Race in American Buddhism

zenju earthlyn manuel

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel interviewed at Tricycle.com

This week Sam Mowe over at Tricycle interviewed Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, who I recognized from her days at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

It is an interview that everyone should read, perhaps twice. Reading about her moves from the Church of Christ to Soka Gakai, and finally Zen, a great sense of spiritual tolerance and openness comes through. She doesn’t say “I realized that the Church of Christ was wrong and then that Soka Gaka was wrong…” But instead that both simply didn’t have the resources to nurture her spiritual growth at certain times.

On the other hand, when asked how being a black woman has informed her dharma practice, she states:

The insurmountable oppression, discrimination, and hatred directed at dark people comprise a thick workbook for Buddha’s teachings. 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.

These words articulate the experience of a person of color in the Dharma, and in America as well as any I have ever seen. And it is very, very upsetting to read that this is the experience of a fellow Dharma practitioner, a fellow human being. I would be interested to read your thoughts about the article and the state of race in American Buddhism and America (and the world) more generally.

(For the full interview, click here)

  • http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com/ arunlikhati

    You should check out the upcoming Winter 2011 issue of Buddhadharma (when it comes out), which has both a forum discussion and an article on race in Western Buddhism. The writers and participants also discuss ways to address these issues in our communities. I really enjoyed the pieces and the excellent choice of writers. Of course, for all the work of these magazines to raise the voices of African American and Latino Buddhists—efforts which I applaud and encourage—the marginalization of Asian Buddhists in the West is one of the most egregious issues and also one on which very little progress has been made both by Tricycle and Shambhala publications.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for the heads-up. Buddhadharma should be waiting for me at my folks’ house when I arrive for Christmas. I look forward to reading it, and to seeing the other big magazines doing more to recognize Asian Buddhists in the West.

  • Dharma Practitioner

    This article is so completely self centered.

    If this person of color had ever lived in Africa, parts of Asia or South America she would not feel so desperately sorry for herself as her suffering is extremely small compared to so many millions in the world.

    She is not motivated by the Bodhisattva ideal, but for personal exploration.

    There is nothing Mahayana about her practice. It is all “me” hayana.

    Go enlighten sentient beings, don’t be consumed by messages of billboards.

    • http://KarmaLifeReadings.wordpress.com mickey

      To Dharma Practitioner,
      This woman was simply being authentic about the awful reactions that the public have to her. She’s pointing out a problem that causes a lot of suffering to black Buddhists.
      You must be white.
      She doesn’t have to prove that she is working towards enlightenment: she is already ordained.
      peace,
      mickey morgan

  • Michael

    This is an interesting an much needed discussion. Now, take up the issue of sexuality in Buddhism; this will open the wriggle the worm of hatred out of the cave. As a practicing homosexual Tibetan Buddhist I’ve experienced deep seated mistrust, hatred, oppression, and avoidance from the dharmic communities. Most notably, this occurs in traditional Tibetan communities. However, it also occurs at centers in the United States. I happen to reside in Montana and the Tibetan community here is not any better. But, daily, when looking in the mirror I try to remember “it’s not about me.” This is difficult though when what is supposed to be your community tacitly shuns you. Race, gender, and sexuality, these are important topics for the larger Buddhist community to examine.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Michael. Thanks for your comments and sharing your experiences. I highly recommend My Buddha is Pink for great resources on homosexuality and Buddhism. Montana can be pretty rough country for anyone vaguely different, but you’re right, you’d expect your dharma community to be above that. Let’s hope we can all get this conversation going – the sooner, the better.

  • http://fromthisshore.wordpress.com Seon Joon

    I have to respectfully disagree with “Dharma Practitioner” when s/he says that the article (and Ven. Zenju) is self-centered. A trip to other continents and countries would help open anyone’s eyes to the pervasiveness of suffering in this world. Such a trip would not invalidate one’s own suffering, however; and nothing is more damaging and painful in this world than the suffering of heart and mind. The sutras say as much; repeatedly, the Buddha is called “the supreme doctor” bearing the medicine of the Dharma, and they’re not referring to ills of the body, but the mental root of all suffering.

    Racism is integral to American society. I don’t mean to say that it is necessary to American society, but that it’s part of the way we see and experience the world. Americans, regardless of religious community, must be willing to examine our own racism in each community in which we participate: family, school, work, faith community, sports team. The first step in doing so is to not disregard the experiences of others outside the dominant voice: people of other racial or cultural backgrounds, LGBTQ and trans people, etc. We are not able to judge another’s suffering, but if we’re going to be true to the Dharma, then we need to be able to witness for others, and to help them, even if (especially if) it means challenging our own habits and thoughts.

    I’m very glad to see Ven. Zenju’s article and to know she’s speaking up and out. I hope we’re able to listen.

  • http://www.108zenbooks.com Lynette Genju Monteiro

    While there are ample overt examples of racial discrimination, the more damaging ones are often formless. And, as we become more versed in the language of “cultural sensitivity,” the slurs and discrimination are subtle. “It must be cultural” or “It’s an ethnic thing” appear more and more in conversations I have with people who – I have to admit – truly are blind to what they actually mean. Whether any of this is related to the deficiencies in communities practicing a Buddhist dharma is something I struggle with constantly. I resonate with Jeon Soon’s earlier comment that the perspective of separation is integral to most “groups” – American, Canadian, etc. I would go so far as to say it is a long-standing development that is intended to be survival-based and the greater threat an individual feels the more likely discernment will manifest as prejudice.

    My experience of bigotry being Asian in Western Buddhist communities has been ironically as bad as what I experienced in the psychological profession. At the same time, I have to keep it in perspective: being followed around in a store, mistaken for my blonde-haired daughter’s nanny, refused service in restaurants or ignored in clothing stores are part of a larger culture of fear and anger. Buddhists, especially converts, as no less immune to these poisons than anyone else. That Zenju has transcended these barriers is encouraging to read about. However, I wonder if it will impact the rank and file whose fear of what we represent is so primitive that it defies penetration for transformation.

    (Lovely blogsite, btw. And nice to see the blogroll. Thanks for including 108ZB on it!)

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hia Lynnete,

      I agree with Seon Joon too. That’s why I hope everyone can work on reducing and eventually eliminating racism from our Dharma communities and society. You touch on a very important fact, when you mention that fear or feeling threatened is a major part of this. The “gift of fearlessness” is an important and rarely discussed topic in Buddhism, and the Buddha’s abhaya mudra or fearless posture is not often seen.

      And good point about reaching the ‘rank and file.’ I usually have a (probably naive) faith in a sort of trickle-down effect in positive emotions: like a great rock dropping in a pool – those ripples must reach us all eventually, right? Maybe not though. Maybe we’ll need more waves, a lot more…

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