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.
Because of my own history and the way I came to Buddhism, my practice has always been about faith and the development and application of faith. I was taught spiritual uplift and transcendence as important products of faith, driven by elements of practice geared toward awakening one’s senses. I assumed for a long time that all Buddhists felt the same way. It was a while before I learned that many meditation-centric practitioners, who have long dominated the known landscape of Buddhism in the West, had deemed the rituals and traditions of Buddhism as cultural baggage, superstitious practices with little value for sophisticated, intelligent modern meditators. Often, this “baggage” has been thrown away with little reflection or understanding of its purpose.
When these conversations happen, they are dominated by the assumption that the unifying bond and essential practice among Buddhists is sitting, silent meditation, which marginalizes the experience of millions of Buddhists in the West, not to mention billions of Buddhists throughout history.
Aside from the obvious problems of such flippancy, this dismissive attitude toward certain forms of Buddhist practice has led to an insularity that is ultimately harmful to embracing a truly diverse Western sangha. And in the same vein but on the other side of the divide, those practitioners based in ritual and tradition have also tended to congregate in closed communities, open only to those willing to wholeheartedly adopt ritual and tradition and to fully adapt to the cultural imperatives of those communities.
For most practitioners, what makes us Buddhist is taking refuge in the three treasures: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. This is the culture that we have come to accept as fundamental. Unfortunately, while there have been efforts to gather together as diverse practitioners, we have not really engaged in the conversations centered on our commonalities— or rather, when these conversations happen, they are dominated by the assumption that the unifying bond and essential practice among Buddhists is sitting, silent meditation, which marginalizes the experience of millions of Buddhists in the West, not to mention billions of Buddhists throughout history. Instead of seeking what truly binds us as a common group of practitioners, we have developed a level of closed-mindedness about the validity of the various Buddhist schools. We are more likely to take up interfaith activities with Abrahamaic traditions, for instance, than to interact with the assorted traditions under the umbrella of Buddhism.
So while most of us have awakened to the need to experience the richness that diverse communities bring to us, we have failed to consider the ways in which our communities are already diverse and have always been so. We are diverse not only in our ethnicities and root origins but also in our histories, our practices, our source texts, our goals, and our purpose in being Buddhist. Some of us seek only a technique for living without really accessing the dharma behind it; others seek the experience of transcendence provided by ritual and tradition. Still others are deeply concerned about and engaged in sharing the dharma to bring peace and harmony to the world. These differences reflect a great deal about the adaptability of Buddhism, its appeal to diverse communities, and its ability to offer refuge to anyone seeking it. Such differences also reflect the manner in which practitioners have been able to develop over the long term and maintain a practice that retains its heart while adapting to a different landscape.
There is room for all of us in the wonderful net that is Buddhism in the West, and our ability to develop and maintain harmony with each other is important to the spread of the dharma. Our world demands action from all sorts of communities, including Buddhists, and our conversations and questions about these issues would clearly represent a significant and positive point of departure if we would simply interact and learn from each other.
Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sutra suggests an essential perspective that we may consider developing within ourselves:
I see all living beings equally.
I have no partiality for them.
There is not “this one” or “that one” to me.
I transcend love and hatred.
Further, there is a concept that Nichiren Shonin (1222– 1282), founder of the Nichiren school, wrote about known as itai doshin [many in body, one in mind], which suggests the following:
If itai doshin prevails among the people, they will achieve all their goals, whereas in dotai ishin [one in body, different in mind], they can achieve nothing remarkable.
There need not be a competitive spirit among the Buddhist communities of the West. We have a great deal to learn from each other, and we have each met the dharma that is suitable for us where we are. There is not one valid approach to the practice of the buddhadharma: Deep insight and understanding can be gained from the type of critical examination and questioning that is endemic to Western ways of thinking. But practice without deep intellectual understanding can also provide a profound capture of the essence of the dharma, especially when one seeks simply to live the very best life of which one is capable. The process of giving oneself over to the beauty of ritual and tradition especially allows entry into transcendence, thus alleviating the suffering of daily life. Combined, these two approaches may lead to a deeper, more nuanced, and simply a more solid vessel to “cross the sea of suffering.”
The gifts we receive as dharma practitioners may increase our desire and our obligation to share our path with others. By uniting with all practitioners as a collective community of compassion—exactly what is needed in the world we currently inhabit—we may create a world in which we can all have hopes and dreams.