Dharma Family Values reviewed

In such conversations it is profoundly humbling for me to see that each of us has something that the other desperately needs.

Over the past month, and for many months to come, I am in the middle of Dissertation Writing Mode. My dissertation is all about American Buddhism, or, more to the point, the declining significance of the academic classificatory term “American Buddhism” in the face of rising globalization, a case I make by examining American Buddhist ritual structures and their relationships to the formation of community. But, I digress.

There are two continuing trends (or, serious problems) that keep rearing their heads in all of this. One is the idea that there are two distinct communities of American Buddhists — white coverts and Asian immigrants &#151 who seem to never talk to one another. The other is that a lot of people who are doing research and writing on the subject invariably ignore the later in favor of the former. I say this is a problem because it seems to me that just because you’re the member of a predominately Asian group of Buddhists doesn’t mean you’re not American. Right? Particularly if you’re a fourth or fifth generation Chinese or Japanese American who’s (a) never been to Asia and (b) only speaks English. But, again, I digress.

I came upon on article from Tricycle this morning that speaks to this issue. Well, actually, it speaks to this weird fascination the folks at Tricycle seem to continue to have with the Zen convert community to the almost complete exclusion of the immigrant community. The article, Dharma Family Values by Clark Strand, is all about how convert communities don’t have the usual rituals in place to deal with birth, marriage, and death, as well as a lot of cyclical holidays, that other religions do. This is a problem for raising families, the author argues, because it’s here that we’re able to bring children into the fold, to teach them how to be Buddhists, and as a matter of practicality, create new Buddhists to carry on the tradition into the future.

And I agree. But let me be clear. I agree that ritual and celebration are the primary ways that religions socialize groups and thereby guarantee future success as religions because they’re making new followers, i.e., children. (But I’m not going to weigh in on whether or not Buddhists should be socializing children because (a) I don’t have children yet and (b) this is really a conversation I need to have with my wife first, the blogosphere second.) What I disagree, vehemently, about is that Buddhism doesn’t already have these rituals and celebrations built in.

I find it incredibly ironic and downright sad that Mr. Strand spends all of his time lamenting lack of ritual within Buddhist communities (read, Zen convert communities, this is an important distinction) and goes to his Christian and Jewish friends looking for advice. Meanwhile, just down the street no doubt, at this local Shinshu or Chinese or Thai temple, there’s all sorts of “cultural trappings” that will suit the bill just fine. For just one example, at my temple, the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, we’ve got a dozen holidays we celebrate each year including Bodhi Day, Hanamatsuri, and even New Years and Halloween (with all appropriate Buddhist twists). Funerals? We’ve got those in spades. And not just funerals but monthly memorial services as well as an annual trip to the cemetery in Colma. This past summer, guess what I had? A Buddhist (themed) wedding. We’ve got “confirmation” rituals where babies are welcomed into the community and given a Buddhist name. And if that wasn’t enough, we’ve even got Sunday Dharma School where kids get to learn all about Buddhism.

What I find troubling about the article is that the author looks outside Buddhism for how to be a Buddhist. He doesn’t consider that Buddhism somehow managed to be a thriving religion across Asia for two and a half millennia before landing on North American shores. Surely it’s dealt with this issue before. And, therefore, surely it’s come up with some solutions.

In other words, Buddhism is about a whole lot more than sitting on a cushion. And it always has been.

So, of this point I will say the following: Mr. Strand, the Dharma Family Values you’re looking for are already present in your own tradition. There is no seeking outside.

However, there’s something else in this article that I think needs to be drawn to the fore. He ends the article with that one-liner I quoted up there. And although he’s talking about Buddhist and Christians and Jews, I think this sentiment is actually quite well-suited for just Buddhists and Buddhists. Or, more to the point, convert communities and Asian-American communities.

Despite all the aforementioned rituals and ceremonies, it’s also true that membership has been declining in American Shinshu for some time, that our communities are getting older just like the Christian and Jewish communities that Mr. Strand talks about. (Although, there are some people who disagree with this but that’s a subject for a different time.) We have a similar problem of getting people to stay with the communities after they come of age. And we’re deeply divided on what to about it.

