Friday, May 6, 2011


When some Americans are in the presence of a person who is black and Buddhist, you can see the cognitive dissonance---the confusion--right there in their eyes as they struggle to process this information that so rudely unsettles their cultural and racial presuppositions. 
Over forty years I've seen people react to this phenomenon with emotions that range from fear to anger, as if they had somehow been personally betrayed, insulted or threatened; and I've seen others who know something about Buddhism delight in this revelation, as if to say, And why not? But just as James Weldon Johnson stated in The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man that, "I believe it is a fact that the colored people in this country know and understand the white people better than the white people understand them," so too, I have to say that the vast majority of Americans are very poorly informed about the theory and practice of Buddhism.

Over 2600 years, many branches or traditions of Buddhism have sprung from the bodhi tree. One of these that is especially attractive to black American Buddhists is Soka Gakkai (Nichiren), which claims to have approximately 15,000 black practitioners, among them Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson, Tina Turner, and the jazz great Herbie Hancock. My sister-in-law in Chicago is a practitioner of this school that also attracts a large number of Hispanics. Unlike other Buddhist traditions, Soka Gakkai is proactive and proselytizes, seeking out members in urban areas with large black populations (practitioners urge their friends to join)---this is very different from the image most convert American Buddhists have of Japanese Zen traditions where, for example, stories are told of a spiritual seeker made to sit for a full day or two outside a zendo before he is finally admitted, and then only at first as a visitor. (In other words, you need to show that you really need and want this.)

Soka Gakkai members chant chapters from the Lotus Sutra, and if you have ever been lucky enough to be in a room where they are chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo in unison you will experience anew the elemental power of sound as their collective voices move like a strong, cleansing wind or an ocean wave through every cell and fibre of your body. Although I tilt toward the Theravada tradition, and took a lay person's formal vows in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition founded by Dogen, I have a deep appreciation for the way Herbie Hancock described his practice in a 2007 interview for Beliefnet:

 "The idea of cause and affect, which Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is about, made sense to me," he said. "I'm a guy that's always been attracted to science---and cause and effect is what science is about...The cool thing is that jazz is really a wonderful example of the great characteristics of Buddhism and the great characteristics of the human spirit. Because in jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best we're non-judgmental. If we let judgment get in the way of improvising, it always screws us up. So we take whatever happens and try to make it work...At the same time---and just think about this---within the life of a human being is the universe. So, we all have the universe inside at our core."
Those words don't sound as if they are coming from a person who sees himself as a "victim," do they? Such a conceptualization poisons the mind and the human spirit. Mr. Hancock, like all Buddhists, is not mired in a past that cannot be recovered or a future that will never come, but instead works to anchor himself "in the moment." And he is not ensnared in what black Buddhist teacher Lama Rangdrol describes as the debilitation, bitter, polarized and cliched "mentality of an angry black man." Added to that, Hancock's comparison of his egoless listening and non-judgmental approach as a jazz musician to the Dharma reminds us that Buddhist practice has much in common with the process we associate with creating art, which demands an openness to all things. (Buddhism, some commentators have pointed out, is a form of artistic practice with your life itself being the material you are shaping.)
What unites black Buddhists, regardless of the tradition they belong to, is the desire to be free. Truly free. The practice of Buddhism is the practice of life itself. Last week I had the great pleasure of reading, then endorsing a book entitled Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, a black Soto Zen Priest. 
Her book, which includes a foreword by Thich Nhat Hahn, will be published in October by Hampton Roads. In the future when anyone asks me questions about black people and Buddhism, I plan to simply tell them to buy Zenju's beautiful book. She is acutely aware of how we can be enslaved by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. By the concepts and words that obscure our experience of reality. Just reading her clear, beautiful and inspiring answers to questions about Buddhist practice quiets and calms the mind as quickly as the wood striking wood sound of a han calling us to awakening. (In Japanese Soto Zen a han is a mallet and piece of wood that are struck to summon practitioners to the zendo). Each page is rich in wisdom, as when one of her teachers points out that, "All emotions are from the past."
Meditate for just a moment on that.


  1. This is an instructive section. It inspired some ideas that I might use elsewhere. Jazz, Art Blakey once said, removes the dust of everyday life. Jazz has as a transcendent spiritual quality and beauty that belies the social inequities it grew up in and the tragic lives of many of its most brilliant and lesser known creators. I look forward to reading Manuel’s book…

  2. Hi,
    My name is Renee. I'm attending school in Chicago. I'm currently in the Acupuncture Program for my Doctoral Degree. Where can I attend in Chicago to learn more about the Buddhist teachings. I was trying to find a location where African Americans are attending. My email: