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Buddhadharma : Fall 2017
80 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2017 buddhism in the West Yes, We’re Buddhists Too! by Jan Willis On occasion, people have said to me, “Oh, I didn’t know that there were African American Buddhists!” Mostly my reaction is demure, but I sometimes want to respond with the question, “Why shouldn’t there be?” After all, African Americans are human beings who think and breathe and experience suffering just as other human beings do. Who, having heard and reflected upon the Buddha’s teachings, would not wish to undertake and practice them? Many African Americans of my generation who later inclined toward Buddhism had already heard teaching similar to the Buddha’s in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. Striving to move this country closer to being a more just society, King and others had built the nonviolent civil rights movement around the principles of love, forgiveness, and interdependence. Hearing these same principles and practices extolled in Buddhist teachings was like coming home. When we learned the details of the Buddha’s life, he became even more of an inspiration. Here was a man who actually, in practice, rejected the systemic oppression of his country’s people by denouncing the caste system of the Aryans (originally founded on color discrimination) and allowing all castes and women to enter his community of practitioners. Both actions were extremely radical— even revolutionary—for his time. Because of the Buddha’s teachings and because of his own life example, many African American children of the civil rights movement have been finding their way to Buddhism. Yet, as has so often been the case, we have been doing this without much fanfare or even recognition, once again being made almost invisible. 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 that 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 meditation 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. Winter 2011