African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the West

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African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the West

Postby Sara H » Sat Feb 23, 2013 9:18 am

I wanted to bring this topic up, as it's been something of an area of interest of mine for a while.

There's been a few article's floating around the web regarding what can be done to improve the state of access to the Dharma, and, more importantly, making it welcome to African Americans, and people of color.

Many people have noted, that a lot of Sangha's are overwhelmingly white, middle or upper-middle class people.

Yes, there are exceptions, but in general, Buddhism in the west, with the exception of Asian American and other nationalized Asian groups, is mostly Caucasian.

I've seen some very interesting suggestions, and I think wholly good ideas, about what can be done to improve the state of this.

For one thing, some people have pointed out, that (sadly) most Buddhist African Americans are in prison. This seems to be where they get access to it the most.

I've ID'd (though I am certainly not the first) primarily two causes, and areas that need work, that would help African Americans and people of color to feel more welcome in Sangha's, and make the Buddha and Dharma more welcoming and accessible.

The main two barriers seem to be cultural misunderstandings between middle-class culture in general, and African American and other people of color's culture.

The other thing seems to be economic limitations, and making the Dharma easily accessible to people with low incomes.

I'll start with the first, it's been brought up, in articles elsewhere, that one of the challenges for African Americans is the strong need for African American cultural identity.

This is very important, because for many African Americans, their culture was systematically wiped out by generations of slavery. Their ancestry may be unknown, as well as any vestiges of cultural tradition. And, because this culture was wiped out, by force, many African Americans are very hesitant to adopt what seems to them to be a "foriegn" culture. By this I am meaning say an "asian" aesthetic to things. The "Zen" look, for instance.

Austere, Japanese looking, or very exotic and Tibetan. Pagodas, and black lacquer, bamboo, etc.

One of the solutions to this that has been suggested, is the very simple thing of making some things look more "African" for lack of a better word. The incense burner on an alter for instance does not need to be made of a Japanese or Tibetan look, It could have a more pottery look, for instance.

Bodhidharma, it has been pointed out, was an Indian, and most assuredly had dark skin, thick curly hair, large lips, and a large flat nose. And yet, simply because of tradition, of say Zen passing through China, he is often portrayed in a very pale, Chinese/Japanese way.

A large portrait of a dark skinned Bodhidarma might be a welcome addition to a meditation hall, or Dharma center, and would not only be more accurate historically, but would also help solve the problem of making African Americans and other people of color feel more welcome.

Buddha Statues, as well, there are some historic places where Buddhism passed through cultures and the statues took on a decisively more African facial look. This is very important, as it lets African Americans feel more comfortable with having someone they identify with, who's not Asian or "white" looking.

Small things, but it makes a significant compassion and sensitivity difference. It shows people one cares.

Similarly, on to the second issue, the one of financial accessibility.

This is a big problem with Buddhism in the west, it's still often a "luxury" religion. Not something an average person can often afford, and certainly not a poor person or someone of limited financial means.

More needs to be done, to make retreats free.

It also needs to come into the inner city more, and be more in line with inner city culture. A "Zendo in the Ghetto" would be a welcome thing. You could have urban artists decorate the outside walls with Buddhist themed graffiti and spraypaint art.

Making things accessible for those in less financial ability.

After all, Buddhism has for the longest time, not simply been the religion of the wealthy, or well-to-do, but also the farmer, the fisherman, the weaver, the craftsman, the peasant.

So these are some ideas, should be enough to get us started, what say you?

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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Sara H » Sat Feb 23, 2013 9:21 am

Here's an interesting picture of a more "black" Buddha.

This statue is from Vietnam.

Image

And here is a good example of an image of Boddhidharma.

Image
"Life is full of suffering. AND Life is full of the Eternal
IT IS OUR CHOICE
We can stand in our shadow, and wallow in the darkness,
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It is OUR choice." -Rev. Basil

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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Jikan » Sat Feb 23, 2013 3:23 pm

Excellent topic.

