I have often been asked over the years—by friends as well as colleagues—whether or not I feel a “gap,” a kind of disjuncture, between what I do and who I am. By this, I take it that they mean a disjuncture between the facts of my being an African American and my being someone who has studied and taught Tibetan Buddhism for many years. I admit that I may be somewhat of an anomaly. But it hasn’t seemed anomalous to me; it is, after all, my life. It is me and it is what I do.

Only recently have I begun contemplating what particular benefit might come from my making a point of this “unusual” or “anomalous” combination of circumstances. But a benefit for whom? One obvious answer, I have come to believe, is that my doing so might be of some benefit for other African Americans and other people of color generally. Moreover, in adding my voice to such discussions, it might well be the case that there is some benefit for “American Buddhists” and for Western Buddhists more broadly.

race and class in buddhism
Palm of Love (1966) by Bette Saar. Courtesy of the artists and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.

Over the years, it has certainly been the case that other persons of color have come up to me in various Buddhist gatherings and told me, “I was so glad to look around and see you here!” It is a way of validating their own choice to be there, a way of not being pulled under or dismissed by being “the other,” a way of finding sanity in the scene. White Americans don’t yet seem to get the point that, given the history of societally marginalized people in this country, whenever we find ourselves in spaces where we are clearly in the minority, we have a natural tendency to be fearful, guarded, and mistrusting.

That Buddhist centers in this country have not exactly had an “open-door policy” toward people of color is a fact so well known that it is almost taken for granted. Some people have been noting the absence of people of color for some years now. In 1988, Sandy Boucher put the matter quite bluntly when, in Turning the Wheel, she characterized the number of North American-born people committed to Buddhism as being “overwhelmingly white and middle or upper middle class.” Yet there seems to be little open discussion of why this is so or of how the situation might be changed.

Again, after noting that the only school of Buddhism in America able to boast comparatively large numbers of people of color is Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA), Boucher stated:

Many people in the world of American Buddhists are leery of Nichiren Shoshu, seeing it as a pseudoreligion in which people “chant to get a Cadillac,” and they are repelled by Nichiren’s aggressive recruiting tactics. It is also said that Nichiren is “political” in some ill-defined but presumably sinister way … People in Nichiren do chant to get a car, a house, a job, a better life. It is also true that the majority of people in this country practicing the other forms of Buddhism already have access to those things and so can comfortably choose to renounce them.

I am neither a member of nor an advocate for NSA Buddhism. I do, however, think that their success in attracting people of color into their groups makes them worthy of study, and in some respects, perhaps even worthy models. NSA organizations have done two things in particular that impact on their having a more diverse community of members: (1) NSA centers are located in large urban areas, and they draw a more diverse following; and (2) the ritual practices that are enjoined on members are simple. Apart from the mandatory recitation of the Nam-myoho-renge-kyo mantra, the scriptures and prayers are recited in English.

More recently, the Korean Zen master Samu Sunim remarked in an interview:

We Buddhist teachers—those of us who came from Asia—are like transplanted lotuses. Many of us are refugees. Here we find ourselves in the marketplace—as dharma peddlers, you might say. I am concerned with the Zen movement becoming more accessible to ordinary common people.

It is worth noting that, as far as I know, it has always been either women or “ethnic,” that is, Asian, Buddhists who have noted the non-inclusiveness of the various Buddhisms in Western societies. Western men haven’t seemed to notice. That, in itself, may say something. Whenever I’ve brought up the subject, I’ve been told: “But Buddhists don’t proselytize! They never have.” Historically, though, this isn’t exactly true. Except for during the three-month “rainy season,” the earliest Buddhist mendicants were told to travel continuously and spread the faith.

When certain people ask me whether I feel a “gap” between who I am and what I do, it seems to me that they are really asking, “What does Buddhism offer to any African American?” That is a legitimate question, and one that I feel is worthy of real consideration. To answer most simply, I believe that Buddhism offers us a methodology for enhancing our confidence. This is especially true of the various forms of tantric Buddhism, since tantric Buddhism aims at nothing less than the complete transformation of our ordinary and limited perception of who we are as human beings.

Buddhism offers us a methodology for enhancing our confidence.

