Over the past year, Asian Americans have faced a spike in hate crimes across the United States. Recent research by the Pew Center found that 45% of Asian adults have reported experiencing an incident tied to their racial or ethnic background since the pandemic began. The fear and uncertainty of pandemic life can often be navigated through a healthy spiritual practice, and Chenxing Han’s Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists comes at a crucial time.
Han, a researcher and former Buddhist chaplain, takes the reader through interviews with Asian American Buddhists, through the lens of trailblazers, bridge builders, integrators, and those making refuge. This groundbreaking study captures an emergent identity, offering a vital perspective on a group often overlooked within both Buddhist discourse and Asian American discourse. It reflects Han’s practice as both an author and chaplain, and she introduced me to the idea of authorship as a form of chaplaincy and community care.
I sat down with Chenxing Han over Zoom to talk about her new book ahead of May We Gather, an event she co-facilitated and organized in response to the recent religious and racial attacks on Asians and Asian Americans. A hybrid event, it was streamed live from the Higashi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, which was recently vandalized and partly burned.
ANA MINA: “My experience with Buddhism somewhat mirrors my life as an Asian American — I don’t fit in with first-generations, I don’t fit in with white America, and so I have to find my own way.” These words from an anonymous Chinese American practitioner in your book seem to capture both a Buddhist experience and an Asian American experience. In this moment of rising hate against Asians, what does Buddhism offer for Asian Americans?
Here I mean my question in two senses: (1) Buddhism as a religious and philosophical tradition, and (2) Buddhism as a set of institutions in the United States with specific histories and practices.
CHENXING HAN: One of the first things that comes to mind is that Buddhism offers Asian Americans a common ground that honors cultural specificity. It makes Asia a coherent concept beyond merely a geographic entity, since Buddhism was or is the dominant religion in much of East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia. At online book events for Be the Refuge, I’ve been seeing that level of diversity in the audience, including people from West Asia.
In Buddhism, there’s an understanding that hate is rooted in ignorance and is a potential in all human beings. We must cultivate compassion for those who are suffering, including those who are afflicted by their own hate. Buddhism gives us a genealogy of hate, an understanding of where hate comes from. We reflect on dependent origination (paticca samuppada), webs of causes and conditions. The causes and conditions for anti-Asian violence didn’t arise just in our lifetime.
I would love to wake up tomorrow to a world without hate crimes, but I know this isn’t realistic. Buddhism helps us understand the urgency of acting to alleviate suffering, while also encouraging a healthy level of humility. We act not alone but in concert with others. We may not see the fruits of our labors in our lifetime, but we plant wholesome seeds and strive to act skillfully anyway. We understand racism and racist attitudes as rooted in greed, hatred and delusion and respond to these poisons with generosity, love, and clarity.
It seems like so often people of color are asked to be patient about issues that require urgent change. How do we find a balance there?
I’m thinking about patience insofar as it supports activists in their own wellbeing. Urgency drives our work, but it can also lead to burnout when we carry too much by ourselves, or when we work at an unsustainable pace. Buddhist teachings and communities can help lighten the weight and support our activism over the long run. We recognize that we can’t always get the results we want immediately, because the causes and conditions are very complex. Still, we find ways to joyfully persist.
It pains me to read articles about activists who are so crushed by the urgency of their work that they don’t have the time and space to take care of themselves. This takes a toll on their health, and it can literally translate into lost years when the stressors become overwhelming and lead to burnout or, worse, early death. A recipe for long-term activism needs to include pause and rest as key ingredients.
Where do you think institutions fit in?
For Buddhist institutions in particular, ritual is crucial. Buddhism offers powerful rituals for death and dying, for fear and bereavement. How do we, the living, construct a relationship between the living and the dead? Buddhist institutions help us honor our ancestors, our families, and our fundamental kinship with each other. Our faith helps us build bonds of affinity that connect us across lifetimes. That’s how we come to imagine beloved community. For the May 4 event “May we Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors,” which I’m co-organizing with Duncan Ryukan Williams and Funie Hsu, it’s been incredible to bring together rituals and chants from different Asian American communities. The gathering helps us appreciate the points of distinction between different Asian American Buddhist cultures and practices, as well as the places of deep resonance.
One of the many difficulties of the pandemic is that most Buddhist temples are not open. These institutions are so important as physical spaces. For one, people can hear their Asian languages on the ordinary register of food and family, but also on the elevated register of liturgy and scripture. Temples are intergenerational spaces and repositories of institutional memory. If you want to know the history of Cambodian Americans in Stockton, go to the Khmer Buddhist temple there. The institution holds the generosity and sacrifice that has sustained the community for generations.
I was struck by how much the internet seemed to play a role in your book, from how you located interviewees to speak with to your profiles of the Buddhist blogosphere. How was the pandemic shaped the current situation?
