Forum: Barriers to the Dharma

A discussion of race, class and education, and how they’re limiting who becomes interested in Buddhism. Featuring Paul Haller, Marlene Jones, Charles Prebish, and Guy McCloskey.

By Lion’s Roar

Photo by Ben Mason.

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 communities. 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 at 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 population, about a fifteen-percent African-American population, and a significant Hispanic population. At Zen Center, one of the things we’re trying 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 morning or at some large-scale Soka Gakkai event, the majority would be African-American. We’ve also very substantially increased our Hispanic membership. 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 center. 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 well adopt the four brahmaviharas—love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—as a basis for a new vinaya for the modern world.

Paul Haller: Yes, reaching out to others in service is a wonderful way to promote the four brahmaviharas in active expression.

Charles Prebish: Especially equanimity. If we do the others properly, we end up seeing each other as the same.

Paul Haller: Precisely.

Guy McCloskey: In terms of equanimity, I was thinking about the fact that although Soka Gakkai is the largest, most influential Buddhist movement in Japan today, at the end of World War II it was an organization of the poor, the sick, and the disaffected. The people we could have excluded have come to us in stages. Although anybody who has grown up white in American society has a racist inclination, whether intentional or not, we haven’t had to address that so much. But in 1981, I first held someone in my arms while he died of AIDS. We had members at that time who refused to allow people with AIDS to come into their homes, where our neighborhood discussion meetings are held. We had to confront that directly.

Nichiren said that the model of Buddhist practice is found in the Lotus Sutra, in the guise of Bodhisattva-Never-Disparaging, who said, “I deeply respect you because you are on the path and you will eventually be a buddha. How can I discriminate against you?” Even though I certainly have discriminated against people at times in my life, I could never justify that from the Buddhist perspective.

Buddhadharma: What other Buddhist teachings, besides the Lotus Sutra and the four brahmaviharas, teach us something about the value of reaching out?

Paul Haller: Within the Zen tradition, we have the teaching on the merging of difference and unity, the Sandokai. Difference and unity is the heart of diversity. We are all the same. We all come from the same human stock, and suffer under the human condition, and every one of us is also unique. Whether you want to call it form and emptiness, difference and unity, or whatever, this is an essential theme of the Chinese and the Japanese approach to practice.

Marlene Jones: I have found the Four Noble Truths to be extremely important in teaching people of color. Suffering, as Paul said, is the human condition. I wouldn’t say that the suffering in communities of color is greater than anybody else’s, but because of racism, because of struggles in surviving every day in our society, the suffering is out front.

I have spent a lot of time focusing on that theme, asking, “How can we turn suffering around to liberate the world? How can we bring healing and liberation to all beings through looking at our experience of suffering, knowing that it’s true for all?” Suffering leads you to care and nurturing.

Charles Prebish: I think it’s helpful to emphasize precepts as practice, to help people come to a greater understanding of ethics, so that once they’re able to affirm a strong ethical pattern for themselves, they can manifest that ethical pattern in society in a strong way.

Guy McCloskey: We need to start from the premise that we are interconnected. We all arise from dependent origination. Then we can recognize that if our small ego, the narrow ego contained within our skin, is the extent of our sense of selfhood, that is all we are going to experience.

As Paul indicated, as we continue to practice, we open up, and our sense of self expands. Ultimately, the Buddhist sense of self is to embrace all living beings. As we progress along the path of Vimalakirti, who is our example of the accomplished layperson, we can come to recognize that the suffering of anyone, anywhere, is our own. As I deal with suffering, the greatest relief I can find is to share the suffering of others.

Buddhadharma: If that is the ideal, why are most American Buddhist groups reaching only a narrow slice of the population?

Charles Prebish: For one thing, with the exception of Soka Gakkai members, the vast majority of convert Buddhists seem to gravitate toward the meditation traditions. That’s much more of an individualistic kind of approach, so members participate in the sangha as individual members, whereas in the Asian immigrant communities and in Soka Gakkai, there’s a much greater emphasis on making the community and the sangha a significant part of your religious life. This is appealing to people who are disenfranchised from other parts of the American community.

Guy McCloskey: The attraction of Nichiren Buddhism, for most of the people who enter Soka Gakkai, is human relationships. They’re attracted to someone they meet or already know who has made a noticeable development in their life, and they ask, “What’s different about you; what do you do?” Having never had an attraction myself toward the meditation practices, I don’t know what draws people to Zen and other such traditions. I would guess that it starts off on a more intellectual rather than social, emotional level.

Charles Prebish: In talking with people in Soka Gakkai, in my research, the one thing that people tend to say repeatedly is that the sangha is nurturing for everyone.

