just as much a distortion of the Buddha’s teaching as any superstitious/merit-making practices of traditional Asian Buddhists pining away for a rebirth in the deva realms.”

Both approaches to the Dhamma are filled to the brim with silabattaparamasa, spiritual materialism, and wrong views entangled with sensuality.

But, as an assymetric advantage to the traditional Buddhists, at least their mundane right view is compatible with eventually attaining supermundane right view. Ajahn Mun’s arahantship was compatible with his cultural conditioning despite its distortions, whereas Western practitioners will pretty much have to throw out all of their inherited presuppositions if they want to approach the truth; existential and phenomenological philosophy being one possible exception to that rule.

So yeah, to an extent I do agree with these kinds of scholars on the issue of whiteness in Buddhism, but they will continue to completely ignore the proper solution to the issue so long as they do not for themselves investigate the meaning of renunciation, dispassion, seclusion, disentanglement, ect. Such an investigation would challenge their commitment to seeing power struggles and oppressive social dynamics in an intellectual context of dialectical materialism as the ground of reality, for such an investigation would completely undermine the value of both power and the very reality that power resides in.


I am not sure I get what is meant by rethinking meditation practice as “deep”. If one substitutes “merit practice” as generosity, are western buddhist teachers actually teaching generosity is cultural baggage?

E.g. dismissing rebirth because of materialist beliefs is not seen as white/western cultural baggage (even though it is).

I remember it was a shock for me when I realized the business suit and tie is just the “traditional/ethnic costume” of some white Europeans at some point in time :business_suit_levitating:


In my experience many convert Buddhists will criticize Buddhists from Asian (Theravada) countries as “only being concerned with merit” which is a short hand way of saying they only care about giving food to monks and they don’t meditate.

But of course the Buddha taught that there are three (classic) ways of making merit: dāna, sīla, bhāvanā. And yes, unless they are talking about people giving them donations to support their livelihood, lots of western teachers down play dāna. And sīla is discussed even less. That may be changing slowly and is not, of course, true of all teachers.


Those who would criticize “eastern cultural accretions” are some of the very same people who bring along its western counterpart, often veiled in a mix of confusion and awkward sincerity. I know because I used to be someone who frequently questioned the need for the associated culture, though I eventually realized I didn’t need any explanation. What became very apparent to me over my years with Buddhism is that EVERYONE brings their identity along for the ride, and while it is eventually a hindrance to development - like many aspects of our thinking - it is unavoidable at the outset. In addition, it is the signs and tokens of an enduring community that will most apparent to those who approach Buddhism - culture being a major player in that - and is undoubtedly one of the facets that holds the amalgamation we call “Buddhism” together. Wholesome or unwholesome, whether from the point of view of culture as a whole or identity of the individual, people will bring along what they value, and whether it is a case of resisting those Dhamma reflections that would begin alter those values, or that of an effort to incorporate them into a Dhamma lifestyle, those values will be subject to emphasis when in the company of others. How tightly they are held will determine ever-changing makeup of the community as a whole.

Though, I do not think the community as a whole is ever going to be something that can be altered to fit a certain mold. Yet, it will always be questioned by those who prefer it look a certain way. But even those questions have an effect on the very optics one is attempting to shape, so I think everyone should proceed with as much care as possible when they make an attempt to “improve” it. A well-intentioned request of the community as a whole can leave entire groups wondering whether or not they have a right to pursue the path at all.

All in all, this is not simply an issue among white people, as it is a tendency of most westerners to assume they have the most accurate, up-to-date perspective on the world, failing to realize that the establishment of faith on this path implies one has understood to some extent that any such external view is unreliable. So, to go applying it in this fashion is boldly hypocritical and couldn’t be more of a typical western attitude to take up. So, whether it is the emboldened frontiersman type who actively claims they don’t need Asian culture, or the type who always makes sure to remain respectful and dutiful towards the course of Eastern Buddhist history, both share that common need to be as authentic as possible. And while it seems well-intentioned from both sides, it still comes down to perhaps accepting responsibility where there is none to accept. Again, the shape of the community is going to be what it is whether it is dictated or not. Perhaps the west should stop trying to fix what doesn’t need fixing, and that would avoid the frequent backpedaling the west finds itself doing on account of actions of their peers. (One notable exception, of course, is the extremism we have all been discussing as of late. We all should do our part to neutralize what supports a devalueing of the Dhamma and disharmony within the community. And sometimes that comes down to a simple strategy: be a good person who looks out for others, and bear in mind that sometimes fault-finding can do the same damage as the alleged fault.)

