American Buddhism:
What does it mean for people of color?
Part 1 - Why is a dialogue on American Buddhism Necessary? Part 2 - Are Buddhist people of color separate from American Buddhism? Part 1 Why is a dialogue on American Buddhism Necessary? Experience for yourself whether your local Dharma center or organization represents the diversity of America. If a particular racial group is dominant at the center or organization ask yourself, "What would be the experience of someone not represented by this group, if they were to come here?", "What would someone not from the majority group have to do to fit in?". Perhaps you will find, as I have, that some Buddhist centers in America are racially and culturally segregated. They appear to be segregated for the same reason churches, synagogues, masques, and temples have been segregated throughout the history of America. Segregation by race, culture, or economic affluence is not the mutuality taught by the Buddha. Segregation is not beneficial to any religion or society entering a global community of increasing diversity and multinational interaction. Segregation is attachment to separateness, which is also the root cause of one group believing they are better than another. A belief that, even in the mind of one individual, can be extremely dangerous and threaten peace throughout the world, like Hitler for example. Separatism and mutuality are equally free to emerge in the splendor of freedom in America. For some Buddhists, this causes confusion. Some American Buddhists who believe in the mutuality of all beings conversely find themselves practicing racial, cultural, and economic segregation in their Dharma activities. Mere mention of this contradiction makes them very upset and can cause them to condemn, cold shoulder, reject, and even eject someone from their Dharma center. This happened to my wife and I along with our newborn son at an otherwise liberal California Dharma center. In my opinion, the enigmatic contradiction is based in the history of how early European Americans acquired wealth and power in America. Many of their descendants are embarrassed and shamed by their heritage, to this day. They seek to disengage themselves from the catastrophe of conquest leveled on people of color by their forefathers in the name of peace and justice for all. Their ultimate frustration is similar to a person trying to run from his/her shadow. Diversity, multiculturalism, multiracial, and interracial dialogue cast the light from which their shadow continually emerges to haunt them. I have great compassion for this kind of suffering. Its insidious nature does not liberate those afflicted even though they have majority power in a democratic society, nor is it pervious to economic affluence, gated communities, or media propaganda to its contrary. I know in my heart that some people from the dominant culture, especially our Buddhist brothers and sisters, are deeply upset with their heritage. They are equally disheartened by the travesty of continuing extremist hate towards people of color as well as the murder of same culture women and children in America. Their attempt to position themselves as a distinct pacifist group is understandable. But, for people of color, a segregated pacifist movement is no more inclusive than an extremist enclave. Herein lies the dilemma; our dominant culture peace loving brothers and sisters want to create a distinct compassionate group. In order to do so they must include that which their hateful counterpart does not. Inclusion means engagement with people of color whose presence is a reminder of Euro-American's discomforting heritage. The heritage issue inevitably arises creating the notion in minds of some peace loving Euro-Americans that their cultural past is irrevocably connected to their hate group counterparts. The inseparable connection creates an understandably maddening frustration. In an attempt to reduce the frustration a subtle selection process for Euro-American Buddhist approval has been put in place. The selection process has several criteria: 1) people of color are allowed in as long as they do not bring up the heritage issue 2) people of color who have no connection to the heritage issue, such as Tibetans, are welcome because their preoccupation is with Chinese heritage rather than American heritage 3) anyone, regardless of race or culture who speaks of these issues must subject him/herself to a verbal caution from a dominant culture senior student 4) if, after being verbally cautioned, an individual persists in discussing these matters they must leave the center or organization because they are engaging in 'non-Buddhist' activity, and finally 5) Any public discussion of these topics is expressly forbidden and will result in Dharma center blacklisting as well as going to Buddhist hell. The above criteria is agreed upon by a loosely formed majority consensus among Euro- American Buddhists who happen to finance most Buddhist centers and is comprised of dominant culture Buddhists. Although the intent is to maintain a comfort zone for those struggling with their heritage issues, the result is the creation of segregated worship centers and organizations. In response to discussions about segregation and racism in Dharma centers some Euro-American Buddhists in America create multifarious rationales. They cite business savvy, history, racial politics, economics, peaceful living, and a hodgepodge of ideas from other religious traditions to make their rationale appear 'contemporary' and uniquely suited for "American culture". They say that in order for Buddhism to come to America, as it has spread throughout Asia, Buddhism must naturally reflect 'American' societal beliefs. I believe there is truth in Buddhism's ability to inflect society and culture. But a trend of throwing Dharma brothers, sisters, and their children in the street; rejecting teachers because they are Asian; establishing hierarchies that inherently keep people of color on the periphery of the Sangha, and so on, can only result in confusion, not Buddhism. In my mind, and I think most Buddhists of color will agree there is no reason why Buddhism cannot become fully integrated in America. I love America, I love all my Buddhist brothers and sisters as well as humanity as a whole. But, I also believe the way that Buddhism will merge into America's fabric and what