Yes, We’re Buddhists Too!

Jan Willis examines the subtle—and not so subtle—racism that exists in American Buddhism.

Jan Willis
10 November 2011
Photo by Jakayla Toney.

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. More than 2,500 years ago, at the very end of his life, the Buddha declared, “In all these years, I have taught only two things: suffering and its cessation.” What a marvelous statement! And, given the end of the declaration, pretty good news.

Who, having heard and reflected upon such teachings, would not wish to undertake and practice them? As the Dalai Lama often says today, “All beings wish to have happiness and to avoid suffering. In this regard, we are all exactly alike, exactly the same.” It should come as no surprise, then, that at this historic time in Buddhist history—when almost all the world’s traditions of Buddhism are found together in one geographic space, the United States—that African Americans too would find Buddhist teachings attractive.

Many African Americans of my generation who later inclined toward Buddhism had already heard similar teachings 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.

Many African Americans of my generation who later inclined toward Buddhism had already heard similar teachings in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

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, or varna, 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. Why is this the case? And, why is it important? We should, it seems to me, explore these issues.

According to a number of recent essays and reports, Buddhism is now one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States. In terms of adherents, it is said to rank either third or fourth behind Christianity, Judaism, and the “nonreligious,” and has grown at a rate of 170 percent since 2000. The Pew Religious Landscape Survey published in 2008 said that people in the U.S. who say they are Buddhist account for about 0.7 percent of the total population (which translates into around two million followers), but a study by Wuthnow and Cadge suggests that at least 12 percent of the U.S. population—some 25 to 30 million people—have “been impacted or influenced in their spirituality by Buddhism or Buddhist ideas.” Clearly, Buddhist ideas have affected many Americans, and some of them are African Americans.

In many ways, the history of Buddhism in America is a distorted and racialized one, with one group of people being extolled while other groups are disparaged or ignored. When we trace the roots of Buddhism’s introduction to the U.S. only to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, we ignore the fact that there were Chinese and Japanese Buddhists in this country decades before that event. The first groups of Buddhists were actually the Chinese who came to the West Coast as menial laborers in the mines and on the railroads. In 1860, the California census showed that one out of ten California residents was Chinese. Around this time the Japanese also came to Hawaii and other West Coast states, bringing with them their respective forms of Buddhism. While these different forms caught the attention of some Euro-Americans, the Chinese and Japanese Buddhists themselves were not so warmly welcomed here. As Paul Numrich points out in Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs in America, “America’s encounter with Buddhism began with a mixture of fascination and hostility.”

Contemporary discussions of American Buddhism still employ the outmoded “two-Buddhisms” model wherein a distinction is drawn between “Asian immigrant Buddhists” on the one hand and “American convert-Buddhists” on the other. There is often said to be a gap between these two, each serving their respective, and different, religious constituents and goals.

Clearly, this model is too simplistic to account for who actually is an “American Buddhist.” Moreover, there is a type of racism and essentializing at work here—one which sees all Asians as being alike, with no understanding of, or appreciation for, the great variety of distinctive cultures subsumed under this term or whether such immigrants derive from East, South, or Southeast Asia. It also sees no diversity within the convert-Buddhists in America, who are generally characterized as being either Euro-American, elite, or white Buddhists. As an African American Buddhist, I do not see myself reflected here. While it is certainly true that a large majority of convert- Buddhists in this country are homogeneously white, middle to upper-middle class, well educated and, generally, liberal, there are some African Americans (as well as Hispanics and other so-called minorities) who are Buddhists, too!

For some, thinking about African Americans and Buddhism may seem odd because they think that all African Americans are surely ardent members of Christian denominations.

For some, thinking about African Americans and Buddhism may seem odd because they think that all African Americans are surely ardent members of Christian denominations. Such membership is cemented by the legacy of slavery and the spiritual and social uplift offered by the transformative message of antebellum evangelical Christianity. Some scholars have even suggested that the quiet meditative styles of Buddhist services are too sedate for people coming from such exuberant backgrounds as the Black Church. However, having embraced the virtues of both traditions, I happily call myself a “Baptist-Buddhist.”

For others, when African Americans and Buddhism are mentioned in the same breath they immediately conjure up the movie What’s Love Got to Do With It? in which singer Tina Turner’s life is saved when she begins the chanting practices of Nichiren Buddhism through the Soka Gakkai organization. For these folk, Turner, and perhaps Herbie Hancock, are the only African American Buddhists they have likely ever heard about. Interestingly, however, when American convert-Buddhist organizations and centers are mentioned, it is only this one, the Soka Gakkai, that is left out. For example, Don Morreale’s The Complete Guide to Buddhist America, which lists well over one thousand Buddhist centers and groups, makes no mention of it at all. I believe we must ask ourselves why the sole Buddhist group in America with the most diverse makeup of practitioners is precisely the one that is not counted?