Sorry for the excessively long post perhaps doing the very thing I am criticizing. :expressionless:


This is exactly the reason they largely cater to one ethnicity at the temple; maintaining these traditions and ways of being in the world requires effort, and such centers provide a place to maintain their languages and cultural traditions when there is no other available outlet. But what culture does this white-majority group seek to conserve, and why? And why, when queried, do they insist that they are simply “American” rather than white, when it’s obvious that there are multiple ways—multiple cultures, multiple ethnicities and races, multiple languages, multiple experiences—of being American? Buddhism and Whiteness, edited by George Yancy and Emily McRae, works to answer these questions and others through a critical inquiry into the habits of whiteness or white culture—a culture that refuses to be called a culture. As the authors in this book point out, the assertion of representing “Americanness” is symptomatic of those very cultural habits that render whiteness simultaneously dominant and transparent.

Do you instinctively shake hands when meeting a new work colleague, or do you bow? Does your head automatically nod to indicate “yes,” or does it wobble side to side? Awareness of bodily habits reveals how we unconsciously or automatically embody the habits of our culture. These bodily habits, as well as habits of thinking and perceiving, seem so “normal” that they become nearly invisible, meaning they are rarely noticed unless we encounter people who behave differently from our own sense of normalcy. To an anthropologist’s eye, there is clearly a culture shared by white people in the United States, a culture with its own holidays, bodily norms, language styles, foods, attitudes, values, and so on. So why is naming this so perplexing for many whites? And why do some whites find naming whiteness “un-Buddhist”? Strategies of denying white cultural specificity and subjectivity, as multiple contributors to this volume note, are a core feature of the maintenance of white cultural dominance.

I find the author’s views somewhat troubling here. Whilst I agree that there is such a thing as an ethnic Welsh culture, or English or German culture I don’t agree there is such a thing as “white culture”. If we take the United States, there is no “white culture”. There are Americans with a heritage from Germanic culture, a Welsh culture, or French or Swedish. Granted, there are similarities between these but they are also distinct in themselves. America has always been a nation of immigrants. It has always been multicultural. What has united American’s has typically been then a civic nationalism. Allegiance to the constitution and the principles of it, namely the freedom that comes with classical liberalism. I imagine this is partly why said people say they are only “American” rather than white. I also imagine part of the reason why they say they are American rather than White is because it used to be the case that if you made that claim, you were possibly if not absolutely a racist. Now the ideology has changed. Now if you don’t make that claim then you are possibly if not absolutely a racist, if only unconsciously so.

Put simply, this denial of the existence of culture—which involves erasing, marginalizing, silencing, and degrading nonwhite experiences—is an example of what Buddhist traditions identify as ignorance or delusion (avidya).

Certainly the author is ignorant here, since avidya has nothing to do with worldly ignorance. The author is apparently unaware that avidya is ignorance of the four noble truths, rather than being ignorance of her leftist worldview.

But as Larry Yang notes in Ann Gleig’s chapter, altering Buddhist teachings and practices to make them culturally accessible is not the problem; the problem is that the dharma is being presented in a white-dominant culture marked by white privilege and racism, such that the dharma is being shaped to adapt to, rather than alter, injurious white cultural patterns. The unquestioned assumptions of whiteness continue to manifest in the harmful, arrogant attitudes used to justify the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual authority of whites even while claiming a desire to be more “inclusive."

I assume the “injurious cultural patterns” which “justify the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual authority of whites” has to do with Buddhist centres which delegitimise merit making in favour of meditation, the apparent real meat of the Dhamma. I agree that this is a problem, and I do dislike secular Buddhism for it’s rather shallow presentation of the Dhamma. That said, why do we find this attitude amongst Western converts? I think largely it has to do with the rise of secularism and anti-religious sentiment in the west, which has seen religion fall into the background for many white Europeans and increasingly Americans. Most of this has been driven by the left. As tradition was eroded, society progressed forward. Religion, being of the old, is seen as something outdated if not backward. In short, if the author wants to find the cause of the issues she has highlighted I would look to progressive politics and the left first.


I liked Bhikkhu Cintita’s essays from a while ago about American Folk Buddhism:


Interestingly I heard an NPR episode about black women getting together to do double dutch as a way of playing and getting exercise. One woman said, “when the street lights come on, we all knew we had to go home. So tonight I told the ladies that the street lights were on and they all laughed and said we don’t have to follow those rules anymore.” They went on to talk about how proud they were that Michelle Obama did double dutch and that regardless of your profession or wealth, Doctors and the homeless all knew and loved double dutch. They also said they were trying to get younger folks with their cell phones and ipads into double dutch so it doesn’t die out.

And when I heard that, I thought, that is definitely a black cultural thing. No one in my white cultural experience does double dutch. Most don’t know what it is. But for blacks and their shared cultural background, it is a major part of their identity.

