Dharma, Diversity, and Race
Buddhists in the United States include fifth-generation Americans of Chinese and Japanese heritage, second-generation Korean-Americans, recent immigrants from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia and their American children, along with converts from European, African, and Latino backgrounds. As with other groups, Buddhists with common cultural and sectarian orientations have tended to stick together. With the end of the melting pot ideal, issues that once addressed racial and cultural diversity have been redefined in the political terms of multiculturalism. As this special section on Dharma, Diversity, and Race suggests, the views of Buddhists from different races and traditions reflect the society at large.
For some time now I have been writing fragments of a book, Buddha Belly, about the meaning of Buddhism in my life, about the Buddha I have been carrying in my belly for more than twenty years now. These writings are often funny, witty takes on my experience as a black female with Buddhism. I have been lucky because Buddhism has come to me from so many different directions that even when I was not seeking, I was always found. That thought, too, makes me laugh, because many of my religious white comrades are obsessed with seeking. When I was young, talking Buddhism all the time with them, I was always amazed and sometimes envious that longing to seek meant to them taking a trip, backpacking to Tibet, joining this community somewhere on the other side of the planet, finding that special teacher. Inwardly, I was a bit ashamed that I could never gather the courage to share that I had no intention of going anywhere—that to go places was about time and money and a will to travel that simply was not in me. The time I needed to study and write, and the journey to blessedness, to enlightenment, well, that could take place anywhere, or so the confinement and limitations of my circumstances made it essential for me to believe.
We cannot separate the will of so many white comrades to journey in search of spiritual nourishment to the “third world” from the history of cultural imperialism and colonialism that has created a context where such journeying is seen as appropriate, acceptable, an expression of freedom and right. Nor does it surprise me that black people, and other people of color who have grown up in the midst of racial apartheid and racist domination, often feel the need to stay home, to stay in our place. Often we feel we have no right to move into a world that belongs to someone else seeking to discover treasures—not even if they are spiritual gems. It is important to recognize and interrogate these two positions without the judgment of good and bad. We can hold the reality that imperialism paved the way for white folks seeking to go anywhere in the world and claim ownership, to walk on many paths, simultaneously with the understanding that much of what has been found there—in that initial violent colonialism, continuing neo-colonialism, and journeying rooted in compassion and good will—gives life as much it takes and has taken life away. We can hold the understanding that enlightenment as an expression of spiritual devotion and practice is not bound by time and space even as we recognize the necessity of cultural borrowing, hybridity, and the mixing of traditions, lifestyles, and practices. We can understand racism within the circles of Buddhism in the United States if we surrender our attachment to binary, either/or thinking, if we let go the need to “own” any position as better, right, more correct.
To many of my white comrades who accepted their interest in Buddhism as “natural,” my engagement always made me suspect, the object of spectacle, someone to be interrogated. “And why are you interested in Zen? And where did you first become interested? And who do you follow?” These questions are usually asked of anyone new to Buddhism, but what a person of color hears, whether it's intended or not, is that we are being singled out. These interrogations presuppose that I—and not they—am the other, that there is no ancestral connection between me or other people of color and the cultures in which they search to find Buddhist truth. This is the cultural arrogance that white supremacy allows. No wonder, then, that many black people, people of color, have felt that they cannot maintain a connection with their race and culture of origin and walk a Buddhist path. To some of them, choosing such a path in this country has been synonymous with choosing whiteness, with remaining silent about racism for fear of being dismissed, for fear of bringing in issues that are not really important. Often the disillusionment people of color feel is a response to idealized assumptions that spiritual communities will be places where the racism encountered in everyday life will have disappeared. Why do we think working at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore (which I did) will be any freer of racial tension and hostilities than working at Macy's? While some of us hear the dilemmas of the rare individual black person who has lived in a Buddhist community, who has studied with teachers, who has served, most folks refuse to write about these experiences. Many people of color have retreated from communities into a monastic culture within. When the openness is there, they will speak their experiences. Often white people share the assumption that simply following a spiritual path means that they have let go of racism: coming out of radical movements—civil rights, war resistance—in the sixties and seventies and going on to form Buddhist communities, they often see themselves as liberal and marginalized, proudly identifying with the oppressed. They are so attached to the image of themselves as nonracists that they refuse to see their own racism or the ways in which Buddhist communities may reflect racial hierarchies. This is made more problematic where the emphasis in the predominantly white communities is on letting go of the self.
I am often asked when talking about racism in Buddhist circles to be specific, give examples. In part, this longing emerges from the reluctance of white people in power to accept, and see clearly by opening their eyes, that white supremacy informs the shaping of Buddhist communities, individual interactions, publications, etc. That reluctance can only be transformed in spiritual practice, not by proof. There is never enough proof. We see the absence of people of color in predominantly white Buddhist circles. We hear the silence of those voices. What will it take for the individuals in those circles to seek an understanding of that absence, which comes from within?
