Sunday, January 23, 2005

American Buddhism: What does it mean for people of color?

This question is actually posed by Choyin Rangdrol, founder of Rainbow Dharma. As I am very interested in what "American Buddhism" means for everyone, it caught my eye. Definitely worth a look for his humor, wit, and honesty alone:

Here is my letter to Choyin:

Hello Choyin,

First let me say that I am very happy to see your website. I have been a student of Buddhism for a few years now and despite my eager interest in what being an "American Buddhist" means, I have never thought much of the very unique position of African Americans. I know that when I came across the Ven.Thupten Puntsok (, I wondered what it must be like to be an African American Dharma student.

Your writing style in the commentaries is charming and funny, and yet carries the weight of sober truth. Reminding us all of the necessity of overcoming our biases is always proof of true Dharma shining through. Through such wisdom and through continuing contact with our African American Dharma brothers and sisters, I am certain that the barriers between black and white will fall away.

Hailing from the relatively racially isolated capital of Montana, I certainly empathize with your lama friend who at first feared you. You did him a wonderful service by befriending him. I know from experience that those mass media stereotypes are very difficult to overcome if not deal with strongly. I have the fortune of having a mother who specializes in cross-cultural social work, so I have always been told that we are at heart one people despite our varied colors and histories. However, I know that my isolation has resulted in some residual, unconscious bias. I also found myself laughing through a cringe as you mention that we (Euro-American Buddhists) often consider ourselves 'discoverers' of Buddhism, just like *we* discovered America! How true! And how curious it must seem to others.

I am touched by your frankness and perseverance regarding your experience in the Dharma. As you know, we are bound to make mistakes, even as Buddhists. I think one of the truths that is slowly emerging in American Buddhism is that Dharma centers have their fare share of emotionally and mentally disturbed people, not to mention racists and bigots. We must truthfully assess ourselves and our Dharma community, as any false illusions about how wonderful the Dharma-on-the-surface is will certainly come back to harm us in the future. I think such a Dharma-on-the-surface quest is what makes many whites squeamish about issues of race in America. I am hopeful, and indeed confident, that as more of us break through the surface and contact the meaning of Dharma, such issues will be openly and forthrightly addressed.

Many thanks to you for boldly raising these issues. I hope that in my life and work I shall be able to contribute so meaningfully to this dialog.

Justin Whitaker
MA candidate in Buddhist Studies
University of Bristol, UK


the burning bush
was just autumn

It would have been

- Kathie Davis
From "American Zen: A Gathering of Poets"

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