Soka Gakkai International has done more than any other Buddhist organization in welcoming people of color into practice. Rosa Parks! A sitting US Congressman from Georgia! We'd do well to investigate carefully just what SGI has done well in this regard, and learn from their successes.

It would also be important to listen to the voices of African Americans who do practice Dharma to find out what needs to happen in the future, rather than presupposing solutions chock-a-block. Here is a selection of such voices:

http://urgyensamtenling.org/index.html

http://books.google.com/books?id=AUq3-m ... navlinks_s

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_hooks

http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?o ... ew&id=1741

http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/acharya/gferguson.php

I know I've missed a great many here...
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Indrajala » Sat Feb 23, 2013 3:56 pm

Is this a western problem, or really just America?
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Knotty Veneer » Sat Feb 23, 2013 4:42 pm

I think there may be several reason why black people (sorry cannot bring myself to use the silly US "people of color" phraseology) feel less attracted to Buddhism in the West. Buddhism in the US and in Europe is largely made of members of the white college-educated left-leaning middleclass as we all know and that is a tough group to integrate with if you are not from that background. My suspicion is that class and education play a more significant factor than skin color. The black people who I have met at dharma centres were all graduates with good jobs.

I think there are also historical reasons - particularly in the West. The hippy revolution that turned so many on to Buddhism and other Eastern religions was largely a whites only phenomenon. I suspect one does not get too many black people in the Hare Krishna movement either. US blacks in the 60s and 70s were more interested in overcoming segregation than finding a guru. So there is no recent cultural precedent. In addition, there has also been new religious movements based around Islam and Ethopian Orthodox Christianity such as Rastarfarianism which have evangelized directly to Western black people who have grown weary of Christianity.

Sokkai Gakkai's success in black communities has been the result of their evangelizing in the music industry and the attraction of several leading black musicians to their ranks - most notably Tina Turner.

Do Buddhist groups need to specifically evangelize particular ethnic or religious groups (how many former muslims practising Buddhism do you know? or poor white baptists?). I'm not sure. If it is a sign that there is a latent racism or exclusivity in Buddhist groups in the West - that is a serious issue and one we need to address.
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby kirtu » Sat Feb 23, 2013 7:53 pm

Knotty Veneer wrote: The black people who I have met at dharma centres were all graduates with good jobs.


Could be but two of the eight African-American people I have met (to put this in perspective, I'm not that friendly and have to work at meeting people - borderline Aspergers) at Dharma centers were not (there were also more than just eight African-American people at these several groups but clearly < 1/15th of the groups even in NYC). One person is a alternative/skater young man from DC and the other is a health care worker who was a student of Trungpa Rinpoche. This friend (who is nicknamed in some Sakya centers Virupa because he looks a bit like Virupa and he's a Dharma wildman) actually said that Buddhism is just not on the radar of most African-Americans.


If it is a sign that there is a latent racism or exclusivity in Buddhist groups in the West - that is a serious issue and one we need to address.


I'm uncertain about latent racism. Exclusivity, definitely.

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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby kirtu » Sun Feb 24, 2013 5:52 pm

Huseng wrote:Is this a western problem, or really just America?


It's a western problem. How many Gypsys are in the practice centers in German, Polish, Czech, Slovak place? How many North Africans are welcome in French centers, etc? I don't know the answers because I no longer live in Europe and haven't for a while but on trips to Austria and Germany for Kalachakra in 2006 and 2007 there were no minorities per se aside from Asian's. Are there any First Nation people's in practice center's in Canada? I've heard of some but is there a story there? How about Black Canadians (I forgot to ask my African-American-Canadian relatives in Toronto what they call themselves but I only met them once)?

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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby JKhedrup » Sun Feb 24, 2013 6:06 pm

To explore the Asian side of things(as they are also classed as people of colout) I have found that there is a sort of racist attitude on the side of (White) Western Buddhists who pejoritavely refer to "Ethnic Buddhism". It is almost an attitude of condescension.