To understand that absence there has to be a concrete understanding of how racism works, of how white supremacy shapes personal interactions. Progressive whites who have no difficulty challenging institutionalized racism may have no clue about challenging the day-to-day xenophobia and racism inside everyone. When people of color are reluctant to enter predominantly white Buddhist settings it is not out of fear of some overt racist exclusion, it is usually in response to more subtle manifestations of white supremacy. Even to speak or write for a Buddhist publication where white people are in power evokes the concern, and sometimes the fear, that one’s words, thoughts, and being may be distorted, presented in the way that speaks only to the need of white readers. It is no simple matter to find a space within Buddhist circles where compassion has surfaced with an intensity that overshadows racial injustice and racial hierarchy. Recently, I wanted to join in a retreat with Pema Chodron. I grappled with the concern of whether or not the white comrades there would turn me into an object and distract my attention, or whether even my own hyperawarness of being the “only” or “among the few” people of color would distract me. Finally, I overcame these concerns, only to find all the places were taken. It did make me laugh. I had wasted so much time thinking about the question of race, that I had lost the moment. This is always a challenge when one’s life is lived in spiritual practice. How to be attentive to the things of the world, the unjust systems of domination, like racism, white supremacy, colonialism, without losing one’s sense of direction, without losing one’s way.
In the United States there are many black people, and people of color engaged with Buddhism who do not have visibility or voice. Contrary to a certain cultural arrogance that enjoys calling attention to—in a trivializing way—the quantifiable presence of black people in Nichiren Shoshu, there are many black people who identify with diverse traditions, walk on various paths, who practice in silence, who rely on the monastic culture within. It is a challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to accept that not seeing something does not mean it does not exist. Clearly, the time has come for more people of color in the United States to move out of the shadows of silence and speak about the nature of their spiritual practice. That silence is often imposed, a response to fears that one might not know enough, that we will be looked down upon, especially by whites. I have always been reluctant to speak about Buddhism, for fear I will mispronounce words, not have all the details and information that will prove me a dharma voyeur and not a card-carrying Buddhist. Surely it is often racism that allows white comrades to feel so comfortable with their “control” and “ownership” of Buddhist thought and practice in the United States. They have much to learn, then, from those people of color who embrace humility in practice and relinquish the ego’s need to be recognized. Rarely have I heard or read any really prominent white person engaged with Buddhism discuss any fear of being arrogant when speaking about the subject, grappling with issues of ownership, or authenticity, posing the question, “Will the real Buddhist please stand up?” I am quick to say, “I am not a 'real' Buddhist.” It has been useful to meditate on the subject of being a real Buddhist. In those moments of contemplation and quiet, the awareness surfaces that so many people of color fear not being worthy in ways that escape the attention of our white comrades. This fear of not being worthy is not always a response to the reality of subjugation. It also has to do with the practice of humility, not being presumptuous, not assuming rights and/or the experience of being in awe. I am always reminded of that spirit of awe when I contemplate the passage in the biblical Book of Psalms where the seeker marvels at the wisdom of the teacher, completely open to the possibility that “such knowledge is high, I cannot attain to it.”
Lately, I often playfully want to ask the “real Buddhists to please stand up.” Studying different traditions, I learned early on that “real” Buddhists have teachers they know and name, have studied specific paths, done translations, can speak with authority. Certainly there is always a need for experience and knowledge rooted in traditions, but it is not a spiritual given that these are the places where peace, union, and spiritual awareness are found. What am I to make of the fact that every journey I start that is to lead me to a face-to-face encounter with a teacher is interrupted, short-circuited? Each time I have set out in the direction of Thich Nhat Hanh, who teaches and guides my heart, something happens. Often my teachers have no faces, no bodies I can touch with my eyes or hands, no skin color I can see, no race. This absence may keep me on the path, for it is an absence that does not preclude contact, connection, transmission—even though there are times when I wonder, Am I never to be a “real” Buddhist? And what of all those white men, those writers—Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and many others—who may never have and will never feel the need to ask that question, including some who can find their way to “legitimate” Buddhism even in death? Then there are all the nonwhite people, many Asians from various ethnic groups with long traditions of Buddhist practice, who are angry, who want to counter the hegemony of whiteness with their own insistence on received right, authority, realness. How to separate the need to dismantle racism and white supremacy in Buddhist circles from the desire to construct more diverse hierarchies of domination? That is a challenge only profound spiritual practice can help us meet.
bell hooks is a Distinguished Professor of English at the City College of New York, a feminist theorist, and a cultural critic. Her most recent works are Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (Routledge, 1994) and Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 1994).
Images 2,3,4: Illustrations by Alison M. Hopkins.