Healing by Honouring: An Interview With Chenxing Han
by Nancy Chu
I first met Chenxing Han in the spring of 2013 at the Institute for Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. She was at that point working on a project on young adult Asian American Buddhists. As I happened to fall in that category, she invited me over to her apartment for an interview, where she asked me questions and served delicious home-baked vegan cookies. She was an interested and wise interviewer, and I was moved by the thoughtful care and dedication that I felt in her presence. I little knew then that, eight years later, her book would come out during a year of rising anti-Asian violence and that she would emerge as an important voice in the national conversation on race and representation for the Asian American Buddhist community. Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists (North Atlantic Books, 2021) is truly a labour of love. Chapter by chapter, she deftly interweaves her experience with that of many Asian American Buddhists. Be the Refuge speaks truth to power, grieves the loss of a dear friend and bears witness to the diverse community of Asian American Buddhists who have long been underrepresented and marginalised in mainstream Buddhist America.
Chenxing writes with a deep warmth and grace that I admire. She was born in Shanghai and grew up in Pittsburgh and Seattle before attending Stanford University as an undergraduate. She additionally holds an MA in Buddhist Studies from the Graduate Theological Union and worked at a community hospital in Oakland as a chaplain. During a gap year before college, she volunteered and travelled in Asia, where she encountered Buddhism in its many forms in Hong Kong, Thailand, Nepal and Tibet. Though she was raised by atheist parents, she began to explore Buddhism seriously in college. As she writes in Be the Refuge, “It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when I ‘converted’ to Buddhism. It was more of a gradual steeping, Buddhism suffusing my life the way tea remakes water, a subtle flavor intensifying over time.” Buddhism eventually made its way into her writing and her work has appeared in Buddhadharma, Journal of Global Buddhism, Lion’s Roar, Pacific World and Tricycle, among others.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a widespread surge in anti-Asian violence across the United States. In response, Chenxing, along with Funie Hsu and Duncan Ryuken Williams, co-organised “May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors”, an event that honoured, in particular, the victims of the spa shootings in Atlanta earlier this year, which included six women of Asian descent. The ceremony was held at Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. This interview took place over email around that time. Her responses were a delight to read. As we corresponded over Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I began to feel like I was talking to a kalyāṇa-mitra, the Buddhist term for a spiritual friend.
I remember I first met you years ago at a conference on Buddhist chaplaincy. At the time we were both master’s students in Buddhism, and you had this project on Asian American Buddhists. I remember thinking, that’s cool, that actually speaks to my experience and so little out there does. Today, you are an instrumental voice in this tremendous conversation on race and representation that’s taking place in American Buddhism. That’s so exciting for me to see.
You’ve mentioned to me that your book has been revised several times (re-incarnated, I’m tempted to say) and I have to say I love it in its current form. It’s compassionate, courageous and intimate, even while you’re telling a much bigger story about Asian American Buddhism. It’s timely and much-needed writing. What I want to know about, however, is the book that could have been. I wonder if you could talk a little about what you left out or changed and what didn’t make the cut in the final version. What darlings did you kill, Chenxing?
That conference was almost a decade ago now! I’m so glad we’ve kept in touch since then – it’s been an inspiration for me to see how your work in Buddhist studies and chaplaincy have unfolded over these years.
If my perspective has been instrumental in any way, it is part of a broader symphony of concerned voices and I am indebted to so many, including the late Aaron J. Lee. It’s been exciting for me to see the growing attention to issues of race and representation in American Buddhism.
I love this question about the earlier reincarnations of this book, whose past lives include a 160-page master’s thesis and a (fortunately never published) 95,000-word manuscript with 463 footnotes. Be the Refuge bears the traces of these earlier forms, but its genre-fluid form feels truer to the core question: What can we learn from Asian American Buddhists as members of an identity category that is still very much in the making?
You ask what I cut out: a lot of academic jargon. A lot of handwringing over “two Buddhisms and its (dis)contents”. A lot of boring lit review paragraphs. Darlings that had to go! And then there’s what I put in: more voices of other young adult Asian American Buddhists. My own story, which had been buried in some of those 463 footnotes. That was the most difficult part, writing about myself with the kind of vulnerability and openness that I associated more with chaplaincy than academia (I recognise I’m constructing an unhelpful dichotomy between these two fields here).
Also, I have an inordinate fondness for parenthetical statements. A lot of those had to go, which was a blow to my penchant for digressions, but probably a kindness to readers.
Earlier this year, I held your book in my hands and felt moved, thinking about the long journey it has been on to get here. As I read it, I thought, this book is both a mourning and a celebration. I love how they are intertwined. It also resonates with my experience as an Asian American Buddhist and my sense is that it will for many others as well. You say that writing the book was a transformative experience. Can you say more about that?
Mourning and celebration are inextricably linked for us, are they not? Writing the book showed me how to make space for the whole gamut – the grief and the joy, the rage and the pride – of what being a racial and religious minority in this country entails.
It feels fitting to respond to this question right after May We Gather: A National Buddhist Memorial Ceremony for Asian American Ancestors. As you know – thank you for reporting on the event along with your colleague Mihiri Tillakaratne – the ceremony was held on May 4th, 2021, exactly 49 days after the Atlanta-area shootings. The ceremony was a mourning of the violent deaths of Asian American Buddhists, and it was a celebration of the power and beauty of our faith and diverse cultural heritages.
