By Lien Shutt I was born in Saigon in 1964. My birth mother was a clerk at the American Embassy. When she realized that she was dying of cancer, she asked her boss to help her find Americans to adopt my older sister and me. In 1973, European Americans adopted us. Because my adoptive parents worked for the State Department, part of my upbringing was overseas. In between these overseas posts, my parents moved the family to Virginia with the specific purpose of, in their words, "Americanizing the children."
In the early 1970s, the concept of "multiculturalism" had not been developed, at least not in my parents' consciousness. Although my parents sponsored two refugee families from Vietnam, I had no other consistent interaction with other Vietnamese. The concept of helping me or my siblings retain or access our racial and cultural heritage was not part of my parents' thinking.
My parents were good-hearted, kind people who raised us the best they knew how. They both told me that going to Vietnam in the late 1960s changed their lives, opening up their worldview. But they are also the products of their upbringing, generation, and culture. For them, the United States' overseas actions were helpful and necessary efforts to assist "developing" nations. In no way did they consider their actions race-based.
As part of my "Americanization," I was baptized and raised Presbyterian. My mother was a devout Christian and attended church regularly. As a child, I was required to attend church regularly. In my early teens, I realized that what was preached and what was practiced were two very different things and I refused to go to church anymore. I even became quite antireligion. But while my experience with Christianity did not work, I knew something was missing in my life.
Glimpses of Buddhism wafted in and out of my life. During my first year of college, a good friend and I talked about learning to meditate, but nothing ever came of it. In my early twenties, I had a Thai friend who practiced Buddhism and had an altar. I wanted to ask her about the practice, but somehow never did. And then we grew apart. Four years ago, when I first moved to San Francisco, I lived just down the street from a Zen temple. I walked by its locked doors several times and noticed the people going in and out. I did not see any people of color. After several months, I got up enough nerve to call the temple. No one returned my call.
Then, in 1997, a Vietnamese American friend had told me about the Day of Mindfulness at Spirit Rock. I had read a few of Thich Nhat Hanh's books, including Peace Is Every Step and The Heart of Understanding, but had never been to any of his events.
My friends and I arrived together and found a spot among the large crowd on the hills. The event had not started. I wandered around, feeling overwhelmed by the size of the crowd (approximately 2000) and the fact that it was mostly people of European ancestry. I sat down on a little knoll behind the crowd. There, looking at the bamboo stage with two tall palm fronds swaying in the wind, I began to cry. I tried to resist. I reminded myself that I was among strangers. But, against my own will, I felt my heart softening. I cried uncontrollably, with large, gulping sobs, and felt release.
I also felt a sense of coming home.
Later, as Sister Chan Khong led the Touching the Earth exercise, this feeling deepened. The ritual grounded me. I had always thought that I needed to return to Vietnam before I could really "heal." The practice helped me understand that my connection to the universe was not dependent upon a sense of place. It also helped me see that the universe can contain all our emotions, including our pain. For me, the exercise rested on the vital Buddhist principle that we can touch peace by accepting the here and now.
I believe that Buddhism has a distinct resonance for Vietnamese- or Asian Pacific Americans such as myself. For Asian Americans, there is a level of understanding, a level of affinity that comes from a family or cultural background we may not even recognize until we begin sitting. Buddhism has a certain flavor for us that it may not have for others.
An analogy I keep thinking of relates to eating rice. In Saigon, I grew up eating white rice almost every day. Here in the West, we are told that white rice is not as nutritionally sound as brown. Trying to be health conscious, I have eaten brown rice, but I prefer the taste of white rice and eat it almost exclusively. There is nothing like the taste of white rice for me. And the smell of it cooking is the most comforting smell in the world!
Currently, I practice with a Sangha of people of color. We are a nondenominational group. I tried several other Sanghas in the Bay Area, but was turned off by the lack of racial diversity and the coolness of my reception. While I acknowledge that my path back to Buddhism adds its own unique difficulties, Sanghas must address their lack of diversity if they want to be accessible to Asians and other people of color.
On one level, lack of diversity in our Sanghas reflects current race conditions as a whole. At a People of Color retreat last year, many Asian Pacific Americans and mixed-race Asian Pacific Americans talked about how Buddhism was part of their family background but they had not been aware of it because of assimilation or acculturation.
