Meditated so hard my ass cracked: Buddhism is not Islamophobic

Rachel+Choi

Photo: Illustration by Rachel Choi

Rachel Choi

By Bryan Liu, Staff Writer

When Siddartha Gautama went outside of his opulent palace for the first time and saw poverty, disease, and old age, he drew a central conclusion: existence is pain, life is suffering, and we’re all going to die. What a diva. I would’ve just stayed inside. 

Gautama’s epiphany kicked off the Buddhist movement in India. After attaining enlightenment, Gautama and his disciples spread the practice Eastward—reversing the direction of Manifest Destiny. Buddhist offshoots and variations were created when locals combined Buddhist teachings, or Dharma, with their own traditions. For example, Chan Buddhism merged Buddhism with Chinese culture—namely Confucian and Taoist perspectives which focus on how we can benefit each other by living in the moment. 

But by the time Buddhism reached the U.S. via Californication, the Western world had reduced Dharma to yoga, beatnik literature, Hollywood, and the Dalai Lama’s Twitter feed. 

Last summer I volunteered as a camp counselor and student at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in upstate New York. I went mostly because I romanticized the beatniks. I was also bored. Venerable Guo Huei Fa Shi explained the fundamentals of Chan to me—‘Fa Shi’ is a term of endearment we use for monks. The title is earned by someone who abandoned their past life to teach Buddhism and maintain an ascetic lifestyle.

Dharma exists in the world, enlightenment is not apart from the world. To search for enlightenment apart from the world is like looking for horns on a rabbit,” Fa Shi explained, quoting the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. The most convoluted way to say “study Dharma and you will find enlightenment”. Chan practice emphasizes living in knowledge of our impermanence: our true selves can only exist in the present. Obsessing over one’s past or future is disingenuous to our true selves because we ignore who we truly are in the moment. 

Buddhism demands more than its current mainstream niche of pop psychology. 

Let me set some records straight: there is no ‘god’ in Buddhism. We don’t worship Buddha; we follow his example. Sangha is the community of students and teachers. Dharma is the scripture—or the curriculum—we study. Buddhism doesn’t exist in a specific environment; it is created in practice. Self-mastery is achieved through meditation and introspection.

I’m still working on my meditation—Fa Shi once told me I have a “weak ass” because I’d always complain my legs were falling asleep after sitting in lotus position for only a few minutes. 

And what is self-mastery beyond completing “no-nut November?” Self-mastery to do with managing Dukkha, or dissatisfaction. Existence only sucks because we are trapped in a vicious cycle of desire and dissatisfaction. The satisfaction that comes from getting something we want is temporary and we will inevitably return to dissatisfaction because we’ll always want more. The end of craving is the end of suffering. Like Fa Shi says, “let go or be dragged.”

And then there’s the fat Buddha, or laughing Buddha. A figure many misconstrue for Gautama Buddha. He’s actually the 10th century monk Budai—a Chan buddhist icon. Many regard him as Maitreya, or the second coming of Buddha. 

The emergence of Budai’s caricature in Eastern-themed restaurants, hotels, and Buddhist paraphernalia is a testament to its white-washed demand. Like most facets of Asian culture, Buddhism has been commodified by Western influence. 

In the Cold War era, Buddhism was greatly tied to national identity in Southeast Asia—especially in countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam where most citizens were predominantly Buddhist. But at the time, religions like Buddhism had no place in the Soviet Union’s communist agenda—a policy that frustrated many native practitioners. Nixon was inspired by the Foundation for Religious Action to launch a “Spiritual Counteroffensive in Southeast Asia” during the Vietnam War: revitalizing the capitalist campaign under the allure of faith. 

In regards to how the Iron Curtain had bisected Europe, Politico reporter Joe Freeman likens the United States’ religious warfare tactic to “a Saffron Curtain”—an anti-communist Buddhist block that subdivided Southeast Asia. The principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, is one of Buddhism’s central tenets—at its nature, Buddhism is a peaceful practice. But under the advent of modernity, Buddhism was weaponized. 

Southeast Asia in the 1950s was so rife with religious homogeneity that Buddhism became a point of ethnic pride. And because the United States sponsored Buddhist institutions to be anti-communist, Buddhists were quick to ostracize those who weren’t ethnically Buddhist. In hindsight, we did not foster fear of communism, we championed a fear of the other. 

The U.S. established a nationalist religious precedent for these Asian countries—you’re either Buddhist or you’re a traitor. Nowadays, the Buddhist majorities in these countries felt threatened by minority Muslim communities, blaming them for political issues and social unrest.

In Myanmar, nationalist monks have killed and displaced thousands of Muslims in the Rohingya genocide—an ethnic cleansing driven by ultra-nationalism. In Thailand, Buddhists have militarized against the Malay Muslim population in the South. And in Sri Lanka, the Buddhist Sinhalese have been embroiled in a contentious civil war between the Tamil minority for decades. The Western narrative of zen monks and inner-peace completely ignore the present state of Buddhism in Southeast Asia: Facism. 

It’s notable to point out how the U.S. and the former anti-communist Buddhist bloc both had overlapping Islamophobia phases at the same time—post 9/11. But what is Islamophobia if not fear of the other? I’m not excusing our appropriation of Buddhism, but coming to terms with religious warfare is critical to understanding contemporary geopolitics. The mass killings that are practiced today are the legacy of an American-instilled religious nationalism during the Cold War.

My experience with Buddhism is anything but violent, political, or Islamophobic. My summer at the mountain was full of vegetarian cooking, meditation workshops with kids, and late night discussions about Dharma. The geo-political Buddhist clusterfuck in Southeast Asia coincides with Dukkha, desire. Political extremism is an inherently greedy practice and dissatisfaction is inevitable when the resulting ethnic cleansing is in the name of religious purity. It reminds me of the Platform Sutra: we cannot reclaim our religious narrative in the present if we are still in foreign intervention from the past. 

Maybe Myanmar needs to meditate.