Buddhism in the U.S. Beyond the Color Lines

Blue Cliff Monastery by dzungvo via Flickr.com

This past summer, I had the rare opportunity to attend the Buddhist Geeks Conference: The Emerging Faces of Buddhism. I was disappointed, though not surprised that there were only four Asian faces (myself included) among the crowd of participants. Furthermore, the “emerging faces” of Buddhism only had one Buddhist monastic in the audience. This disparity in representation was highlighted in the popular blog, Angry Asian Buddhist: “Discover the Emerging Faces of Buddhism (Are Mostly White).”

I hope that the future faces of Buddhism bring much more openness and honest discussions on ways to improve the demographic representation of people of color (POC). Discussions that reflect the diversity of the United States’ rich Buddhist landscape. Buddhism as a tradition has come far by penetrating North American society and culture, becoming much more ingrained in Americans’ consciousness, and providing an open path for both convert and Asian American immigrant communities alike. To establish an enlightened foothold in the West, emerging Buddhist organizations must represent the constituencies they attempt to serve. Otherwise, they will miss the 16-18% of Latino/Latina, 12-14% of African American, 5% of Asian, and 1-2% of Native Americans in the U.S. population (2010 Census figures).

Throughout the history of the U.S., many generations of people of color have come before us on this diverse landscape and have experienced centuries of oppression, resulting in physical and psychological suffering. Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín, a queer Zen Latina priest drives this point home:

When speaking of the history of Western Buddhism in general—and its presence in the United States, in particular—it is imperative that the point of origin not be located in a white, European context. The story of how the Dharma reached the shores of the United States is embedded in the history of immigrants of color.” She goes further to say: “Teachings of liberation heard clearly in a culture driven by ignorance, fear, and anger, and hate is like the breaking of chains after centuries of subjugation. This is the gift the Buddha Shakyamuni gave us. (Baldoquin, p. 18)

I can only speak from my own personal experience as a participating person of color (an 1.5 immigrant Vietnamese American) at the Buddhist Geeks Conference; contributing to Shambhala PublicationsUnder 35 Project; living and working at Shambhala’s city and land centers. I also have had the wonderful opportunity to spend three months as a staff member at the Shambhala Mountain Center and one month at Karme Choling. I highly enjoyed my time at these centers and wished I could have stayed longer to learn, practice, and contribute further. Overall, I think that centers like Shambhala, Karme Choling, Thich Nhat Hanh’s PlumVillage, Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Spirit Rock, and other trailblazing traditions have greatly influenced American religious culture and may one day be household names.

In terms of racial diversity, I noticed that Shambhala International has done a wonderful job promoting and providing access and resources to people of color. I commend them for providing access, resources, and emotional support to people of color as well as white practitioners who have just started on the Shambhala path. Shambhala International has also conducted conferences to promote and strategize on ways for people of color to have increased representation and a voice in their organization. I have witnessed people of color actively involved in center activities such as conducting Umze, one of many activities that give them a sense of ownership and identification.

Despite these efforts, I still am concerned about the representation of people of color at Shambhala, especially when it comes to sustained presence and leadership.  During my extended stay at the center, I noticed that the participation of people of color on staff  and as leaders decreased dramatically. In a nutshell, people of color often ventured through the door and then left because they did not feel a part of the Shambhala family. While there are no easy answers as to why this is, I do find it troubling and very unfortunate.

In order to have future leaders in Shambhala as well as other Buddhist organizations, POC participants need teachers and peers they can identify with at these centers. After all, most POC American Buddhists and converts who came from monotheistic faiths walk away from their inherited traditions because they no longer identify with them at a deeper level. They do not need to be further isolated by having a teacher they can not identify with.

Furthermore, as people of color enter Shambhala’s door, it helps if they are surrounded by peers who look and feel like them and share their background and experiences. Most importantly, when people who have been marginalized for many generations — who have been historically oppressed, their civil and human rights trampled upon, and voices not heard —these individuals need a sense of solidarity, empowerment, and a sense that their own destiny is not at the hands of the majority, but their own. I wonder if these empowering experiences can ever be gained when POCs are in communities where they are constantly reminded that they are in the minority.