I am very aware of the benefits that "Asian Buddhists" bring to the table.

1. They were born into Buddhism. So there is less of that "I'm Mr/Ms Special Pants" attitude you get with Western converts.

2. In many cases they can read traditional texts in their source language.

3. They support the temples wholeheartedly- they don't approach Buddhism as a commodity "I'll pay for that course because then I get to do that practice"etc.

4. They generally appreciate the role of monastic Sangha and don't have the sometimes hostile attitude towards monastic ordination you find in Western converts.

I am fully aware that especially in my tradition if it weren't for faithful practitioners in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and overeseas Asian communities, the monasteries that train our teachers would not be able to maintain the students in a way that lets them study and practice deeply full time.

For this reason, I really think we should re-evaluate the label "ethnic Buddhism".
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Nighthawk » Mon Feb 25, 2013 12:44 pm

Majority of African Americans just simply don't have the time and money as privileged whites do to study and be educated about other religions other than their own religion which is mainly protestant Christianity.
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Astus » Mon Feb 25, 2013 12:55 pm

kirtu wrote:
Huseng wrote:Is this a western problem, or really just America?


It's a western problem. How many Gypsys are in the practice centers in German, Polish, Czech, Slovak place? How many North Africans are welcome in French centers, etc? I don't know the answers because I no longer live in Europe and haven't for a while but on trips to Austria and Germany for Kalachakra in 2006 and 2007 there were no minorities per se aside from Asian's. Are there any First Nation people's in practice center's in Canada? I've heard of some but is there a story there? How about Black Canadians (I forgot to ask my African-American-Canadian relatives in Toronto what they call themselves but I only met them once)?

Kirt


Gypsies are often considered people who cannot integrate into the larger society. It's not simply a matter of skin colour but they are often considered a separate nation/ethnicity. Nevertheless, in Hungary there is a Buddhist community specialising in gypsies: http://www.jaibhim.hu/ Note that this group works among very poor people. So I'd say that it's not really a matter of colour but social status that decides how much one can relate to Buddhism at its current status. It is not the religion for working class. SGI provides a simple teaching with simple goals and active evangelising, so it works (at least in America).

Another unfortunate factor, at least in Hungary, is that the form of Buddhism that is popular among lower class people is often mixed with nationalistic ideals, something that gypsies can hardly relate to.
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Yudron » Mon Feb 25, 2013 4:29 pm

JKhedrup wrote:To explore the Asian side of things(as they are also classed as people of colout) I have found that there is a sort of racist attitude on the side of (White) Western Buddhists who pejoritavely refer to "Ethnic Buddhism". It is almost an attitude of condescension.

I am very aware of the benefits that "Asian Buddhists" bring to the table.

1. They were born into Buddhism. So there is less of that "I'm Mr/Ms Special Pants" attitude you get with Western converts.

2. In many cases they can read traditional texts in their source language.

3. They support the temples wholeheartedly- they don't approach Buddhism as a commodity "I'll pay for that course because then I get to do that practice"etc.

4. They generally appreciate the role of monastic Sangha and don't have the sometimes hostile attitude towards monastic ordination you find in Western converts.

I am fully aware that especially in my tradition if it weren't for faithful practitioners in Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and overeseas Asian communities, the monasteries that train our teachers would not be able to maintain the students in a way that lets them study and practice deeply full time.

For this reason, I really think we should re-evaluate the label "ethnic Buddhism".



What would you suggest calling centers, for example in the U.S., built and frequented by people from an Asian country, where only the language of heir country is spoken, and which serves as a social hub for their community?
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby JKhedrup » Mon Feb 25, 2013 6:55 pm

There must be another word.