I was very fortunate to have been a close student of Lama Thubten Yeshe. We met in Nepal in fall 1969. Lama Yeshe kindly accepted me as his student, and I was honored that he chose to call me his “daughter.” When I look back on the fifteen years that Lama Yeshe was my teacher, I see confidence as his main teaching—not only to me but to countless others who over the years came to him for guidance. Indeed, when Lama Yeshe discussed the essential teachings of tantric Buddhism—as he did so simply, so eloquently, and so profoundly in his Introduction to Tantra—he stated this idea quite explicitly. Here I provide only a few examples: 

According to Buddhist tantra, we remain trapped within a circle of dissatisfaction because our view of reality is narrow and suffocating. We hold onto a very limited and limiting view of who we are and what we can become, with the result that our self-image remains oppressively low and negative, and we feel quite inadequate and hopeless. As long as our opinion of ourselves is so miserable, our life will remain meaningless.

One of the essential practices at all levels of tantra is to dissolve our ordinary conceptions of ourselves and then, from the empty space into which these concepts have disappeared, arise in the glorious light body of a deity: a manifestation of the essential clarity of our deepest being. The more we train to see ourselves as such a meditational deity, the less bound we feel by life’s ordinary disappointments and frustrations. This divine self-visualization empowers us to take control of our life and create for ourselves a pure environment in which our deepest nature can be expressed. . . . It is a simple truth that if we identify ourselves as being fundamentally pure, strong, and capable we will actually develop these qualities, but if we continue to think of ourselves as dull and foolish, that is what we will become.

The health of body and mind is primarily a question of our self-image. Those people who think badly of themselves, for whatever reasons, become and then remain miserable, while those who can recognize and draw on their inner resources can overcome even the most difficult situations. Deity-yoga is one of the most profound ways of lifting our self-image, and that is why tantra is such a quick and powerful method for achieving the fulfillment of our tremendous potential. 

This is not just my interpretation of Lama Yeshe’s view. Once, when Lama Yeshe was visiting California, I took him to hear a lecture given by Angela Davis. She spoke one afternoon in the quarry on the University of California, Santa Cruz, campus. Lama Yeshe was visibly excited to see and to listen to Davis speak. Several times during her talk, with clenched fist, he said aloud, “This is how one ought to be: strong and confident like this lady!”

Divine self-visualization empowers us to take control of our life.

Still, none of the great benefits that tantric meditative practice offers can be experienced and realized by “ordinary, common people” if those people don’t hear about it and don’t have a chance to try it for themselves—in short, if the teachings are not accessible. And as long as Buddhist practice is viewed and packaged as a commodity—like so many other commodities in the West—it will remain inaccessible to a great many people. And here, it seems clear that the question of accessibility is one of class, not—at least not necessarily—one of race. In order to study and to practice Buddhism in America, two requisites are absolutely essential: money and leisure time.

I met Tibetan lamas because I was able to travel to India (on a fully paid scholarship) for my junior year of college. I was part of that late 1960s phenomenon of Western students traveling to the mysterious East; part of the infamous ’60s counterculture. I would not have met the Tibetans had I not been able to travel East. Neither would I now be able to attend or to afford Buddhist meditation retreats were it not that I have the kind of job I do, in terms of both the financial security and the ample vacation time and break periods it affords.

girl children by bette saar
Girl Children (1964) by Bette Saar. Courtesy of the artists and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California.

The Tibetans took me in instantly, and I saw in them a welcoming family of compassionate and skilled people who, as I viewed myself, were refugees. I soon learned that the Tibetans possessed the type of knowledge and wisdom I longed for—knowledge of methods for dealing with frustrations, disappointments, and anger, and of developing genuine compassion. Indeed, their very beings reflected this. They had suffered untold hardships, had even been forced to flee their country. We shared, it seemed to me, the experience of a profound historical trauma. Yet they coped quite well, seeming to possess a sort of spiritual armor that I felt lacking in myself. Lama Yeshe’s personal example inspired me, and his compassion led him to entrust some of the tantric teachings to me. Having come personally to see the benefits of such teachings, I would like to see them disseminated much more widely than they are at present.

Once Lama Yeshe looked at me piercingly and then remarked, “Living with pride and humility in equal proportion is very difficult!” In that moment, it seemed to me, he had put his finger on one of the deepest issues confronting all African Americans: the great difficulty of having gone through the experience of 250 years of slavery, during which one’s very humanness was challenged and degraded at every turn, and yet through it all, to have maintained a strong sense of humanness and the desire to stand tall, with dignity and love of self, to count oneself a human being equal with all others.

