African American. Single mom. Zen Buddhist. Yoga Student. Part-time Poet. Music Lover. Avid Reader. Recovering Hungry Ghost.
For about eleven years I studied Buddhism. I listened to taped dharma talks by Thich Naht Hanh, Sharon Salzburg, and Cheri Huber. I read several versions of the Dhammapada and many, many books. I had a haphazard meditation practice that I would start then stop then start again. I attended churches during this time... Unity (which I loved for the inclusive, integrated congregation, and for Marianne Williamson who I deeply appreciate and respect), and the church of my youth. I can't say that I considered myself a Buddhist, but I resonated with the teachings... and I studied them with intense interest and respect.
I never rigorously sought a sangha of my own. I had all these ideas about what Buddhist communities must be like in America... as a woman raised in the A.M.E. church, socialized around Black Greek organizations and their functions, raised to accept that blacks and whites (while attending schools and jobs together) remained largely segregated especially in terms of places of worship. I had all these notions about being the only ink spot in a sea of foreigners or whites sitting on cushions, speaking on the teachings while ignoring my Blackness, my culture, my unique struggles. I have found that I am not alone in having thoughts of this nature:
"There are a lot of black Buddhists who are in the closet. They just don't feel comfortable being part of the great white sangha," says Insight Meditation teacher Ralph Steele. "One of the most common phrases I hear from young black Buddhists when they do step out into the white Buddhist sangha is that they feel uncomfortable." [...from the September 2001 issue of Shambala Sun magazine Something Has to Change: Blacks in American Buddhism by Lawrence Pintak]
My notions, as it turned out, were all wrong. I found an ideal place to practice, where Langston Hughes was quoted in the first dharma talk I witnessed, where there were several other Black people sitting with others of different races, where weekly readings from the Dhammapada were always rendered by a young black woman who locks her hair. Everyone was friendly, welcoming. It felt like home on day one. It is home.
But it is a home where I take refuge once a week. When I leave the dark brown cushions and friendly faces behind, I am thrust back into a world where two kinds of prejudice reside... religious and racial. When I'm around large numbers of people who look like me, I'm a minority. Black people in America are mostly Christian. Beyond taking refuge in their preferred religion, many tend to be very exclusionary when it comes to embracing or accepting other practices or belief systems. So, as Black Buddhists we seek each other out... online, at retreats for people of color, through books written by our contemporaries. Somehow, it helps our practice and builds a dual sense of community when we know that we are not alone.
Why am I making such a big deal about being Black and Buddhist? In and of itself, I don't think it means anything. Why should you care about what a Black woman has to say about practice? I don't think I have anything more valid to say about Zen practice than anyone else. To be Black and Buddhist is no harder (or easier) than it is to be any other color (or gender, for that matter) doing this practice. Before you start e-mailing me, I know all about the treatment of Buddhist nuns in certain Asian countries... I know that ordaining as a female monk is not possible in most parts of the world... I'm not ignoring those facts. What I'm saying is that when we really practice, it's just us and the practice. We aren't women or men, black or white, monks or laypersons. We're doing it, or we're not. The bottom line is that it is hard to sit, hard to remain mindful, hard to practice the precepts, hard to traverse the Eightfold Path. It concerns me that some Blacks continue to do what I did... and refrain from seeking a Sangha for fear that they will be isolated, uncomfortable, or alone.
Why I have no sangha has everything to do with my race, my style of communication, and my social needs. In the depth of vulnerability that sitting evokes in me, I am embarassed and sad that I find it difficult to trust middle-class white people (class is inextricably linked to race), I can like them, enjoy their company, learn from them, and teach them, but very rarely can I manifest the relaxation necessary for spiritual growth in their presence. I hate that this is true... [...from the Summer 2003 issue of Turning Wheel Magazine Breaking Through History: A Dark Reflection on Zen by Michelle T. Clinton]
Which uncovers one of the reasons for this site... to affirm the existence of great communities (including my own... yes, you will find that I shamelessly and gratefully plug my sangha any chance I get) that include people of color in every way... to catalog them and (hopefully) visit as many of them as possible.
November 26, 2004