Sadly, the Buddhist blogosphere has waned in the past decade though social media seems to have partly taken its place. In the past year, I’ve been struck by the shift from in-person services to online sanghas. The May 4 event is hybrid. Viewers from across the nation and around the world can watch the livestream. The ceremony itself will gather dozens of American Buddhist leaders of different sects and ethnicities at Higashi Honganji Temple in Los Angeles, which was vandalized earlier this year. We wish the in-person aspect could be larger, but we are following COVID guidelines strictly.
The hybrid model can be powerful, as it’s anchored in physical space but reaches a broader audience. I wonder if we’ll see more of these hybrid forms of ritual and community building going forward. We want to eat and laugh together. We want to be in the same room together. It’s unnatural to only connect in these online. At the same time, I’m so grateful for these online spaces. My connection to Buddhism over the past 13 months has mostly taken place online, and I’ve been able to Zoom into sanghas all around the country as a result.
You bring a lot of your life experience into the book, and I get a sense of you not just as a researcher but as a person, an Asian American Buddhist yourself navigating this identity. Can you talk about how that’s shaped your experience as an author?
I began this project as a master’s thesis, never intending to make a book out of it. But when I couldn’t find a single book centering the voices of Asian American Buddhists as a pan-ethnic, pan-sectarian group, I realized I needed to write a book.
I wrote most of the book while living in Asia, first in Taiwan and later in Cambodia and Thailand. Being both a racial and religious minority in America can be exhausting. Living in Southeast Asia, where I was part of the racial and religious majority, gave me a new vantage point and protected space to write. Geographically and psychically distanced from the fraught nature of race relations in America, freed from the pressures of writing for an academic audience or for a white gaze, I had a chance to play with what it means to be Asian American Buddhist. How do you write a book about a category that doesn’t really exist?
It seems that so much of your research, then, was opening up how we might think about this category. What I appreciated was how you dove into so many different identities and experiences, giving us a rich sense of the many forms of Asian American Buddhism that exist.
How to study a group that hasn’t really been defined, an identity that’s still in the making? I didn’t want to prematurely limit the parameters of the category, so I was very careful with how I languaged my call for interviewees. I invited people of full or partial Asian heritage to speak to me. People who traced their heritage to anywhere on the geographic continent of Asia. I also didn’t require interviewees to be card-carrying Buddhists, which turned up to be prescient. Some people spoke of the complex reasons why they didn’t always feel comfortable openly identifying as Buddhist.
I tried to be as inviting as possible. I interviewed people with the intention of starting open dialogues rather than chasing final answers. I asked interviewees to talk about the intersection of race and religion in their lives. For many, it was the first time they thought of themselves as Asian American Buddhists. I spoke with anyone who was willing to talk to me. I studied Buddhist chaplaincy as part of my master’s program and completed a yearlong chaplaincy training program after finishing my thesis and before moving to Asia. The deep listening and self-reflection required by spiritual care turned out to be eminently transferrable to the process of research and writing.
So much has changed since you finished your book, and even since the book was published. What have been some of the more notable shifts in the past year with regards to your topic?
Black-Asian solidarity gives me a sense of hope, with the confluence of Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate. Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Duncan Ryukan Williams were in conversation on the subject of reparations. I was moved by what Coates was saying about the imperative to extend our empathy beyond people who look like ourselves. He talked about how it makes no sense to stop doing the work just because we won’t see the results in our lifetime. We have benefited so much from all the ancestors before us.
As Asian American Buddhists gain more visibility and grapple with what it means to belong to a category that is still being defined, we are figuring out how to relate to this new identity in ways that are expansive and inclusive. Centering Asian American Buddhists helpfully complicates the black-white binary that so prevails in conversations about race in the United States. Especially in a Buddhist context, this binary is limiting; two-thirds of American Buddhists are of Asian heritage.
As an author, what do you hope to achieve with the book?
This book is way more outgoing than me! I’d love to see it continue this journey of reaching unexpected places. I’ve been very lucky that readers have been engaging this book with such thoughtfulness. I’m interested in the depth of the book’s impact, the reckonings and conversations it sparks. Conversations about race in American Buddhism are going to be uncomfortable and fraught, but we need to have them.
Aaron, the late author of the Angry Asian Buddhist blog, cautioned us against becoming complacent. His example lit a fire under my butt and reminded me that we can’t expect change if we cling to comfort. I know my book has some readers shaken up; I hope it’s inviting enough that they’ll stay. It took me many years to complete this labor of labor. It was a vulnerable, uncomfortable process, especially when I realized that I needed to write myself in.
People have characterized the book as scholarship, ethnography, memoir, literature, history, anthology, manifesto, and more. Like Asian American Buddhists, Be the Refuge doesn’t fit easily into any single genre.
I’m not a chaplain in an official capacity anymore, but I use that training every day. At the heart of the book is spiritual friendship. It’s a book that continues the legacy of Aaron Lee, who cared enough for our Buddhist communities that he wasn’t afraid to speak up against injustice. Before his death, Aaron spoke passionately about the need for us to be the very refuges we wish to see in the world.