My question then is this:  Can these various Buddhist channels represented at dharma centers, conferences, publications, and various other outlets, promote an enlightened society when their constituency is primarily white?  Can a tradition be called “American” (or even Buddhist) if it does not have people from diverse backgrounds? Furthermore, can these Buddhist organizations help alleviate Americans’ suffering if the staff, teachers, and participants at these centers do not represent the society that it attempts to serve?

One does not need to go far to see this. Let us take a closer look at the Under 35 Project by Shambhala Publications; the number of people of color writing and contributing to this project are few.  Since the Angry Asian Buddhist posted his critique of the project (“Why is the Under 35 Project So White?”), only 14 (myself included) out of 280 articles published on the Under 35 Project site were authored by Asians or Asian Americans. That is 5% of the total contributing pool. According to a recent Pew Forum Study, those of Asian descent make of the majority of the Buddhist population in the U.S. (67-69%).  It’s hard to believe that Asian American Buddhist youth don’t have anything to say or are not making significant contributions to their religious communities.

One may argue that people of color are just not interested in contributing to the conversation, or for that matter, Buddhism in general. To answer the former part of this question, it is fair to ask who oversees the Under 35 Project, or in a larger context, runs the organization. Jack Daw, in his comments on the Under 35 Project blog, states,

Shambhala Publication has a pretty notorious reputation at promoting to affluent white hipsters. The Under 35 Project was originally overseen by Susan Piver, which may have been when most of the Asian Americans submitted and had their work promoted. Since then I believe it was moved over to Lodro Rinzler who, predictably, moves more towards the trendy IDP [Interdependence Project] crowd rather than more of an open exploration of Buddhism in America.

I would posit that the Buddha’s teachings and other spiritual ancestors over the past two millennia traveling from Asia to the western shores have and will provide great insight toward alleviating the sufferings of sentient beings. One of the world’s leading Buddhist teachers and peace activists Thich Nhat Hanh also states,

In this world there is violence, discrimination, hate and craving, but if you are equipped with Right View, the wisdom of interbeing and nondiscrimination, you don’t have to suffer. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. (Baldoquin, p. 63)

I further believe that the Dharma is universal and speaks to those who want a way out of suffering and towards an authentic happiness.  People in minority status, who have experienced years of oppression, can only do this if they are given a voice to do so. They are not asking to be tokenized, but instead, given a voice and an opportunity to walk alongside others on these many wonderful paths—paths that have a long rich history laid out through teachings and wisdom passed down for many generations through the sweat and blood of everyday persons of color.   In Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faiths, the author quotes African American scholar W.E.B Du Bois: “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.”

I hope Buddhism in the United States in the 21 Century moves beyond that line.

Post by: Anthuan Vuong (aka Dancing Yellow Monkey)

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4 thoughts on “Buddhism in the U.S. Beyond the Color Lines

  1. […] Buddhism in the U.S. Beyond the Color Lines by Anthuan Vuong […]

  2. Bill M. says:

    Mr. Vuong:
    Thank you for this post.
    I am attend a Vajrayana sanhga on a part-time basis (100 miles each way from my home).
    Aside from the rinpoche, everyone else that I’ve met there is a college-educated white person- of varying socio-economic levels. They are very kind, lovely people. I believe that the sangha would be very happy, very pleased to have POC participate in the life of the sangha.
    In all humility, I ask you, what would you like the sanhga to do about it? Is there something that we white Buddhists aren’t getting?
    I understand the point you are making about individuals “surrounded by peers who look and feel like them and share their background and experiences.” The first sangha I attended was Thiền. Initially, I felt very out of place there. Not because of race, but due to cultural differences. Of not knowing the cues and context.
    I understand that there are sometimes misunderstandings and/or a lack of communication between in sanghas founded by Asian immigrants and their families and those frequented primarlily by converts. Each these kind of sanghas, whose primary purpose is to teach and share the Buddhadharma, serves a distinct demographic.
    Each group has varying needs. Neither group is wrong for wanting those needs met.
    Still, it would be great if we Buddhists would come together, work together- for spiritual development, fellowship, and the common good of the Sangha.
    In very concrete terms, I’d like your suggestions of steps sanghas can take to attract and retain POC? Also, your specific ideas on how sanghas, both the convert and immigrant, can work more closely together? Personally, I enjoy the interplay of culture and would look forward to such activities.
    Thank you for your time.

