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Buddhadharma : Summer 2005
summer 2005| 40 |buddhadharma Buddhadharma: In James Coleman’s book, The New Buddhism, he indicates that the groups he researched appealed only to “a relatively small slice of the public” that was “overwhelmingly white,” from the middle to higher reaches of the middle class, and highly educated. How accurate is that description? Charles PreBish: Coleman is talking about what he calls “New Buddhism,” and for him that means almost exclusively convert Buddhist com- munities. In the context of that description, he’s probably quite accurate. It’s also fair to say that, in the overall Buddhist community in the United States, it’s likely that as many as eighty percent are not convert Buddhists. They’re Asian-immigrant Buddhists. Paul haller: We need to ask to what degree does how we present ourselves within our own Buddhist sanghas deter people who don’t fall into the demographic you just described. In San Francisco, the overall population is quite diverse. Caucasians represent about half the population, and then we have a large Asian-American popu- lation, about a fifteen-percent African-American population, and a significant Hispanic popula- tion. At Zen Center, one of the things we’re try- ing to tackle is to what degree we deter people from this part of the demographic from feeling at home, and consequently returning on a frequent basis to our centers. I also think the point that Chuck makes is important to emphasize at the beginning of this discussion. Those of us who are convert Buddhists think that we are Buddhism in America. In fact, we’re a minority of Buddhism in America. That’s a very helpful perspective to keep in mind. Relating with the larger sangha is another important form of diversity. marlene Jones: What Coleman says fits with my experience. As a meditator who began in 1970, I would say that the communities I encountered left out a lot of people and continue to do so. For one thing, centers have been overwhelmingly white. Many of the centers began because people who went to Asia came back and wanted to start sitting groups or retreat environments. They were white men for the most part, many of them Jewish, and they tended to draw people to the centers who were like themselves. Guy mCCloskey: Coleman’s description does not reflect my experience in Soka Gakkai. I’ve spent the last fourteen years practicing in Chicago. If I were to look at the people present on a Sunday morn- ing or at some large-scale Soka Gakkai event, the majority would be African-American. We’ve also very substantially increased our Hispanic member- ship. At our last annual gathering in Chicago, we had about five hundred Spanish-speaking people, which was very progressive for us, because we have not been so strong among Spanish-speaking people. Buddhadharma: Why does diversity matter? Why do communities need to reach out beyond those who somewhat naturally come to their doors? Paul haller: What inspired our outreach initiative initially was an active expression of compassion, the motivation to be of service to society at large. Diversity is one of the consequences of serving people. For example, I teach in a drug rehab cen- ter. I do that to help people, most of whom happen to be working-class people from minority groups. Inevitably, several of those people do want to visit the center, and that has been a learning experience for us. The class difference stood out, so we had to devise strategies so that it wouldn’t feel so difficult for these guys. Charles PreBish: So you’re saying that social engagement can be a means to help create an environment that facilitates people of all different backgrounds feeling comfortable at your center. I once suggested that Buddhist communities might (CloCkwise from toP left) marlene Jones is Co-founder and Co-Chair of the sPirit roCk diversity CounCil. she also leads PeoPle of Color ProGrams and retreats at sPirit roCk. Guy mCCloskey is senior viCe President of soka Gakkai international – usa. Paul haller is aBBot of the san franCisCo Zen Center. Charles PreBish is Professor of reliGious studies at Pennsylvania state university. A discussion of race, class, and education, and how they’re limiting who becomes interested in Buddhism. Forum: Barriers to the Dharma Sculpture by richard Serra photographed by Michael david Murphy photo:MichAeldAvidMurphy,reproducedwithperMissionofthediAArtfoundAtion,nyc