On Tap Shoes Or a Harley

James Shaheen

When Tricycle cover designer Frank Olinsky proposed the current cover, I wasn’t sure if I was looking at Newsweek or Time. After a few seconds, my eyes began to focus on the fifty—count ’em, fiftyTricycle covers. A few on our staff objected, “But it doesn’t look like a Tricycle cover.” And yet, it was nothing but Tricycle covers. I got to thinking: Sometimes Buddhism in the West doesn’t look like Buddhism, what with all its Western trappings. And yet, if you look closely, you’ll see that the dharma has found its way into nearly every nook and cranny of our culture, from intensive retreats at often remote locations to the everyday lives of ordinary folks. In a section we dubbed “Three Lives,” the lives of three very different Americans cross the Buddha’s path in unexpected ways. A conservationist and hunter, a septuagenarian cabaret dancer, and a former outlaw biker tell their stories in a testament to the relevance of Buddhist teachings to any walk of life.

I say “nearly every nook and cranny of our culture” because, in keeping with the demographics of convert Buddhism, the communities are almost all white and, to a large extent, middle- and upper-middle class. Recently, in a conversation with a longtime student of the dharma visiting from England, I brought up the issue of the white face of American Buddhism. He looked at me perplexed; he pointed out with some exasperation that here it was just hours after he’d landed and already he was engaged with an American on the subject of race. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard that race is an American obsession, and it makes sense that American Buddhists share it. Indeed, across the country, largely white sanghas have made every effort to “diversify,” while at the same time nonwhite dharma students find many white Buddhists surprised to hear that there’s a problem at all. “The fact that white Buddhists have so little awareness of what it feels like to shoulder the burden of America’s legacy of racism has no doubt contributed to the largely segregated cultures of most American meditation centers,” writes contributing editor Clark Strand in “Born in the USA.” In a close look at the Soka Gakkai International sect of Buddhism, which is often dismissed—or at least held at a distance—by many of the other convert communities, Strand explores why SGI’s adherents more accurately mirror the racial diversity of this country than any other Buddhist group. SGI by its very nature has drawn people of all races and classes to its centers, while the largely white sanghas struggle to understand why so few nonwhites have shown interest in attending their programs. However one views SGI, there are lessons to be learned here. How has SGI managed to elude a problem that plagues other sanghas? In an in-depth analysis of an overlooked and now global community, Strand offers some and challenging answers.

On another front, Tricycle founding editor Helen Tworkov interviews Pali scholar Andrew Olendzki about the early Buddhist teachings in “Back to the Beginning." Olendzki offers a healthy balance to the prevalence of Mahayana teachings in the West. What did the historical Buddha actually teach, and how was that revolutionary during his lifetime? Do the later teachings diverge significantly from the original teachings? This interview, with its largely historical view, promises to launch an interesting discussion that will continue in Tricycles to come.

Finally, for this issue, we’ve put together a collection of snapshots from Tricycle’s past. While poring over more than a decade of Tricycles, we came to the conclusion that we were not only taking a look at the magazine’s history but also catching a glimpse at the peculiar life of the dharma in the West. From Spalding Gray’s interview with the Dalai Lama in 1991 to the popularization of Buddhist ideas and images more than a decade later, the twists and turns the teachings have taken can leave one perplexed as to where all this is headed. More than anything, though, it’s clear that the teachings have legs and will continue to travel far and wide. Sometimes—as you’ll see in this issue—even on tap shoes or a Harley.

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