Dharma and Diversity: The Changing Face of U.S. Buddhism Has Raised Issues of Race and Privilege within a Spiritual Practice That Includes New Immigrants, Communities of Color and the Trendy Elite

Article excerpt

Sitting in my half-lotus position in a Zen center in Northern California, I find myself among a hundred people, but one of the few people of color in the room. Where have all the people of color gone? I wonder. How did a religion predominantly practiced by Asians and people of color outside of the United States become a religion for white Americans in this country?


It turns out that I am not the only one asking these questions. A growing number of people of color are now being drawn to Buddhism. They are writing books and magazine articles, setting up online groups and meeting in private groups to meditate and study the dharma, the teachings. They are also joining "diversity committees" to change the racial make-up of their sanghas, or Buddhist communities.

The changing face of U.S. Buddhism has raised issues of race and privilege within a spiritual practice that includes new immigrants, communities of color and the trendy elite, as well as those seeking a message of liberation and those in search of methods of relaxation. Buddhists of color who are challenging elitism and white privilege in their sanghas have encountered a familiar struggle to name racism and identify its effects in an environment where such dynamics can often be masked.

"It's not just economic privilege, it's an internal sense of privilege," says Angel Kyodo Williams, author of Being Black, a book on Zen for African Americans. "I think that's creating a highly politicized environment where people are congregating."

Buddha Goes West

The American Religious Identification Survey estimates that about a million people practice Buddhism in the United States. But there is little more information, since Buddhist groups typically have no records of their members that would hint at race, ethnicity, income and employment. It's even difficult to designate who is and isn't a member.

While the first Buddhist temple in the United States was built in San Francisco in 1853 by Chinese Buddhist immigrants, it was not until the 1960s that immigration laws permitted an increase of Asian immigrants, including Buddhists. Once here, Buddhist teachers found an audience with the countercultural anti-Vietnam war movement that was searching for an alternative to American materialism and war. For those young, white kids, Buddhism had a particular appeal. They interpreted the religion's seeming lack of dogma as anti-institutional and reveled in Buddhism's straightforward philosophy: life is painful; suffering has a cause; the cause of suffering can be ended; and there is "the way" to end the cause of suffering.

According to Rev. Ryuei Michael McCormick, this group, which has inevitably been dubbed the "Elite Buddhists," is the most well-known group of American Buddhists. They tend to be European-American, come from wealthy and educated backgrounds and follow a number of different schools: Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassana and Japanese, Korean and Chinese strains of Zen. What the different schools have in common is an emphasis on meditation as a method to self-instruction, discipline and enlightenment.

Not surprisingly, these Buddhist centers are predominantly white for the same reasons that churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are: a long legacy of racism, the location of neighborhoods where meetings are held and a lack of people of color in leadership roles. "There is an assumption that people on a spiritual path do not have the conditioning that people who don't have a spiritual path have," says Buddhist teacher Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin. "Racism is the same whether it's in the dharma center or if it's out there, it's the same."

For many Buddhists of color, being in a predominantly white institution creates a sense of isolation within their practice. "I think a lot of white people expect folks to walk in the door, and they don't want to see or talk about their color," says Marlene Jones, a practitioner and teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California, adding that "race is such an excitable issue, and a big part of racism is not wanting to see people for who they are. …