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A Look at Korean American Buddhism, Gender, and Identity

A UCLA graduate student reports on Professor Sharon Suh's colloquium presentation at the Center for Buddhist Studies.

On October 28, 2005, Professor Sharon Suh of Seattle University gave a lecture entitled, "Re-crafting the Buddhist Self: Korean American Buddhism, Gender, and Identity." Jennifer Flinn reports on her talk, which was the second in the 2005-2006 Center for Buddhist Studies Colloquium Series.

Professor Sharon Suh of Seattle University usually asks her students to try to distill their work down to a single question, and did the same courtesy herself at her colloquium presentation on October 28th. Her question: "How do ordinary Korean American Buddhists live their lives and come to a positive sense of self in the context of dislocation?" Although Professor Suh's academic training was in textual analysis and research, she found herself engaged in research centering on a temple in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles, which served first and second generation Korean-Americans. Her initial involvement with the temple began informally; she was able to use her connections to the temple attendees to begin a series of interviews that eventually culminated in a new book Being Buddhist in a Christian World: Gender and Community in a Korean American Temple (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004).

A number of important themes emerged from her conversations with her subjects, but together they formed a picture of a community both fraught with anxiety and providing an important sense of social unity and individual self-identity. A major reoccurring concern was how to maintain and pass on a specifically Buddhist religious identity while vastly outnumbered in both the local immigrant population and in the overall population by a Christian majority. Christianity is not merely the religion of most Americans, but of approximately eighty percent of all Korean Americans. Most networking for Korean Americans in Los Angeles, whether business or social, occurs in church associations, making it one of the most deeply penetrating social systems at work in the local community. There is immense pressure on Korean Americans to attend church, which has the social clout and connections to help newcomers settle and become integrated. This leaves Buddhists on the periphery of a tightly woven social network, and with far fewer resources to draw upon. However, Professor Suh noticed in her interviews that this lack of networking was also a source of pride for many of her subjects, who noted that Buddhists were more self-reliant than Christians. This self-reliance found not just practical examples but also religious examples: interviewees, for instance, said that their religious practice involves looking inward and finding the origins of problems and their resolutions within one's self, whereas they saw Christians as intellectually lazy, relying on the Bible or ministers to supply solutions. Suh's subjects took pride in "creating their own path," which they identified as the "traditional American value" of self-reliance.

Still, the temple community was haunted both by problems with cohesion (since both attendance and tithing are optional, and the number of its attendees relatively small) and with passing on Buddhism to the next generation. Suh was initially recruited by the temple to teach first a children's course and then an adult course on Buddhism at the temple, because of a perceived lack of teachers and a need to provide enough education to maintain the community in the face of the Christian proselytizing going on all around them. Second-generation Buddhists were vexed by a lack of information about their own religion, and language gaps between their parents and the temple staff exacerbated the problem. Having Suh teach, and beginning more community education and outreach through such activities as a Buddhist course for adults and a preschool for children, are first steps in attempting to tackle such problems, covertly co-opting successful methods from the Christian community.

Another key theme in Suh's work was the gendered differences in the temple population. Suh was primarily interested in the forms of practice, which displayed a distinct split, with men viewing their involvement as intellectual and rational, while women were more directly involved in worship practices. Men might assist the temple in practical terms, such as administrative work, but viewed their attendance or non-attendance at worship as trivial. Women, meanwhile, comprised the vast majority of attendees at devotional practices and chanting, and formed social bonds with the other women at the temple. Indeed, practice within the physical confines of the temple itself seemed incredibly important to many of her female interviewees, some of whom traveled great distances to attend pre-dawn services. The women clearly experienced Buddhism and practice as highly important, finding in the teachings a rationale for self-actualization. The concepts of karma and Buddha-nature in particular were crucial in this construction of a positive, active self for many women, who described it as a process of becoming one's own subject, "finding and knowing one's own mind," and "taking matters into one's own hands." It was this discovery of control within the displacement of immigration and the chaos of new circumstances that allowed many women to cope and thrive, according to Suh.

There have been relatively few studies of Korean Buddhists in America, and while Suh's work is important and informative there are still many questions to be answered. The single Buddhist temple she worked with is one of several in Los Angeles, and they all face significant challenges in the future. How will they continue to function within their communities? How will they connect with other Buddhist and religious communities? How will the doctrines of Korean American Buddhism transform along with changes in practice? Suh's work is an important first step in exploring the ways in which Korean American Buddhism is redefining itself in the face of changing circumstances.