Be the Refuge, by Chenxing Han
Paperback | $17.95
Published by North Atlantic Books
Jan 26, 2021 | 344 Pages | 6 x 9 | ISBN 9781623175238
From the publisher
A must-read for modern sanghas–Asian American Buddhists in their own words, on their own terms.
Despite the fact that two thirds of U.S. Buddhists identify as Asian American, mainstream perceptions about what it means to be Buddhist in America often whitewash and invisibilize the diverse, inclusive, and intersectional communities that lie at the heart of American Buddhism.
Be the Refuge is both critique and celebration, calling out the erasure of Asian American Buddhists while uplifting the complexity and nuance of their authentic stories and vital, thriving communities. Drawn from in-depth interviews with a pan-ethnic, pan-Buddhist group, Be the Refuge is the first book to center young Asian American Buddhists’ own voices. With insights from multi-generational, second-generation, convert, and socially engaged Asian American Buddhists, Be the Refuge includes the stories of trailblazers, bridge-builders, integrators, and refuge-makers who hail from a wide range of cultural and religious backgrounds.
Championing nuanced representation over stale stereotypes, Han and the 89 interviewees in Be the Refuge push back against false narratives like the Oriental monk, the superstitious immigrant, and the banana Buddhist–typecasting that collapses the multivocality of Asian American Buddhists into tired, essentialized tropes. Encouraging frank conversations about race, representation, and inclusivity among Buddhists of all backgrounds, Be the Refuge embodies the spirit of interconnection that glows at the heart of American Buddhism.
The Sumeru review
A wabi-sabi blend exploring the lived experience of Young Adult Asian American Buddhists, Be the Refuge has all the inviting indeterminacy of a photograph by Rinko Kawauchi, coupled with extensive interviews and homage to those who went before.
Han’s book also bravely and unblinkingly unpacks the fraught history of American racism toward Asians, as prelude to her conversations with contemporaries in Dharma practice.
Figuring prominently in the early sections of the book, the late Arunlikhati (author of the blog, Angry Asian Buddhist) serves as a touchstone for many of the points Han returns to in subsequent pages.
If you are reading this you know I am an old white male JuBu from Canada who publishes Buddhist books by authors from all over the world (including Ms. Han as a contributor to A Thousand Hands: A Guide to Caring for Your Buddhist Community), as well as having written a few myself. I suppose I’ve had quite an education in the cultural aspects of many lineages, as well as wonderful lessons from the teachers among them. I have my opinions, but I largely consider them to be useful only for me and try not to impose them on others, because I recognize that imitating my lived experience would be virtually impossible for anybody else, and probably not very instructive either.
Nevertheless, I am, like Chenxing, dedicating myself to honouring the Buddhists who are both our teachers and our fellow citizens.
In 2011, I conducted the first national sociological survey of Canada’s Buddhist organizations, in association with the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion, with the guidance and support of Dr. Frances Garrett, based on the Sumeru directory I had created, which at that time comprised more than 500 temples, centres, charities, dojos and such – across Canada. The key findings from that study were published in The Journal of Global Buddhism in 2013.
And, like Chenxing, I discovered that in many organizations, succession planning was not top of mind in terms of how to sustain their sanghas. In some cases, it resulted from cognitive dissonance between one generation and the next; in other cases, it resulted from existing in marginalized and impecunious communities; while in yet others it resulted from an overabundance of cult devotion to a demagogue.
Perhaps it is a function of being in Canada rather than the USA (a trope, I know, but forgive me), but the Buddhist folk I met here seem a lot more comfortable with permeable identities. Chenxing mentions Dr. Wendy Cadge’s description of moving from an “ascribed identity” to an “achieved identity.” That is a very succinct way of describing stages of our life journey, just as Gail Sheehy wrote about at great length in Passages. It resonates closely with Maslow’s pyramid of actualization. In other words, it’s a universal journey travelled along many paths.
At the risk of exposing my ignorance, I wonder if we dwell too much on the intersectionality of our many identities and lose sight of the transcendent spiritual power of Dharma practice. One of my Dharma friends has warned me that “the intersectionalists are destroying the Dharma from within, with their emphasis on our tribal identities and assertion that we can never and will never understand each other.” He was pretty worked up about it.
Is it my Canadian sensibilities that lead me to believe that a syncretic approach is more pragmatic and fulfilling than orthodoxy? Well, no. There seem to be plenty of delusion and identity politics in Canada too, more than enough to go ‘round.
As I write this, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic rages. Listening to the ever-ongoing news cycle of statistics, conflicts, hopes hanging on a technological fix but boggled by the complexity of the global logistics it requires, puzzlement about the future, and generalized malaise, any sense of longer-range thinking has been set aside in the hurly-burly of the moment.
Almost 130 pages into Chenxing’s book, I’ve yet to encounter anybody seriously discussing #climatestrike, #MeToo, or #BLM.
Further disclosure: in another of my identities, I am a technological design educator. A lot of what I teach has to do with future technologies, since the students of today will be the architects of the future. I’m not teaching them about the technologies themselves, but rather giving them a grounding in the kind of critical thinking and design project management we need to do the work that will be needed to heal our sick relationship with this planet and all its inhabitants. A lot of has to do with risk mitigation and preparing for unforeseen consequences from the best-laid plans.
The intersection of that identity and my Dharma identity yielded my 2019 book, Bodhisattva 4.0: A Primer for Engaged Buddhists.
However, this is not a plug for me. I write it to point out that our personal lived experience, while obviously unavoidable and hopefully profoundly enriching, is not the nexus for our most fruitful expression of our Dharma practice. That must be in our relationship with the world, our mahasangha, as it were.
The Japanese American experience in San Francisco cannot easily be compared with the Tibetan Canadian experience in Montreal, for example. The prayer beads that unite them pass through individual fingers in 84,000 different ways.
So rather than focusing on specific quotes from specific interviewees reflecting on specific situations of alienation, stereotyping and confusion, Chenxing returns to her own evolution, referring to her own deepening practice as akin to steeping tea, rather than conversion. Discussion of conversion, what it means, and its limits, looms large in the middle section of the book.
I was intrigued when I read on the tagline at the top of the book’s front cover, “[former] Buddhist chaplain, Chenxing Han” and I wondered why the termination of that identity would be so prominently displayed. Again, I can only refer back to my own lived experience. I publish books about chaplaincy and I consider it to be the face of spiritual practice for the future. In this pandemic, we have seen a profound awakening in respect for those who care for others, regardless of their religious affiliation or socio-economic status.
In Canada, where we have socialized health delivery systems, this looks a lot different from in the United States. In my teacher life, I have often recommended the book, Design for Care: Innovating Healthcare Experience by Peter Jones (a Canadian) as a way to see the system rather than individual “heroes” and to explore how systemic design changes can improve every aspect of the healthcare sector.
Perhaps a similar phase shift (Roshi Joan Halifax’s words, recently, from a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview about helping healthcare workers cope in the pandemic) will take place in how we see our sanghas.
Gradually, as Dharma practice deepens, we become less concerned with our own spiritual identity, accomplishment or issues, and spend more time dancing in the mandala. We spend more time working at living our best lives for others and being of service with whatever unique and wonderful talents we possess.
For chaplains, who are present for careseekers in the most intimate and painful moments of their lives, this is such an important ability, and I will humbly admit that it is a skill of which I find myself in very short supply.
I am particularly heartened by books about the training and experience of Buddhist chaplains, because the field has been so dominated by the Christian paradigm even though the profession is all about serving careseekers from all religious (and non-religious) backgrounds.
That is why I was so looking forward to reading more about this subtext in Chenxing’s book. After all, she wrote the chapter on “Young Adult Asian American Identities” in A Thousand Hands: A Guide to Caring for Your Buddhist Community. I want to learn more about her chaplaincy work and what has apparently come afterwards. I wish the book had more of that thread.
One thing I can say for sure: Chenxing’s book is an extended elegy to Aaron Lee, aka arunlikhati, and his enormously important blog. It’s very sad that he has passed away.
Chenxing also takes on the “two Buddhisms” controversy. Full disclosure here: I published Charles Prebish’s autobiography about 10 years ago. He’s the guy who came up with that observation from his fieldwork, and he’s received a tsunami of criticism over it from younger academics who have tried to establish their own reputations largely by tearing him down in what he describes as ad hominem attacks that wilfully misrepresent what he actually wrote on the subject. In other words, this is a hot button topic where tempers can flare easily.
I see that chapter 10 of Chenxing’s book is titled, Anger. Anger is a much-discussed emotion these days, as we struggle to figure out how to wield it constructively for social good. We’ve got the anti-masker rallies and right-wing pushback to what they pejoratively call “antifa” on the “radical socialist left.” I am reminded of Gampopa’s comment from more than 860 years ago naming the twin cause of suffering: conflicting emotions and primitive beliefs about reality.
Life is never going to go “back to normal.” The Anthropocene leads to the Kali Yuga, not Camelot. Between the pandemic, climate crisis, mass extinctions, and all the nine planetary bio-boundaries we have crossed, we must be focused as hard as we can on the future rather than the past. Old rules don’t apply.
The plight of climate refugees comes to mind. For those who are on the receiving end of incomprehensible injustice and violence, the customs and comforts of old simply have no meaning and no place in their traumatized future. The title of Chenxing’s book is Be the Refuge. So, how do we best serve the refugee? How do we each see ourselves as a future refugee and find solidarity in community? Ah, I see that Chenxing’s book ends with a chapter entitled, Solidarity.
The formative years of my Dharma practice were in Montreal and Toronto in the midst of the first wave of Tibetan refugees who were welcomed there in 1972. My first Buddhist teacher was Samu Sunim, with whom I’ve had a friendship for more than 50 years. I’ve been a member of two sanghas that were run by white western teachers (both profoundly disappointing individuals in the end), been the facilitator for the Toronto Buddhist Federation and the Buddhist Council of Canada for more than a few years in the 1980s, and obviously stayed in touch with a lot of folks. I have deeply personal experiences in many different Buddhist lineages and find no strong need to identify myself with any of them. I’m simply a guy in his basement with a computer, who relishes conversations with other Buddhists in the ether (although I wasn’t always so much the hermit).
Just before the pandemic hit, I was in Toronto to participate in a conference entitled, New Paths in Teaching Buddhist Studies, sponsored by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies at the University Toronto, under the leadership of Dr. Frances Garrett, who had helped me so much with my sociological survey back in 2011-2012. The topic of my talk was: Teaching the Buddhism of the Future, Not the Past. Speaking the same day was Jenny Bright, a PhD student at that institution, and her topic was about a Buddhist take on chaplaincy – particularly the bit about how CPE training emphasizes having a strong sense of self for chaplaincy work, obviously a rather inappropriate way for a Buddhist to think about the job, with our own truths about no-self. Unfortunately, her talk ran out of time before being able to answer that kōan, but I hope that conversation continues.
That’s why I was delighted when Rev. Dr. Monica Sanford chose me to publish her book, Kalyanamitra: A Model for Buddhist Spiritual Care. Dr. Sanford makes a cogent and comprehensive case for how Buddhists might be in the world, seen through the lens of chaplaincy.
[Perhaps Chenxing, you’d consider writing another book, on your experiences as a chaplain? I’d love to read it, if not publish it. North Atlantic Publishing is great, by the way, and you are in wonderful company there, so don’t think I’m trying to steal you away. They know me and I’ve written them love letters in the past saying I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit in them. There are not a lot of people in the Buddhist publishing business, and we all sort of know each other, or at least know of each other.]
In chapter 11, Anger, Chenxing continues to unpack Prebish’s Two Buddhisms and the long tail of that premise, culminating in trying to reframe what she describes as his twin question: Why is American Buddhism so white?, and Why are Asian American Buddhists so invisible? It’s a story with which I was largely unfamiliar in 2010 when Professor Prebish was keynote speaker at a conference in Vancouver and I was a presenter of a talk on how Buddhists (including Angry Asian Buddhist) were using the internet. We had some interesting conversations and he asked me in the following months if I would be interested in publishing his autobiography. I jumped at the chance. I don’t feel qualified to speak on Two Buddhisms in any authoritative way, but it sure seems to me that Prebish deserves a lot more credit than he gets for pioneering the scholarly study of Buddhism in America freed from the Christian stereotypes that preceded him. I am led to believe that Chenxing has acknowledged elsewhere that Prebish's original fieldwork and observations were in no way an attempt to valorize white Buddhists, although one might draw that conclusion from the material in this chapter.
My sense is that folks are still working hard at trying to figure out everything that was wrong with what they perceived to be Prebish’s approach (as opposed to what he actually wrote and said). From where I sit, there are not two Buddhisms, but more than 600 Buddhisms in Canada. Bows to each and every one of them!
Chapter 11, Privilege, continues with more on the life and impact of Angry Asian Buddhist, and it is clear that Chenxing and Aaron Lee shared a deep friendship full of unguarded moments. All the sadder, then, that her chapter ends with the details of Aaron’s untimely death from cancer. It is a passing she describes in more detail in Chapter 12, recounting the posthumous accolades Aaron received for his pioneering work with “a community that didn’t know they existed.”
In the penultimate chapter, Solidarity, Chenxing begins to explore stories of interconnection overcoming conflict, solidarity healing division, and stories of spiritual friendship., So much has changed since he and a few Buddhist friends started the Dharma Folk blog in 2008. I remember those heady days of the blogosphere, having launched the Sumeru blog in 2009. Those were the days of the Blogisattva awards.
Chenxing recounts that time, already so long ago even in 2014, with detail that is important for us to know if we really want to get beyond the stuck place of Buddhist identity conflicts. Even the rebirth of Shambhala Sun as Lion’s Roar comes under the microscope and found to be, if not wanting, at least less than some hoped for in terms of diverse representation. Still not enough of a refuge.
I have similar mixed feelings about the two behemoth Buddhist book publishers, Shambhala and Wisdom. I remember Snow Lion and their wonderfully eclectic newspaper catalogues, and was disappointed when they closed, only to be buried in Shambhala’s back catalogue like the Ark in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in some fusty warehouse.
When Chenxing writes about the enthusiastic reception her 2016 article in Buddhadharma received, it is indeed heartwarming, but the article did not arrive without some angry letters from white people, she says. Indeed, even publication of her book, Be the Refuge, met with refusals from a Buddhist publisher (not me) and an academic press.
For those with a more sociological bent, the appendices of the book are replete with details on the sociological context from which the book has emerged. They are filled not just with interview data, but many conversation-starters on the place of race in your sangha.
In short, this is a difficult book to read because it deals with a difficult subject, but it is heartening to know that many are willing to tackle these issues. Highly recommended.
December 7, 2020
 I was the typesetter for Samu Sunim’s newsletter, Spring Wind, for a number of years in the 1980s after knowing him for almost 20 years, and donated my typesetting equipment to the Zen Buddhist Temple in Toronto in 1990 when I closed my business. In exchange for the donation, I asked for a tax receipt, a zafu and a package of incense. Now, some 30+ years later, I’m looking at the zafu. I only discovered a week or so ago that Mushim Ikeda was also a student of Samu Sunim in Wisconsin back in the day and that she had been the word processor of the magazine’s first issue before I came along! Serendipity!
 If you want to know more about kindred spirits, I highly recommend the CBC mini-series, Anne with an E, which presents a wonderful dramatic depiction of Anne of Green Gables’ journey from ascribed identity to authentic identity, infused with a modern sensibility about prejudice based on gender, sexual orientation, race or ethnicity. [https://www.cbc.ca/anne/m_site/]