Does Buddhism have a diversity problem?

Bronze Buddha at Todaiji Temple, Nara, Japan

This bronze statue of Buddha, at 15 meters (almost 50 feet, or five stories) tall, is the largest bronze statue of Buddha in the world. It sits in one of the largest wooden structures in the world, Todaiji Temple in Nara, Japan. I shot this photo during a 2011 trip.

An excellent, thoughtful and thought-provoking article on Huffington Post about the lack of diversity in the Buddhism community in the U.S., “Buddhist ‘People Of Color Sanghas,’ Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators” got me pondering about race and religion. The article, by Jaweed Kaleem, HuffPo’s National Religion Reporter, focuses on Buddhist groups throughout the country but specifically in Seattle, which are almost entirely run by older white practitioners of Buddhism and meditation. This lack of diversity, Kaleem says, has led to a subculture of Buddhist “sanghas,” or groups, of color — white folk not allowed.

Here in Seattle, one of the least racially diverse cities with one of the largest Buddhist communities in the country, a controversial movement in American Buddhism is forming. A handful of exclusive “people of color” Buddhist groups have started to meet each week, far away from the long-established — and almost entirely white — major Buddhist meditation centers that have dominated the Pacific Northwest’s well-known Buddhist scenes. Many members, who have until now shied away from meditation and Buddhism, say practicing away from the white majority, among whom they say they don’t feel welcome, has spiritually empowered them — and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s part of the same demographic tsunami that washed away hopes of a Republican White House and Senate a few weeks ago, but scaled to spirituality. As someone who often enters a room looking for people of color as a measure of diversity, I certainly understand one black woman’s reaction in the article when she attended an all-white Buddhist group’s meeting — she felt she didn’t fit in.

“We walked into this room and there were 60 white people. No black people. No people of color,” she said. “I did not want to stay … We had been there only five or 10 minutes, and a woman in the group began asking a question and talking about how she had transcended her body, and was looking at herself from the outside. It was way too ‘out-there,’ for me and it just seemed to reflect a whole different outlook on meditation than what I was used to. It was what I stereotyped white sanghas as, you know, a little hippie, a little self-involved.”

Maybe a white person would feel the same in a Southern black gospel church, except even then, the white person is a member of the society’s dominent group, and has a level of privilege bestowed from birth.

The tricky part, as Kaleem’s article points out, is that Buddhism by its nature is about rising above all the superficial things that identify us, from wealth and social standing and education and nationality to, yes, skin color.

But the American Buddhism community understands the need for niche groups where people practicing the religion can feel comfortable, and its leaders hope that someday these groups of color can become part of the mainstream of U.S. Buddhism.

The article left me thinking about a couple of points:

I wonder if Asian Americans are missing from these “mainstream” Buddhist groups in large part because they’re already attending the various sects long established in their own ethnic communities.

There are about 20 different sects of Buddhism practiced in Japan, but many Japanese Americans attend temples of the Jodo Shinshu sect. Jodo Shinshu was established in the 13th century by a monk, Shinran; like many Japanese American temples, the Denver Buddhist Temple in Sakura Square has a statue of Shinran in front and everyone bows slightly in greeting as they enter the grounds. I know the Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotians and other ethnicities all attend their own Buddhist temples, which tend to be the heart of their communities. Erin and I have wanted to attend these other temples’ services just to see how they all differ — and how they’re similar.

So it’s no wonder that Asians aren’t hanging out at Buddhist meditation groups with white people. They have their own temples. Now, as for African Americans and Latinos, and other minorities forming their own Buddhist groups, that makes sense to me.

The other point I kept thinking about reading the article is how American Buddhism emphasizes meditation. Kaleem notes that more than half of Buddhists in the U.S. are white converts to the religion Asians make up fewer than a third), but they practice it more as a lifestyle than a religions — the pop culture line between faith and spirituality.

This group, which mostly focuses on meditation, has its origins in Tibetan, Zen and Vipassana traditions that were popularized by a handful of white Americans who traveled to South and east Asia to learn from Buddhist masters as interest in alternative spirituality peaked during the countercultural movements of the 1960s. The Vipassana (“insight”) tradition has become one of the most successful because of its secular appeal. The practice hinges on the idea of “mindfulness,” which is accomplished through meditation techniques, and is focused on centering and grounding one’s self in the current moment to see true reality. For many non-Buddhists, it’s stress-reduction. For Buddhists, it’s on the path toward self-awakening.

“Outside of these people of color sanghas, many of the Buddhists who claim to meditate are not Asian-Americans. And many Euro-Americans who are Buddhist would place meditation very high on the list. Most Asians would call it a small practice,” says Sharon Suh, a professor of specializes in Buddhism, race and Asian-American spirituality at Seattle University. “There is an assumption that the Buddhism brought over by Asian-Americans is less authentic.”

With a few exceptions, the two groups — mostly Asians and whites — do not mix. One of the main reasons is that while they may share a common name for their faith, their practices are often foreign to each other.

I can’t claim to be a particularly religious Buddhist at all, either. In fact it never occurred to me that I might be Buddhist until my father died almost 20 years ago, and he got a Buddhist name and my mother gave him a Buddhist service. I have a Buddhist name too (I can’t remember what it is) so I suppose I’ll be sent off to the next life as a Buddhist.

But I can say from experience though, that the Buddhist services I’ve attended within the japanese community never mention the word “meditation.” No one sits in a lotus position — we all sit in those metal folding chairs that are stacked away somewhere in every church of any religion I’ve ever visited. There’s chanting during the service but it’s a sing-songy chant that’s punctuated with the ringing of a chime or bell, and it doesn’t go on forever. I’ve never found myself floating above the room in a transcendental state.

Although all these things are part of Buddhist tradition, they aren’t emphasized the way I think American-style pop-culture Buddhism does. Kaleem’s article points out that “white Americans” during the 1960s counterculture movement went to Asia and brought back forms of Buddhism, but I blame the Beatles. The British rock superstars, who were as influential during their heyday as any single phenomenon could be on an entire generation, embraced (for a time, anyway), transcendental meditation and the Buddhism packaged by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Beat poets and early proto-hippies had been exploring Eastern spirituality (and sexuality) (and Western drugs) for some time. The Yippie radicals of the late ’60s tried mightily in 1967 to levitate and exorcise the Pentagon via chanting and meditation to protest the Vietnam War. They failed.

But for a larger audience of baby boomers, the Beatles going off on a retreat with “Sexy Sadie” (as John Lennon named the Maharishi in a stinging song on the “White Album”) was the spark that lit the fire of fascination with the East. It didn’t take long for sitar music and incense to permeate the bedrooms of teenagers and college students across the U.S., and within a few years various forms of Eastern spirituality and medicine to take a hold with non-Asians, from tai chi to feng shui and especially, yoga.

All of this is part of the cultural assimilation that’s unavoidable as the world shrinks and every ethnic group and nationality cross-pollinates culturally with others. Let’s face it, “Gangnam Style” could only happen in today’s mashup world, with a Korean pop star who was educated in the U.S. recording a novelty dance number about a district in Seoul, which becomes a huge viral hit back in the U.S. that’s parodied ad nauseum within months.

But that’s crass popular culture. Is that we can expect within the realm of world religions and spiritual traditions?

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