  3. Mr. Bill M:

    Thank you for your comment.

    I’m currently in the process of looking at steps to improve participation of POC at mainstream sanghas. Currently, I’m collecting personal narratives from young adults POC to gather their experiences in American mainstream sanghas. I would love to send you my observations and results of this when done. Do you have an email address? I have some resources I would like to share with you.

    Many sanghas such as Shambhala centers, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries (Deer Park, Blue Cliff, Plum Village, Magnolia Grove, etc.), Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, etc.. have POC retreats. Other centers offer sliding scale and scholarships for POCs. I have seen an increase in writings and publications dedicated specifically to this group.

    I have also participated & facilitated in a POC sangha near my home. With all this in mind, I think the onus is on both whites and POCs to challenge themselves by bridging this gap. The answer, and I’m oversimplifying, is to acknowledge that this is a problem and discussions should be made. Below is a proposal that I’m conducing at my school.

    My blog above reiterates a major current unfortunate issue in American Buddhism–the lack of People of Color’s (POC) representation. These disparities can be seen in mainstream Buddhist dharma centers, publications, conferences. etc… Lack of POC representations have been around for generations and progress has been made to be inclusive of this group. Despite such gains, Buddhist institutions still lag in representing the constituents that currently make up U.S. society. Consequently then, one may posit further that white privilege hegemony still remains that will inevitably continue to keep this historically marginalized group away from Buddhist institutions. My final paper project will focus on “making the invisible visible” by coming up with a three prong solutions to address problems of mis-presentations among POC in Dharmic institutions. These solutions include:

    1.) Increase in Leadership Positions as Role Models
    2.) Deep Conversations about Hegemony
    3.) Diversity Trainings

    The first is focusing on more opportunities and development in Leadership Positions as Role Models for POC. This entails more involvements form dharma teachers and scholars represented at various Buddhist institutions. They may stem from dharma centers, monasteries, college institutions, press publications, key-note/planetary speakers at conferences, and so forth. When these institutions are able to have better representations at top leadership levels, then change will take place systemically to accommodate people of color once they enter the door. Once POC see that institutions have leaders and teachers they could identify with, they are more prone to stick around, participate, and take full ownership within these structures. When POC feel at “home” in a safe space, they are able to transform deep rooted sufferings stemming back centuries that their ancestors have experienced and passed on to them.

    My second solution will focus on Deep Conversation about Hegemony (White Privilege). Not only are discussions on hegemony pivotal, but necessary to promote mutual understanding between two people from different ethnic backgrounds. I propose that these discussions will take place more often in dharma centers, publishing houses, Religious Studies/Buddhist Studies departments, and various Buddhist outlets. However, they must take place in neutral and safe atmospheres with trained facilitators.

    Finally, my third solution focuses on Diversity Training. Having grown up in various multiracial and pluralistic cities and countries, I have experienced the effectiveness of diversity training at school and work. I believe that the effectiveness of diversity training allow us to challenge our stereotypes and preconceived notions of the “other” person. Cultural understandings extend beyond just having a few friends or co-workers that come from different ethnic backgrounds. Rather, it should also include the spiritual realm. Consequently then, not only is diversity training be received at various institutions such as work, school, etc..but also at spiritual institutions.

    This project attempts to make visible the invincible by providing three solutions–Increase in Leadership Positions as Role Models, Deep Conversations about Hegemony, and Diversity Trainings. These three solutions do not attempt to be silver bullet answers to the question of POC representations, but act as some few outlets that raise and address the question of hegemony in the U.S.

  4. Bill M. says:

    Hello again, Mr. Vuong:
    Forgive the delay in replying to you.

    “I’m currently in the process of looking at steps to improve participation of POC at mainstream sanghas. Currently, I’m collecting personal narratives from young adults POC to gather their experiences in American mainstream sanghas. I would love to send you my observations and results of this when done. Do you have an email address? I have some resources I would like to share with you.”

    This would be interesting. I’d appreciate any insights you’d care to share on this subject..
    My e-mail address is cajunmick@gmail.com.

    Metta to you and yours,

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