In any discussion of racial issues, there are layers upon layers of complexity and paradox. For clarity, I want to emphasize that this article focuses on the U.S. Buddhist communities whose members come mostly from family backgrounds that are not Buddhist, that is, “newcomers.” Although the largely immigrant or so-called ethnic Buddhist communities in the U.S. are communities of color, one of their chief concerns, understandably, is preserving their cultures and languages rather than “diversifying.” It’s also worth noting that an alternative to predominantly white newcomer Buddhist communities appears to be provided by the Nichiren Soka Gakkai sect, which attracts a signiﬁcant number of African-American practitioners.
I also wish to acknowledge that there has been progress in terms of diversity in newcomer sanghas. In many cases, this is due to the strenuous eﬀorts of feminist women and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered practitioners to gain full access to Buddhist teachings and teacher training. When any form of discrimination is addressed, such as sexism or homophobia, it opens the way for all the others to be addressed as well.
One of the last things my 71-year-old father did before dying suddenly and peacefully in his sleep was to tell me a story from his past that I hadn’t heard before. A Nisei (second-generation Japanese American) who had grown up on a farm in Indiana, my dad was drafted into the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. He was very proud of his army career and the training he had received as a military parachuter. When I was a child, he gave me his silver pin from those days, an open parachute with wings on each side and the motto We Drop With Fire.
Although he regarded haoles (European Americans) with fear and distrust and held racist views of African Americans, my father had chosen to raise his family in an all-white community near Akron, Ohio, and to retire in rural Virginia. Thus isolated, Dad grew abusive and paranoid as he aged, convinced that strangers would vandalize his retirement home “if they knew an Oriental lived here.” He insulted my mother, who was battling cancer, saying he could already smell her rotting, and complained bitterly about everyone else. His behavior had grown so intolerable that the only way I could stand to see him was to make a spiritual vow: that since I couldn’t force my father to change, I would try to accept him exactly as he was, and make that my Buddhist practice.
We were sitting quietly on his living room couch when Dad, without preamble, said, “When I was sworn in to the army, we all sat in a big room together, and everyone was sworn in as a group. Everyone except me, because I was the only Japanese American. They made me wait until the end, after everyone else had left, then they took me into a little oﬃce at the back of the room and swore me in separately.” He paused, then added in a mild, even lighthearted tone of voice, “You know, that always kind of pissed me off.”
My father had been sitting on that story for ﬁfty years or so, slowly letting it and other racial injustices he’d suffered eat him alive. No wonder his entire body had been taut with rage for as long as I could remember. The amazing thing was, after entrusting me with his story, Dad looked like a different person altogether, totally relaxed and content. The next day he went to sleep before dinner and died quietly before midnight.
My father’s story is an American story, but it and similar accounts never appeared in any of the history books I was given in high school in Ohio in the late sixties and early seventies. Like other Asian Americans, and most U.S. citizens who are people of color, I grew up with the tacit understanding that being white was the norm, “white culture” being deﬁned mostly by what we saw on television and read in books. It wasn’t that everything else was deviant; it simply wasn’t worth mentioning.
Although I didn’t like it, I became used to the feeling that to be Japanese American was to be invisible. Thus, by the time I joined a Midwestern Korean Zen group in 1981, it didn’t strike me as strange or diﬃcult that students were expected to suppress their personal narratives. Attempting to remain firmly in the present moment, we maintained silence as much as possible, often avoiding eye contact in order to stay concentrated within the practice. One American Zen teacher I know half-jokingly calls this period of Zen in the U.S. “the bad old days.” Beautiful meditation centers were built and many students established strong practices, but no one appeared to have even thought of ethics committees or diversity councils or “boundary violations” between teachers and students. We placed our faith in the Buddhadharma and hoped that wisdom, compassion and non-harm would ﬂow, perfectly and continuously.