The word itself is not the main problem. The main problem is when Western Buddhists and scholars use the term "ethnic Buddhism" it is often with a sort of belittling attitude. "Ethnic Buddhists don't meditate", "They just do rituals" etc. The pejorative association has made the word a problem. As a white man I don't know how much I can really say about this topic, so I would quote from this website:

The website "Angry Asian Buddhist" although it has an unappealing title and the author is, as the title indicates, a hothead, makes some points that should give us pause:

http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com/2012/ ... oblem.html

I wish people would stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists.” Lewis Richmond did it again today when he referred to Asian Buddhists as “ethnic Buddhists” in his Huffington Post article. His categorization of the Buddhist community into “ethnic and non-ethnic Buddhists” is a crude version of Charles Prebish’s already crude “two Buddhisms” model. Prebish himself is no stranger to the term “ethnic,” which he recently used to refer to Asian Buddhist communities in a Tricycle blog piece.


http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com/2012/ ... .html#more
Todd’s Two Buddhisms are dubbed “ethnic Buddhism” and “Westernized Buddhism,” and he describes each group by their usual stereotypes. Ethnic Buddhism, for example, is “practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English.” This assertion is incredible. According to the Canadian Census, the vast majority of Asians in British Columbia speak English, so why does Todd propose that Asian Buddhists are so much more unlikely to speak English than their non-Buddhist counterparts?
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I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Yudron » Mon Feb 25, 2013 7:13 pm

Thank you for the post. I think Asian Buddhist is a fine term. I also think it's wonderful that Asians are building temples all over the Western world.

Of the three majority Asian centers I have visited, people definitely were serious about the study and practice of Buddhism at two of them http://www.buddhagate.org/and http://www.cttbusa.org/ (which is unique). Both these attract some caucasians. The third one http://www.watbuddha.org/about-us/ I visited a long time ago, and it seemed to be more oriented -- at the time -- to the support of a few Thai monks, a beautiful temple, and Thai community programs.

JKhedrup wrote:There must be another word.

The word itself is not the main problem. The main problem is when Western Buddhists and scholars use the term "ethnic Buddhism" it is often with a sort of belittling attitude. "Ethnic Buddhists don't meditate", "They just do rituals" etc. The pejorative association has made the word a problem. As a white man I don't know how much I can really say about this topic, so I would quote from this website:

The website "Angry Asian Buddhist" although it has an unappealing title and the author is, as the title indicates, a hothead, makes some points that should give us pause:

http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com/2012/ ... oblem.html

I wish people would stop calling us “ethnic Buddhists.” Lewis Richmond did it again today when he referred to Asian Buddhists as “ethnic Buddhists” in his Huffington Post article. His categorization of the Buddhist community into “ethnic and non-ethnic Buddhists” is a crude version of Charles Prebish’s already crude “two Buddhisms” model. Prebish himself is no stranger to the term “ethnic,” which he recently used to refer to Asian Buddhist communities in a Tricycle blog piece.


http://www.angryasianbuddhist.com/2012/ ... .html#more
Todd’s Two Buddhisms are dubbed “ethnic Buddhism” and “Westernized Buddhism,” and he describes each group by their usual stereotypes. Ethnic Buddhism, for example, is “practised mostly by Asian immigrants, most of whom cannot speak English.” This assertion is incredible. According to the Canadian Census, the vast majority of Asians in British Columbia speak English, so why does Todd propose that Asian Buddhists are so much more unlikely to speak English than their non-Buddhist counterparts?
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon Feb 25, 2013 7:15 pm

May I ask if there are any "African Americans or people of color" reading this thread who would be willing to share their thoughts on this issue?
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Knotty Veneer » Mon Feb 25, 2013 8:54 pm

Astus wrote:Gypsies are often considered people who cannot integrate into the larger society. It's not simply a matter of skin colour but they are often considered a separate nation/ethnicity. Nevertheless, in Hungary there is a Buddhist community specialising in gypsies: http://www.jaibhim.hu/ Note that this group works among very poor people. So I'd say that it's not really a matter of colour but social status that decides how much one can relate to Buddhism at its current status. It is not the religion for working class. SGI provides a simple teaching with simple goals and active evangelising, so it works (at least in America).

