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Buddhadharma : Winter 2011
BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 11 46 FORUM LARRY YANG • AMANDA RIVERA • ANGEL KYODO WILLIAMS • BOB AGOGLIA Iwould wager that every Buddhist enjoys the story about Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen, who presented him- self as a poor “commoner from Hsin-chou of Kwangtung” to the abbot of Tung-shan monastery in the Huang-mei dis- trict of Ch’i-chou in hopes of study, and was rebuked by the abbot with these words: “You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a buddha?” Hui-neng replied, “Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their buddhanature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our buddhanature.” For more than two millennia, one of the appeals of Bud- dhism has been that happiness and freedom from suffering can be achieved by anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender. But we must remember that all convert practitioners are embodied beings who come to dharma study from somewhere. They are firmly situated in a particular moment of history. If they are American practitioners of color, who from childhood learn to be bicultural, some portion of the real, daily suffering they experience in America will arise from racism and social injustice. And in the post-civil rights era, this social suffering assumes forms that are so subtle and so deeply interwoven with our individual being-in-the-world that they are nearly invisible to white practitioners. These unexamined, ingrained patterns of conditioning are, when viewed from a Buddhist perspective, perfect examples of what we mean by illusion if the racial or cultural self is taken to be an unchanging, enduring entity or substance. They are assumptions about identity that are as close to us as our breathing, so familiar that when these presuppositions are unveiled, “awakening” to them can be experienced as deeply unsettling by practitioners who cling to a sense of “white- ness.” James Baldwin explained this well when he said, “It’s not the Negro problem, it’s the white prob- lem. I’m only black because you think you’re white.” In societies where Buddhism has taken root, it has adapted to the everydayness of the lives of the laity. But problems arise in a multicultural society if one racial group of practitioners, with its preferences and prejudices, has historically been privi- leged and dominant over others. The overwhelming whiteness of American Buddhist centers is not a problem just for teachers who want to transmit the dharma to everyone. The United States is undergoing a dra- matic sea change. Demographers predict that by 2042 minori- ties will outnumber whites. This “browning” of America is arguably one of the greatest cultural issues in the twenty-first century, a change that is already affecting everything from employment to popular culture, and especially our system of public education. A recent article by Jen Graves titled “Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race” in Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, reports on how progressive whites are addressing this issue through organizations such as the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites. “Whiteness is the cen- ter that goes unnamed and unstudied, which is one way that keeps us as white folks centered, normal, that which every- thing else is compared to,” CARW cofounder Scott Winn says in the article. “I think many white people are integrationists in that ‘beloved community’ way, but integration usually means assimilation—as in, you’ve gotta act like us for this to work.” And Peggy McIntosh, the anti-racism activist and Wellesley Centers for Women scholar, sums all this up well when she observes: “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” To resolve this problem, whites must listen deeply to Bud- dhists of color who are particularly well suited (and perhaps even karmically directed) to take the lead in healing these wounds, not only in the American sangha, but in the larger society as well. INTRODUCTION BY CHARLES JOHNSON CHARLES JOHNSON is a novelist, scholar, and essayist. His novels include Dreamer, based on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and Middle Passage, for which he won a National Book Award. He is also the author of Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. Why Is American Buddhism So White? Our panel looks at the problem of “whiteness” in American Buddhism and what can be done—and in some cases is being done—to make it more diverse. MARYRANDLETT