It is the trauma of slavery that haunts African Americans in the deepest recesses of their souls. This is the chief issue for us. It needs to be dealt with, head-on—not denied, not forgotten, not suppressed. Indeed, its suppression and denial only hurts us more deeply, causing us to accept a limited, disparaging, and even repugnant view of ourselves. We cannot move forward until we have grappled in a serious way with all the negative effects of this trauma. Tantric Buddhism offers us some tools to help accomplish this task, since it shows us both how to get at those deep inner wounds and how to heal them.

But again, none of Buddhist tantra’s benefits can be recognized if more African Americans and more people of color generally don’t have access to it. So the question remains: How do we remedy this situation? As international Buddhist leaders and their American counterparts continue to mount extensive dialogues and conferences that focus on “Buddhism and Science,” “Buddhism and Psychology,” “Buddhism and Christianity,” and so on, they would do well, it seems to me, to devote efforts toward trying to make Buddhism in all its forms more readily available and accessible to a wider cross section of the American population. Indeed, such efforts would go a long way toward helping a truly “American” Buddhism to emerge. 

In the end, the question of what Buddhism has to offer African Americans and other people of color may not be as important as what such people have to offer Buddhism in America. For even when African Americans deny, out of shame and embarrassment, the horrors of slavery, they carry the deep knowledge of that experience in their very bones. Amiri Baraka, in his classic text on African American blues and jazz, Blues People, expressed this well, I think, when he wrote: 

The poor Negro always remembered himself as an ex-slave 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.

This deep knowledge of trying to hold on to humanness in a world firmly committed to destroying it adds a kind of spiritual reservoir of strength at the same time that it is so burdensome. The spiritual resilience of black folk has something to offer us all.

The first noble truth of Buddhism asks us to “understand” the noble truth of suffering. Apart from the newness, exoticism, and aesthetic attractiveness of the various traditions of Buddhism now existent on American soil, in the end, it is the sobering and realistic recognition of our individual and collective suffering that marks the true beginning of the Buddhist path. The physical presence of more dark faces in Buddhist centers will serve to both focus the issue of what makes us all “Americans” and, hopefully, allow a freer American expression of Buddhism to emerge.

Genuine Buddhists are all about, in a word, openness.

The atmosphere of a lot of Buddhist centers may be peaceful to most of their regular followers, but it is off-putting to some “outsiders” who find the sweetness and tender voices of the pujas and other ceremonies disingenuous. It’s as though certain center members have just exchanged one pretense for another. I remember well the admonition from the great Kalu Rinpoche never to engage in such pretense. And I will never forget hearing Alice “Turiya” Coltrane at a birthday celebration for her teacher, the venerable Hindu guru Satchidananda. She began a hymn to Krishna by striking up her harmonium and singing, “I said, ah, Om Bhagawata . . .” with all the strength and power of an African American Baptist choir! My own heart rejoiced as I thought, Now, this is truly the dharma coming West! There is clearly a sense in which more diverse membership in centers will stir changes in ritual and, perhaps, more straightforward and honest behavior. 

I do not intend any of what I’ve discussed here either to glorify victimization or to vilify current Buddhist practitioners in America. My intention was to make needed suggestions about how changes might be begun. There is the perception that there is a disjuncture between what Buddhists in America preach and what they practice. One of these perceived disjunctures revolves around the issue of the non-inclusion of persons of color in the events and memberships of Buddhist organizations in this country. Clearly, if centers act as though people of color are anomalies within their precincts, then people of color will certainly become so. It would seem to me that changing such perceptions (and the actions that foster them) ought to lie at the heart of what genuine Buddhists are all about: in a word, openness. In other words, equanimity and compassion toward all.

Just as Buddhism in America has begun to undergo transformations to find its American identity—which is really a way of saying “find itself ” in this social and geographic space—to the extent that it has seen the disproportionately greater number of women teachers of the dharma emerge here, so it will change for the better and become more itself when its overall audience is more representative of all Americans. That is, when the various forms of Buddhism are offered freely to Americans of all racial and economic backgrounds.

From Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra, collected essays by Jan Willis © 2020. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.

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