The other day I picked up a world religions textbook my twin sons were using for their freshman high school history course. The chapter on Buddhism had a subdivision entitled “Western Buddhism,” and here you could see pictures of life in an American Zen Buddhist monastery, along with thoughtful text on the subject. I was surprised. Apparently, with the accelerated pace at which everything moves these days, American Buddhism has arrived at a point of establishment while still being formed. It seems then a good time to think about it in a fresh way, to unearth roots we haven’t yet dug. Maybe if we look at it from a different angle we can see something we haven’t seen before. Looking at this textbook, thinking about roots—at the same time that I’ve been taking a self-directed crash course in jazz, listening to Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, et al.—got me musing on connections I hadn’t noticed before.
“Western Buddhism” has, I think, two totally different impulses. The European approach has been reasonable and logical. At the outset of the twentieth century, certain cultural (the wearing out of Christianity and Western philosophy) and historical (colonization of India and Ceylon, World War I) circumstances caused some very intelligent and thoughtful Europeans to stop and think about what was going on. Their encounter with Buddhism, with its ethical and spiritual dimensions seemingly based on atheistic and scientific assumptions, gave them answers to their passionate questions, and many of them made lifetime commitments to the dharma. People like Lama Govinda, Bhikku Nyanamoli, Nyanaponika Thera, and others spent the greater part of their lives in Asia, steeped in the languages and traditions of Buddhism.
It is a different story in America, where no one has ever thought themselves into anything, as far as I can tell; where Henry Ford, certainly a quintessential American, and in many ways one of the greatest, is noted for having said, “History is bunk.” Our approach to anything, for better or worse, has always been completely a romance, completely a dream. Far from figuring out what Buddhism is and adopting it on its merits, as the Europeans had done, we liked it because it was intriguing and because we didn’t understand it; because there was an impulse in America in the forties and fifties that needed to be intrigued by something that was incomprehensibly exotic and outside the mainstream of white America.
And what I’m contending here is that this impulse, this need to break out, which eventually became a deep undercurrent in the culture, was crystallized by the experience of African-Americans: a group that was, and still is, marginalized.
The sixties unleashed a tremendous amount of latent cultural energy—enough to launch, among so many other things, the daintily hovering thought of Buddhism way up into the atmosphere of American life. And the sixties didn’t appear from out of nowhere. Isolated pockets of it were scattered here and there all over the landscape ten or fifteen years before. Kerouac and Cassady made their frantic trips across America in the late forties kindling the Beat movement; and what inspired them was African-American culture, specifically jazz. Read On the Road for its mystical, almost guru-like worship of the “spade” (Kerouac’s word) Jazzman.
You can’t understand American culture without understanding jazz. Jazz (and Blues, which is the source of jazz) accounts really for all the truly indigenous (by “indigenous” here I mean post-Native-American genocide) creativity we have, and when we rewrite our cultural history this will” I think, become clearer than it is now. Jazz was the roar of the twenties as much as it was the howl of the sixties. All the break-out energy of American culture—the stuff that is exported and lusted after all over the world—comes from or is associated with the energy of jazz (which, of course, later became the energy of rhythm and blues, then rock and roll, then pop). But the jazz of the Beats, the jazz of the late thirties and forties was different. Prior to that time, there were two strains of African-American culture: strain number one threw out any African influence and wanted to become respectable and white because white was better—it was serious, educated, cultured, and in charge. Middle-class blacks actually had such a viewpoint (not out of any cynicism) and they really believed, as educated whites of the time did, that “culture and education” equaled white culture and education. Only a visionary would have been able to see otherwise. Strain number two maintained a degree of African cultural pride, not out of any sense of righteousness or particular acuity, but out of family loyalty. But still, even for these folks, the white world was the real world, the standard. Success meant making it in the white world. You did what you had to do to make that happen; you even did it joyfully and with gusto because it was a rare, nearly an impossible, thing to do. So Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, early jazz greats, became wealthy and deservedly famous. But they managed this by cleaning up their acts when necessary. I don’t think it was a question of compromising; I think they acted in a completely reasonable and intelligent manner given the times. Louis smiling, tapdancing, and singing in his not inconsiderable gravelly voice; Duke all elegant and squeaky clean in his tux playing at Broadway shows for the white elite.
Making it in a white world began to wear thin by the late thirties. The music was getting old, the waiting for a real shake in the society was getting old, and the new breed of musicians (Monk, Parker, Gillespie—the beboppers) were not playing it the old way. They wore dark glasses, funny hats, and goatees; they played what they wanted because they wanted to play it that way, and if white America didn’t like it (and it, in the shape of white jazz critics, definitely did not), it was too bad. These people were geniuses of the first rank. And it is really impossible to separate the musical breakthroughs they made from the cultural and social revolution that went along with them. They knew what they were doing. They were the first Americans to understand consciously the forces that had formed America; the first to see that the flip side of freedom and well-being for the many was the bondage and invisibility of the few; and they were the first jazz musicians to insist on African roots as sophisticated, valuable, and revolutionary; the first to own their marginality, to see how thoroughly it had been imposed on them by the dominant culture—and to make art out of it.
