Today, I picked up a copy of the Summer 2005 issue of Buddhadharma magazine. Two of the pieces published this month deal in some way with Black Buddhists and diversity in practice centers.
In Legitimate Heirs, Not Invited Guests, Rebecca Walker reviews Choyin Rangdrol's self-published book Black Buddha: A Diversity Perspective. I was familiar with the book, as I am marginally familiar with Choyin Rangdrol. I have skimmed his website, and provide a link to it on the "Resources for Black Buddhists" page on this site. Like Rebecca was before an apparent change of heart, I am somewhat skeptical of Rangdrol's work. In her book review, she states:
When I first read Black Buddha, I was skeptical. I found it too close to Afrocentricity, which itself is an expression of cultural bias. And then there was the fact that I didn't feel alienated from Buddhism, and I had my malas and pashminas to prove it.
I have not read Rangdrol's book. In fact, before reading Rebecca's review I was probably completely closed to the idea of reading it. The book's premise felt like a distraction... a controversy that would not add to my practice. From what I understood, Rangdrol was attempting to set forth an Asa Hilliard-like hypothesis that the founders of Buddhism were as much African as they were Indian or Asian. Browsing his site a couple of years ago, I wondered... Could there be some truth to the hypothesis? I also asked myself... What difference would it make?
I've studied the African diaspora. I also had college courses that delved into the origin of man and explored the academics... the science that suggests that humankind came forth out of Africa. I found it all fascinating. Yet it concerns me when people use these facts as arguments for the "Africanization" (yes, I believe I just made that word up) of all things. I don't agree with the argument that because the human story began in Africa, all things are African. I don't believe it is practical to suggest that African Americans should feel that they are legitimate heirs to the Dharma because the people of India who founded Buddhism may have had some ancestral connection to Africans. The argument seems to assume that Buddha intended the Dharma for people who were just like him, that the legitimate heirs to Buddha's Dharma were people that had to look like him. This is problematic on so many levels. Even the most basic accounts of the life of the Buddha refute these notions.
I'm concerned that people seem to want to transpose Afrocentricity and Buddhism. I'm worried. If the goal of this juxtaposition is to increase diversity in the sangha, I question the wisdom of the approach. We are, all of us in this human realm, legitimate heirs to the Dharma. We don't need to extrapolate anthropological connections to make our connection to the Dharma more real or substantial than it already is. Let's not make Buddhism an African thing, an Asian thing, a thing for middle-class White Americans, a Black thing, or any other thing that does not embrace or celebrate everything.
What does interest me about Rangdrol's book after reading Walker's review is his "personal story of finding liberation through the dharma." Isn't that what the dharma is really about... learning to free ourselves from suffering? Can't we just leave it there? Isn't that enough?