The Temple Built on Indigenous Land

The temple built on indigenous land: a story of religious privilege

I will be clear: I grew up with a slew of privileges in the United States. I was born in a well-to-do neighborhood in California to parents who both had PhDs. I am able-bodied, college-educated, and while I am clearly not white,  my racial ambiguity is not the type that would cause me to be racially profiled by police or shopkeepers.

But a recent trip to Taiwan showed me very clearly how I lack a certain privilege.

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As I explored Taiwan, I saw Buddhist temples everywhere. A plurality of Taiwanese identify as Buddhist– and Buddhist traditions and values are very much accepted by the general population. As a practicing Hindu (father’s side) and Buddhist (mother’s side), it was very novel for me to be in a country where one of my religious traditions were so affirmed by the greater society.

I don’t know what it is like to be raised in an environment where your family’s religious beliefs are considered normal and backed by the state. What a privilege it is for Christians in the U.S. to have a federal holiday as well as general public acceptance of their beliefs. Come the holiday season, what is like to turn on the radio and hear music for your holiday, without even trying to look for it? What is it like to know that pretty much any town you go to will have a place of worship for you? What is it like, I wonder, to have your holy texts studied in public schools as part of the general curriculum (we studied parts of the Bible in my English class in high school)? What does it feel like to know that most of your fellow citizens know the names of your holy people, places and days?

As a non-Christian, I do not know what those feelings are like.

But I wonder if Christians in the US ponder these questions.  And I wonder if they ever considered the price in which religious dominance came.

But religious cultural dominance is not solely a (white) Christian issue. In Taiwan I found myself at the intersection of many things– tourist, Mandarin-speaker, East Asian, South Asian, Buddhist, descendant of colonizers– and found myself lost in thought at the steps of a Buddhist temple. This particular temple was built on indigenous land (land of the Taroko people), who were forcibly removed by Japanese colonizers in the early 1900s. In modern times the Taroko people are primarily Christian (surprise, anyone?). They live away from their ancestral lands, while tourists from Taiwan and around the world visit a National Park named after them– a National Park that contains several modern Buddhist temples.

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At first I was excited to be in a country where my religious beliefs are affirmed and celebrated. But as I gazed at the temple which was built on indigenous land, I think, this is a familiar story. It is a story I should not be excited about.

And it is a story, that I realized on this trip, that is so absolutely shaped by context.

Often times when someone (an immigrant) complains about injustice and oppression, a common response we hear is “well if you don’t like it go back to your home country.”

What if going back to “your home country” to escape oppression means yes, true, you are no longer oppressed — but now you’ve become the oppressor?

For example, a Burmese Buddhist in the US lacks religious privilege. But back in Burma, a Buddhist-majority nation, they are suddenly in a nation whose government is actively perpetuating a campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide against Muslims. Oppressed in one nation, oppressor in the other.

I don’t want to live in a society where in order to escape oppression, I must become the oppressor instead.

And so I bowed my head at the temple that was built on indigenous land. I did not pray. I just pondered. What a world we live in.