By Chenxing Han
When my husband and I left Bangkok on March 5, we didn’t expect our short trip back to the Bay Area to become an indefinite stay, courtesy of covid-19. Fortunately—with the help of an international moving company and a Bangkok-based friend who had warned us to stay safe from the coronavirus and anti-Asian racism while in the US—we managed to pack up our apartment in absentia.
Time has been a strange and slithery thing since then. It feels much like the voyage of the container ship carrying our belongings across the Pacific: hurtling forward at rapid speed (or so the online data tell me) yet also agonizingly slow. As shelter-in-place extends into multiple months, I feel like our belongings on the ship: in limbo and in transit, isolated and ensconced, detained and unseen-destination-bound.
It’s an uncomfortable paradox to live in what feels like a privileged Pure Land while the 24/7 news cycle dishes up hellish stories of suffering. Suffering that is, infuriatingly, altogether preventable, would that there were the political will to meet it. Even before the pandemic, I had a similar experience in Bangkok. Our neighborhood may not have been peaceful or blessed with natural beauty, but I spent most of my days engaged in the solitary activity of writing, shielded from the pollution and traffic accidents and inequality just beyond our apartment walls. I was completing a book about Asian American Buddhists while largely freed from the challenges of being a racial and religious minority—after all, in Thailand least, I was neither.
Outside of our apartment, what I miss most about Bangkok are the magnificent Buddhist murals of Wat Suthat Thepwararam. Begun in 1807 during the reign of King Rama I, Wat Suthat was completed forty years later under King Rama III’s rule. To step inside the vihara and uposatha hall was to be transported. The floor-to-ceiling wall murals, originally painted in the 1840s, must have been at least three stories tall.
You could say the murals were several stories wide too: every stretch of wall was replete with painted tales. Jataka narratives and cosmology scenes adorned the main hall. The Buddha’s past life stories were exquisite in their artistic detail, though I was especially fond of the square pillar that portrayed the four earthly continents of the Buddhist universe on each of its sides. The continents were identifiable by their inhabitants, whose physiognomies mirrored the shape of the land mass on which they dwelled. I could see myself in the Jambudvipans with their rose-apple faces, while the half- and full-moon features of the Purvavidehans and Aparagodaniyas looked a bit cartoonish; the Uttarakurus with blocks for heads had the most distinctive geometry of all. Also eye-catching, if rather more gruesome, were the scenes of dismemberment and other grisly tortures on another of the square pillars.
Dominating the side walls of the ordination hall were illustrated stories of pratyekabuddhas. These rarified beings had attained enlightenment in periods bereft of Buddhism; ergo, they’d never had a teacher, and never taught anybody. The lower registers of these pratyekabuddha murals were filled with intrigue and shenanigans. By the middle registers, the pratyekabuddhas-to-be were wearying of this samsaric world: perhaps they still ruled their kingdoms, but had elected to swap royal vestments for ascetic robes. By the upper registers, our protagonists had invariably absconded. Off they floated, effortless as the white clouds surrounding them, having literally risen above the fray.
I think there might be a bit of pratyekabuddha in all of us (or maybe I’m just projecting). Who doesn’t have the urge to fly away from the boring bickering and serious strife, the petty politics and woeful warfare? A gravity-defying escape sounds like a lot less labor-intensive than, say, the Buddha’s forty-five-year teaching career. There was a moment last month when, reading one headline too many (“Coronavirus briefing: Don’t ingest bleach”), I found the figure of the pratyekabuddha to be eminently relatable.
I’m often compelled to consider the ways culture, race, language, and art intersect with my Buddhist practice. I am not alone in this. In a 2017 essay for Buddhistdoor Global titled “Hyphenated-American,” Tanny Rutdow Jiraprapasuke reflects on the experience of being a Thai American Buddhist. At the age of six, a classmate spotted her Buddha amulet and announced that she was surely going to hell. “For most of my life after that incident, I hid my Buddhist beliefs to save myself. I couldn’t hide my yellow face, but could keep secret the fact that I take refuge in the Three Jewels.”
The secrecy came at a high cost: for more than two decades afterward, Tanny compartmentalized her various identities, which “did more than just separate aspects of me; it took away my humanity.” Several of the young adults I interviewed for my forthcoming book, Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists, also described sequestering the Buddhist part of their lives from public view. I’d felt the same impulse myself: to hide my Buddhist faith for fear of Orientalizing projections, negative assumptions, or worse.
I wasn’t raised Thai Buddhist, but I could relate to Tanny’s anger at “always feeling like a second-class citizen” upon having to avow allegiance to “one Nation under God” every school day: “the pledge confined me to a God I don’t believe in.” Reading her essay, I thought of all the times I have acquiesced to confinement: letting a racist comment slide; concealing my Buddhist identity. I thought of the times I have resisted confinement too: refusing to collapse race in America into a black-white dyad; refusing to reduce Asian (American) Buddhists to superstitious immigrants, Oriental monks, and banana Buddhists.
I had an opportunity to meet Tanny earlier this month via video chat. I began by thanking her for her Buddhistdoor article, which helped me realize that after spending much of the past four years in Southeast Asia, I am (re)learning what it means to be a hyphenated American. I suspect that process of (re)learning will extend well past this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Tanny, who lives in Los Angeles, had been the target of a protracted racist rant (the words “Chinese” and “coronavirus” were bandied about) while riding the subway. She’d felt trapped, unable to safely escape, and had taken a video of the rant in case the situation escalated. Wanting to raise awareness about the reality of heightened racism against Asian Americans during this time of pandemic, Tanny decided to make the video of the incident public, but only if the other person’s face was blurred out. (She didn’t want to perpetuate the root problem: the vilification of entire racial or ethnic groups.) This had thrust her into the media spotlight, and Tanny was grappling with how to speak thoughtfully and compassionately from her newfound advocacy role.
Our conversation turned to Buddhism. Tanny recalled the many times people have said to her, oo, you’re so Zen (“But I’m Theravada!”). The verbal attack on the subway hinged on the assumption that Tanny is Chinese (“But I’m Thai!” she could easily have protested). The rant on the subway and oo, you’re so Zen: perhaps there is more of a difference in degree than a difference in kind between the two. Both are fueled by stereotype-driven assumptions; both impose a kind of confinement.
There was another question Tanny had been grappling with: how to write from a Buddhist perspective without being too explicitly Buddhist, so as not to alienate other people?
I’d wondered the same thing in the past, but the question suddenly saddened me.
Tanny had just been talking about her relationship to Buddhist chant. As a kid going to temple every weekend, she was bored by the monks’ unfathomable chanting. Her immigrant working-class parents certainly didn’t have the time to teach her what the chants meant. She finally decided to just chant along even if she couldn’t understand the words. Tanny paid attention to how it felt—and realized how the sounds transformed her, united her. Later, after studying Pali, she could make sense of some of the words. But the visceral experience of reciting the memorized chants with other Buddhists retained their primary influence.
It saddened me to think that this explicitly Buddhist experience—one that no doubt resonates with many other second-generation Asian American Buddhists—might be elided or erased out of fear of alienating others.
Why not write unabashedly from our culturally and religiously rooted experiences, using Buddhist sutras and imagery and metaphors? (After all, American literature is shot through with Bible verses and Christian references, without apology to the many non-Christians in our country). It’s a question as much for Tanny as for myself. Indeed, it’s a question—a challenge, really—for all Asian American Buddhists who have felt the impulse to hide their faith.
By centering the specificity of our experiences, it becomes more difficult to traffic in generalities, in stereotyping, in assumption-making. When I consider Tanny’s complex relationship to the chants of her upbringing, it becomes harder to dismiss chanting as superstitious ritual. When I immerse myself in depictions of Jambudvipans and pratyekabuddhas, it seems beside the point to relegate them to the realm of irrational belief. It has taken many years, and many conversations with other Asian American Buddhists, to help me appreciate the vitality of these culturally embedded Buddhist practices and images and stories. They are not a sign of impoverishment but a source of enrichment.
In Sukhāvatī, the Pure Land of Amitābha, sounds of the Dharma sough through the jeweled trees with every waft of wind, according to a Chinese translation of the Sukhāvatīvyūha vistāramātṛkā. In the Sanskrit text of the sutra, the Buddha tells Ananda that from the many rivers in Sukhāvatī,
a sound arises which is deep, unknown, mysterious, clear, ear-pleasing, heart-touching, charming, sweet, delightful, never tiring or hard to listen to, pronouncing “impermanent, peaceful, not-self,” delightful to hear, the same sound as heavenly music played skillfully on an instrument consisting of hundreds of thousands of millions of parts.
When I first learned about this Pure Land as a college student just getting acquainted with Buddhism, I could hardly conceive of a less relatable place. But lately, my daily walks along the leafy streets of our neighborhood have me thinking about these lush descriptions of Sukhāvatī. It strikes me that the heavenly music offers not an escape from but a constant reminder of our earthly existence. We are each one of the hundreds of thousands of millions of parts on the instrument proclaiming the truths of impermanence and not-self. As we sound the specificity of our stories, we stir in each other the awareness that nothing lasts forever, that the sense of self to which we grasp is not as solid as we may think—or, put differently, that our selves are interconnected in ways deep and mysterious and clear. In developing this awareness, we build the grounds for conducting our lives with greater thoughtfulness and compassion.
Perhaps what I miss most about those pratyekabuddha murals at Wat Suthat is their invitation to imagine alternatives. They ask me: Are you sure the English-language Buddhism you’ve encountered in early twenty-first century America is the one and right and only? Can you dream of a different world, a different way of living, than the one you inhabit now—and if so, how are you going to get there?
Chenxing Han holds an MA in Buddhist studies from the Graduate Theological Union and a certificate in Buddhist chaplaincy from the Institute of Buddhist Studies. Her first book, Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists, is coming out with North Atlantic Books in January 2021.