aspects of society it will inflect are matters deserving continuing dialogue among all Buddhists including those who happen to be of color. Part 2 Are Buddhist people of color separate from American Buddhism? Historically, the term "American" has been used as an inference to a particular group. For example, when we speak of "American Presidents" no person of color comes to mind. When we say "American Constitution" it is commonly understood neither was a person of color free to participate in its drafting nor was it intended to benefit anyone outside a certain group at the time. When we consider the "American Revolution" many people commonly imagine Union and Confederate soldiers as depicted in many history books. That is, soldiers on non-African, non-Asian, or non-indigenous American descent. When we imagine the "American West" as depicted on television, a certain group never seems to choose diversity over annihilating the 'savages'. From this point of view a term such as "American Buddhism" raises concern about its diversity and the inclusion of people of color within its scope. Some Asian teachers, new to America, find the concerns of people of color difficult to comprehend. "American History" is foreign to their sensibilities. Why people of color are still demanding equality from their 'conquerors' remains difficult for them to fathom. One must understand that many newly arrived Asian teachers are experiencing people of color for the first time. Their knowledge of non-mainstream culture is usually based on encounters and explanations given them by affluent Europeans and Euro-Americans traveling through Asia coupled with entertainment industry depictions that have been piped internationally through various television, radio, and print mediums. I had one newly arrived Asian teacher tell me he was afraid of me when we first met. He said he had heard that, "black people were violent", and challenged me to a battle of his Asian magic against my black magic. I thought to myself, "Black magic? What the hell is he talking about? Where'd he get that from?" He also said he remembered seeing some black NFL players doing a demonstration of football in India and figured it must be true they are violent based on the way they played football with each other. At some point I got used to the distorted American views of newly arrived teachers. Generally, they mean no harm and are merely repeating what they've heard and responding to images they've seen. I made it a special point to get to know the teacher who was initially afraid of me. I now consider him a very close friend and profound teacher of unerring Dharma knowledge. But still, as he and others become popular icons of the current "American Buddhism", I ask myself why he and many Dharma brothers and sisters from the dominant culture are not talking about the fact that Buddhism has been in America since the mid 19th century. Buddhism, that came among the thousands of Asian Americans who labored to build the transcontinental railroad. Buddhism, among Asian Americans who also labored to develop mining and agricultural industries that continue as part of America's Pacific Coast economy to this day. I know they were here because I've personally seen a 19th century statue of Buddha along with altarpieces in the historical society building of a small desert town in California. It is accompanied by photographs and writing from the period's Chinatown giving it verifiable provenance. With the history of early Buddhist presence in America one is led to ask a reasonable question," Why now?" Why is it important to proclaim, at this time, that there is some new kind of Buddhism in America? Have they now 'discovered' Buddhism, like they discovered America? Who serves to benefit from such a 'discovery' bestowed upon their activity? What purpose could be served by the exclusion of a rich century and a half presence? Yes, the Chinatown I mentioned was burned to the ground by a mob not comprised of people of color. The inhabitants as well as all Asian of the period were also stripped of their right to become American citizens by the Asian Exclusion Act (c.1882). We can't even tell if they were in fact all people from China as in those days anyone who looked Asian was presumed Chinese. What we do know is these Buddhists existed and practiced their religion on American soil. To me, they are as much a part of American Buddhism as the Dalai Lama recently speaking in New York City's Central Park. Considering the above and other historical precedents I think it wise that people of color participate in deciding whether certain terms, and the implications of those terms, fully express inclusion. Even newly emerging terms such as multiracial, interracial, and phrases such as non-European based diversity can only begin to embellish the increasingly panoramic view of a fully integrated 'American Buddhist' experience. Finally, we know history, phraseology, and racial politic are not the quintessence of Buddhist philosophy. Such concepts are merely points of reference through which Buddhists, including those of color, can perceive a favorable outcome of inclusion. An outcome that includes every human being's innate ability to realize the all encompassing equanimity of Dharma. An outcome that does not endorse segregated worship as a common practice. An outcome whose essence is so unsullied the word 'separate' does not exist as part of its expression. I am certain that critics stand ready to argue each and every point I have made. But for any of us to overly dwell on terms and phrases makes no more sense than arguing about a bus schedule as the bus drives off, without us. We cannot reach the destination through disagreement and confusion arising from habitual tendencies of exclusion. Suffice it to say that Buddhist people of color want all of us to be included and fundamentally know that disagreements have no inherent value. At the same time, if labels must be used to express the "American Buddhist" experience then the labels should at least include all human beings that have practiced Buddhism in America in the past, now, and those who are yet to come. Regardless of our superficial differences we, as Buddhists, have agreed to universally believe all beings suffer in the same way and, as such, we are all inseparably woven in the fabric of our common mutuality. Choyin Rangdrol, Founder,