Well, Nathan addressed that 500 pound gorilla in the room in his recent post
on encouraging youth engagement in Buddhist sanghas. Well, if he’s gonna throw it out there, I might as well comment on some of it. It was a very large post so I am just going to touch on…
Large Issue 1. Collectively, Buddhist communities in the “West”, especially “convert” ones, need to address issues of race and class more head on.
Ok, yes, I suppose we do but I do have to admit that when this is addressed “head on” it gathers so much momentum that we begin and end with discussing race rather than Buddhism. So while this needs to be an ongoing discussion “in-the-flesh” and on-line, it really needs to be contained somewhat into a discussion that actually produces results. So, other than arguing back and forth, what do we do?
A. We need to change the way our sanghas appear in the physical world.
I just think it is funny that all of the points that Nathan brings up here…
that people of color don’t attend these sanghas in great numbers is that they have had “no say” in the space itself, and do not feel at home in it. For many of you, this might be pretty abstract sounding, but lets bring it into the concrete right now. Have you ever been in places where you felt something was off, but couldn’t put a finger on it? Or maybe a place where you almost instantly felt “out of place” right away, despite how the people there acted towards you? In our busy, distracted lives we forget how much physical space effects us. We forget, for example, that one of the main reasons we love our homes (when we do) is that we were able to create it in a way that expressed ourselves, who we are and what brings out the best in us.
..are the exact reason that I don’t utilize a mostly Asian congregation as my primary place of practice. I love and respect the Asian culture but sometimes (actually, most of the times) I feel “out of place, right away” even though the practitioners are friendly and proactive towards the fact that I am (sometimes) the only white person there. So how much say should I have in the way a primarily Asian congregation chooses to organize their practice space? Holy Shit, I can just imagine if I went in and suggested that there should be less golden Buddhas or a more “comfortable” space for me. Would I have an equal say? We always assume that “western” Buddhism does not include Asian congregations and it does. So would a Jodo Shinshu sangha in a Japanese community alter their appearance or layout easily because a few White folk (or any person of color) don’t feel comfortable? [I do understand that some Shin temples have changed at great amount of tradition to accomodate Western palates (mostly for meditation) but I sit back and wonder…why? B/c of a few whiny non-Asian practitioners a long tradition is altered? It seems to me to be sad. Or was it to drum up more enrollment? Either way, and my personal opinions aside, it was a difficult choice to change the standard and one I am sure was not taken lightly.]
I agree with the statement that the layout of a sangha will turn away some people and not others but I am somewhat at a lost concerning what should be changed. My sangha meets and practices in the backroom of a yoga studio. Four walls, a ceiling and some shelves for mats. Is this too “white-washed”? Most of the sanghas I have sat with (with the exception of my current one) have a distinctively Asian motif. Usually the standard reductionist, austere Zen set-up. How is this “white-space” other than the fact that white people are present? For the most part it seems to be an “Asian-space”.
Perhaps my experience is limited or perhaps I am just lucky but any experience I have had in any sangha has been welcoming regardless of my race or the racial/social make-up of the sangha.
B. We need to address the costs of practice better.
Ah! No argument there. I love my small sangha just for this reason. I work two jobs and weekend shifts so the chances of me getting to a retreat is almost none but the sangha will provide financial help to anyone that needs it. Unfortunately my issue is half with money and half with time so I’m screwed either way.
But just looking at the “dues” that are required at some places exclude me from ever practicing there. So I can imagine that they do limit the practitioners at those specific temples or Zen Centers to a certain racial and economic bracket. This also excludes many “casual” practitioners. People that are only able to practice once or twice a week or month due to family or work obligations. Obligations that do take precedence (despite what others may infer) over any time staring at a wall or chanting.
On-line retreats like the ones offered by Wild Fox Zen
is a great way to supplement your practice without having to shell out huge amounts of cash or time. While not the same as an intensive weekend or wekk-long retreet, this medium of practice is much more palatable to those pesky youngsters thateare trying to finish college, start a career or a family.
C. We need to diversify how the dharma is structured and taught.
Dharma does not need to be particularly dense or structured in order for it to be understood. The reason why many of us are attracted to Zen, whether college educated or not, is because we are not primarily interested in the scholarly pursuit of Buddhist teachings and thought. Rather, we are interested in the practice and experience of it.
I think the emphasis on retreat and extensive meditation practice is a huge barrier for many people, and could be one the things that keeps Buddhism in the “West” a small, marginal movement.
I agree completely. We are committed to the aspects of Buddhist practice that we can fit into our daily lives not into the aspects that alienate us from our family, friends and livelihood. A few days ago I had the option of practicing one morning with the local sangha or sitting at home with a beer and my little samsara baby. The choice was easy and obvious. The beer was delicious and samsara baby and I had a great time at the park.