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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
45 WINTER 2 01 1 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY also written about Buddhism and the value of its teachings. At least two incarcerated African American men, Jarvis Jay Masters and Calvin Malone, have written powerful accounts of finding the dharma while in prison. And there are a good number of essays addressing the par- ticular challenges presented by trying to practice Buddhism within the present structure of mostly white convert-Buddhist centers as they’ve been established in the U.S. The issues that are addressed in these writings are well worth reading about. Since Buddhist practice offers us the chance to “sit” with our sufferings and to look deeply, we must begin with the recognition that, here in the U.S., we sit in a country and within a society that is racially diverse and heterogeneous but which was founded by whites who received and thrived on power that was built upon, and undergirded by, a system of slave labor. Recognizing this as fact, how do we who were harmed, forgive and go forward? Conversely, how do we who were privileged by such circumstances, recognize this and go forward? We need to find ways to allow our meditations to help us with this foundational, existential suffering. Given the history of this country and the development of convert-Buddhist organizational structures here, we need to find ways to nurture more racially integrated sanghas. A stepping-stone to this may be, ironically, having retreats of our own. Since 2000, a number of Buddhist retreats have been held which have been limited to people of color. I was invited to serve as a teacher at one such retreat, the 2002 African American Buddhist Retreat held at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. On the first day of the retreat, seated on the raised dais in front of seventy-five African American students, fourteen African American Buddhist teachers were introduced. Just as the introductions concluded, a woman who was also a teacher, stood in a far corner of the medita- tion hall and sang, soulfully, the moving strains of “Amazing Grace.” It was, indeed, a stirring welcoming of Buddhism coming to African Americans, coming home and taking root. At this retreat I mentored a young African American woman who initially felt troubled that practicing Buddhist meditation might mean she was abandoning the Methodist tradition of her upbringing. At the end of the retreat, however, she informed me that she now believed Christian prayer was asking God for something, while Buddhist meditation helped one to hear His answer. Not bad! The best way to make African Americans, and people of color generally, less anomalous in convert Buddhist centers throughout America is clearly to have more African Ameri- cans and people of color present and visible, and the best way to do this is to have African American teachers present. Ralph Steele, a psychologist in New Mexico and a Vipassana teacher, has been saying this for a while. Many others agree with him. In a recent interview, an African American woman and Nichiren priest, Myokei Caine-Barrett, spoke openly and directly about what’s required to make Buddhism in Amer- ica more inclusive. “I think outreach has to happen,” she explained. “Centers that are predominantly white need to become more educated about the challenges facing people of color. As a person of color, I’ve always faced people tell- ing me that race is not an issue, or that I’m overreacting. It would help a great deal for sanghas to become educated about unaware racism, institutionalized racism, and internalized rac- ism so that no one’s experience is negated simply because it isn’t common to the entire community.” “Any community that wants to welcome diversity,” she goes on to say, “has to make sure diversity goes throughout the entire community—including teachers and administrators of color. It has to look like there’s no difference; and the real- ity has to be that there is no difference. If I truly believe that Buddhism is for everyone, then I have to act that way.” The issue of accessibility is the one that I worry most about. Given the way centers are set up here, getting the chance to study and practice with a bona fide lineage teacher requires leisure time and money. Working-class people don’t have much of either to spare. So if dharma centers really want to encourage diversity in their communities, they will have to put in the effort and the generosity required to invite and encourage people of color and working-class people to come in. Having found Buddhist teachings to be so helpful for me personally, and seeing their amazing potential to help suffer- ing sentient beings everywhere—whatever their color—I want everyone to have access to them. The Buddha taught to all, equally. I’d like to see equal-access dharma become the norm here in the States. JAN WILLIS is a professor of religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and one of the earliest American scholar–practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. Her latest book is Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. PHOTOGRAPHERUNKNOWN