On another level, it can be difficult when European Americans do not understand why practicing with a Sangha that does not have many people of color "should be" a difficulty. Many do not contradict my experience outright, but repeatedly talk about how finding refuge with a Sangha is a hard task for all of us. They move immediately to offering absolute truths. On one level, I agree, but on another, it is only a subtler form of racism.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about relative and absolute truths by discussing the way we look at ocean waves. When we look at waves, we may decide that there are big waves and little waves, or high waves and low waves. We may see the beginning of a wave and the end of a wave. But if we look deeply, we see that a wave is made of water. Water is its essential self. As long as a wave thinks of itself as a wave, it may become sad or happy, with superiority or inferiority complexes, and it may fear death. When the wave sees that it is water, it will never have such worries. It transcends the notions of space and time, and comparative judgments.
Relative truth is a wave. Absolute truth is water. This teaching is true for all of us. The absolute truth is that we are all connected. We are the same. The color of our skin does not matter. But the relative truth is that we live in an imperfect world. Racism exists. Race itself is a social construct, made up of how others perceive and, therefore, relate to us. Our society is not "colorblind"; the historical experiences of people of color must be taken into account. I may know that I am water, but as long as others see me as a wave, I will be treated as a wave. And, while you may see me as water, as long as others see me as a wave, that is how I am treated—especially if, like the media, they have the power to distribute their concepts of how they see me and others like me.
In the absolute world, how I decide to experience my world is the key to freedom; in the relative world, my perception can impact the immediate moment only so much. I may know that the person who called me a "Jap" and tells me to "Go back where you belong!" as she beats me is only saying such things out of ignorance, fear, and personal pain, but this knowledge doesn't change my need for stitches in the gash on my head. Nor does it change the social structure that allows such acts of hatred to occur. I may think I am an "American," but if most people perceive me as a "foreigner"—as reported in a recent study on Asian Pacific American race relations—then I will be treated with less rights if not outright hatred.
Racism and other oppressions are based on relative truths. Like most people, I want to live in a world of absolute truth, but the world is filled with relative truths. For me, a major gift of Buddhism is the ability to sit with complexities; to see, acknowledge, and be able to contain both truths. So, even if brown rice is "better" for me, I prefer white rice. I have tried brown rice. In my everyday, relative world, the taste of white rice is sweet and feeds me on a deeper level than nutritionally. And, while white rice may taste especially divine to us Vietnamese or Asian Pacific Americans, finding Sanghas in the United States that serve white rice is hard.
In his teachings on the Four Noble Truths, Thich Nhat Hanh says that we must learn to "embrace" our suffering. An important part of my practice is to fully experience my suffering; to fully accept the impact of relative truths on my life. In an oppressive system, creating conditions in which the disenfranchised question their experience is half of the objective—"Did he really mean to touch my breast on that crowded bus? Maybe she just didn't see me here in front of the line? When she said to bring a guest to the party, does that include my (same sex) partner? Am I overreacting or being too sensitive?" In an oppressive system, self-validation is an act of conscious, mindful concentration, and to accept that one's experience has merit is a revolutionary act.
In the West, we try to alleviate pain immediately. Have a headache? Feel depressed? Take a pill. Then, you can go on with the "important" things in life. Similarly, in Buddhist practice, we may rush to master the Third and Fourth Truths before fully accepting the full implication of the First Truth. A deeper observation of the First Truth needs to be emphasized in practice. As a product of this society, I too run for relief from my pain. Often I run to absolute truth, to the belief that if only we all operated from an absolute truth viewpoint, then things would be different. I try to push away the pains of relative reality.
My practice challenge is to understand that in every ocean, there are waves, and to see that while those waves may take me to the other shore, the trip will not always be smooth. Undertows and tsunami are also part of the nature of oceans. My challenge is to not wish that I were somewhere else, to not pretend that these forces are not happening, or to rush to figure how they could or should be different. My challenge is, first, to fully be with what has arisen. To be with the ocean as she is: as water that contains waves.
Lien Shutt practices with the Buddhists of Color Sangha in the San Francisco Bay area.