It is not an accident, I think, that so many of these jazz players died young, and died, in many cases, from alcoholism and drugs. I don’t want to idealize them; many of them were unable to contain the passionate painful energy their music unleashed. What they saw, what they understood, what they expressed, simply could not be heard or acknowledged, could not be received and absorbed, and the only way for them to continue was to burn up, and that is exactly what they did.
The African-American experience, the experience that was most clearly seen and expressed by these jazz players, is not simply that of a minority against whom great wrong has been done. In fact, that experience is central to the American experience and therefore is crucial for all of us to appreciate and understand.
America still fascinates the rest of the world because it remains a unique social experiment, one that everyone aspires to in some secret childlike aspect of himself or herself: you can go to a completely new place and set things up fresh, just as you ideally like them, without having to put up with patterns from the past. And you can do this without any muss or fuss, with unlimited happiness and freedom for everyone. Anyone who has done any meditation at all realizes that this is impossible; anyone who has lived a lifetime in a coherent culture knows this is impossible. Nevertheless, everyone wishes it were possible, and only America has tried it—and it has worked to a tremendous degree.
In order to start over again fresh you have to have a new place to start, a totally clean slate. The continent was, as far as the European was concerned, a clean slate. The mountains, rivers, and prairies were free, there to be used as he saw fit. So much for Native American life. And if you want to start fresh and progress rapidly, someone has to carry the suffering that will inevitably be produced by your effort, the suffering that is inherent in the production of anything. You simply can’t stop to take care of it as you go along. It slows you down too much. It dampens the enthusiasm. And to keep things moving properly it is necessary that the weight of that suffering be carried by someone in secret, in the dark, completely out of sight, so that there is no question whatsoever—legal or moral—of having to stop for a moment to deal with it. Hence the institution of slavery, and in particular the enslavement not of a conquered people or of an unfortunate people, but of a people totally unknown, from a place as far away as Mars. African-Americans from slavery times until World War II carried this suffering in secret; they were literally invisible in the society—who they actually were, what they actually felt, could not and would not be shown to the dominant population. But after World War II they were no longer willing or able to carry it that way. The war destabilized the society and gave African-Americans, who fought in World War II in greater numbers and with a greater degree of responsibility than ever before, a simultaneous sense of inclusion and exclusion. After the war, as the society began to reconstitute itself, what had been tenable was no longer tenable. African-Americans could no longer remain invisible, and in making the effort to become gradually more visible—an effort that has not yet reached fruition—African-Americans bring into sight not only themselves, but the rest of us too.
The slavery practiced here was unique because it functioned psychologically as a way to absorb and bury a general cultural pain. Prior to New World slavery, the institution of slavery had a degree of cohesion and logic to it. If you were defeated in battle or were without family you could become a slave. But slaves could become integrated into societies, could maintain a measure of honor and even social status. Greek slaves could become scholars, teachers, actors, poets. The children of Roman freedmen (ex-slaves) could become citizens, even senators. Slaves could buy themselves out of slavery or be freed voluntarily by their masters. In cases where whole nations and classes of people were enslaved, they could generally maintain their customs, identity, and language. They were still people, and they had an aboveground function in the society.
But African slaves were not viewed as people. Serious scientific speculation of the day questioned where they fit into the Darwinian order: somewhere between real people and apes. As junior members of the species, they were clearly fortunate to have been brought to a place where they might be improved upon, even eventually Christianized and civilized. To this end they were outlawed from using their language, playing their music, worshiping their gods. Their families were not honored. They were brutalized physically. And there was a consistent effort to dismantle them spiritually. The ongoing effects of the experience of slavery are still the dominant factor in the African-American experience; that this is so little understood and appreciated is one reason why the African-American culture, in all its richness and sadness and complexity, seems so baffling to everyone. There is simply a tremendous gap in understanding of what is actually going on, what the real nature of the African-American community actually is.
I believe, and I get this from my own contact with the African-American community (though in a limited way, from teaching at a local high school), that there is a sanity and a depth in the African-American community that American society as a whole needs to recognize and learn from. White mainstream culture hasn’t seen it; it isn’t available to the camera or the reporter; it doesn’t fit into the journalistic form. We get the problems and the tragedy, which admittedly are there, but the complexity and the ambiguity of the situation never surface. Mainstream America simply doesn’t get it; it doesn’t have the eye or the mind or the language to understand. It has to get in much closer, much deeper. It needs to view the world from a black point of view.
