Confessions of a Teenage Buddhist: Believing in the Face of Religious Erasure and Whitewashing
a short story by Kyla-Yến Giffin
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.
It was something I hadn’t been prepared to face: not only would I never be Christian, but I was a Buddhist, which set me apart from and below my Christian and Catholic peers in their eyes. And this is only a subsection of the reality that we, as Asian-Americans, eventually come to learn: that we will never be white, and that to white people, we will always be inferior, perpetual foreigners.
As I reflected on my friendships and engagement with Christianity, I saw how I had told myself I needed to learn about a culture that was already ingrained in me, in all of us. Christianity, and the ideas of white normalcy and white supremacy, are the norm for those of us in America. They infiltrate every textbook we read, poison every idea of right and wrong, plant themselves into the minds of children of color. So then, why did I still feel the need to teach myself about white Christianity if it was already something I was steeped in? Because I knew that, no matter what, I would never be accepted as an equal to my white Christian peers. But because I strove for that, I forced my beliefs to become more palatable to my peers, framing Buddhism as merely being a casual philosophy to me, rather than the enriching and ancestral source of light and peace that it has been in my life.
This brings up how the culture of New Age ‘mindfulness’ that is a part of Western Buddhism in America and other Western countries is further effacing Buddhism as a valuable spirituality. The concept of spiritual mindfulness among white people is mostly based on meditation and yoga (both of which originated in ancient India) and may also include such rituals as lighting incense. However, that is usually the extent of their understanding of Buddhism. Western Buddhism focuses on the practice of mindfulness and Buddhist rituals without the belief or values linked to it, and without an understanding of these rituals’ cultural and religious significance. It is more about a rejection of commonplace Christianity and church as a ritual than it is about Buddhism as a faith—which is, of course, why most of those who teach and practice it are white. Buddhism is thus turned into nothing more than an aesthetic, a label for white people to flaunt as something that makes them seem more “cultured.” This is an undermining of Buddhism as a religion. In fact, the name “Western Buddhism” in itself is an oxymoron. Buddhism is not, and can never be, Western. It is and always will be an Eastern religion, inseparable from its culturally and geographically determined origins and influences. And to take a highly complex and culturally significant faith, separate it from its South Asian origins, and condense it down to nothing more than a few rituals with no backing that is then taught and practiced by white people, is an act of colonization and erasure.
So how is it fair that, while a white person halfheartedly believing in and practicing Buddhism as a philosophy, as a Western mindfulness exercise, is acceptable and good, an Asian person such as myself believing in and/or practicing Buddhism with culturally competent earnestness, is not?
This is why it took me a lifetime to embrace Buddhism and all it meant to me. It wasn’t until I was seventeen, in fact, that I visited my first Vietnamese Buddhist temple with my mother. It’s located in San Jose, CA, the predominantly Asian city my mother and her family used to live in, and which I had lived in when I was first born. It’s difficult to explain the beauty and comfort of such a place as this temple. There were beautiful trees and gardens with ponds surrounding the temple, as well as small shrines with incense burning or burnt out before them. We could hear a recording of a Vietnamese chant playing all around us. In front of the entrance to the temple were small prayer books to take and cubbies to place your shoes in before entering. Inside the temple, beautiful tapestries hung around the walls and pillars, and golden statues sat at the front of the room, facing the people who were praying. My mother and I met a monk while walking around the grounds who said to my mother (in Vietnamese) that she could tell I had a pious nature. Given that I was so used to being a religious outsider in white Christian spaces, to have this said about me by a Buddhist monk made me feel invited, not only into the temple, but into the religion. I wasn’t quite an insider here, of course, with so much more still to learn about Buddhism—but it was a space in which I felt safe enough to simply believe without judgment and fear.
Now I know that therapy is also a safe space for me to believe. My experience with my therapist was one of deep validation, and is exactly why I sought out an Asian person to help navigate and manage my mental health and identities—and it’s nice to know that I made the right decision there. I’m not sure if my therapist could tell how much she made me smile when she said what she did, or if she could hear the excitement in my voice when I started telling her all about my spiritual beliefs, but I know I’ll be talking about Buddhism a lot more with her from now on. More than that, I’ll be continuing to educate myself on and exploring my faith with my newfound confidence to be fearless in my believing.
And being fearless in your beliefs? It’s not an easy thing, especially when you’re a kid growing up in a world where your religion is barely seen as a religion at all. But it’s in that same world that being fearless in your beliefs is most needed. Because faith is a powerful thing. Faith is what keeps us going, keeps us loving, keeps us fighting against an unjust, unethical society for change. Faith is what can never be taken from us.
- Kyla-Yến Giffin