Saturday, December 10, 2011

WHEN THE BUDDHIST IS A BLACK MAN OR A BLACK WOMAN



E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Many of the black writers who are Buddhists and write about Buddhism seem to be women. Where are the black men? You seem to be the exception. Does this really matter? Are there other black men writing about Buddhism but not receiving attention in the popular Buddhist's publications?"

 After writer Rebecca Walker read the forum discussion "Why Is American Buddhism So White?" in the current issue of Buddhadharma magazine, she asked me an important question in an email: "I wonder why my husband wasn't invited to participate in this important discussion." 
 
 
 She was right to wonder why. Her husband is Vajrayana Lama Choyin Rangdröl. She interviewed him in the 2003 "Black Dharma" issue of Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism. They met at the first black American Buddhist retreat in 2002 at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California. During that interview, she asked him, “What led to your decision to bring the Dharma to African Americans?” And he replied, “When I discovered that it was possible to avoid becoming ensnared in the mentality of an angry black man by applying Buddhism, I felt I had found a great treasure not just for me but also for resonance in millions of black people’s minds.” 
 
Clearly, Lama Rangdröl could have enriched the Buddhadharma forum, for he is a pioneer in bringing dharma teachings to black Americans. However, in all fairness to that publication, when I passed Rebecca's remark along to my editor (I wrote the introduction for that forum), she replied that they simple hadn't acquainted themselves enough with Lama Rangdröl 's work but intended to do so soon. My guess is that they will arrange at some point to publish an interview with him.
 
 
 Another black male Buddhist teacher who deserves more recognition is George Mumford, who was interviewed in a 2003 issue of Tricycle. He is a
a sports psychologist who teaches vipassana meditation to the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and who overcame years of drug and alcohol addiction. “I came to Buddhist practice because I had dukkha, dukkha, dukkha,” said Mumford. “Excuse my language, but my ass was on fire. My life depended on meditation practice…I got into Twelve Step recovery and lo and behold, I had pain, I had to deal with a lot of chronic pain---migraines, headaches, back aches. And emotional pain and spiritual pain…”  

 Mumford then discovered vipassana, the practice taught world-wide with such success by Satya Narayan Goenke, and which the Buddha recommended to his followers at the end of the Mahāsatipatthāna  Sutta  (Great Discourse on the Establishing of Awareness) . Mumford reports that, “I learned that I could control my mind. No matter what happened to me, I could choose my response to it. I had lived in fantasy all my life. Once I started getting involved in meditation, I realized that I did have an alternative. It was the first time I had a sense of control in my life…


 “I think the main benefit of meditation for inner-city African Americans,” he added, “is impulse control. The inner city is a pressure cooker, full of tension and anxiety. It’s easy to go off or to reach for something to ease the pain. Meditation helps people understand the operation of their minds and emotions. It teaches us how to detach ourselves from outside provocation and from our habitual patterns of reaction. Now, I’m not suggesting that we should take abuse and racism and all that other stuff, and just breathe in, breath out. That’s something else. But the first thing we have to do is have control of ourselves, and then we can choose with a clear mind.”

 Just in passing, I think it’s important to say that Mumford states that all his uncles were alcoholics and died at a young age, His father was an alcoholic, too, and violent toward his family. Mumford confesses that, “I knew the taste of beer before I could walk. At fifteen or sixteen, I started snorting heroin.”  The dilemma he faced is one that is not uncommon for many at-risk young black men, the ones who succumb in adolescence (or pre-adolescence) to the group pressure of gangs, substance abuse, and criminal behavior. But Mumford discovered vipassana, a tool for analyzing and rebuilding his world at its source: the mind.

There are many Asian, white, black, male and female teachers who work daily at turning the Wheel of Dharma, but the general public is unaware of them because they do not publish books and articles or appear in the few mass market Buddhist magazines. Three black women do, and so they have become icons of "Black Dharma." 
 
             
One is Dr. Jan Willis, who has been identified as the first black American scholar-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. She is a Sanskritist, an esteemed scholar of Religion and East Asian Studies at Wesleyan, where she has taught for thirty years, and is the author of a moving memoir entitled Dreaming Me: From Baptist to Buddhist, One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. In 2009, she received the “Outstanding Woman in Buddhism” award for her work on behalf of Buddhist nuns, specifically her co-founding in 1995 a nunnery that houses 50 Buddhist nuns ages 42 to 83 in India. “People of color,” said Willis in an interview, “because of our experience of the great and wrenching historical dramas of slavery, colonization, and segregation, understand suffering in a way that our white brothers and sisters do not.” That understanding, she said, provides a kind of “head start” in comprehending essential elements in Buddhist philosophy. In the current issue of Buddhadharma she does not participate in the aforementioned forum, but has an article entitled, "Yes, We're Buddhists, too!"

 The second publishing black woman Buddhist who is becoming increasingly well-known is Angel Kyoto Williams, author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace (Viking Compass, 2000). And the third is Buddhist nun Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, who just published Tell Me Something About Buddhism (Hampton Roads, 2011).

When I think about black American Buddhists who are writers, I'm always reminded of two things. The first is something that was said to me by Helen Tworkov, the founder of and force behind Tricycyle: The Buddhist Review. She said, "A lot of people who publish in our magazine are good meditators, but not quite as good as writers." I believe that is a fair statement. Why should they be people who have devoted their lifetimes to writing? Their primary concern, first and foremost, is teaching others. For a few Buddhist teachers this leads to expressing what they have learned and experienced in a book or an essay. But, like mendicant monk Claude AnShin Thomas, author of At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey From War to Peace (Shambhala, 2004), their daily work is in the trenches, helping others to overcome  suffering. (For example, Thomas spends 300 days a year on the road in America, South America and Europe, working with veterans on both sides of wars, with former child soldiers, and prisoners.)

The second thing that I'm reminded of is that, as a black male Buddhist writer, I'm probably an anomaly. Unlike the dharma teachers I've mentioned in this post, my adult life has been devoted to storytelling, comic art, and teaching the craft of writing for over three decades. As a footnote here, I should mention that my first publications with the folks at Tricycle were not essays or articles. They were 7 drawings (from my unpublished, 1970s cartoon manuscript, It's Lonely at the Top) in Buddha Laughing: A Tricycle Book of Cartoons (Bell Tower, 1999), a wonderfully hilarious little book of dharma humor. After that, Helen Tworkov asked me to write an article on the history of black Americans in Buddhism, which became "A Sangha By Another Name," the first piece in a popular Buddhist magazine on this subject. (And before leaving Tricycle to serve on its board of directors, one of Tworkov's last acts was to add me to the list of "contributing editors" on the magazine's masthead.)    

So to sum up my response to today's question: There are black males out there teaching Buddhism and meditation (like Rangdröl and Mumford), but I'm more publicly visible (and not by any means a teacher, only a member of the laity, although the Puget Sound Zen Center does sell a handsomely produced tape of my September 17, 2006 talk "What is Freedom?," delivered at the 3rd Vashon Island Buddhist Seminar), because so much of my literary art is Buddhist oriented.


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