That point of view has always been suggested, been carried, in the music. African music has the most complex rhythmical structure of any music in the world. It is a music that depends entirely on improvisation, on the human voice and human feeling, and on sincerity and presence rather than technique: it has values that militate toward a kind of friendliness, and a connection with things, not a description of them. Since African captives were not allowed to use their native music in America, they created, out of American folk and church singing, and the conditions of their own lives, a new art, their own saving way of expression. This was blues, which had its origins in the work song or “field shout,” and which later, when African-Americans learned to play Western instruments, became jazz. Jazz as the preeminent product of American denial. Jazz, if you will, as the distilled elixir of the suffering that has run secretly through the night of the American Dream. As LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka) says in Blues People, a classic of jazz and blues that influenced a lot of my own thinking:
The poor Negro always remembered himself as an exslave and used this as the basis of any dealings with the mainstream of American society. The middle class black man bases his whole existence on the hopeless hypothesis that no one is supposed to remember that for almost three hundred years there was slavery in America, that the white man was a master, the black man a slave. This knowledge, however, is at the root of the legitimate black culture of this country. It is this knowledge, with its attendant muses of self-division, self-hatred, stoicism, and finally quixotic optimism, that informs the most meaningful of Afro-American music.
Denial, rage, hurt of all kinds, taking care of karma buried so long you almost can’t see it any longer—this is the stuff that dharma in America seems to be most firmly based on. At first it was the colorful, exotic face of Buddhism that was attractive, that or the intellectual doctrinal satisfaction of the teachings, some intuitive sense of what was the next step. But beyond this is the very real suffering, often the hidden, unacknowledged suffering, that meditation practice can bring to the surface, that sustains the practice over time, and that brings the sincere seeker to it. And I think that to some extent the sexual abuse and power abuse scandals that have created so much confusion in American dharma centers over the last ten years have come, not from any selfish or evil intention on the part of the teachers, or students, but rather from a failure to understand this point—a failure to appreciate, in other words, the fragility and hurt that are so central to the experience of so many dharma students. This is why I am arguing that African-American people are in fact our ancestors in the American dharma, as much as, and probably more than, Padmasambhava, Buddhaghosa, and Hui Neng. We’ve come to Buddhism in the end, I believe, not because we had some mystical transference or some deep faith. We’ve come to it because we need it. We can’t go on any longer without it.
American Buddhist groups are now at the point of looking around and noticing that there are no dark faces in the meditation halls, and are wondering why this is so and trying to figure out whether something needs to be done about it. (This is true at least in the Bay Area where a few interracial Buddhist convocations have been organized to look at the issue.) It’s traditional to point out that it takes a body, leisure to practice, and an encounter with the teaching in order to actually begin to practice in any given lifetime. White middle-class Americans have these requisites and many African-Americans do not. And even if they did, I wonder whether they would find the otherworldly style, which is so ingrained in all of the Buddhist schools, to their liking, and if they didn’t whether they would be able to see past the style into something else that Buddhism has to offer. The religious manifestations of mainstream African-American culture have been quite otherwise; they’ve been emotional, life-affirming, and passionate, and have emphasized moving around and being moved in many ways—not sitting still. So it seems likely to me that any real inclusion of African-Americans into the Buddhist movement will occur by a slow and circuitous route that will involve African-Americans who harmonize to some extent with Buddhism as it is, joining the practice and influencing a change in style gradually which will in turn open up the practice to other African-Americans. But the crucial point is not whether or how African-Americans can be included in the Buddhist movement—any more than, for me, the point is whether or how they can be included fully in American society. In order for me to understand myself as an American Buddhist practitioner, or, for that matter, as an American, it is necessary for me to understand the experience of the African-American. It is not what Buddhism or mainstream America has to offer African-American culture that is the issue; rather, it is the other way round. African-Americans have understood the roots and branches, the dynamics and undercurrents of American culture—they’ve understood it and expressed it in many ways. But white America, in desperate need of this understanding, has not heard it because there has not been an open line of communication; there is a tremendous gap in trust and viewpoint that makes mutual influence nearly impossible.
It’s as if we need to create a new language that will bridge the gap, a language that does not now exist. And you don’t create a new language in self-consciousness. You recognize first the pain of separation and the necessity of communication. Then you make all kinds of inarticulate grunts and noises and gestures until something gets across. Then you build on that. And you build by opening up, by seeing what’s there, looking at what was once impossible to see, acknowledging what one has done and is continuing to do—and more, appreciating actively the energy and genius that have always fueled us but have never really been incorporated, honored, or allowed to fully manifest their creative spirit—and in this the African-American experience is essential for all of us.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.