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Buddhism and Race in America

Buddhism and Race in America March 13, 2010

A couple weeks ago, Firehorse, a new contributor to the Progressive Buddhism Blog, proposed a dialog on race and in Buddhist blogs. He begins by noting his debt in a way to Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist, Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, and Katie at Kloncke, three wonderfully thoughtful bloggers. He goes on to write:


At the same time I am concerned by the generally unsatisfactory discussion about race and diversity on many Buddhist blogs. These discussions have been full of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, hurt feelings all around, blanket statements, and a general lack of compassion or insight. Its often as if we don’t really hear what others are saying but are separately instead engaged in a discussion with ghosts from previous discussions with all the accumulated baggage. At times we shout past each other, selectively hearing and cherry picking what is said for more fuel to add to the fire. It is even more regrettable when these discussions involve Buddhists because there is just extra arrow added on top of extra arrow, increasing suffering and seemingly disdaining the skillful means we as Buddhists should be developing and practicing.


Nathan, in one of his posts on race, also points us to a great post by Lori Pierce at Urban Refuge, a Ning site for Buddhist people of color and allies. There she offers five suggestions for white Dharma teachers who would like to address race, briefly summed up here as:

  1. Don’t save [the discussion] for some special occasion or when disaster has struck or when a Black guy gets elected.
  2. Stop globalizing, e.g. talking about China and Tibet. As the cliché goes, think globally, act locally. 
  3. Talk to everyone, even if you can’t see them.
  4. Stop being abstract. … the power of the dharma … is that it has the potential to shed light on this most intractable of issues.
  5. Help us. … think – how does this help me address the problem of prejudice, racialized social injustice, stereotypes etc.?

I highly recommend reading the whole post, and more at Urban Refuge, for my summary does no justice to the heart behind the original words. Lori concludes with what I took to be a highly insightful statement and pair of questions:

Western women were instrumental in the process of “Americanizing” Buddhism – from Mary Farkas and Beatrice Suzuki to Lekshe Tsomo and Joanna Macy – women challenged the comfortable notions of Buddhist patriarchy and changed the development of Buddhism. What could happen if Black, Asian and Latino Buddhists and dharma sympathizers could do the same? How would we be different?

In a sense I feel like I have little to add to this conversation, except to help raise awareness in whatever small way I can. I am not a Dharma teacher, just a simple graduate student, meditation facilitator, and practitioner. I’ve signed on to Urban Refuge and hope to be part of the continuing conversation there far more to listen than to talk. As has been often stated, the voice of Buddhists of color in America has been ignored for too long.

As a scholar it’s my karma that I’m part of that ignorance. The books I read are overwhelmingly written by white males, with just a few women and Asian authors on my shelves. As a white male who grew up in Montana that ignorance is even greater. Luckily my parents are raving leftist products of the 60s, my mother a social worker and a former non-discrimination officer for her employer. My father, an alter-boy from Kansas, hasn’t a racist bone in his body as far as I can tell, attributing this in part to his service in Vietnam where mortar shells and machine gun fire took no note of skin color. My oldest sibling was an orphan adopted from Vietnam a couple years after my dad’s service, and as kids we saw some of the racism of our neighbors against him, but to my knowledge that was pretty minimal. Most racism I knew as a kid was against Native Americans, the largest minority group around.

That said, I think I am in a bit of a ‘bubble’ when it comes to issues of race in America or race in Buddhism. I’m not so naïve as to think that racism is not an issue, but due to my own life’s circumstances it has never been my issue in the way that, say, mental illness has (past bouts with and a family history of depression, a schizophrenic cousin, an ex likely with Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.). So I hope this conversation can help pop my ignorance-bubble, amplify the voice of Buddhists of color, and lessen the suffering of us all in the process.

~
That’s enough for me now. Read the links above and both of Nathan’s posts (1 and 2) and the great comments and links. 
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