Americans of spanish descent celebrate Quinceañera, something unheard of in white american cultural experience. To claim that white people don’t have cultural similarities strikes me as an absurdity. American blacks have a unique culture, American hispanic have a unique culture, American koreans have a unique culture and white americans have a unique culture which includes things like bluegrass, country music, grange fairs, nascar and turkey shoots. To claim there is no unique white culture makes zero sense.

There are different white cultures, German and so on, but there is no White Culture. Whites aren’t all the same ethnic group. They don’t all share a singular culture anymore than all black people do. I mean, I’m Welsh (in case the username wasn’t a giveaway). I have a different culture to other whites even on my own island let alone on the continent.

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It would take minimum 10,000 words to describe the diversity among white Americans. The only thing we all agree on is that air conditioning is really important in the summer. That’s about it. :joy:



Well put.

O wow, you’re right.

The integration of “merit making” and “meditation” is found right there in the Dhamma itself.

Quoting from the book:

How did Buddhism in the West become so white

Perhaps they meant to say, “Buddhism in the US”? My experience of Buddhism in Australia for over 20 years has been one where the community is highly multi-racial. Yes, there are largely white Buddhist groups in Australia too, especially among the secular mindfulness and Zen groups, i.e. those that are primarily sourced from the US. But the central organizations in the major cities are quite diverse: the BSWA, BSV, Buddhist Library.

And I’m hoping they addressed this, but shout out to the US Buddhist groups that have forged a diverse community, even if they are the exception. One example is the American Buddhist Mission, at whose kathina I saw a rich diversity of folk from all over.


lol. Wrong. Just because all black people don’t skip double dutch, doesn’t mean there is not black culture. The denial of white culture is a predominantly right wing notion (or do we call them “rightist” now) to deny racism and white privilege. Just because you do not do something, like enjoy nascar as a “welsh man” doesn’t mean that nascar isn’t a major part of white culture. You don’t have to participate in the culture. But that doesn’t mean there is no white culture.


From what I gathered,this isn’t what is implied by the text. The Anningson review states…

At the outset, it should be mentioned that “whiteness” in this text is not tied strictly to phenotype, but the more academic theory of white supremacy and the racist notions which back up this thinking and way of interacting with the world. What the authors point out is not a predominance of folks with European heritage in modern Buddhism, but the ways in which ideological notions of whiteness (and Aryanism) have been promoted and favored in portrayals of Buddhism in the West;[1] this focus on white supremacy has even led to the disparagement of traditional Asian forms of Buddhism in light of supposedly new forms of dharma untangled from their cultural and historical heritage. What is of course ironic about this presentation of Buddhism is that the religion takes on Western notions of individualism, rationalism, and self-fulfillment in this supposed removal of cultural baggage.


I should add that white culture in the US is predominantly “scotch-irish” and english protestant culture. The Irish, which would be considered white, have historically been discriminated against and not considered part of polite company. No Irish Need Apply was a common sign in early 20th century american. White culture does not mean the culture of all white people, but the predominant culture in america starting in the 1700’s and continuing on till today.

When I first came to New york, I worked at the New York Historical Society. In the book on history of the New york historical society it states that the society was founded by people from “good english stock”.


I don’t think it’s “rightist”, because it’s incorrect in a certain sense. I don’t think there is a single overriding “white culture”, in as much as there are a whole bunch of regional ones. For example, as a city dwelling midwesterner of Anglo-Celtic descent, my outlook, lifeways, and mores are vastly different from the German descended whites that live in a rural setting literally only an hour away from me by car.

We don’t even speak the same dialect.

And I can’t speak for them, but NASCAR most assuredly plays no part in my culture. Ew. Case in point, I can drive out to that area, and without even trying, find someone flying Confederate colors.

I’d shave my head with a cheese grater and then set myself on fire before disrespect my own ancestors and fly the treason rag. The idea that I share cultural similarity with people like that is just wrong.

A great book on this subject is *American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America *, By Colin Woodard.

Even my own ancestry, of which one half genuinely despised the other ( English Protestants vs Irish Catholics), had very, very different lived experiences of being white in America.

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Sure there is. Anglo Saxon Protestant is the main white culture.


What about Jewish-Americans? Are they white? Do they belong to white culture? I had someone tell me once that I’m not white. I asked her, “okay, what am I then?” And she said, “you’re not white, you’re Jewish.” Well, I certainly look white, but she’s right, it’s a completely different ethnicity and culture being raised Jewish. For example, Jewish-Americans don’t go hunting or fishing. They have a different religion than other white people, different traditions and rites of passage.

What about bi-racial people? Or multi-racial people? What culture is Tiger Woods? He’s a mix of Black, white, Asian, American Indian.