top of page

Confessions of a Teenage Buddhist: Believing in the Face of Religious Erasure and Whitewashing

Updated: Mar 12

Dear Asian Youth,

I was talking to my therapist the other day about a mantra—which is a phrase or incantation repeated as a motivator, reminder, or meditational aid—I had come up with for when I’m experiencing a dissociative episode and how it keeps me feeling connected to the world, when out of the blue she said, “I don’t usually tell people this kind of thing, but I feel like you’re the kind of person who would be interested in it: I had an experience where I saw the world as a tapestry through my third eye.”

I was completely shocked. Not because she believed in the third eye, or saw through her own, or even because she trusted me to divulge her experience to—but because she recognized me as someone who would believe in that as well.

My Vietnamese mother is a mix of her Buddhist roots and the Christian indoctrination she experienced as a young refugee. So as a child myself, while my mom lit incense, offered up fruit, and prayed to Quan Yin every night, she also taught me to believe in God, heaven, and the like. And around the age of ten, when I told my mom I didn’t really believe in God, she warned me not to even think that. While I doubted and tried to reject Christianity, I did believe in karma, reincarnation, and the enlightenment of Buddhism. But growing up in a white conservative town, it was clear that if I didn’t believe in God, and if I wasn’t Christian or Catholic like everybody else, I didn’t believe in anything—and to believe in nothing was to be nothing to them.

So because I knew I wasn’t exactly an atheist, and wanted to have something acceptable to believe in, I continued to internalize the white Christianity I was surrounded with. I engaged in the spaces of faith that were comfortable to those around me, spoke about spirituality in rhetoric that was familiar to them, and allowed them to try to convert me. The first boy I dated my freshman year was Christian, as was my best friend during my junior and senior years. Several people I was very close to, as well as a large portion of my school, were Catholic, and they all attended the same church positioned right beside my high school. I often went to Christian services, Bible study, and Catholic Mass with my friends for “educational purposes,” as I would say. I’d sing along, pray along, listen to their sermons and conversations. And they loved my enthusiasm and curiosity, and the chance to bring me into their world.

Meanwhile, I had decided to publicly call myself “agnostic.” But of course, that wasn’t necessarily true. I would openly talk about my Buddhist beliefs to my friends, but I would only describe myself as a Buddhist “philosophically”—by which I meant I believed only in the secular values taught in Buddhism, such as the necessity of change and impermanence—and that, to them, was passable.

Of course, throughout my friendships with my Christian and Catholic peers and my explorations of their faiths, I had the sense that they regarded me as being less than. Little things, almost imperceptible, like their patronizing words that showed me they thought of themselves as better people because of our religious differences, or their lack of interest in my own beliefs, showed me that. But I ignored it. I ignored it until I couldn’t anymore.

One day I was on a walk with my closest Catholic friend when we got on the topic of spirituality. While I was talking about my own spirituality, I referred to myself in part as a Buddhist, and he told me that, well, Buddhists could still adopt other religions (which is simply not true if we are referring to any person who devotes themselves to following a religion). It was the first time one of my friends had overtly alluded to me converting, and not only that, had also implied Buddhism to be lacking in seriousness and devoutness enough to be a real and valid religion. It gave me an itch that I had to scratch. So later I asked him if he thought I was a faithful person. And he said no.

While it wasn’t all his fault, given that I did my best to pass off my spirituality as mere philosophy, we were close enough and had had enough conversations for him to know the extent of my beliefs. Which is why I knew when he said these things that it was meant as a condescension to Buddhism, him clarifying that my faith would always be below his.