In retrospect, I can see that, as American Buddhists, we were sincere, hard-working and idealistic, and that we had a lot of mistaken assumptions. It took some years for this very heated practice atmosphere to cool down and become more mature and reasonable. So it was not until recently that a few people began looking around and noticed that, in many of the so-called convert, or newcomer, Buddhist meditation centers and temples, the students were mostly white, heterosexual and middle class. And it took a while longer for both white and people-of-color Buddhists to raise questions about this lack of diversity and to wonder if it has constricted dharma practice, not just for the folks who have felt excluded, unseen and unheard at many dharma centers in this country, but for everyone.
One of the ways that access to Buddhist practice and community has been constricted for people of color is that a dharma language has not yet been developed that speaks to issues of privilege, power, race and ethnicity. I’ve heard these questions asked: “Are diﬀerent forms of language and teaching needed in order to acknowledge the experiences that people of color bring to Buddhist communities? Do we need new forms of skillful means (upaya) in order to welcome and empower people of color in dharma halls and centers?”
My answer, based on recent experience, is yes. In the past few years I have noticed that dharma teachings that often go over fairly well in a white middle-class audience are met with dissatisfaction and distrust, or even active resistance, by people of color. For example, last year I attended a talk in Berkeley by a well-known Jewish-American Buddhist teacher. When a young man of color asked how he could deal with racism through his practice, the teacher gave what seemed to me a solid and standard Buddhist answer, to the eﬀect of: “Be in the here and the now. Accept what is at this very moment. Then you will ﬁnd a clear path of wise action.”
The young man didn’t seem satisﬁed with this answer, responding, “I can’t accept racism.”
I received the same response when I gave a talk to a group of Buddhists of color some months ago. When I spoke of spiritual acceptance and the importance of being in the present, one person said, “I’m not going to accept things as they are!” Another said, “I have trouble with that word ‘acceptance.’”
Like all longtime Buddhist practitioners, I’ve practiced “accepting” or “sitting with” physical and psychological pain, and I understand that this kind of acceptance is not a passive resignation but rather a dynamic process of radical transformation. This transformation occurs through dropping the usual shields and ﬁlters through which we buﬀer the painful parts of reality and strengthening our spiritual capacity to open ourselves beyond our opinions. “Acceptance” as a Buddhist term doesn’t mean a value judgment that a particular phenomenon is good or bad, fair or unfair, right or wrong. Donald Rothberg, a socially engaged Buddhist scholar and teacher, describes it as cultivating “a space of non-reactivity.”
In my experience, this is a very diﬃcult and subtle point, because “non-reactivity” easily sounds like a robotlike trance in which one transcends the problems of society through ignoring them. And, as a matter of fact, that does sometimes happen when as practitioners we become “samadhi junkies,” attached to seeming tranquility and bliss. I know that in my own practice I’ve grown most through sitting with precisely those things that cannot be accepted yet are undeniably real, the things that stick in your throat and that you cannot swallow—my mother’s excruciating death from cancer; the horrifying injustices I read about every day in the newspaper; the tragic car accident that has left a bright young friend unable to walk, talk or feed himself. Throwing aside any illusion that I can grasp such things with my ordinary judging mind, I’ve prayed and meditated to gain spiritual insight and clarity of action. And they have always come, though not quickly.
Even so, I know that people who suﬀer daily from institutionalized racism and oppression don’t want to be told to “accept things as they are” or to “stop trying to ﬁx things and just sit.” It sounds too much like what we go through every day, being told to “accept” (that is, be resigned to) a status quo in which our faces and histories do not appear. I also see that people of color have a great need to speak from personal experience, to immediately test whether a teacher welcomes and validates that experience. People of color want to know that a teacher understands that racism is a life-threatening disease, a cancer that affects everyone in our society. Many people of color feel that as long as some American Buddhist communities and groups of teachers remain predominantly white, the Buddhism they teach will lack credibility, and dharma talks that employ words such as “oneness of all beings,” “profound liberation” and “acceptance” will be regarded with anything from mild suspicion to active scorn.
