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"Something Has to Change": Blacks in American Buddhism

Lawrence Pintak tells the compelling stories of three African-American dharma teachers. He asks them why American Buddhism attracts so few people of color and what can be done about it.

Jan Willis was feeling euphoric. Sitting in the basement of a church in London's impoverished East End last summer, she looked around and realized that of the 40-odd people in the room, 31 were black.

"Black Buddhists!" she exclaims at the memory. "In 25 years in Buddhism, I had never been in such a sangha. I felt so high. It was great!"

For Willis and the handful of African-American Buddhist teachers now beginning to speak out, Buddhism in America has been a homogeneous world inhabited largely by upper-middle-class whites.

"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."

Through the eyes of African-American teachers like Shu Shin priest Joseph Jarman, white Buddhist America is largely blind to the existence of a black sangha. That was driven home to him at last year's Buddhism in America conference. "People there had never known there were African-American Buddhist priests and educators in this country; they just never appear," he recalls. "That was like opening another door."

For Willis, Steele and Jarman, their journeys as Buddhists have been part of a larger journey of emerging from the shadows of racial prejudice. They continue to deal with it, subtly and not so subtly, both in the greater society and within the American Buddhist world.

The world that Jan Willis experienced as a barefoot little girl playing in the dusty alleys of an Alabama mining camp in the mid-1950's was carefully divided into black and white. The border lay just a few blocks from where she lived, where the white cottages began. Forbidden territory. Stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan's shadow lay heavy over the hamlet where Willis was born and raised, a tangible presence even to a little girl. She saw firsthand the beatings and other punishments meted out to blacks who stepped out of line-those who committed transgressions like accidentally stepping on white-owned property while walking to school or the grocery store, with its "white" and "colored" water fountains. If she had any doubts about her place in the world, they were consumed in the flames of the cross the Klan ignited on her front lawn one terrifying night, as Willis, her sister and her mother cowered in their home waiting to die.

The bomb they expected that night never came, but the Klan's constant threats and intimidation took their toll. "This unimaginable psychic terror crippled my self-esteem and the self-esteem of many black people," Willis would write years later in her book, Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey. "I am witness to its scars."

In her search for healing, she would march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, take part in the armed takeover of the Cornell student union building by militant blacks, and ultimately find her way to the hut of a gentle Tibetan monk in the hills outside Kathmandu. From a Buddhist perspective, it would be said that a combination of karma and auspicious coincidence brought Willis to the doorstep of Lama Yeshe Thubten, the teacher who would become her root guru. However, for most African-Americans, she believes, lack of money keeps the door to the dharma firmly shut.

"There are far too few people of color in Buddhist centers and retreats, in part because of the nature of where the retreats are and the fact that they cost money," says Willis, now one of the nation's leading Buddhist academics. "It's about class. Working class people can't take a month off to go on retreat.

"Buddhism is a commodity like everything else in the States," the Wesleyan University professor of religion adds. "Trungpa Rinpoche talked about 'spiritual materialism.' You can choose among hundreds of different traditions and lineages in the spiritual supermarket, and then you pay.
"That's part of why Soka Gakkai has had success," she says of the Japanese Pure Land organization, which counts many blacks among its members. "They're in the cities, they've tried so hard to bend over backwards to assimilate with American holidays and they have a simple ritual." The same, Willis continues, is true of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the group she met with in Britain. But in the American sanghas of the more traditional Buddhist lineages, blacks are largely absent.

Ralph Steele has also begun to tackle prejudice and exclusion within the sangha.

"Diversity," he says, "is a magic word here in America, but no one has been tackling diversity on a cultural basis in Buddhism." The New Mexico-based teacher wrote a letter last year to 25 leading American Buddhists calling for a greater emphasis on inclusion. "Our sangha will end up being like the Christian Church—there will be a white Buddhist sangha, a black Buddhist sangha, an Hispanic Buddhist sangha—if we don't begin to do something about bringing Buddhism into the whole of an American sangha."

Spirituality runs in Ralph Steele's blood. The grandson of a minister, Steele's family has run a church for the past 150 years. A devout Christian upbringing is one of the things that Steele shares with Willis and Jarman—and the vast majority of African-Americans.

He also shares with them the experience of living as an outsider. Steele grew up on Pawleys Island, a then-isolated speck of land off the South Carolina coast populated by freed slaves from Sierra Leone. Steele grew up speaking Gullah, a Creole language formed from Elizabethan English and African dialects. He was 12 years old before he spoke English.

"It has always been a practicing Christian community," he said. "What that means is that when some Christians elsewhere started saying they were 'born again,' that never happened there because no one ever left Christ."

An Army brat, Steele's first exposure to the dharma came during his high school years in Japan, when he began to study martial arts. He remembers the day his instructor leaped up and kicked the rim of a basketball hoop.

"That's when my life began to change," he says. "Right then I knew that life was different from how you see things."

Like so many Vietnam veterans, Steele was nearly destroyed by the war. Along with physical and psychic scars, Steele brought home an addiction to heroin and a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He credits devotion to his martial arts teacher and to the discipline of martial arts practice with getting him through.

"It wasn't the martial arts itself," he says. "It was the teacher, the trust in the teacher." Back in the States, Steele enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz and signed up for a course on Buddhism—taught by a young black professor named Jan Willis. "I was pretty tough on him," Willis reports without elaboration.

Among the things he learned from her were techniques of meditation from the Tibetan tradition. "That helped, because I was simultaneously going down to Palo Alto VA hospital to deal with flashbacks," he says. "Meditation allowed me to begin to get some balance."

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