Another unfortunate factor, at least in Hungary, is that the form of Buddhism that is popular among lower class people is often mixed with nationalistic ideals, something that gypsies can hardly relate to.


I think the jaibhim group are associated with the Triratna Buddhist organization (formerly FWBO). This is a really inspiring project and they deserve all credit for it. In many respects the Roma gypsies are Europe's Dalits. And this group seems to be building on the work the FWBO has done in India with Ambedkarite groups.

I think to some degree the forms of Buddhism that have become popular in the West are inherently if unintentionally elitist. Let me explain what I mean by that. I mean they tend to require a lot of dedication and study. Only those who have the time and the leisure to devote themselves to study and meditation can really make any headway. And, without the supportive social structures one finds in Buddhist countries in the East, that's easier if you have money and an education - are a member of a social elite. Unlike Islam or Christianity it is not enough simply to believe and follow the rules.

However we always need to make sure the door is open for anyone who wants to follow the Buddha's teaching.

I don't know who the other group you are referring to is but, given that it is Eastern Europe, I can guess. That a so-called Buddhist group can harbor such deluded political aims saddens me.
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby RikudouSennin » Mon Feb 25, 2013 9:57 pm

dzogchungpa wrote:May I ask if there are any "African Americans or people of color" reading this thread who would be willing to share their thoughts on this issue?


money is the #1 concern for people of color in america, where at the bottom as far as the progress of community goes, so most black folk dont care about things that will take eons to happen.

It has to do with vibes, most dharma centers dont offer the vibe we(black americans) resonate with. it's too uptight most the time, but i always shake things up :D

most black folks are christian,so they can care less about buddha.
most black folks dont know about the dharma, because there is no presence in our community, plus its expensive to do alot of the things. even if we could afford more than likely there is something more pressing that deserves the money.

these are my personal views.

peace

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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby dzogchungpa » Mon Feb 25, 2013 10:28 pm

RikudouSennin wrote:money is the #1 concern for people of color in america, where at the bottom as far as the progress of community goes, so most black folk dont care about things that will take eons to happen.

It has to do with vibes, most dharma centers dont offer the vibe we(black americans) resonate with. it's too uptight most the time, but i always shake things up :D

most black folks are christian,so they can care less about buddha.
most black folks dont know about the dharma, because there is no presence in our community, plus its expensive to do alot of the things. even if we could afford more than likely there is something more pressing that deserves the money.

these are my personal views.

peace

:heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart:

So, from your point of view, practically speaking, is there anything that American buddhists could do about this?
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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby RikudouSennin » Mon Feb 25, 2013 10:38 pm

:heart: :heart:
dzogchungpa wrote:
RikudouSennin wrote:money is the #1 concern for people of color in america, where at the bottom as far as the progress of community goes, so most black folk dont care about things that will take eons to happen.

It has to do with vibes, most dharma centers dont offer the vibe we(black americans) resonate with. it's too uptight most the time, but i always shake things up :D

most black folks are christian,so they can care less about buddha.
most black folks dont know about the dharma, because there is no presence in our community, plus its expensive to do alot of the things. even if we could afford more than likely there is something more pressing that deserves the money.

these are my personal views.

peace

:heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart: :heart:

So, from your point of view, practically speaking, is there anything that American buddhists could do about this?


to be honest i think if there was a black person who reached levels of advancement, and could testify to the turth of the buddhas teachings, then there will probbably be more intrest. or a preacher who can reach the ears of those who want to listen.

there has to be trust, which is hard considering segregation and slavery wasnt so long ago, we are the children of the slaves, some people say it was sooo long ago, get over it, but this will take time.

:shrug: more fun and dancing

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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby Sara H » Mon Feb 25, 2013 10:44 pm

Nighthawk wrote:Majority of African Americans just simply don't have the time and money as privileged whites do to study and be educated about other religions other than their own religion which is mainly protestant Christianity.


This, and what RikudouSennin said, basically echo's what I've heard elsewhere.

The problem seems to be making it easily accessable, and making it affordable.

To ALL,

The simple truth is a lot of Dharma centers charge more than most people who are on limited incomes can afford.

Hundreds of dollars for a retreat? That goes a long ways towards paying one's monthly bills when you're low income.

If someone has kids, it's even more unlikely they can afford that.

There are a lot of Dharma centers in cities, but the question seems to be how to make it affordable?

We can't keep charging money for all these things if we truly want to spread the Dharma, and let it become a homegrown religion.

It's not truly going to be transplanted here, until people of all income backgrounds can have access to it.

Whether it's Zen or Tibetan, or otherwise, Retreats need to be free.

Even Dharma books, you know, that's a big source of income for some centers, the Dharma should be free.

If the teacher isn't quality enough where people want to support their teaching on Dana, then maybe they arn't a good teacher.

I think we need to take a hard look at this, it's been mentioned in the Tibetan section that low-income practitioners get a raw deal in Tibetan Buddhism in the west, and I don't think much of Zen is drastically different, although there are in some cases more Zen centers, which makes access easier.

The Dharma is not a product.

It's there for the sake of all living things.

Should we really be charging money for it?

Sell some "Zen Paintings" or something, get a second job, if you need to support the center as a Priest, but I don't think we should be charging money for it. I feel like It's unethical.

It's keeping many people away from the Dharma.

It's really simple. If money and cost is a barrier to getting access to the Dharma, then we need to make cost a non-issue.

It can be done. And there are ways to do it, people have done it.

In Gassho,

Sara
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IT IS OUR CHOICE
We can stand in our shadow, and wallow in the darkness,
OR
We can turn around.
It is OUR choice." -Rev. Basil

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Re: African Americans & people of Color, & Buddhism in the W

Postby hornets » Mon Feb 25, 2013 10:46 pm

In my broad and chequered personal history of checking out Buddhist groups in England, the few 'non-white' people I met who were regular attendees were either students or graduates in Professional jobs and from an Asian rather than an African dominant DNA setting.

I've discussed this topic quite a bit with friends of different skin tones and we think for us it's not a colour or race thing that puts people like us off, it's the patronising and sometimes sneery tone of certain British Buddhists who clearly consider themselves to be your educational- or economic superiors. Sadly, in my experience and that of a number of people I know, some, not all, British Buddhists don't exactly make you feel welcome. Superficially welcoming, perhaps, sometimes, but you can always tell.

(Don't forget, I'm writing from a British perspective, in a British context.)

As weird as it may sound, the most socially-awkward-in-front-of-ethnics people we have ever come across are white, 'middle class' left-leaning 'right on' liberals, who possibly/probably send money to African relief funds, pay for Indian kids to have cataract operations, etc etc.

A Dharma-minded black friend of mine has attended a number of different Buddhist groups in the city and surrounding area he lives in and basically says he has faith in Buddhadharma but can in no way be arsed with 'British Buddhism' at this present time. I think that's such a shame. He regularly skypes and emails teachers and practitioners of his preferred school thousands of miles away instead. He's the only black (as in Africa/Caribbean) man I know personally who considers Buddhism of any relevance or importance to his life.

I have heard from a friend who worked as an IT lecturer in Young Offenders Institutes (British prisons for children and young adults) that it is believed that (he thinks) Therevadan Buddhist Monks and laypeople are making small but significant and positive inroads in YOI's and Prisons and in particular with black male inmates. Can anyone reading this actually verify this? If true then like in Sara H's OP, 'Black British Buddhist' for the most part sadly means 'British Prison Buddhist'. Or perhaps it's great that the Dharma is breaking out of it's traditional UK setting. I dunno.
hornets
 
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