In writing my book, I drew inspiration from Lisa Lowe’s observation that “the making of Asian American culture includes practices that are partly inherited, partly modified, as well as partly invented.” May 4th included elements of all three: the inherited, the modified, the invented. Writing Be the Refuge and then helping to co-organise May We Gather has broken open my imagination on what is possible if we centre Asian American Buddhist perspectives. I use the word ‘broken’ deliberately here: my book, like the May 4th ceremony, is about healing in community – through spiritual friendship – by honouring rather than hiding the ways we’ve been broken.
How did the idea for the book begin? Did it turn out anything like you expected it would?
There are many ways to tell the origin story of this book (I suspect that’s true of all books). To quote one of my interviewees, you trace the dots in retrospect. The Angry Asian Buddhist Blog. The dissonance between predominantly white media representations and the Pew Forum’s 2012 findings that over two-thirds of U.S. Buddhists are of Asian heritage. My own loneliness, confusion and curiosity. Toni Morrison’s injunction to write the books we want to read. All of these inspired me – or conspired to get me – to write this book.
I don’t think you’ll be surprised to hear that, no, the book didn’t turn out as I expected. But isn’t that often – dare I say ideally? – where the journey of writing and rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting…) leads us?
What formed you as a writer? What were your main sources of inspiration for this book? Are there any writers that you particularly love, for example?
I’m indebted to the public libraries and public-school teachers of my youth for nurturing my love of the written word. And I’m grateful that my parents always gave me a wide berth to pursue my own interests. My mum didn’t bat an eye when an elementary school teacher told her my reading choices were inappropriate for my age (in my defence, Danielle Steel seemed to occupy half the local library, so in the absence of any guidance to the contrary, I figured she was essential reading).
I was just talking with a friend about moments in our 20s when we accidentally met authors we admired. The summer after starting a research project on young adult Asian American Buddhists – almost a decade ago now – I took a brief trip to China to attend a workshop on Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. After the workshop, though I was only in town for a couple days, my aunt took me to the Shanghai Library for a lecture by Colum McCann. Inspired by his mention of Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog, I mustered up the courage to ask him a question about cultivating empathy and negotiating privilege. His talk, full of force, humour and grace, left me pondering the human condition and the possibility of transformation in a world marked by suffering. Uncharacteristically, I wrote an email to convey my delight at the collision of cultures I experienced as a Chinese American attending a lecture by a US-based Irish writer in my birthplace-but-not-growing-up-place of Shanghai. That email led to an impromptu dinner with McCann, his translator, my aunt (who is also a literary translator) and me. It was a relief to learn that authors are human beings who have to eat (rather than gods who subsist solely on lofty thoughts) and a pleasure to encounter a writer who was such a generous listener genuinely curious about others. In retrospect, I can see how that encounter has helped shape my relationship to writing as a practice rooted in deep listening.
All this is a very roundabout way of answering the second part of your question. I remember feeling so relieved by McCann’s advice, during his lecture, to read promiscuously. It certainly vindicated my haphazard approach to reading when I was younger! Even today, reading feels deliciously eclectic to me. Each new (or old) text is as unexpected as that dinner in Shanghai: a remarkable and unfathomable confluence of karmic conditions.
I should try to answer your question more directly. I was living in Cambodia and Thailand for much of the time that I was writing this book and I have a strong preference for reading print (not digital) books, so my choices were somewhat constrained by what I could find at libraries and bookshops in Phnom Penh and Bangkok. Some of the authors whose writing inspired and companioned me during my time in SE Asia were Dodie Bellamy, Botan, Elenore Smith Bowen (i.e. Laura Bohannan), Anne Donovan, Akwaeke Emezi, Elena Ferrante, Han Kang, Kenji Liu, Veeraporn Nitiprapha, Kukrit Pramoj, Vaddey Ratner, Olga Tokarczuk, Jesmyn Ward, Virginia Woolf and Hanya Yanagihara.
Wonderful. What a lovely response. One more question: What was the most gratifying thing to write in Be the Refuge? Is there a part of the book that you feel particularly strongly about?
Endings are hard for me (in writing and in life), so I was surprised when the final chapter, “Solidarity”, came together quite organically. When I read from this chapter at book events, I’m struck by how it feels like symphony or mosaic or tapestry – voices melding together, pieces coming together, strands weaving together.
I’m especially happy with the woven effect, which makes me think of the origin of the word sutra (Buddhist scripture) as thread. The May 4th ceremony ended with the Buddhist leaders processing in pairs out of the temple while holding one of two long white threads emanating from the Buddha statue on the altar. As they left the temple with the threads held between prayer-pressed palms, the hall resounded with the sound of paritta (protective) chants led by Thai monastics.
There are really three endings to Be the Refuge: the Solidarity chapter, the Benediction and Appendix 5. Which might just be my way of writing into the cyclicity of things, remembering that endings are also always beginnings.
About the Authors
Chenxing Han is the author of Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists (North Atlantic Books, 2021). She holds a BA from Stanford University, an MA in Buddhist studies from the Graduate Theological Union, and a certificate in buddhist chaplaincy from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. Her photograph (right) was taken by Sarah Deragon.
Nancy Chu is a PhD candidate in religious studies at Stanford University, focusing in Buddhism. She holds a BA in Chinese and English literature from Swarthmore College, an MDiv in Buddhism from Harvard Divinity School, and an MPhil in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge. She is also an associate editor at Lion’s Roar magazine. Her photograph (left) was taken by Hagop Istanboulian.