Reactionary White Buddhists Have Joined The Fight Against Critical Race Theory

Mark Vetanen, who goes by "Bodhisattva Otomo," has launched Spiritual Right podcast. Image: YouTube.

A recent article by conservative watchdog Campus Reform targeted my collaborative research talk on racial justice work in and as Buddhist practice. The talk traced the multiple ways whiteness has operated in American Buddhism including the erasure of Asian American heritage communities and detailed some of the strategies by which Buddhists of Color and their white allies have been confronting structural racism in their communities for over three decades

While opponents have dismissed such initiatives as the intrusion of identity politics into the tradition, Joy Brennan, my collaborator, showed how the Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy provides a framework for recognizing and being liberated from whiteness. Jessica Zu, our respondent, provided historical continuity by linking anti-racist Buddhist work to neglected Asian Buddhist figures such as Lu Cheng, the Chinese Buddhist modernist who forged socially progressive visions of the tradition in the early twentieth century. 

Rather than engage with the actual content of the talk, the reporter opted for a website quote from White Awake, one of the anti-racist organizations working with Buddhist communities, and solicited a comment from anti-woke crusader and mathematician James Lindsay  in which he linked whiteness to communism and the abolition of private property. 

As he put it, “Whiteness is the racial repacking of Marx’s concept of ‘bourgeois private property.” Reposted by Legal Insurrection, another conservative organization, one reader added “Critical race theory is more than a delusion, it’s a disease”; another suggested our “karmic punishment” should be “reincarnation as vultures.” 

The attack on racial justice scholarship by Campus Reform is unsurprising. The conservative organization has an established history of targeting scholars who work on racial justice, with many of my colleagues in religious studies coming under fire. 

Research has shown that Campus Reform’s so-called attempts to reduce “liberal bias” have led to professors facing harassment and even being dismissed by their institutions. Such attacks have now become state-sponsored with anti-critical race theory laws being passed for K-12 schools in a number of Republican states and further bills aimed at higher education proposed.

What many will perhaps find more surprising is that the rhetoric being used by Campus Reform and their ilk is far from new to me or fellow researchers working on racial justice in American Buddhism. Rather it echoes some of the white Buddhist backlash to racial justice work. A number of white Buddhists* have adopted the language of “invasion” and “infection” in an attempt to discredit long overdue racial justice initiatives in their communities. 

Popular Zen teacher Brad Warner, for instance, has declared that racial justice work has nothing to do with Buddhism but is merely a tool of identity politics designed to shame white men. Secular mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young, meanwhile, delivered an explosive rant in which he claimed critical race theory was being used as a hammer “to beat half of America to death with” and blamed it for the election of “a jerk.”  

Brenna Grace Artinger and I have charted the emergence of a broad spectrum of “anti-woke” white Buddhists who have attempted to delegitimate and derail racial justice work. We organize these anti-social justice Buddhists into three distinct but overlapping categories: Reactionary Centrists, the Buddhist Right, and alt-Right Buddhists. 

We borrow the term reactionary centrist from political theorist Aaron Huertas who defines it as “someone who says they are politically neutral but who usually punches left while sympathizing with the right.” Reactionary centrism, in other words, is a conservative ideological stance that sees and presents itself as transcendent of ideology. 

Such an approach is clearly at work among white Buddhists who claim to be apolitical while mobilizing conservative assumptions and strategies to delegitimate anti-racist work in Buddhism as “ideological.” A good example here comes from the transnational Buddhist Triratna community. 

Given their strong links to the Ambedkar Buddhist Dalit community, an engaged Buddhist lineage that has combatted caste violence and discrimination in India, one might expect to find a similar commitment to justice for other marginalized populations. Indeed, some Triratna practitioners have confronted the legacy of racism within and beyond their communities by consciousness-raising, compiling anti-racist resources, and starting PoC affinity groups and white awareness groups

In reaction to racial justice efforts, however, seven white male members, an affinity group of its own sort, produced a website called Apramada: Buddhist Perspectives on Society and Culture, whose mission statement declares: The aim of Apramāda is to bring Buddhist perspectives to bear on questions facing the world today—a task of urgent importance in an era when public discourse is often clouded by divisive ideologies and partisan animosity.” One article title suggests that Buddhists should leave their politics at the temple door. On further reading, however, it’s clear that it’s not politics per se but rather a certain type of politics that aren’t welcome. To give a hint: as the author explains, “‘diversity’, like social justice, is one of those words that sounds innocent and good, but is informed by a political ideology that is not so innocent and good.” 

One wonders why the author sees the call for racial justice in his community as “ideological” rather than as reflecting the lived experiences of his PoC sangha members. Why did he not include any of the first-person reports by Triratna members of color who have experienced racism within and beyond white dominant Triratna spaces? In fact, in a commonly employed reactionary reverse victim strategy, the only identity group he does name as vulnerable in Triratna are conservatives. 

One also wonders how he squares his apolitical call with some of the articles written by his co-editors. Reproducing familiar conservative rhetoric, one of these denounces the “postmodern anti-racism” of Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory but adds a unique twist by comparing the current “police racism panic” to the “ritual panic abuses” of the 1980s. Another compares responses to structural racism, climate change, and Covid-19 to mental illness that are “wreaking havoc in Western society.” Just like Campus Reform, he turns to James Lindsay’s anti-woke polemics for support.  

While Buddhist reactionary centrists seek to naturalize their own conservative political positions as transcendent of ideologies, what we identify as “the Buddhist Right” explicitly embrace their right-wing positions. In response to a “Statement Against Anti-Asian Violence” by the Buddhist Churches of America, the oldest Buddhist organization in the U.S., published in the wake of the shootings in Atlanta that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent, Jason Manu Rheaume released an article titled “Critical Race Theory is Corrupting Buddhism,” which claims that critical race theory has not only “infiltrated colleges but also Buddhism in America.” 

Rheaume and two other white Americans, David Reynolds, a former Theravada monk, and Mark Vetanen, a Zen practitioner, have started a new podcast called “The Spiritual Right,” which reproduces much of Christian conservative anti-woke rhetoric: “The West has become a spiritual wasteland of ‘progressive’ and materialistic forces. Wokeness masquerades as authentic spiritual tradition, gutting and commodifying ancient teachings to fit its values.” 

Writing under the signifier “politically incorrect Dharma,” Reynolds had earlier called for an Alt-Buddhism, namely a “relatively conservative, non-feminist (in the emasculating, man-hating socialist sense of the word) spiritual system directed mainly by men.” One response came in the form of the self-proclaimed alt-right Buddhist group Right-Wing Dharma Squads

Hiding behind pseudonyms, these four white men have produced a series of podcasts that mock liberal Buddhism and interweave reflections on Buddhist texts with misogyny, antisemitism, and the celebration of Asian Buddhist monastic extremists such as U Wirathu who have incited violence against Muslims. 

For those readers who associate Buddhism with progressive liberal values, or hold an ahistorical reading of the tradition as apolitical, the white backlash to racial justice will be a surprise. As within all religious traditions, however, Buddhist doctrine has been used to both support and resist power regimes

Rather than argue for a “real” interpretation of the tradition, scholars can illuminate the ways in which reactionary Buddhists attempt to naturalize their own positions while simultaneously claiming progressive positions as distorted by ideology. They can also point out that such a strategy itself performs the operations of whiteness: as African American philosopher George Yancy notes, others have racialized identities but white people are the “transcendental norm.”


*Correction: The word “teachers” was removed in order to clarify that the subsequently mentioned teachers were not the ones who had in fact used the terms “invasion” and “infection.” 


This article was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation-funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion.