Chenxing Han is the author of the important new book, Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists, which celebrates the diversity and multivocality of Asian American Buddhism, drawing from in-depth interviews with 89 pan-ethnic, pan-Buddhist young adults. In each chapter of this insightful work, Chenxing pushes back against harmful stereotypes and challenges readers to question their racialized assumptions about American Buddhism.
In June, Be the Refuge will be the featured title for the IMS Book Club. IMS Marketing Coordinator Albert Karcher asked Chenxing to share about her journey in writing this book.
Can you offer a preview of the main theme of the book?
Thank you for hosting this event—I’m excited to join you all! In a nutshell, Be the Refuge centers the diversity and complexity of Asian American Buddhists, a group that has too often—and for too long—been marginalized in American Buddhism.
What inspired you to reach out to young Asian American Buddhists and interview them?
My own loneliness, confusion, and curiosity. Not having been raised within the tradition, I didn’t know many other Asian American Buddhists. I was also puzzled why mainstream representations of American Buddhism were dominated by white converts, when two-thirds of American Buddhists are of Asian heritage. This sparked the question that led to this book: where are all the Asian American Buddhists, and what can we learn from them?
You share personal stories about your own relationship with Buddhism in the book. What led you to be so curious about your own experience?
I was inspired by the novelist and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki, who encouraged me to make the book an account of my curiosity, and to write myself in. Sharing more of my own journey felt vulnerable and uncomfortable, but also honest and necessary.
In Be the Refuge you discuss how Asian Americans make up the majority of Buddhists in this country, and yet the public face of American Buddhism is largely white. How does Be the Refuge counter this erasure?
Be the Refuge is the first book to center Asian American Buddhists as a pan-ethnic, pan-sectarian group. By its very existence, the book counters our erasure!
What challenges did you face in getting the book published?
I describe some of these hurdles in the book, so I won’t spoil it for people who haven’t read this part. But I will ask this: how many Buddhist books by young adult Asian American women can you name? If you look at the rosters of authors published by Buddhist presses, what demographics are overrepresented? Put simply: who has the power to represent American Buddhism?
Now that the book has been released into the world, what does the experience of writing it mean to you?
I could never have predicted that this book would come out during a global pandemic, and during a time of heightened awareness about anti-Asian violence in North America. The book has its own karma, and now that I see her/him/them (I have a feeling my book would like to be gender-fluid, in addition to being genre-fluid) out in the world, it’s as if Be the Refuge is writing a new chapter in its own life, through interacting with readers.
You were one of the organizers of May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors, which brought together followers from every major school of Buddhism. What was it like to organize such a unique gathering and what aspirations do you have (if any) for continuing connections among the many traditions?
It was truly an honor to be among the many people who worked together to create the May 4th, 2021 May We Gather ceremony. I feel transformed by the beauty and power of the gathering, which felt healing and historic. I hope we will continue to gather across traditions to learn from each other and celebrate our shared Buddhist roots.
Chenxing Han will join the IMS Book Club online, with IMS teacher Yong Oh, to discuss Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists on Thursday, June 24, at 7 PM ET. For more information and to register for the meeting, click here.