In the prologue of Heathen: Religion and Race in American History, Kathryn Gim Lum critically reflects that as a child, she felt a combined sense of luck and guilt about being born into a Christianized Chinese American family rather than “somewhere in the middle of heathen China, waiting to be rescued from my superstitious ways.” Lum’s personal experience highlights how the notion of the “heathen other” is still alive in contemporary American society. Moreover, she illustrates the profound ways this particular conceptualization of religious difference—as non-Christian, superstitious, damned, and requiring salvation—not only shapes racial formations but also intraracial dynamics. Indeed, Lum’s younger self worried about her pitiful “heathen ancestors” and the fate that befell them.
This essay examines how Asian American Buddhists illuminate the historical significance and contemporary relevance of the Asiatic heathen in maintaining the hegemonic racial-religious order. It further demonstrates how the white Christian/Asian heathen construct has affected Asian practitioners of Buddhism in the United States, as well as influenced religious hierarchies and debates within Asian American communities. Additionally, it illustrates how the notion of Asiatic heathenry has also been consequential in portraying American Buddhism as dominated by white converts—casting Asian American Buddhists as “others” within a religion established in the United States by Asian immigrants (including, in many cases, their literal ancestors). Asian American Buddhists, who continue to be seen as offensive to white Protestant settler normativity, thus expand scholarly analysis of race and religion. Moreover, they demonstrate how the perception of their heathen offenses also influences their positionality within their own racial and religious communities of Asian America and American Buddhism.
Superstition is a hallmark of heathenry, one that Asian American Buddhists have commonly encountered. The persistence of this allegation shows that unlike other racial groups whom white Christians deemed rescued from their heathen past through conversion, and/or the salvific force of enslavement, Asian American Buddhists are perceived as refusing salvation from superstition. This is so in part because the notion of the “heathen” relies on a default Abrahamic framework that delegitimizes their practices. For example, Asian American Buddhists, like other practitioners of Dharmic faiths, frequently contend with accusations of idol worship. In this reasoning, images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are taken out of their Buddhist contexts and read against an Abrahamic monotheistic paradigm to produce the affront of the sinful Asian American Buddhist heathen. Superstition, therefore, is a thread that when analytically pulled reveals the contemporary ties to historical heathenry and the interwoven dynamics of racial-religious hierarchy. It also deconstructs the dominance of white Protestantism in the United States.
The perception of Asian American Buddhists as superstitious heathens began in the mid-nineteenth century, with the arrival of the first wave of Chinese laborers. As practitioners of a syncretic popular religion that included Daoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and folk beliefs, these immigrants were quickly labeled “Heathen Chinee” when white nativist labor organizers soured on their presence. Though the notion of heathen Chinee has predominantly been interpreted through the lens of race, it has a distinct religious underpinning. The Chinese were not only viewed as racially repugnant. Their alterity was also tied to a perception of their so-called dangerous non-Christian religious inferiority, as Lum’s personal reflection illuminates. This was a sentiment reinforced in legislative discourse.
When debating the Fourteenth Amendment and the ramifications of naturalization and citizenship if applied to Chinese laborers, senators from West Coast states urged that Congress exclude the Chinese on account of their combined racial, linguistic, and religious difference. California Senator William Higby cited their superstitious practices and idolatry as among the reasons to deny them citizenship. “[T]hey dig up their dead while decaying in their graves, strip the putrid flesh from the bones, and transport the bones back to China,” he noted, while also calling attention to how they “bring their clay and wooden gods with them to this country” to worship. This view was reiterated in 1882, when Congress debated what would become the Chinese Exclusion Act. In voicing his support for banning Chinese laborers, Oregon Representative Melvin Clark George argued, “Those here still speak a foreign language and worship a pagan deity and they yet live in blind veneration of the idolatries and superstitions of their dark ages of the past.” Even Iowa Representative John Kasson, an opponent of the proposed exclusion, held that there existed in China an idolatry that resulted specifically from the denigration of Chinese Buddhism.
“…Writing’s on the wall”
Representative George’s opinions proved to be the majority. The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed by President Chester A. Arthur in May of 1882, curtailing the immigration of Chinese laborers. This and the other anti-Asian exclusion laws that followed intertwined dynamics of race and religion. In addition to their racial-religious ideological premise, these laws not only established a racial immigration ban, but they also restricted religious practice. Buddhist monastics, now classified as laborers rather than religious leaders, encountered obstacles in serving their communities in the United States. “[F]or many years,” Jonathan H. X. Lee explains, “the various exclusionary acts barred Buddhist monks from coming to America to establish temples and serve the immigrant Chinese population.”
The normative Christian/Buddhist heathen divide continued to shape racial discourse in twentieth-century America. As Duncan Ryuken Williams has demonstrated, the WWII incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans in the United States was not only premised on racial difference, as the historiography has commonly narrated, but also on suspicion of religious practices. Williams reveals how Japanese and Japanese American Shinto and Buddhist practitioners were viewed by the federal government as more of a foreign threat than their Christian counterparts. Surveilled as “Group A suspects,” Buddhist priests were the first to be arrested and questioned by the FBI following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Thus, racial difference was interwoven with a religious hierarchy that framed Christians as less suspect.
The effects of this religious stratification also shape intraracial dynamics. During WWII, given the hegemonic wariness of Buddhism and the legibility of (and relative safety afforded by) Christianity, some Japanese American Buddhists converted to the latter, a pattern repeated in the context of Japanese Canadian incarceration. Contemporary studies on Asian American religions have noted Asian American Buddhist articulations of marginality, as well as tensions around Buddhist and Christian members within shared racial communities. Karen Chai Kim’s 2008 study on Korean Buddhist practitioners in a Boston temple highlights how they were “keenly aware of their minority status within the Korean immigrant community.” “Virtually every dharma talk (“sermon”) at the temple includes a comparison of Christians and Buddhists,” she explains, “whereas Christians rarely compare themselves to other religious groups, except when they talk of a need to evangelize non-Christians.”
As Kim’s example shows, the discursive and disciplinary logics of heathenry circulates within racial groups that have historically been perceived as heathen. Further demonstrating this point, Carolyn Chen’s Buddhist and Christian respondents in Getting Saved in America shared that in the Taiwanese context, “[b]eing Christian became synonymous with being educated and modern. In comparison, Buddhism was regarded as superstitious and backward.” Both the Taiwanese Buddhists and Christians contended with these dualistic racial-religious descriptors in complex ways, evident in how they navigated ancestor veneration. The longstanding notion of Buddhist heathenry thus continues to shape American racial formations of the Asian other and subjecthood within Asian America.
Relatedly, the exclusion of Asian American Buddhists from normative understandings of American Buddhism evidences how Buddhist heathenry is distinctively racialized as Asian. Though the first practicing Buddhists in the United States were Asian immigrants and Asian Americans continue to represent the majority of practitioners, popular American representations of the religion portray a different picture—one dominated by the narrative of the Beat poets and the authority of white convert Buddhists. There is much to be (and has been) said about the erasure of Asian American Buddhists. Heightened analytical attention to historical notions of superstitious heathenry can shed more light on their structured marginalization.
Take for example the common belief that Asian American Buddhists merely practice inauthentic cultural trappings of Buddhism derived from “Asian traditions [that] have all been corrupted on one level or another.” Here, the heathenry of the superstitious Asiatic has not only “corrupted the wonderful nonoppressive teachings of the Buddha”—remarks that rehearse Kasson’s nineteenth-century commentary on the denigration of Buddhism in China—but also requires white Buddhist salvation and purification. Thus, white Buddhists have attempted to displace Asian American Buddhists from their own “heathen” religion by doubling down on the racial-religious dimensions of heathenry.
As a demographic that continues to be marked with the scarlet letter of heathenry, Asian American Buddhists demonstrate the nuanced ways this construct upholds a racial-religious order of white Christian normativity. Nonetheless, they persist in their devotion to their faith, thereby transforming their collective and individual suffering. Rather than “corrupting” the teachings of the Buddha, Asian American Buddhists live them. In this way, they have always existed beyond heathenry.