Thursday, November 10, 2011


"My understanding of the Dharma comes in living color, so to speak. As a black woman I can see and experience things others may not, which in turn gives me a 24/7 practice of compassion." Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What are some of the 'problems' Black Buddhists confront within the Buddhist community?  It seems as if our attempts to be people of the spirit keeps being held back by the chains of the skin. Is there no escaping racism?  Are we ever enlightened?  Are we trapped by the monkey mind of race?"
 This is a very important and timely question. And fortunately this month  Buddhists of color are addressing it in articles that are powerful, beautiful, and enlightening in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly.
 Buddhist nun Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, the author of Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner, is interviewed in Tricycle. There she says: 
        "When I walk out my door, it is guaranteed that someone or something will let me know that my dark skin is not good enough or let me know that I am not welcome. All I have to do is look at a billboard, be followed around in the store, or have the clerk smile to everyone but me. So, every moment the depth of my practice as a black woman in the Dharma is one that requires deep-sea diving and unbroken awareness. My understanding of the Dharma comes in living color, so to speak. As a black woman I can see and experience things others may not, which in turn gives me a 24/7 practice of compassion. I have no time to waste, protest, yell back, or play games. And it is exhausting to act out when I feel wronged. So, with Buddha’s teachings I understood that I could change my response to the human condition. I ask each day, how do I walk as vulnerable and as soft as I feel without looking over my shoulder? I walk with what I know to be true if I am awakened to the true nature of my own life. This is my face. I walk with it. That is how I understand the teachings from the body in which I was born." 
           Zenju's inspiring interview can be read in its entirety if you click on this link:,0
The new, winter 2011 issue of Buddhadharma also directly takes on today's question with a powerful and important forum entitled, "Why is American Buddhism So White?" The panelists discussing this issue are Larry Yang, a leader of the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland; Amanda Rivera, a member of Soka Gakkai International; Angel Kyodo Williams, founder of the Center for Transformative Change in Berkeley, California; and Bob Agoglia, executive director of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The photographs of Buddhists of color that illustrate this forum are just stunning. It was my privilege and pleasure to write the introduction for this panel discussion. I include that introduction below for your reading pleasure, and urge you to pick up the new issue of Buddhadharma:

           I would wager that every Buddhist enjoys the story about Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen, who presented himself as a poor “commoner from Hsin-chou of Kwangtung” to the abbot of Tung-shan monastery in the Huang-mei district of Ch’i-chou in hopes of study, and was rebuked by the abbot with these words: “You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?” Hui-neng replied, “Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature.”

For more than two millennia one of the appeals of Buddhism is that happiness and freedom from suffering can be achieved by anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender. But we must remember that all convert practitioners are embodied beings who come to dharma study from somewhere. They are firmly situated in a particular moment of history. If they are American practitioners of color, who from childhood learn to be bi-cultural, some portion of the real, daily suffering they experience in America will arise from racism and social injustice. And in the post-civil rights era this social suffering assumes forms that are so subtle, so deeply interwoven with our individual being-in-the-world, they are nearly invisible to white practitioners. 

These unexamined, ingrained patterns of conditioning, are, when viewed from a Buddhist perspective, perfect examples of what we mean by illusion if the racial or cultural self is taken to be an unchanging, enduring entity or substance. They are assumptions about identity that are as close to us as our breathing, so familiar that when these presuppositions are unveiled “awakening” to them can be experienced as deeply unsettling by practitioners who cling to a sense of “whiteness.” James Baldwin explained this well when he said, “It’s not the Negro problem, it’s the white problem. I’m only black because you think you’re white.”

In the societies where Buddhism has taken root, it has adapted to the everydayness of the lives of the laity. But problems arise in a multi-cultural society if one racial group of practitioners, with its preferences and prejudices, has historically been privileged and dominant over others.

The overwhelming whiteness of American Buddhist centers is not a problem just for teachers who want to transmit the dharma to everyone. The United States is presently undergoing a dramatic sea change. Demographers predict that by 2042 minorities will outnumber whites. This “browning” of America is arguably one of the greatest cultural issues in the 21st century, a change that is already affecting everything from employment to popular culture, and especially our system of public education.

 A recent article by Jen Graves in Seattle's The Stranger, entitled "Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race," reports on how progressive whites are addressing this issue through organizations such as the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites. “Whiteness is the center that goes unnamed and unstudied, which is one way that keeps us as white folks centered, normal, that which everything else is compared to," CARW cofounder Scott Winn says in the article. "I think many white people are integrationists in that 'beloved community' way, but integration usually means assimilation...As in, you've gotta act like us for this to work."  

And Peggy McIntosh, the anti-racism activist and Wellesley Centers for Women scholar, sums all this up well when she observes that, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” 
In order to solve this problem, whites must listen deeply to Buddhists of color who are particularly well-suited (and perhaps even karmically directed) to take the lead in healing these wounds, not only in the American sangha, but in the larger society as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment