A few years ago I attended a gathering of mostly white Buddhists, where I was met with a stunning lack of community. It seemed to me that there was very little warmth and little awareness of the need for intimacy. At the time, I remember wondering why it had felt so cold to me but apparently not to others: Was it that I was one of the few people of color there? Or was it the fact that in a group of meditation-centric practitioners, the tradition in which I practice—Nichiren Shu—was little understood and didn’t seem to have a place in the discussion?
The Western Buddhist sangha has been engaged in significant conversations about the issue of diversity for some time now. Those conversations, the architects of which have been largely those engaged in meditation-centric practice, have focused on ethnic diversity, specifically on its lack and why such lack exists. As someone who has always been engaged in Buddhist practice based on ritual and tradition—because they speak to me in a way that silent meditation does not—I’ve found these conversations so narrowly focused as to create a kind of tunnel vision. There is even a bit of arrogance implicit in them about what Buddhism in the West really looks like. It seems to me that in our search for diversity, we Buddhists have been asking the wrong questions. The world of Buddhism in the West is actually quite diverse and has always been so. It has a lot to offer anyone if only it is sought out.
I was born in postwar Japan to an African American soldier and a young Japanese woman from a family of Nichiren Shu practitioners. I was unaware of my mother’s Buddhist background for more than 50 years, and was raised as a Protestant in the United States Army system. When I became a Buddhist at age 13, my cultural context was a unique environment formed in those American spaces by Japanese women representing various age, class, religious, educational, economic, rank, and racial differences. These women were war brides, limited by language and their own alienness, who banded together to support each other in an environment both strange and hostile.
My greatest memory and treasure of those early years was the time spent with these women as they shared their struggles, their victories and defeats, their hopes and dreams, and all the stories of their lives. This was how they taught Buddhism, not through books (there were none in English at that time), but through their own examples. Everything they encountered and endured became the fuel for their Buddhist practice.
These women married into American families of European, Latino, African, and Asian descent, further deepening the differences among them. Their stories of surviving and overcoming racism, domestic violence, their husbands’ alcoholism, poverty, solitude (when their husbands shipped overseas), their own longing for home, depression, regret, and simply being Japanese are the dharma teachings for which I will always be eternally grateful. They shaped the Buddhism I was taught as well as my life as a practitioner; they were teachings of applied practice within community. In particular, these women taught their multicultural children, and all of their children’s friends, by sharing the dharma in the small spaces of their homes in military bases around the world. These were the sacred spaces of ritual, of transcendence, and of hope as they learned to navigate the various cultures that formed the American military and the populations where the military showed up. These gatherings formed the basis for the diversity that was Nichiren Shoshu of America, now SGI, which since its formal beginnings in the 1960s has maintained a consistently diverse community. Similar stories exist with respect to the Jodo Shinshu, Jodo Shu, and the Nichiren Shu, as well as various other Asian-based communities whose beginnings predated the early 1900s.
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