Reimagining Community: CAMD Scholar Christina Cho ’19 on the Plurality of Buddhism

T.Wei/The Phillipian

Chrisina Cho ’19 was joined on stage during her presentation by mindfulness instructor and Buddhist practitioner Sebene Selassie.

As members of the world’s fourth largest religion, Buddhists comprise of hundreds of millions of people in the world; however, current perceptions of the Buddhist community consistently exclude members of marginalized groups, according to Christina Cho ’19.

Cho touched upon these topics in this year’s final Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) presentation, “Whose Buddhism Is It, Anyway?: Reimagining Community and Buddhist Practice in a Multicultural World.” In her presentation on Friday in Kemper Auditorium, Cho emphasized her usage of the plural “Buddhisms” to reflect what she sees as the plurality of the religion.

“There is no one Buddhism. Rather, there are several Buddhisms that exist at the same time, and there are three implications that come with this plural usage of the word ‘Buddhisms.’ The first one: Buddhisms are internally diverse. They are re-interpretable, and they are interdependent with culture… Buddhisms have branched out throughout the years, and a lot of this branching has depended on the cultural context they were in,” said Cho during the talk.

After studying the many forms of Buddhisms, Cho concluded that personal experiences bind them together. In an interview with The Phillipian, Cho explained that this aspect of religion is often dismissed in favor of scholarly works.

“I’d say self-reflection is very useful when studying Buddhisms, not just studying self-reflecting internally, but also trying to notice how certain Buddhist teachings or even concepts in the academia of Buddhisms, how that plays out in actual life… Religion is actually a very everyday, embodied, lived experience rather than just a purely intellectual one,” said Cho.

Cho was joined in discussion by mindfulness instructor and Buddhist practitioner Sebene Selassie, who also led a guided meditation for the audience. Selassie was impressed by Cho’s take on the many layers of the religion.

“I read [Cho’s] paper, and already that was so impressive in terms of how she so clearly articulated the history Buddhisms… But even tonight she brought in so many other elements, especially her personal relationship and her familial relationship to Buddhism, and she just outlined it, something that’s actually very complex. She chose really carefully to focus on particular strands in the history and did that so brilliantly,” said Selassie in an interview with The Phillipian.

Andrew Housiaux, Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute and Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, served as Cho’s faculty advisor. In an email to The Phillipian, Housiaux remarked that Cho was able to dispel some common misconceptions about Buddhists in her presentation.

“Christina cleared up several misconceptions about Buddhism in America today, pushing back against a whitewashed history that omits Asian and Asian-American voices. Furthermore, by showing her audience the tremendous internal diversity of the Buddhist tradition, she helped people to see that while mindfulness practice was central to the group she researched, it is by no means the only way of understanding Buddhist life and practice,” wrote Housiaux.

Lilia Cai-Hurteau, Instructor and Chair in Chinese and Japanese, discussed a similar topic as Cho in her Brace Faculty Fellowship presentation, “Meditate and Destroy: Reclaiming the Voices of Asian Women in a Systemically White Mindfulness Movement,” this January. Cai-Hurteau noted the different ways in which she and Cho addressed the subject of mindfulness.

“We both kind of traced how the mindfulness movement came to the West, and I think that it’s interesting to see how we approached it a little bit differently… Her focus is really on Buddhism and how it’s morphed and changed and wthen became this status symbol for upper-class, wealthier white people and how it’s more accessible and it’s safer for white people to ‘practice’ Buddhism than for people of color,” said Cai-Hurteau.

After attending an event about mindfulness and social justice in CAMD, Kiran Ramratnam ’22 hoped to learn more about the topic from Cho’s presentation. She highlighted the idea of using Buddhist practices and mindfulness exercises to mitigate the effects of injustice.

“I was really interested in attending this event because our affinity discussion raised a lot of questions about how we can incorporate mindfulness and Buddhist into our lives as people of color and also tackling injustice by mindfulness and Buddhist practices,” said Ramratnam.

In her presentation, Cho looked toward the East Bay Meditation Center (E.B.M.C.) in Oakland, Calif., as an example of a reimagined Buddhist community, or “sangha.” According to Cho, the E.B.M.C.’s intentionally diverse community demonstrates that Buddhism can be for everyone.

“The inclusivity of E.B.M.C. upheld through policy and membership exemplifies how Buddhisms continue to adapt to even more people in today’s world, so when I ask, ‘Whose Buddhism is it?’ E.B.M.C. may respond with, ‘Well, Buddhisms are for everyone.’ They realize that sangha is an embodiment of collective awakening, a process that welcomes all who seek liberation from suffering through the Buddhist teachings,” said Cho.