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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 11 44 Buddhism began with a mixture of fascination and hostility.” Contemporary discussions of American Buddhism still employ the outmoded “two-Buddhisms” model wherein a distinction is drawn between “Asian immigrant Buddhists” on the one hand and “American convert-Buddhists” on the other. There is often said to be a gap between these two, each serving their respective, and different, religious constituents and goals. Clearly, this model is too simplistic to account for who actually is an “American Buddhist.” Moreover, there is a type of racism and essentializing at work here—one which sees all Asians as being alike, with no understanding of, or appre- ciation for, the great variety of distinctive cultures subsumed under this term or whether such immigrants derive from East, South, or Southeast Asia. It also sees no diversity within the convert-Buddhists in America, who are generally character- ized as being either Euro-American, elite, or white Buddhists. As an African American Buddhist, I do not see myself reflected here. While it is certainly true that a large majority of convert- Buddhists in this country are homogeneously white, middle to upper-middle class, well educated and, generally, liberal, there are some African Americans (as well as Hispanics and other so-called minorities) who are Buddhists, too! For some, thinking about African Americans and Buddhism may seem odd because they think that all African Americans are surely ardent members of Christian denominations. Such membership is cemented by the legacy of slavery and the spiri- tual and social uplift offered by the transformative message of antebellum evangelical Christianity. Some scholars have even suggested that the quiet meditative styles of Buddhist services are too sedate for people coming from such exu- berant backgrounds as the Black Church. However, having embraced the virtues of both traditions, I happily call myself a “Baptist-Buddhist.” For others, when African Americans and Buddhism are mentioned in the same breath they immediately conjure up the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It? in which singer Tina Turner’s life is saved when she begins the chanting practices of Nichiren Buddhism through the Soka Gakkai organization. For these folk, Turner, and perhaps Herbie Hancock, are the only African American Buddhists they have likely ever heard about. Interestingly, however, when American convert-Bud- dhist organizations and centers are mentioned, it is only this one, the Soka Gakkai, that is left out. For example, Don Mor- reale’s The Complete Guide to Buddhist America, which lists well over one thousand Buddhist centers and groups, makes no mention of it at all. I believe we must ask ourselves why the sole Buddhist group in America with the most diverse makeup of practitioners is precisely the one that is not counted? While I do not personally know any African Americans who are members of Soka Gakkai, I do know quite a number of African Americans who practice in and with a wide variety of other Buddhist traditions and sanghas in America. We Afri- can Americans have come to Buddhism—like other hyphen- ated Americans—because of books and education, because of movies, because in some cases of psychedelics, because of travel, because of the martial arts. We have come seeking spiri- tual wisdom, healing, and liberation from suffering. Some of us follow Tibetan traditions; some of us are Zen roshis. Some of us are Tibetan lamas; some Vipassana teachers. Some of us wear robes and are ordained. Some of us are called acha- ryas. Some of us teach at universities; others offer workshops at prisons, record music, or head dojos. Some have founded separate, African American-only meditation groups; some work at peace organizations. Recently, it seems, a number of us have taken to writing memoirs. We are in many ways as diverse as the different traditions of Buddhism that have made their way to the United States in the past 150 years. As of yet, there are no studies that focus exclusively on African American Buddhists. No sociologist of religion has looked at the issue. There are, however, individual African American Buddhists, themselves, who are writing about and speaking about their own journeys to, and with, the path of dharma. In my memoir, Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist, for example, I write about my own story—from being raised in the Jim Crow south, to marching with King during the Birmingham civil rights campaign, to discovering Buddhism in college and meeting Tibetan Buddhists in India and Nepal. It is a book about crossing boundaries, finding methods that work, and returning home as a Baptist-Buddhist. Other African American Buddhists—like Charles Johnson, bell hooks, Alice Walker, angel Kyodo williams, Bhante Suhita Dharma, Lewis Woods, Jules Harris, Lori Pierce, Gaylon Fer- guson, Earthlyn Manuel, Faith Adele, and Sister Jewel—have In many ways, the history of Buddhism in America is a distorted and racialized one, with one group of people being extolled while other groups are disparaged or ignored. PHOTOGRAPHERUNKNOWN