While I do not personally know any African Americans who are members of Soka Gakkai, I do know quite a number of African Americans who practice in and with a wide variety of other Buddhist traditions and sanghas in America. We African Americans have come to Buddhism—like other hyphenated Americans—because of books and education, because of movies, because in some cases of psychedelics, because of travel, because of the martial arts. We have come seeking spiritual wisdom, healing, and liberation from suffering. Some of us follow Tibetan traditions; some of us are Zen roshis. Some of us are Tibetan lamas; some Vipassana teachers. Some of us wear robes and are ordained. Some of us are called acharyas. Some of us teach at universities; others offer workshops at prisons, record music, or head dojos. Some have founded separate, African American-only meditation groups; some work at peace organizations. Recently, it seems, a number of us have taken to writing memoirs. We are in many ways as diverse as the different traditions of Buddhism that have made their way to the United States in the past 150 years.

As of yet, there are no studies that focus exclusively on African American Buddhists. No sociologist of religion has looked at the issue. There are, however, individual African American Buddhists, themselves, who are writing about and speaking about their own journeys to, and with, the path of dharma. In my memoir, Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist, for example, I write about my own story—from being raised in the Jim Crow south, to marching with King during the Birmingham civil rights campaign, to discovering Buddhism in college and meeting Tibetan Buddhists in India and Nepal. It is a book about crossing boundaries, finding methods that work, and returning home as a Baptist-Buddhist. Other African American Buddhists—like Charles Johnson, bell hooks, Alice Walker, angel Kyodo williams, Bhante Suhita Dharma, Lewis Woods, Jules Harris, Lori Pierce, Gaylon Ferguson, Earthlyn Manuel, Faith Adele, and Sister Jewel—have also written about Buddhism and the value of its teachings. At least two incarcerated African American men, Jarvis Jay Masters and Calvin Malone, have written powerful accounts of finding the dharma while in prison.

And there are a good number of essays addressing the particular challenges presented by trying to practice Buddhism within the present structure of mostly white convert-Buddhist centers as they’ve been established in the U.S. The issues that are addressed in these writings are well worth reading about.

Since Buddhist practice offers us the chance to “sit” with our sufferings and to look deeply, we must begin with the recognition that, here in the U.S., we sit in a country and within a society that is racially diverse and heterogeneous but which was founded by whites who received and thrived on power that was built upon, and undergirded by, a system of slave labor. Recognizing this as fact, how do we who were harmed, forgive and go forward? Conversely, how do we who were privileged by such circumstances, recognize this and go forward? We need to find ways to allow our meditations to help us with this foundational, existential suffering.

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 which 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.

The best way to make African Americans, and people of color generally, less anomalous in convert Buddhist centers throughout America is clearly to have more African Americans and people of color present and visible, and the best way to do this is to have African American teachers present.

At this retreat I mentored a young African American woman who initially felt troubled that practicing Buddhist meditation might mean she was abandoning the Methodist tradition of her upbringing. At the end of the retreat, however, she informed me that she now believed Christian prayer was asking God for something, while Buddhist meditation helped one to hear His answer. Not bad!

The best way to make African Americans, and people of color generally, less anomalous in convert Buddhist centers throughout America is clearly to have more African Americans and people of color present and visible, and the best way to do this is to have African American teachers present. Ralph Steele, a psychologist in New Mexico and a Vipassana teacher, has been saying this for a while. Many others agree with him.

In a recent interview, an African American woman and Nichiren priest, Myokei Caine-Barrett, spoke openly and directly about what’s required to make Buddhism in America more inclusive. “I think outreach has to happen,” she explained. “Centers that are predominantly white need to become more educated about the challenges facing people of color. As a person of color, I’ve always faced people telling me that race is not an issue, or that I’m overreacting. It would help a great deal for sanghas to become educated about unaware racism, institutionalized racism, and internalized racism so that no one’s experience is negated simply because it isn’t common to the entire community.”

“Any community that wants to welcome diversity,” she goes on to say, “has to make sure diversity goes throughout the entire community—including teachers and administrators of color. It has to look like there’s no difference; and the reality has to be that there is no difference. If I truly believe that Buddhism is for everyone, then I have to act that way.”

The issue of accessibility is the one that I worry most about. Given the way centers are set up here, getting the chance to study and practice with a bona fide lineage teacher requires leisure time and money. Working-class people don’t have much of either to spare. So if dharma centers really want to encourage diversity in their communities, they will have to put in the effort and the generosity required to invite and encourage people of color and working-class people to come in. Having found Buddhist teachings to be so helpful for me personally, and seeing their amazing potential to help suffering sentient beings everywhere—whatever their color—I want everyone to have access to them. The Buddha taught to all, equally. I’d like to see equal-access dharma become the norm here in the States.

Anne Waldman

Jan Willis

Jan Willis is a Professor of Religion Emerita at Wesleyan University as well as a visiting professor at Agnes Scott College. She has studied with Tibetan Buddhists in India, Nepal, Switzerland, and the U.S. for five decades, and has taught courses in Buddhism almost as long. Her work has explored meditation, hagiography, women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and race; her most recent book is Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra.