Buddhism, Race and Class in the West

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.


22 thoughts on “Buddhism, Race and Class in the West

  1. I think something that doesn't get mentioned often are the texts themselves. Westerners have a hard time with just the names that are used. "Anguttara Nikaya, Samyutta Nikaya, Dhammapada" or the names of people mentioned in the texts.

    I'm reading the Lotus Sutra right now and it's quite difficult cutting through all the BS about the 3000 dragon kings and their followers and bla bla bla. I imagine I'm not alone on that, and that people get turned off by stuff like that. And when they finally make it through that stuff, then they have to start thinking in terms of Eastern thought. Like time being cyclical instead of linear. These are bizarre concepts to many, and provide real hurdles.

  2. Hi Adam,

    If you consider the Lotus Sutra to be full of "BS" then fair enough, that's your opinion.

    But do please remember that this is the core text for millions of life-long Buddhists alive today, a Sutra so precious that chanting its words – or even repeating its title alone – is the central practice for many milions of good Buddhists and their families.

    Of course you don't have to accept this Sutra for yourself. But if you do, the "BS" is a part and parcel of it.

    If you get "turned off" by that, then either keep reading and exploring and discussing and contemplating what it says (you might find it's not uch "BS" after all), or – if it's really not for you – move on.

    Wishing you peace,


  3. Marcus, I think you misunderstood my point. I think that as far as Westerners are concerned, it's hard to take a spiritual text seriously when it talks about the sons of gods and dragons all coming to some mountain to listen to the Buddha talk. I wasn't saying the Lotus Sutra is full of BS. Just that it is hard to cut through all the myth and make it to the important lessons contained within (especially for a Westerner).

    I don't think the Lotus Sutra is worthless. I do believe that there are essential teachings contained within. It is also quite obvious that a lot of romanticizing and mythic imagery is present in that text.

    The literary devices used in the text are quite foreign to many Westerners. While the idea that 200,000 people and gods and dragons all made the voyage to listen to the Buddha speak might conjure up grand emotion and grandeur in those in the East, the same does not hold true for many Westerners. I sincerely hope that I didn't offend you or anyone else Marcus, as that was not my intent.

    I'll be posting something soon on my blog as to the reasons why I'm currently reading the Lotus Sutra.

  4. I love the Lotus Sutra. I'm willing to wade through it and learn about the images and language use. The images and language are part of the teaching; they really can't be tossed out. It's probably not something you'd hand to a beginner who just started practice though.

    The space issue I mentioned is more than just rearranging furniture and statues. We just had a meeting at our sangha this morning, and an Asian-American member of our sangha brought up how she was pleased that people made the effort to, as a community, struggle openly with questions of race. She said it was great that people, for example, deliberately came up and welcomed her when she first came. Or that we have dharma talks that ask the community to focus how we act when issues of race come up, and see how those actions match up with our understanding of the dharma. I pose the we have to take issues like this head on to keep people thinking about it. There aren't any hard and fast answers – it's how we work with it in the situations we are in. I always come back to the question "what can reduce suffering in the world?"

  5. I think with the race issue, it has to do with people not feeling comfortable with things that are different from them, we tend to like to take things and make them our own or flock towards the familiar. Which is why there are sangas that are mostly Asian and ones that are mostly white. For Buddhism to become more integrated, we have to learn to accept and not fear the differences of others.

  6. Nathan, I didn't say I wasn't willing to "wade through it", though when you use a term like that, it's pretty clear that it is a text that one does indeed have to "wade through" and that's part of the point. I was only using the Lotus Sutra as one example though, so let's leave that alone now.

    My sentiment could be applied not only to the Lotus Sutra, but all of the Sutras. And it doesn't stop at Buddhism. I'm talking about Taoism, Hinduism, and all things of "the East". They aren't that approachable to the majority of Westerners. People in the West have been taught to think a certain way, and to identify patterns in certain way. We in the west are used to certain literary devices and imagery. The fact that millions of Westerners have been able to embrace Eastern thought and literature is fantastic. But please understand that those that have, are in a tiny minority. I belive Pirsig was one of the few people to be able to combine Eastern and Western thought, and his work has yet to have a major impact on practical daily philosophy in the West or the East.

    If you really want Buddhism to permeate through the populus in an effort to reduce suffering world-wide, you MUST take this into consideration. I'm not advocating a Jefferson's Bible type of approach to the Sutras. What I am advocating is a modern, updated approach that leaves the original message of the Buddha intact. There's no need to change the Sutras themselves, only our approach to them. That is, if you truly want Buddhism to be embraced in the West.

    Also, remember that being a Buddhist here in the US, you are a pioneer. Buddhism hasn't been around that long here, and has only very recently starting to be accepted as legitamite. There is still much work to be done in terms of establishing sanghas and dealing with the real-world aspects of spreading the word of the Buddha. Hell, there are still tons of people that think that Buddhists worship the Buddha, and that he was a God, that he was fat, and that Buddhists believe in souls that are reincarnated. It's discussions like these that will help us identify what direction we need to take, and sort out all the monkey business of real world practical Buddhism.

  7. Adam, it's true that there is some wading through to be done with the Lotus Sutra. I guess, for the most part, I think there is value in struggling a bit, and having our worldviews flipped over and torn asunder by these texts. I'm just as confused as the rest of you with some of the texts, but I also didn't come to Buddhism to be comfortable. How can we balance being accessible with the legitimate discomfort that's necessary to transform suffering and delusion.

    Your focus on how we approach the texts is important. A lot of things are in flux, which isn't a surprise. But I also think it's valuable to not loose touch with what's been given to us, and to recognize that confounding methods of presentation in the sutras might be exactly the thing our deluded minds need to wake up.

  8. Hi,

    Thank you Nathan for your words here on how we approach these texts.

    Adam, I think I see where you are coming from. But your approach seems to me (and I could be wrong) to be one of wishing to change Buddhism to suit your own personal preferences.

    A better approach would be to simply find that part of Buddhism, 84,00 Dharma doors after all, with which you have the strongest connection.

    Please remember that (and I'm pretty sure I'm right in this but could be wrong) that most Buddhists in the US belong to schools whose main practice is devotion to the Lotus Sutra.

    And when you say "there are still tons of people that think that Buddhists worship the Buddha", well, I don't think this is far wrong.

    Here in Thailand for example, every single day tens of millions of people chant "Homage to Him, the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the Fully Enlightened One." Do you think the word 'worship' here is really so dramatically wrong?

    All I'm saying Adam is that there is a Buddhism out there for you and all you need do is find it. What is not necessary, in my opinion, is any attempt to change the Buddhism that already works just fine for the vast vast majority of Buddhists in the world.

    With palms together,


  9. @Nathan – I agree. Nothing in life worth having comes easily. I certainly wouldn't want to try and dumb down the texts.

    @Marcus, well, you are wrong. I thought I made it really, really clear when I said that I didn't want to change the Sutras. I absolutely don't want to "change Buddhism". You're missing the point completely, as is evidenced by your first and third paragraphs to me. My point has absolutley nothing to do with the Lotus Sutra itself. I actually like the Lotus Sutra.

    When I speak of a differnt approach to the Sutras or Buddhism or Taoism, I'm not talking about changing any aspect of them. I really can't stress that enough. What I'm saying is that Westerners hit many more speedbumps on their discovery path into Buddhism than do those in the East. And this is simply due to the fact that they were raised in Western Society. The concept of Mu comes to mind here. What I am saying is that this needs to be recognized, if the messaged is to be delivered and delivered clearly.

    As far as the "worshiping the Buddha" thing, I suppose I was wrong. though I wonder if you are worshping the man himself?

  10. Adam, it's called "learning" and people can either choose to do it or they can choose not to do so.

    You're advocating some purer form of Buddhism, it seems, that is somehow separate from how it has been practiced for over 2,000 years. Such a thing doesn't exist.

    I'm perfectly comfortable with mythic imagery and I spent the time (and a few years) to read Buddhist texts. There are plenty of introductory books out there. We don't need to change Buddhism for the West. If a person can read Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings, I think they can read a text that mentions dragons and Bodhisattvas. There is no need to spoon feed people Buddhism. They can choose to learn it or not.

  11. "We don't need to change Buddhism for the West."

    I never, ever said anyone should. Please don't put words into my mouth. In fact, I quite clearly said the opposite "I thought I made it really, really clear when I said that I didn't want to change the Sutras. I absolutely don't want to "change Buddhism". "

    I also said "many" Westerners, not most, not a vast majority, and not all.

    "You're advocating some purer form of Buddhism"
    NO, I'm not.

    I really thought I had cleared all this up.

  12. Obviously, it didn't. I'm completely missing your point then. Care to rephrase what it was?

    First you complained about the difficulty of reading sutras but now you're not. So, what is it?

    I find the Koran and the Bible hard to read but I think that's expected too.

  13. Ok, I will do my best.

    Let me first start by saying, once again, that I don't wish to change Buddhism. I like Buddhism, which is why I've begun my journey into Buddhism. If I didn't like it the way it is, I'd find something else. No one is forcing me into this. Ok – that's out of the way.

    So yes, the Sutras are difficult to read through. So is the Bible, as well as the Koran and many other spiritual texts written thousands of years ago. I agreed with Nathan's statement "I think there is value in struggling a bit, and having our worldviews flipped over and torn asunder by these texts". Though I would say that those texts might be more of a struggle for Joe the Plumber than it would for someone living in India 2500 years ago.

    Like I said, I don't want anyone to publish a Jefferson's bible type version of any Buddhist text, or a "Heart Sutra for Dummies". I think McDonaldisng Buddhism is a serious risk here in the US. Ever see that Yobplait commercial where the girl says her yogurt is like "Zen wrapped in karma dipped in Nirvana" or some stupid shit like that? It was awful.

    What I do think would be beneficial, is not just the "introductory books" that you were talking about, but a more intorductory real life approach, that made people feel welcome. More outreach (non-invasive) especially to suburban and rural communities. The online Buddhasphere is certainly helping things out quite a bit, but it is the internet, and there is an endless supply of information to wade through. This can be tough, especially for a newcomer.

    It shouldn't be spoon fed or dumbed down in any way. To do so would be counter-productive, as well as insulting. But the message should be delivered to the intended audience. Remember, I said it was the approach that needed to be addressed, not the message itself.

  14. And really I'm not sure what you're getting at with the Lord of The Rings/Harry Potter bit. Those certainly aren't spiritual texts that people are hoping to find refuge in. A better example would have been the Bible with it's creation story or the Flood, or any of the other supernatural claims made therin.

    Converts to Buddhism come from various backgrounds, and have left their previous paths for various reasons. One thing I hear a lot about why people are drawn to Buddhism is how rational it is, and how you don't need to have blind faith in the supernatural for it to have an impact in their lives (or something along those lines). So when there is talk of the supernatural throughout the texts, you could see how that might be off-putting and even confusing to some. Especially here in the US where the newest fad is literal interpretation of the Bible.

    In an increasingly vicarious, internet based, isolated society, you can see how some of these things pose real issues.

    Now obviously, for those that consider themselves Buddhists here in the West, this either hasn't been a problem, or it's been a problem they've overcome. If the latter, I would expect that they remember a time when they were near quitting their journey. Either way, I would ask both to imagine living in someone else's shoes. Maybe someone that doesn't have access to a local sangha because they live out in BFE. Or maybe they don't have internet access. Or maybe they've just heard a lot of BS about Buddhism from an extremeist evangelical friend. Whatever the reason, these people could have benefited from some Dhamma, but got cut short before they were able to. These are the people that I'm adressing, and feel need addressing.

    What I was referring to originally was the "one the things that keeps Buddhism in the "West" a small, marginal movement." part in Jack's post. I feel strongly that people can and will benefit from the words of the Buddha, and making those speedbumps in their way a little less bumpy will only help them to end their suffering.

    I hope that (really) clears things up, though I might have made quite a mess of things for sure now. This is just how I feel about Buddhism in the West, especially here in the US. If I'm wrong, and there isn't anyone out there that has turned away from Buddhism before their journey even really started, than so be it. Maybe I am wrong. I just think it's important to remember who your audience is.

  15. The "rationality" of Buddhism is a 19th century Eurocentric myth though. You should expunge that idea quickly. That isn't to say that Buddhism isn't rational at times but the emphasis on that in the west is a product of colonialism and orientalism.

    Personally, it doesn't bother me if Buddhism is off-putting to people. If they read the Four Noble Truths and it doesn't work for them, that's ok. If it does, they need to take the time and do the work to investigate it.

    Books aren't a good way to investigate Buddhism. This is a religion of practice. Find a sangha and join it, at least for a while. That's how you learn Buddhism, not by reading some academic's treatise on a sutra or a popculture Buddhist book.

    In my opinion, it really isn't up to the Dharma to accommodate people. They need to learn the Dharma, not the other way around… That may sound elitist but it is less risky than other solutions.

    Buddhism is unlikely to be a mainstream force in the West to the degree that Christianity is. I'm happy to be in the loyal opposition. After all, Juadism is a tiny minority of the population and they aren't worrying about becoming more mainstream.

    In the end, one needs to find a teacher and a group and practice. There are reputable teachers who teach over the net. I've also known people with no local sangha that drove an hour (or three) to a place with a sangha for weekly or monthly meetings, if that's what it took.

  16. Thanks for the reply. I certainly don't want to come off like I want to convert everyone, so I hope that wasn't implied!

    I'll definitely take this into consideration. It's nice hearing perspectives from many sources, and thanks for sharing yours. I hope you consider what I said as my perspective as a white guy in rural America who is really just diving into Buddhism.

  17. I do understand and I know that it can be quite frustrating. I tried to be involved in the Tibetan sangha for quite a while before I wound up giving up because I found the various groups unapproachable. Eventually, I found a teacher (and now another) that worked for me. I'm in California. My primary teacher is in Ohio and his teacher (my other teacher) is six hours away in Los Angeles. We meet in person once every year or so. Otherwise, we use the phone, Skype video, and e-mail to talk.

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