July 18, 2011

Tell us your story.

In the Summer 2011 "Letter from the Editor," Tricycle's Editor and Publisher James Shaheen wrote:

We are quite familiar with the stereotype of North American “convert Buddhists” as white, middle-class, middleaged, college-educated, urban, meditation-oriented, and so forth. But one thing that became clear as the Tricycle website developed is that Buddhism in the West is far more diverse than is often recognized by mainstream publications like The New York Times and by Buddhist publications like Tricycle. Indeed, it has become apparent that there is a lot of “Buddhism in the West” that is not in the West at all. For the Buddhist conversation to overcome its inertia and recognize its diversity, we as a community must actively encourage inclusiveness. As part of this effort, we encourage community members who in significant ways don’t fit the stereotypical profile to write to us at editorial@tricycle.com.

We want to hear about your experience; we want to know your thoughts; we want to think with you about how to jettison some of the prejudices that hinder—and indeed misrepresent—the life of our community.

The call was heard. After the Summer issue hit newsstands we received responses from many of you, some of which will be featured in the "Letters" department of the upcoming Fall 2011 issue. But we want more. In order to truly build a thriving community of Buddhists online we need to be able to connect with you. Only then will we be able to commit to you. As this interview with Atula Shah, a Tricycle Community member from Nairobi, Kenya, shows us, our community is well on its way to becoming as diverse and inclusive as we envision it being. But, of course, we can always improve.

Tell us your story.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of crazyegg95

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nsgagnon's picture

I definitely don't fit the description given in the blog post of the stereotypical North American convert Buddhist. I am a 27 year-old young woman who officially came to Buddhism a year and a half ago to cope with extreme chronic pain from a life-long physical disability. I am a wheelchair user, and I also happen to be bisexual. I guess that puts me outside of the mainstream :).

I first came upon Buddhism while on study abroad in Tanzania a few years ago. I was an African Studies scholar at the time, and was studying at the University of Dar es Salaam. My disability was not as severe then, and I managed to get around on crutches and a motorcycle. Dar es Salaam is a multicultural city on the coast of East Africa, and there are Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and animists all living together peacefully. A friend of mine whose family was Buddhist introduced me to a local temple, and taught me a bit about her practice. Tragically, she died in a road accident while we were finishing up our studies. When I came home to the States, I contacted her family and we have had a close relationship ever since. Her father has been a wonderful resource more recently, in helping me to develop my own practice and locate books and online resources.

I am proud of my diversity and I think it adds to any community that I join, but I will say that it can be difficult when I come to a relatively homogenous group for the first time. It can be exhausting to answer people's questions about my health issues, and often I try to gauge whether or not a group is gay-friendly before deciding to 'come out.' I live in Southern Maine, so our the Buddhist population here is very small, almost entirely white, generally well educated, and middle class. Because of my disability, I have been very isolated in my practice and only this week found a sangha that is handicapped accessible. I am very excited to meet others and share in practice with them. This sangha seems very open to accommodating my special needs, unlike several others in the area, which are either not accessible or are only partly accessible and would not work with me to help me practice or join retreats in their facilities. Those experiences were very difficult, and for a while, I was somewhat bitter about the local community, feeling shut out, and that leaders were not practicing core beliefs of Buddhism in welcoming everyone.

As I said, I am excited to begin practice with a community of fellow Buddhists. I know from the sangha's website that pretty much all of the members are a lot older than me. However, I know that I can find community and openness as long as I am willing to reach out to others. I hope that the people in this new community will see me for who I really am, and not focus on the chair that I use to get around in or the people that I happen to date.

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for sharing. I'm trying to think if there was a specific incident or moment that brought me to Buddhism, but nothing is coming up. I have just always been haunted by existential horror... not the most endearing quality but it wasn't exactly a choice. And when you've got that itch you've got to scratch it. I put my ear to the ground, searching for answers, and Buddhism seemed to articulate everything that I already knew was true & sacred.

Oh. Regarding the diversity issue: I hope that nobody will hold it against me that I'm male, middle-class, and white.

buddhabrats's picture

I kind of fit the stereotype but that is where the comparison ends.

I was born in the US but grew up in South Africa which i left after university to pursue a brief career as a drug smuggler and then as an English teacher before I decided to become a homoeopath in Australia.
After an initial drug related enlightenment experience I discovered Dzogchen which made sense of it all and gave me a structure to work within. I came to Buddhism late but it filled the gaps in my understanding which were largely shamanic up until that point. I have always favored a more hardcore approach to liberation and use anything and everything to drive me to the other shore. I introduced chod to my practice which I also use in a slightly modified form but has allowed me to speedily tour and integrate the six realms

