Recently, there has been a lot of discussion over Buddhist House (BuHo) after an Opinion article published in The Argus criticized the relationship between the program house and Buddhist culture. As a way of having a more cohesive discussion about these recent events and to hear feedback from the University community, Buddhist House members held a discussion over the future of the house on Thursday, Feb. 4. The talk culminated in the decision to begin the process of a name change of Buddhist House to more accurately reflect the values that its members hold and practice.
Sarah Small ’18, a board member of the Asian American Student Collective, spoke about the dangers of labeling a house of people who do not identify as Buddhist “Buddhist House.”
“[Buddhism] is a religion, a culture, and a lifestyle that has been degraded by the West through centuries of Orientalist exotification,” Small said. “Slapping the title of ‘Buddhist’ onto a house that really has more to do with trendy American hippie culture is reminiscent of Urban Outfitters selling Hamsa and Om bracelets. It’s trendy for white people to wear Asian religion [and] culture, but strange [and] foreign for brown bodies to practice it.”
University President Michael Roth added to the discourse in a separate interview, where he emphasized the importance of adhering to guidelines and value systems that program houses establish for themselves.
“It does seem to me dangerous to try to define what really belongs in Buddhist House…by some standard of purity combined with intersectionality…it just seems like a dangerous path,” Roth said. “Program houses have programs they’re supposed to follow, and if it’s not following its program, that’s a different story.”
After the initial Opinion article was published but prior to the meeting, an article by a former resident of Buddhist House was published in The Argus. The piece presented a counter-argument to the original one and defended the existence of Buddhist House.
The event hosted by Buddhist House allowed current residents to hear from the community about what they believed the function of Buddhist House to be on campus and to hear what students thought the best way for the house to serve the greater community. Residents wanted to know how they could improve the situation and whether that might involve a change in the house’s name or mission statement to more accurately represent the role the house plays in the University community.
With respect to the house, students reflected on the positive sense of community it provides for them, the role it has played in personal introspective journeys, and its role as a place to be around like-minded people.
Buddhism itself means very different things to each resident, and members commented on the steady decline in Buddhist practices, texts, and discussions that actually occur in the house based on the constantly fluctuating membership. Several members confirmed that no Buddhist practices had taken place in the home this previous semester.
“We don’t think the name Buddhist House serves the Wesleyan Buddhist community because we don’t practice Buddhism in the traditional way that respects many Buddhist traditions,” said house member Kathryn Wheeler ’17. “We recognize that it is a stretch to call this a Buddhist space, since it doesn’t fully encompass Buddhist practice.”
This moved into a conversation of whether or not the home is a space for practicing Buddhists, as well as whether or not it is even necessary to have a house dedicated to Buddhism given the current controversy. Certain students present at the discussion expressed that if there is a Buddhist house, there has to be a structural system of Buddhism in the house.
“I think BuHo can be a great place if you’re into meditation [and] spirituality [and] hippie stuff,” Small said. “We need safe social venues on campus and BuHo has held some great events. We would just like them to stop inappropriately attaching the name of Buddhism with what they do.”
At the meeting some students who identify as Buddhist explained that many of the events, referring to the house’s role as a music venue on campus, can interfere with actual Buddhist practices.
Residents of BuHo then asked if there is a need for a specific house for Buddhists to worship and whether or not the house is necessary for Buddhism to exist or to be represented on campus.
“You don’t need a specifically designated space for Buddhism to exist because it isn’t about going to a specific space,” said Hanh Pham ’19.
Others commented that it is important for Buddhism to be represented on campus, but this institution would not be able to do that based on its lack of members that self-identify as Buddhist.
“Why do we keep pressing the issue of keeping this title when it is not a space for Buddhism?” one student said. “We can maintain this concert venue and maintain the house, just change the name.”
Justina Yam ’19 added to the argument that there is a disconnect between how the Western world perceives Buddhism and what true Buddhism is.
“Most [residents of BuHo] don’t identify as Buddhist, so why are you holding on to this label?” Yam said. “For the Buddhists I grew up around, they don’t do it to seek spirituality but because it’s embedded in their lives as a ritual, not as a Westernized means of seeking spirituality.”
BuHo residents expressed that if community members felt the house did little for the practicing Buddhists of the University, they were in favor of changing the name to more accurately represent what the house stands for.
On changing the name, Wheeler stated that she was excited for this new opportunity.
“I actually think this is a really exciting opportunity to reinvent a space that has a lot of promise,” Wheeler said. “We have decided as a house to change the name and mission statement of our space because we believe that the name is inappropriate to the way we use the space and no longer serves the function of the house. We will be coming up for an interim name and mission statement that aligns with our current values and operating under that name this spring.”
Students expressed that so much about the house is positive, from the space it creates to its function as a venue for live music. Most people at the meeting were not looking for a fundamental change of the house itself, only a change in what the house claims to represent.
“We hope to choose a name and mission that make this house into a space that continues our tradition of tight-knit community and a dedication to finding our higher selves, but we also hope to decide this with the broader Wes community,” Wheeler said. “Most of all, we hope not to lose what makes our house so special, which is a relaxed atmosphere full of kindness and compassion, and a focus on community. We will choose a name and purpose that we believe suits this.”
Wheeler continued to speak on the new possibilities this opens up for the space.
“I think this gives us a great chance to reinvigorate a space that could serve the community in so many ways, while being a safe and accepting space for anyone,” she said. “We have certainly all evolved a lot from this issue, and I think this has been a huge benefit to our house community and the broader Wesleyan community.”