I Was Raised by American Buddhists. Here’s Why I Left.

Slate [New York NY]

February 21, 2023

By Emily Demaionewton

The story of an unusual apostasy.

For the fourth week in a row, a white ex-Catholic Buddhist sits down to teach us about humility. We, a group of six or seven teenagers, roll our eyes at each other. It’s 2013, and we’ve just left the gompa—the shrine room—of a Buddhist center in Raleigh, North Carolina, to attend youth group. The mostly white adult members will stay in the gompa to listen to the teachings of the Nepalese geshe (an advanced title earned by high-level Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns). A different parent teaches youth group every week, but a surprising percentage of them grew up Catholic and converted to Buddhism in young adulthood.

Being raised Buddhist from birth put me in a unique position among white Americans. I’ve heard white peers, professors, and Uber drivers praise Buddhism for being the only “unproblematic” religion—Buddhists typically don’t proselytize, the religion tends to accept and incorporate scientific discoveries, and there aren’t teachings that discriminate against minority groups. But I’ve come to understand that when Buddhism is filtered through a Christian culture of indoctrination, it can have similarly harmful effects: obsession with purity, victim-blaming, and abuses of power.

A large percentage of American Buddhists are highly educated—among the subscribers of one of the most prominent Buddhist magazines (where I used to work), 42 percent have master’s degrees and 15 percent have doctorates; 77 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree. Yet, when I was growing up, it became a running joke among my fellow youth-group teens that nobody could seem to put together a curriculum. We kept repeating topics, and apparently many parents thought the lesson we most needed to learn—this group of soft-spoken kids, half of us homeschooled and all on the outskirts of popularity—was humility. These parents’ model of humility, however, taught us more about deferring to authority than it did about not being cocky. Most of our conversations circled around the importance of not thinking we knew better than those around us, and how the people who hurt us were actually suffering just as much—or more—than we were. These lessons solidified in me a pattern of acquiescing to people who held power over me that followed me far into young adulthood.

During my elementary-school years, Tibetan monks lived with my family. My parents hosted them in part because offering alms to monks is one of the strongest ways to generate positive karma. Buddhists believe that the intentions behind every thought and action produce karmic “seeds” that later manifest as suffering or the absence of suffering. When, in the face of suffering, you act with intentions that balance compassion and wisdom, you purify the karmic seed so that it no longer affects your present and future circumstances. Once your karma is neutralized, so to speak, you may achieve enlightenment.

The monk who stayed with my family the longest—a few years—became integrated into my family’s life. He woke up with us on weekends so my parents could sleep in, came to my and my sister’s school events, and prayed in Sanskrit before every family dinner. He also really liked kissing me and my sister on the mouth, even though we would shriek and run and push him away whenever he tried.

We even had a kissing game: When the monk and my mom made thentuk (a Tibetan soup), they’d make one noodle longer than the others. If you got what became known as “the big noodle,” you got to choose whoever you wanted to kiss and they had to let you.

I don’t fully blame my parents for letting this happen. People commonly view religious figures—especially those who have taken a vow of chastity—as more “pure” than laypeople. (We’ve seen it play out with Catholic priests.) That the monk was Asian, had grown up in a monastery in India, and wore his maroon-and-gold robes every day contributed to this.

I was only 9 when the monk moved out, but whenever I started to hate him, I remembered what my parents had told me about his childhood. After he was orphaned at age 7, his aunt and uncle had sent him to a monastery. They didn’t talk to him about it—officials just showed up in his village one day and took him away in their helicopter. Keeping this in mind, I sculpted my anger into compassion: He behaved the way he did because he was suffering, because he hadn’t had a family, I justified.

Many “exvangelicals” (people who have left evangelical churches, often due to disillusionment or trauma) cite purity culture as having been particularly harmful to their development. Although my Buddhist education didn’t include teachings about sexual purity, the concept of purity kept a tight hold on my mind, in the form of purifying karma.

Starting in middle school, I became obsessed with how purification worked. When I had headaches, I resisted the urge to take Advil and sat with my suffering instead. What would happen to the karmic seed that had caused the headache if I relieved my pain? What suffering would I then have to endure in the future? My ever-present drive toward karmic purity also kept me involved in relationships I should have ended and led me to condone more of my own suffering than necessary.

In high school, one of my friends began sending me verbally and emotionally abusive text messages whenever I wasn’t immediately available to respond to her. I showed the messages to my parents, confused about what I had done to warrant such terrible treatment. “You must have hurt her in a past life,” my parents told me. Every connection is karmic, they explained. Everything that happens in this realm is cause and effect. I came to believe that my friend and I had encountered each other during this lifetime because of negative energy we’d created in the past, and I believed that if I didn’t resolve the relationship, we’d alternately hurt each other in following lifetimes. But if I could successfully heal our relationship, it would purify my karma, and I would suffer less in the long run.

Buddhist scholars and teachers continuously debate the best way to translate karma. Most agree that it can’t be directly translated into English, but two common definitions are “action” and “cause and effect.” When I was growing up, my parents and youth-group leaders emphasized that it did not imply predestination; we could choose what to do with the suffering we encountered. So when I got a headache, I didn’t take Advil. When my friend disparaged me, I responded calmly for months, until she blamed a suicide attempt on me. At that point, the situation had become too intense to handle on my own, and I just wanted an adult to tell me what to do. At the advice of a school guidance counselor, I blocked her number, but I worried about the ramifications of that act for the rest of the school year.

Buddhism initially came to America with Chinese and Japanese immigrants in the late 1800s, but Westerners began to take interest in practicing Buddhism themselves in the 1950s and ’60s. Non-Buddhists might not know that in America, there tends to be a cultural separation between convert Buddhists and heritage Buddhists, who come from a Buddhist culture.

White, convert Buddhist practitioners I encountered loved chanting in Sanskrit and wearing mala beads, and yet in most Buddhist spaces I’ve been part of (East Coast temples, college groups, and colleagues at the aforementioned Buddhist magazine) the majority group would caveat each mention of reincarnation with “Of course, we believe in it metaphorically.” Having been raised Buddhist, with reincarnation explained to me, from birth, as the way the universe worked, I believed in it literally. The ways people rationalized it as metaphorical seemed silly to me. Why didn’t they just say they didn’t find the religious aspects as helpful to their personal practices?

When I considered this question seriously, I realized how thoroughly Orientalism—the practice of exoticizing and imitating the Eastern world while believing Western society is superior—saturates American Buddhism. For a few years after college when I worked at the magazine, which focused on Buddhism in the West, I had access to Buddhist communities beyond where I lived, and I realized that these patterns extended across the country.

When the magazine first hired me, I looked forward to having a community of Buddhists my age for one of the first times in my life (even the other teens in my youth group had been mostly younger than I was). But as I stayed at the magazine longer, between the website comments, letters to the editor, and Buddhists I met in person, I witnessed dozens of theoretical conversations that ignored the lived experiences of those suffering around us. Articles about racism by people of color spurred online comments accusing the authors of clinging to their “attachment” to race; when disabled people expressed frustration with unsolicited advice, comments called those people judgmental; and women wrote articles and comments describing how they were told they just didn’t understand spiritual leaders’ teaching methods when they spoke out against abuse. People were constantly using fundamental Buddhist ideas, like non-attachment, to uphold existing power structures that benefited themselves.

An article published in my last month working there became the final drop in the bucket that led me to no longer identify as Buddhist. Bernat Font-Clos wrote on what he called “neo-Early Buddhism,” or a new segment of Western convert Buddhists who claim to follow the original teachings of the Buddha. According to his scholarship, however, these neo-Early Buddhists reject many of the Buddha’s early teachings because they don’t align with Western values. He even mentions the question of reincarnation, and the cognitive dissonance required to follow the Buddha’s early teachings without believing in cyclical lifetimes.

After my months of unease with the conversations being had among American Buddhists, Font-Clos had finally articulated my skepticism. The white Americans who taught me Buddhism were choosing to follow the parts of Buddhism they found appealing, while rejecting parts that didn’t align with their values. Rather than acknowledging how their Western values affected their understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and Buddhist culture, they claimed that their Buddhism was more progressive than other forms.

Working at the magazine brought to my attention how this Orientalism looked on a larger scale. White writers and editors—mostly converts—took their Western interpretations of Buddhism and made sweeping philosophical conclusions about the nature, truth, and values of Buddhism. They took up limited space in Buddhist media. Heritage Buddhists rarely wrote for us, and their perspectives were considered separate, rather than integral, to convert Buddhists’ understanding of Buddhism.

At age 25, I left the magazine and disconnected myself from the Buddhist spaces I’d previously inhabited. I haven’t yet mentioned to my parents that I am no longer Buddhist. I expect that if they find this article, they’ll be pretty upset. Once, when she was a child, my sister asked my parents what they would do if she decided she wanted to be Christian. My mom said that they would have a conversation about it—one that would end with everyone agreeing that Buddhism is the only true religion. (My sister started identifying as atheist around age 12.)

Here and there with my parents, I’ve pushed back against some of the Buddhist ideas I find problematic, but usually someone ends the conversation before it gets too heated. I’m editing the final draft of this piece while on a family vacation. I told my parents I had to work on an essay, but they didn’t ask what about, and I didn’t offer the information.

As a child, I would have worried that leaving Buddhism would make me suffer more, since I wouldn’t be focused on purifying my karma. But my life has actually been filled with greater ease since leaving. I worry less about whether I am “good” or “bad,” and focus more on helping those around me find comfort in this lifetime. Who knows whether or not we will have another?