I do not meditate much since I follow the dzogchen view that if it is all pure already what is there to meditate on as long as one just remains present and aware. .I use Buddhism as a framework, a group of detailed teachings on the nature of the mind and i mix and match my methodologies to suite my nature although i still consider myself a Buddhist purist, just a renegade one more in line with Padmasambava, Tilopa and Drukpa kunley. Since I come from the dzogchen view that all is pure there is nothing to renounce and so i happily engage everything as means to deepen into my realization. I have included homoeopathy in my practice as i is quite simply the list of reactive states one would normally have to sit through and observe but can easily be deleted homoeopathically once they are spotted. I strongly believe that the inclusion of homoeopathy has allowed me to progress radically through a range of binding emotions. All Buddhists would benefit from this as although it is a shortcut it represents the skillful means of clear insight and it is the finding of the state which is the work, the removal is the easy part..
I take my vow to liberate all sentient beings very seriously and strategically and it is in this vein that I have written a book on all of these subjects buddha brats A modern tale of enlightenment, available at my website www.buddhabrats.com which I believe all buddhists would enjoy as it completely breaks the stereotype of the shaven headed monk while still adhering to the intensity of love for the teachings which we all share. In addition the book represents the more radical methodologies available for the left hand path practitioners and is a great story.

Om tat Sat


Dominic Gomez's picture

The Winter 2003 issue of Tricycle carried an article by contributing editor Clark Strand on just such a phenomenon: www.sgi-usa.org/newsandevents/newsroom/tricycle.pdf
At the very first Buddhist discussion meeting I attended in1973, I was surprised by the diversity of people there. Rather than a group of identically robed, shaven-headed monks, I was instead greeted by what looked like a group of passengers on a bus from any major cosmopolitan environment. But then again, this was in San Francisco.

recurvata's picture

Can't really help, since I do fit the stereotype, except for urban (small town in rural area). But it should be interesting to hear from other, less stereotypical practitioners.

johnmac2010's picture

I saw this on your Facebook page so I thought I'd write in as someone who really doesn't fit the stereotype of a Buddhist.

Firstly, I'm not American. I live in Scotland, where I was born of course, in the city of Aberdeen. Not middle class in fact, I really detest the class system as I feel it's divisive so I generally ignore it and refuse to place my self in any category/class. However, I am urban and just finished a degree at University and about to do a Masters Degree in London this year. That, I think, is the only part of the 'stereotype' that I share.

I was given up for adoption at birth, so have never known my parents. I was brought up in orphanages and care homes. I was one hell of a tearaway as a kid, always in fights to such an extent that, after an almighty fist fight with the 3 wise men at the school nativity play rehersal, I was introduced to boxing by one of my teachers. His brother ran a boxing gym. It did cool my temper, teach me how to control it and taught me a bit of discipline as well. I was always on the 'outside' so to speak because I had no family so I generally learned from an early age to do things myself, my way and that did get me into so much trouble with authority. The fact that I felt continually at odds with the world and feeling excluded because of a situation that I felt I had no control over, left me with depression, which I still get to this day although not as much now. However, I do still have that rebellious side of my nature to this day.

After I left school, I went travelling and headed to Asia. In Thailand, I was introduced to Muay Thai and I fell in love with it. I took part in the sport from mid-teens to just recently when I had to quit competing due to a back injury. I'm now back at 'conventional' boxing.

I have calmed down a bit now but what led me to Buddhism was a feeling that something was missing, something was not quite right. I found a book on a train by Lama Surya Das and when I read it, I knew that this was what I was looking for. The book resonated with me like nothing else ever has. I was living in London at the time (grew up in Scotland, went travelling, lived in London, moved back to Scotland and now heading back to London. Did I mention that I have itchy feet?) so I heard about Jamyang Buddhist Centre and their open day. I went along and spoke to a few people and was amazed at the serenity of some of the people there, who I'm still in touch with regularly, and, of course, Geshe Tashi, the resident teacher at the centre. I had never met/spoken to a monk before and the way he actually was interested in what I had to say, something which I have never experienced before, and he looked genuinly interested in me as a person, regardless of my background, almost left me in tears, of happiness.

I started going to Jamyang regularly, and I will again when I move back to London in September, and took refuge 2 years or so later.

I also go to Nalanda Monastery in France and help out when I can. I will be there for HHDL visit to Toulouse in August and I feel genuinly happy and content when I go there.

I'm about to make a BIG decision in a few years. I'm planning to study the Nalanda basic programme when it starts again in 2013. During those 4 years, I will be staying at the monastery and I will seriously look at going for ordination. Although, I do have strong feelings that it would be a great thing for me to do, I would like to live in a Monastery for an extended period just to ensure that I will be able to live in a monastery on a permanent basis. It may not happen, ordination that is, but it's a goal.

The one regret I have is that I didn't discover Buddhism until I was in my late 20's. I really needed it much earlier in my life.

There is one thing about Buddhism that I find disturbing. Why is it so dammed expensive? I have missed teachings because I just cannot afford the fees. I'm not surprised that Buddhist do tend to be middle class, they are the people than can actually afford it.

I do still box and practice although I'm well aware of the contradictions, boxing and practicing compassion.

These are my thoughts, hope it does give a different angle for you.