Marlene Jones: I started the people-of-color retreats and the diversity council here because I was uncomfortable with Spirit Rock as it existed then. It attracted people who were like the people who were already there: European-American people, who like being with people who are highly educated, have a lot of money, and who have the resources to sit a long retreat without having any financial burden. People of color usually can’t do long retreats without a scholarship. But even if you have a scholarship to do the retreat, you still need income to take care of your basic needs and the needs of your children and family. I have noticed, in fact, that many of the people of color who do come to Spirit Rock tend to be pretty educated. Some have advanced degrees; some are published authors. Many of them are similar to the European-American population here at Spirit Rock.

Buddhadharma: So, beyond the cultural and racial barriers, there is a strong class barrier as well.

Marlene Jones: Absolutely. That’s something we’re now spending some time talking about. We decided a long time ago that to begin with we were going to focus mostly on racial issues, as opposed to class, gender, and sexual orientation issues, just because they were so very prevalent. At the last meeting of the diversity council, though, we decided to start looking at class issues because they really seem to be popping up, and people are very concerned. Many people are feeling left out.

I have heard complaints from some of the cooks, who live on dana. They don’t get paid a salary, and they contribute a great deal to the community. They cook our meals, yet they feel left out of the mainstream. Another area that people with less money can feel left out of is our development efforts. Spirit Rock is about to enter a large capital campaign that’s going to go on for several years. It’s going to depend on the kind of people who make large donations, and there are quite a few of those here. People who don’t have the resources can’t really get involved. There are many benefit events mainly for those who can afford to go and a small number of volunteers, so people with less money feel less a part of everything. Like the cooks, they feel overlooked. We will need to explore this more, just as we have with racial issues. It’s a new frontier.

Guy McCloskey: One reason our community has less of a class divide, I would say, comes about because of how Soka Gakkai was originally propagated here. It started with Japanese war brides who married GI’s in post-World-War-II occupied Japan and moved to the United States. A lot of them just wanted out of the country because conditions were so horrible at that time. They didn’t make many class distinctions about whom they married. And of course Uncle Sam didn’t make many class distinctions when it came to drafting soldiers. Right from the beginning, then, Soka Gakkai had a built-in socioeconomic diversity.

Then, in the sixties and seventies, when we really started to expand our membership, Soka Gakkai appealed to a lot of young people, both here and in Japan, who were seeking something different. They were flexible and open and also didn’t make a lot of class distinctions. They were people who had dropped out of the mainstream society, and all of these people just merged together and learned to practice Buddhism together. If you look today at our newer membership, I’m sure the socioeconomic status is much higher, but there’s still a foundation, especially of senior, experienced practitioners, who are respected regardless of their educational background or their economic status.

Paul Haller: Talking to people who have had difficulty entering the community has helped to drive what we are doing. Our diversity-initiative steering committee pays a lot of attention to what people have to say. One thing we’ve done as a result is formed a people-of-color sitting group that holds weekly sittings and periodic longer sessions. Their advice and what they report to us helps us formulate what we do.

Charles Prebish: Over the thirty-five years that I’ve been investigating Buddhism in North America, both as a practitioner and a scholar, I’ve seen the landscape change dramatically. In the seventies, the groups were almost completely exclusive—in the way that has been described here—and continued that way on into the eighties, at which point people studying American Buddhism argued heatedly in the literature about how to classify the many kinds of groups of people who were coming together to practice various kinds of Buddhism. Maybe some of the distinctions we are talking about between different types of people who practice the dharma may be starting to dissolve in a way that could be very efficacious for the evolution of a genuinely American Buddhism, one that is inclusive of all types of Buddhism and all types of people practicing Buddhism.

Marlene Jones: I see integration gradually growing. Originally, many people would say that if it were not for a people-of-color retreat, they wouldn’t be here. That has started to change. Many of those same people are starting to go to the regular retreats, although not in huge numbers. It also depends on who the teacher is. People are concerned about racism for sure, but more than anything they need cultural inclusion, to feel part of what is represented.

We know that it works if we have teachers of color. It’s not that we’re teaching the dharma any differently; it’s just about being with people who look like you, talk like you. But other teachers are learning to be more culturally inclusive. If Jack Kornfield is teaching, he draws more people of color. He talks about racism, he deals with cultural issues, he quotes James Baldwin, he integrates cultural information, and people recognize what he’s talking about. So he can draw people who are different from him, because he spent so much time learning about various cultures and ways of living in the world. We had a retreat where the goal was to have a mixed representation of people’s colors, and it was successful, but it takes a lot of work, and there need to be enough people of color who can trust that that process is going to work for them.

Guy McCloskey: We have deliberately applied diversity training for our leadership, but at this stage our leadership has come to reflect the demographics of our membership. We don’t have to go looking for people of color. White people are getting used to listening to black people, as opposed to the other way around.

Buddhadharma: Many people will tell you that their first experiences in entering a Buddhist center were far from nurturing; they were in fact intimidating. Many people find the atmosphere of Zen, for example, austere and uninviting.

Paul Haller: Yes, that is often people’s experience. There is a kind of an implied austerity in the Zen attention to detail. That is the feedback we get. After all, Zen is traditionally a wisdom tradition. But one thing I have noted is that in many of the Zen communities, the Metta Sutta, a Theravadin text on loving-kindness, has been brought into the standard liturgy. As Zen finds its way and its expression in America, I think the active expression of compassion will become a more significant attribute. This whole Zen notion of “We don’t reach out to you; in fact we make it a little bit difficult for you” is something we are working very directly with these days. We are regularly asking ourselves, “Are we creating too much of a barrier?”

I would like to add, though, that I am working-class Irish from Belfast. I did get a college degree, that’s true, but my family background is working-class. So, it doesn’t seem to do us much good, either, to stick too tightly to this notion that everybody is upper class and highly educated. There are people from many different backgrounds in the various sanghas I am involved with—not just Zen, but also Vipassana.

Buddhadharma: Does it make more sense to put emphasis on integration and mixing, trying to attract the people who are currently marginalized to already established programs, or should the emphasis be on creating new programs to meet the needs of particular groups of people?

Marlene Jones: All of the above, but the first and most important is retreats, day-longs, and workshops for separate groups, because they draw new people that are not familiar with the dharma. When I first came to Spirit Rock in 1991, I felt like I had to leave myself outside. I had to assimilate or I wouldn’t fit in. I watched people of color walk in the door and not come back, over and over and over again. People of color would show up with the intention of being here and joining the sangha. Maybe they would come back once, and then never again. That’s when it occurred to me that we needed to create an environment where they could feel safe and welcome, and be able to access the dharma without facing cultural exclusion—without, in a word, being ignored.

Separate events give people an opportunity to enter comfortably, to access the land and the resources of a center like Spirit Rock, which should belong to everyone. Once people have entered, I try to encourage them to integrate into what is already established. So now, as I’ve said, we are trying to create more environments that are mixed, where there is some confluence.

Paul Haller: The strategy that Marlene describes very much accords with our experience. Someone must feel safe enough and connected enough before their participation becomes full. Until that point, they have a guarded and qualified connection. That is just the human condition.

It is not a one-shot deal. It’s a process. For example, maybe fifteen years ago, the notion of being gay or lesbian was a little problematic within our community. Since then, gays and the lesbians have been completely integrated and hold all sorts of positions of authority and prestige. That’s happened, to a large extent, because the level of safety and acceptance has grown. It’s a very small issue for us now. That would be my hope for other people who are marginalized because of race or class. Over the next decade or two—through familiarity, exposure, and growing diversity in our demographics—the boundaries and separations that require active, purposeful agendas and strategies right now will no longer be a major concern. We will end up with a similar kind of integration as we have had with gays and lesbians.

Buddhadharma: If the mandate of Buddhism, as expressed in the bodhisattva ideal, is to help all beings, how are we doing? Some have said that American Buddhism is little more than a self-help movement.

Paul Haller: How we present the dharma will evolve. I don’t think any of our communities purposely sat down and thought, “Let’s do this for this reason and for this effect.” It just came out of our practice. As we settle into this practice, and it’s less of us doing it and more of it doing us, we will become more connected and open to the environments and communities we’re in. Who we are, and the liturgies and the presentations we make will resonate more with what is needed in those communities. People want something that relates directly to the pain and agony in their lives. They want you to transmit the dharma in a manner they can take in and find relevant to their immediate lives. That’s what we have to offer. That’s how we give back the gift we’ve received from practicing all these years.

As we settle into our own traditions and our own practice, our basic selfishness will start to soften. The notion of helping others will become more appealing. It’s a matter of maturing in our own vow. That takes time.

Charles Prebish: I hope that’s right, but it seems to me that there is a tendency among convert Buddhists to turn Buddhism itself, the buddhadharma, into a commodity and a self-help program, rather than really seeing it as a system to help people out of suffering. Lama Surya Das has said that the three jewels of the new American Buddhism are “Me, myself, and I.” Chögyam Trungpa said something similar in a talk I attended, and then he looked out at six hundred people and said, “We could have some discussion if you’re not too depressed.”

Buddhadharma: The majority of people in the world who would call themselves Buddhists take part largely in ritual and congregational activity, some form of churchgoing or religious observance. Do communities need to find more ways for people to take part and more styles of teaching and interaction?

Marlene Jones: I know many people are looking for that. There is an African-American teacher within the Tibetan tradition in the Bay Area, Choyin Rangdrol, whose style is very similar to a Baptist preacher, and he’s been able to draw a lot of people. That isn’t necessarily true here at Spirit Rock. A lot of the people of color who come here, as I’ve said, are educated and they’re used to hearing talks that are a little more on the lecture side. To my mind, the most important thing is that the substance of the talk is inclusive of many cultural perspectives. Everyone who comes to hear a dharma talk needs to hear the whole world.

Buddhadharma: What advice would you offer to communities that are just starting to pay attention to diversity?

Paul Haller: The first thing I would say is “Don’t be afraid.” Our whole dharma tradition is based on the inevitability of change. We can embrace change. Diversity is not a problem to be solved. It offers riches, it offers explorations, it offers a new way of seeing and feeling the world. My advice would be to embrace diversity, not out of a sense of duty or guilt, but out of a sense of appreciating your life.

Marlene Jones: I’ve gone to all-white groups, even though many senior students and teachers who are people of color have encouraged me not to talk about diversity or race to white groups. I’ve challenged them to look at themselves and wonder why there are no people of color in the room, or why people of color show up and leave and don’t come back. During one question-and-answer period, someone asked, “What can we do? How do we recognize the people? How do we talk to them? What do we say when they come in?” I repeated to them what the Dalai Lama says: “Greet people as an old friend.” So my advice is to first get beyond fear and greet people as if they’re part of your sangha, as if they belong. We simply need to see people for who they really are—to see their true self, their buddhanature.

Guy McCloskey: My advice is to teach everyone basic elements of Buddhist philosophy, including the fact that we are indistinguishable from our environment. We are all related. We need to discover that. Paul was talking about a different way of seeing the world. I think that means to see the world as it actually is. Also, as Marlene said, I would advise expanding the cultural orientation of what we present for the benefit of everyone, no matter what audience we are addressing. That is actually something that is quite natural. We should feel awkward when we avoid it.

Charles Prebish: A few years ago, Alan Senauke said that passivity means white supremacy. We have to remind ourselves continually not to be passive. One of the paramitas is vigor. We have to take that vigor out into the world with us, and maybe it needs to be tempered by patience, so that we can do the work of bodhisattvas, but we can never simply be satisfied just sitting on our cushion. We have to take what we learn out into the world and share it.

Buddhadharma: How do you think the Western Buddhist sangha will evolve over the long term as it works with issues of race and class and inclusiveness?

Marlene Jones: There will be more sanghas and centers in urban settings, in the communities where people of color live. Also, hopefully, in my lifetime, we’ll see much more integration in the traditional white sanghas. I don’t know how long that’s going to take, but in the last ten or fifteen years I’ve seen change in that direction. It took us a long time to come up with the money to hire a full-time diversity coordinator, but we’ve done that and we’ve started a whole diversity movement as a result of that commitment. Hopefully we’ll see a lot more of that kind of work going on.

Charles Prebish: All of the predictions I’ve seen over the last three decades or so, including my own, seem to have turned out to be wrong. They’re wrong because we have been, for the most part, expecting things that probably can’t happen for a long time. If we look at Buddhism’s move from one culture to another, it seems that the period of acculturation always takes at least half a millennium. Perhaps we’ve seduced ourselves in this culture to think it will happen faster, because we’re Americans and because we have better communication, and we have the Internet, and so forth. But we’re still just people. I imagine that I will not see a complete integration during my lifetime, but that it will happen more gradually over time.

Paul Haller: I don’t agree entirely. We create the future. I hope we will continue to approach it with the commitment we’re taking on right now. That’s essential. It might be possible, then, that in twenty to thirty years, in just the same way that issues regarding sexual preference or orientation have diminished as divisive issues within groups like ours, issues of ethnicity and race will also diminish. We will have integrated communities.

What we offer will not seem strange and distant to the average person, either. It is already moving rapidly into the mainstream. In Time magazine’s latest issue on health and spirit and mind, essentially they were talking about mindfulness and how it infiltrates into so many dimensions of our physical and mental condition.

Guy McCloskey: We will need to learn more and more from each other about how to translate Buddhism in a way that communicates to Americans generally. I have no doubt, though, that if we apply the values of Buddhism, integrated groups will form. Chicago, where I was for many years, has been described as the most segregated city in America, and yet we developed many racially diverse groups. When people in those groups get together, they share similar experiences about how to apply the values and the practice of Buddhism to their daily lives. That is what brings them together, and I see that continuing to develop.

I’ll let Chuck figure out when there are going to be as many Buddhist centers as there are Christian churches in the United States, but I think Buddhism definitely can be a strong force in decreasing racism and discrimination. It has the ability to lead people into the future, as a way of life, as a way of living harmoniously with their environment and all living beings.

Marlene Jones is co-founder and co-chair of the Spirit Rock Diversity Council. She also leads People of Color programs and retreats and 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.


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Lion’s Roar

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