So how do we forge a new language? What will help open the doors of our meditation halls to all? I suspect that what is needed at this point is to make our meditation halls serve as listening rooms on a regular basis. Buddhists of color, myself included, have stories we need to tell about how racism impacts our everyday realities, including accounts of speciﬁc incidents of exclusion, racism, ignorance and insensitivity we have met with in interactions with white American Buddhist practitioners and communities. Although a story in some ways is always a human construct, a ﬁction that is driven by the need to communicate a particular point, each story nevertheless contains a truth or truths. Often, these testimonies are diﬃcult to listen to because they contain such raw emotion, expression of which is explicitly or implicitly discouraged in many meditation centers. But the truths they contain are vital to breaking the barrier of silence that often surrounds racial and ethnic divides. The powerful act of inviting and receiving the stories we have yet to hear will embody oneness, liberation and deep acceptance of our common humanity. Those who receive and hear these accounts will be moved and changed; our sanghas, as learning communities, will also change and grow.
I do not mean to sound naive; I’m talking about a complex and painful process. However, without this collective storytelling and listening practice, we cannot go forward. As we are learning from the “Truth and Reconciliation” hearings in countries such as South Africa, progress and healing emerge only from communal witnessing of personal stories of institutionalized suﬀering and violence. This is something I’m only gradually beginning to understand through my own exploration of issues related to diversity. Like my father, I and most people of color in this country carry collective rage and terror in our bones and muscles and blood; we carry the shadows of slavery, genocide, exclusion laws and internment.
As a Sansei, or third-generation Japanese American, I didn’t become fully aware of this until recently when my husband, Chris, who is a white Californian, drove me and our son, Joshua, down to visit his family in the Salinas, California, area south of where we live in Oakland. Even though I was raised in rural Ohio, I began battling an enormous wave of anxiety and depression the further south we drove into the California farm- and ranchlands. I was frightened by the landscape.
Finally I said to Chris, who was looking forward to seeing his mother and sisters and their families, “I can’t help it. When I look out the window, all I can feel is that there used to be Japanese American farmers in this part of California, people exactly like Josh and me, who were taken from their homes and their farms, stripped of their rights, and sent to concentration camps. And unless this is something that is acknowledged in words by you and your family, since you think of this area as your home, it’s very diﬃcult for me to feel safe.”
My husband looked at me sorrowfully. Being in an interracial marriage is more diﬃcult than either of us could have imagined. But what I remember most is how surprised I felt to have those words come out of my mouth, as though someone else had said them. Neither my parents nor grandparents had been sent to the World War II camps. Instead, it was as though ghosts from the past, the somber-faced, stoic people I had seen in photographs, numbered tags around their necks, sitting on their suitcases, had appeared and were crowding against me in the car. And each of them had stories to tell.
“Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.
“Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Abandon such thoughts, and live in love.
—Dhammapada (trans. Byrom)
In the Zen training I’ve done in the past twenty years, I’ve often heard teachers say, “You have to get beyond your own story, your own idea of who you are and where you’ve come from and why you are the way you are. Just sit, just practice. You won’t become a different person, but you’ll gain a different view.” My original Zen teacher, an Asian monk, put it this way: “You have to neutralize your karma.” Shakyamuni Buddha, if we can trust the teachings that have come down to us from 2,600 years ago, was also big on laying down memories of past injustice and abuse and dwelling in the present moment, extending lovingkindness to all beings.
The formal practices that have come to us from Asia (sitting, prostrating, chanting, observing the precepts, eating and working together) are all practices of enlightenment and intimacy, yet they are not enough if we wish our sanghas to become truly diverse. Unless Buddhist teachers and communities explicitly acknowledge the need for institutional change and political action, many people of color won’t stick around to be more intensively involved in practice. Although they may be willing to try meditation in silence, the perception of being silenced within the social structure of a Buddhist community will only increase, not decrease, their suﬀering. I am convinced that to truly accept one another as dharma sisters and brothers, we must ﬁrst hear one another, making the commitment to practice compassionate listening for as long as it takes.