Friday, May 13, 2005

Diversity in the sangha

True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgement of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.
--Archbishop Desmond Tutu

So what's up with diversity in American Buddhism?

For Willis and the handful of African-American Buddhist teachers now beginning to speak out, Buddhism in America has been a homogeneous world inhabited largely by upper-middle-class whites.

"There are a lot of black Buddhists who are in the closet. They just don't feel comfortable being part of the great white sangha," says Insight Meditation teacher Ralph Steele. "One of the most common phrases I hear from young black Buddhists when they do step out into the white Buddhist sangha is that they feel uncomfortable"...

"There are far too few people of color in Buddhist centers and retreats, in part because of the nature of where the retreats are and the fact that they cost money," says Willis, now one of the nation's leading Buddhist academics. "It's about class. Working class people can't take a month off to go on retreat...

Willis argues that communicating the practice in a digestible form is only part of making it accessible to African-Americans and other people of color. "One part of accessibility is making it comprehensible. One part is making it affordable. One part is making the centers in places where people can get to them. One is developing things that don't require a month-long retreat...

Link to article on the Buddhist channel

This issue has also cropped up in Buddhist publications, such as the article "Born in the USA: Racial Diversity in the Soka Gakkai International" by Clark Strand, which appeared in an issue of Tricycle. It's an interesting and important topic.

One thing that crops up again and again is that some people of color (whatever the ethnic label with which they self-identify) are uncomfortable being in a room full of mostly white or "asian" people. I can appreciate why they might feel that way, but part of the Buddhist practice is to recognize, understand, and then transcend such feelings. After all, someone has to be first if others are to follow. On the other hand "white" Buddhists must recognize how their actions and words are perceived rather than (only) how they are intended. Moreover, many white people who do not agree with racism are nevertheless uncomfortable around non-white people! It's true, and denying it doesn't help the situation any more than non-white folks hestitating to join a mostly or all white sangha.

As an aside, I often find when I ride the bus that many white folks do not want to sit next to non-white people, especially if there is a whole section of "them", and sadly I've notices some people of color acting the same way. Then there are those of us that simply appreciate a spot to sit and have no problem plopping down next to each other. Yet when I was a teenager, even though I was staunchly anti-racist, I recall that I was shocked at my own hesitation to sit with non-white people, simply because where I was raised there practically were none. The feeling lasted only a second, yet if I had just denied it I would have probably had much more difficulty in recognizing it for the absurdity it was and letting it go. After that first experience, the feeling was greatly reduced. After two or three more, it was barely noticeable. After two or three more, it was gone.

But is socialization all there is to it? Just learned reactions based on the color of one's skin? Nope. And I must say that one of the factors proposed as limiting the participation of non-white people in Buddhism, the expense of some retreats is not the sole problem of ethnic minorities (although I can appreciate certain arguments about by some groups may be disproportionately affected). I think it's more than just a matter of Buddhism being costi-prohibitive for minorities--many working class people of all ethnicities, as well as professional people who don't have much disposable income, college students, etc, are also unable to spend five hundred or a thousand or two on a three to five day retreat or a two-week intensive. Efforts need to be made to keep the dharma afforable and accessible to ALL people. Why not spend that all of that money from exclusive retreats on to funding more dharma teachers and dharma centers? Why not combine such centers with social programs such as soup kitchen operations and literacy programs? I think many people, minorities included, are drawn to spiritual practices that put their money where their heart is. Where are our hearts?

The only suggestion I have heard that I don't agree with is that the dharma needs to be simplified or (my words) "dumbed-down". I think that's a bit patronizing. But otherwise, yes, Buddhists of all ethnic and racial affiliations need to confront their discomfort over living with diversity (in other words dealing with as an in-your-face real world issue rather than an abstract moral question) and everyone needs to support those groups and efforts intended to make Buddhism accessible to everyone, everywhere.

What groups do you think are making headway in this area? What is your take on diversity in Buddhism?


  1. Hi Tinythinker,

    I'm happy to see that you are interested in this issue, as I am. Since I am Afro-American myelf, I have indeed been affected by racism, both in and out the U.S. Sanghas. I dealt with it by immigrating to another country where this is not so much of a problem.

