Immigrant Buddhists in a resolutely non-Buddhist America

In meditation at the Shwedagon Pagoda. From Wikipedia.

I think it’s difficult to raise children Buddhist in the United States. In college, one of the major shared experiences among a lot of my Buddhist friends was that we had been pressured at one point or another to convert to Christianity. For me, it elicited feelings of frustration but actually strengthened my resolve to have a greater understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

In high school, I think that religion was very much invisible. Perhaps it was because I went to a public school, nobody was pushed toward or away from a certain religion. Most of my friends grew up in Buddhist or Taoist households, and I vaguely knew that a few were Christians. But these distinctions weren’t so discrete.

However, in college, I noticed that Christians asserted themselves much more openly. They were much more well-organized, well-funded and had a much stronger theological foundation than Buddhists. When pressed about our own faiths and values, we didn’t have much to offer, much less “defend” ourselves. We weren’t armed with apologetics courses at Bible study and weekly discussions to dissect and understand the faith. And therein lies one of the major problems.

To start off, my parents are pretty much secular Buddhists. They keep an altar at home and perform merit-based activities on a regular basis. My mom meditates with the rosary every night. But their own understanding of Buddhism is marked with some dissatisfaction, not with doctrine, but with practice. They deride the luxuries of American Buddhist monks and believe money could be much better spent on “helping those who actually need it.” I think my parents wanted to pass on tradition and culture much more than religion. They simply used religion to support their traditional values, not the other way around.

I think that’s one of the major deficiencies of the Burmese Buddhist system: its overemphasis on ritual and merit. A lot of it, in my opinion, is wasteful spending and ostentatious. Pakasana (ပကာသန), to use the Burmese/Pali word. I think merit is best received when done humbly and anonymously, not for the sake of credit or pressure.


The stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth scene I was referring to.


The bodhi tree planted to house the “spirit” of the deceased monk.

Also, this generosity is sometimes misguided. I remember a few years back, my entire family paid for the construction of an enormous (and costly) marble carving depicting the Buddha’s birth (ဖွားတော်မူခန်း), partly because of yadaya, after consultations with a family beidin saya (astrologer). At that same monastery, monks guided the planting of a sacred banyan tree at a spot believed to be haunted by a deceased monk (he was unceremoniously murdered in 1987) to “house” his wandering spirit, which was creating mischief at the Dhamma hall. Needless to say, stories like that scared me straight as a child.

An example of the astrological drawings, used to ‘calculate’ predictions.

I think yadaya practices are more pervasive than nat worship (indigenous spirits). In my observations, a lot educated Buddhists shun the latter while still practicing the former. (That’s why I find it dumbfounding when Western media ridicules the Burmese military junta as a bunch of uneducated and pre-medieval soothsayers, because astrology is VERY pervasive in Burma, spanning across all classes and religions. For instance, my Catholic nanny was a firm believer in astrology, especially those elephant drawings.) Okay, moving back onto topic.

My parents never directly imparted much Buddhist knowledge on my sister and I. We learned most of the basics through interactions with others. My dad never sat us down to explain the Middle Path to us. Heck, the first time I read the Dhammapada was for a  Buddhist writing course I took in college. I remember my mom telling us Buddhist stories of Angulimala and Kisa Gotami among others when we were younger, but she never taught us how to chant or recite Pali verses, like the Three Jewels, the Five Precepts or the Awgatha prayer (ogasa), let alone what those meant. All of my cousins and I simply waded through the dense Burmese and incomprehensible Pali like the blind.

These are probably the greatest barriers for first generation immigrant Buddhists: language, deemphasized social engagement (by the same token, overemphasis on ritual) and lack of community or guidance.

One of my friends covered his own experiences as a first generation Asian American at the Dharma Folk blog. It’s worth a read. He comes to this conclusion:

Sure, my parents can’t name the Four Noble Truths and explain the idea of no-self to me. They seem slightly obsessed with burning incense and playing a chanting tape 24/7 without meditating or going to temple services regularly. And yet, I remember as a child my parents teaching me morals – kindness, appreciation, generosity, honesty – through the devotional practices of Buddhism. Maybe that’s what is important.

Incomprehensible Pali scriptures written in Burmese.

Language is a big barrier. Speaking from my own experiences, I had no clue what I was saying when I sought refuge in the Three Jewels. (Theravada Buddhism uses a liturgical language called Pali, similar to how Catholicism uses Latin.) I could translate some stock words and phrases, like dutiyampi or Buddha, but not much beyond that. And I found it hard to pick apart a monk’s sermon because the Burmese was so dense. But I was also a strange kid–I had an inherent interest in Buddhism and religion from a young age, so I sought knowledge through books and monks. But a lot of my cousins simply became outcasts, nominal participants with no tangible ties to their household’s religion. Alienation undoubtedly loosens one’s ties to a religion.

I’m sort of envious of my younger cousins in this respect. The Burmese American community has grown tremendously in the past decade, and weekend monastic schools have sprung up, with instruction led by monks and laypersons. My younger cousins attend “Buddhist culture” courses at a local monastery, learning the basics, doctrine and concepts and a few suttas. This is an admirable cause, because it strengthens one’s religious identity and gives them a clearer understanding of their family’s practices. I think this is vital to sustain Buddhism within immigrant communities.

Also, a common thread of discontent is that Buddhists are often disparaged as not helping one another. Christians have successfully capitalized on immigrant resettlement needs, whereas Buddhists simply try to replicate the merit-based activities they performed in their home countries. In the Burmese American community, there’s a prevailing sense of “that’s their own business” and a hands-off approach to people in need like refugees or the poor. That’s saddening.

Similarly, I find it hard to justify many “Buddhist” practices, like the Burmese concept of ah-hlu pwe (or donation ceremonies) as it is done in the US. For those who don’t know, it’s essentially a huge and costly feast inviting everyone on a monastery’s mailing list. Its purpose is primarily a social one. Sometimes I wonder if that food would be better spent on feeding the homeless. Does that not generate merit as well?

My family altar at Chinese New Year, replete with traditional offerings like fruits, ti-ke (glutinous cake), huat-ke (prosperity cake) among others.

Maybe the experiences of my cousins and I are analogous to those of my parents, who have for the most part, shed their ties to Chinese folk religion and Taoism generation by generation. (As I’ve mentioned previously, my parents are technically second generation Sino-Burmese, but my grandfathers on both sides of the family have Burman ancestry as well). Within my family, Chinese “traditions” are observed during one major holiday: Chinese New Year. Even my grandmother’s death anniversary is observed in a simple Burmese manner (offerings to the monks and a sermon). My parents don’t even house any Chinese deities except for Guanyin (in the altar) and the 3 Immortals (basically dining room decorations).

Perhaps this is just another casualty of immigration..


5 thoughts on “Immigrant Buddhists in a resolutely non-Buddhist America

  1. greenteakarma says:

    I can relate. My grandparents were Ukrainian immigrants of Ukrainian Orthodox religion, and my father grew up speaking Ukrainian. Unfortunately, it was not passed unto me, and I still try to learn the language on my own (can read cyrillic but not understanding much). It’s a little baffling why parents don’t pass these traditions on, but in another sense we take a little from here and there and create new traditions I suppose. Very good read. I enjoyed reading it. 🙂

  2. Eric K. says:

    “Christians have successfully capitalized on immigrant resettlement needs, whereas Buddhists simply try to replicate the merit-based activities they performed in their home countries. ”

    I see this a lot, especially in working with ESL international students. A lot of them become more acquainted to events and activities in San Francisco through attending Christian fellowship events, even if they don’t identify as being Christian. I really do think that the Buddhist community can make more of an effort do reach out like the Christian community has.

    “Perhaps this is just another casualty of immigration.”

    A lot of my parents’ friends back in Taiwan ask me about my experience growing up in America and whether I would recommend them to immigrate to America as well for their children. The thing I always emphasize is that there are compromises you have to make when you immigrate, such as the language and culture of your country, and those are compromises or casualities that you have to be mentally ready to accept or else you’ll definitely regret coming to America. I’m glad that you mentioned it because it’s something so many immigrants overlook when coming to America because all they see are the “great” things about coming to America without consideration of what they might be giving up.

  3. Wagaung says:

    Christians in general are keen on proselytising, and Americans in particular zealous in their evangelism. The ABM (American Baptist Mission) was active very early on in Burma and succeeded in converting the hill tribes becoming a divisive influence as a result (although it was a British colony the Anglican Church was much less successful).They were great social/community workers who brought practical benefits to the lives of these subsistence farmers, the forerunners of today’s INGOs if you like, the latter also showing the same divisive potential and meddling in the affairs of the locals.

    Pleased to hear that our Burmese Buddhist culture manages to thrive in the heart of the “Great Satan”, thanks to the immigrant parents passing it on to their children. True, Burmese Buddhist culture is strong in tradition and ritual but weak in theological learning and discourse, even in meditation practice among the young and not so young.

    I remember an English Buddhist monk in a Thai monastery not far from London remarking that the Burmese appear to be long on charity dhana and short on meditation bhavana (I personally do neither, and my great grandfather was a founder of the Hngettwin Sect in Upper Burma). Still my children absorbed the basic tenets of Buddhism along with the language where the mother’s role cannot be overemphasised. Rather like only Jewish mothers can make the children Jewish. My wife’s response to the English monk was it’s the charity of the layfolk that supports the monastic community of the Sangha.

    You are also right about the need for organised community work which even in Burma itself you did not see until recently as times got so much harder especially for the poor. There now exist civil society groups if you like, helping the needy with healthcare and funeral services – monastic hospitals, Bhramaso associations and so forth.

    Communal events have traditionally been in dhamma halls, monasteries and pagodas on sabbath, alms giving a-hlu and other religious festivals where all are welcome. It’s a great tradition that serves the same purpose as clubs and pubs in the West and besides it’s free. So I wouldn’t knock it.

    It is also worth noting that social/class divisions used to be not so sharp, and you wouldn’t flaunt your wealth without giving either. The other side of the coin is the opinionated and argumentative nature of the Burmese becoming manifest especially in discussions/interpretations of the abidhamma (Buddhist philosophy) giving rise to the expression thingyo nyin usually among the men (it has to be men).

    For immigrant Burmese communities I would maintain that passing on the Burmese language and the mother’s role are crucial. I have seen too many Burmese families in Britain where the parents seemed to be (wrongheaded perhaps) too negligent to make sure the children are bilingual. And as a result the next generation is neither here nor there (bon mahote pat mahote, aukali ar), but it’s certainly not their fault.

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