    If you'd care to read about my own thoughts on the subject, please refer to this:

    In terms of the Dhamma being simplified, or 'dumbed down' as you call it, I think we need to keep in mind that a lot of working class people, of which minorities make up the largest segment in the U.S., have not had access to a college level education nor are they experts in Sanskrit and Pali. With that in mind, a lot of the language that upper middle class White males use, with this group being in the majority of Dhamma teachers in the U.S., is exclusive from the very onset.

    If we explore the Discourses of the Buddha, as presented in the Pali Canon, we will indeed see that the language he used, for the most part, was very simple, everyday and down to Earth. I feel he did this out of compassion, as he wanted as many people as possible to 'get it'.

    Love and ease,
    Nirodha (Bill Gray) aka AllOne

  2. Thank you for your insightful comments. I just read the blog-entry you cited, and I will have to add your site to my blog list :o).

    Just to clarify, my reaction to the idea of simplication doesn't just come from the article but from the plethora of "Buddhism is just meditating and being positive" literature and perception that is flooding the U.S. In addition, my thought about dumbing down was from the standpoint of race, rather than educational level. I don't think skin color determines one's ability to learn and practice the dharma, and that's probably what I should have written rather than simply saying "I think that's a bit patronizing." I am glad you mentioned this to give the the chance to clarify.

    I have only been formally practicing Buddhism for a scant 5 months, and our weekly meetings are held for free and hosted by a local Unitarian Univeralist church. The abbot of the order which founded our local sangha drives an hour and a half each way every two or three weeks to give interviews and a dharma talk. He and the lay monk-in-training who regularly lead our service give good instruction with everyday language, and the dharma talks use a minimum of Pali, Sanskirt, Chinese, Japanese, etc. When such terms are used it is usally the focus of the whole talk ("What do we mean by tathata?"). So perhaps my experience is different than that of many Buddhist centers in the U.S., as my first thought was to make the simplistic assocation of my own experience with "typical American Buddhist experience", which led to the reaction "How does it get any simpler?" In fact, our abbot is fond of suggesting that a good spiritual path doesn't over-emphasize its own form (i.e. ritual, terminology, etc.).

    I also think that besides cost (I can't afford those month-long retreats myself) and accessibility of teachings, Buddhism in the U.S. needs to be perceived as having a genuine, practical component to its spirituality rather than what the article's author and similar critics have referred to as 'spiritual materialism' or worse, what I call 'a kind of stress relief for yuppies'. Having monks and lay Buddhists setting up or volunteering to work in hospices, visiting prisons, teaching adult literacy, working with the homeless, etc. is not just (IMHO) the "Buddhist" thing to do; the more working class folks associate Buddhism with such "in the trenches" universal compassion and attitude backed with more than holy sounding words or prayers, the more appealing it will become to a broader segment of the population.

  3. Some interesting thoughts there, tinythinker.

    My perspective on this issue is as a non-Buddhist living in Thailand. And one of my first strong impressions about Buddhist practice here is how sexist it is.

    Women cannot ordain as monks, only as 'bhikku' (?), which are effectively often temple dogsbodies. When giving somnething to a monk, women (not men!) must place it on a tray and leave the tray in front of the monk, retreating to a safe distance. Apparently, even an accidental touch from a woman would 'defile' the monk, requiring him to undergo extensive ceremonial cleansing.

    It's likely that this sexism is a reflection more of Thai culture rather than actual Buddhist teaching, but nonetheless for me it remains an unattractive aspect of Thai Buddhism.

    I wonder about that ability of Buddhism to transform Thai society any more than it has already done. I think that here Buddism has become largely 'ossified', and that it will not be one of the engines of societal change in the Thai future... sadly commercialism and materialism seem to be taking over...

  4. Yes, the role of women in Buddhism is another thorny issue. I think that this is a component of Buddhist practice to which Western Buddhism can make a contribution. I know that there are many things about the contextualization of Buddhism in the West that are causes for concern, especially our tendency to turn genuine spirituality into spiritual materialism. However, I think there are positive things as well, such as directly confronting racism, ethnicism, and sexism as unnecessary and stifling cultural baggage.

    Thanks for your comments. I was planning on expanding into sexism as well as part of the dialogue, and I'm happy to see it is something people might be interested in discussing.


Hello! Thanks for leaving a comment.

Everything but spam and abusive comments are welcome. Logging in isn't necessary but if you don't then please "sign" at the end of your comment. You can choose to receive email notifications of new replies to this post for your convenience, and if you find it interesting don't forget to share it. Thanks!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...