It would seem, then, that the convert and Asian communities both have something the other needs. The convert communities are looking for models of Buddhist education for children, for ritual and ceremonial structure. The Asian communities are looking for ways to keep grown-ups in the communities, ways to keep Buddhism relevant in their lives after they come of age. The convert communities are doing pretty well on that front, at least as well as the Asian communities are doing on the ritual front.

See where I’m going with this?

It seems to me that the necessity of convert and Asian communities actually start talking to one another is long over-due. Mr. Strong is absolutely right about one thing, one thing all Buddhists in this country ought to be concerned about: we must change or American Buddhism will become increasingly irrelevant.

[cross-posted to the DharmaBlog at the DharmaRealm.]

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13 thoughts on “Dharma Family Values reviewed

  1. Hi, Scott:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reaction to my article in the current issue of Tricycle. Sounds like we might have an interesting dialogue on this subject. Though I didn’t mention it in the article, over the years I have had extensive contact with the so-called “ethnic” Buddhist community in the United States, including the Buddhist Churches of America, the leadership of which I remain on generally good terms with.

    Moreover, I think you will find that, among those who write for Tricycle, I am probably more connected to and more familiar with Asian Buddhist communities in the U.S. than most. If you contact the leadership of the various organizations, you’ll generally find that I have consulted with them at some point (sometimes at their suggestion and sometimes at mine) on how the interests of the convert and ethnic communities might come together. More often than not, I have suggested ways in which the various ethnic Buddhist organizations might refine and extend their efforts at outreach. That is because ethnically-oriented Buddhist groups in America tend to be much further along the curve towards marginalization than their convert counterparts at this point, a downward trend I have tried, with mixed results, to help them think their way out of.

    You need not post this reply on your blog, although you are welcome to if you wish. I think the fact that you are writing your dissertation on the subject is reason for hope that Buddhism will mend its nets in time and find a lasting place in the West.

    Very best wishes,
    Clark Strand

  2. Thanks for your response to my post about your article.

    First, I’d like to clarify that my response to your article should not be taken as a personal attack. The point of my post was to respond to the issues and ideas you raised in your original article, which I agree with. For the most part. (Or at least, I agree with them more than those guys over at Thoughts Chase Thoughts..)

    Second, my usually ire for Tricycle is not about you, of course. Magazine are amorphous things with many editors who, collectively, through the interaction of their individual ideas, take on certain charactersitics. My opinion about Tricycle is that its target audience is and always has been white convert Buddhists who for the most part follow the Zen tradition. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just the magazine’s target audience. There are, in reality, a lot of white folks practice Zen in America. Why shouldn’t they have a magazine?

    I do take issue, however, with the claim that ethnically oriented Buddhist groups are further along toward “marginalization.” I take issue not because I think it isn’t true, but because I don’t know if it’s true. I think that would depend in part on how you’re defining “marginal.” I think this goes back to issues of what is “mainstream” in this country and what is not, and I think that for something to be marginal it has to lie outside that stream, correct? But then you’ve got to define mainstream. And I think that’s getting increasingly difficult in American pop-culture what with the rise of “user-generated” media (blogs, YouTube, etc., etc.) and declining significance of traditional media. Combine this with the way that traditional media co-opts formerly “marginalized” cultures, and I think you could reasonably make the case that “ethnic” groups may not be as marginal as one might think. Elements of their culture are all around us, right in front of us, and pretty easy to find.

    Finally, and this is the point that is nearest and dearest my heart, I think this division between white groups and ethnic groups is deeply problematic at best and betrays the underlying institutionalized racist attitudes not only of the academy (my background) but the mainstream Buddhist press (Tricycle, et al). Since that’s a pretty hefty claim, allow me to unpack.

    The division between these two groups is, in my view, a categorization scheme or heuristic. It’s a way for people to more easily talk about different groups of Buddhist. To the extent that there are, in reality, Buddhist groups that statistically have more white or more non-white members, it’s a useful heuristic. But its utility ought to end right there. The problem is that people then use this division to make statements about these groups in isolation from one another, and, more problematic, value judgments about different groups. One of the consequences of this division has been to claim that the predominantly white groups are “more American” than the predominantly non-white groups. This, to me, is hogwash. Like I mentioned in my original post, what is so “ethnic” or “un-American” about a national community of Japanese Buddhists which has been in operation since 1890? Whose members all speak English as their first language? Who are deeply embedded within the larger mainstream as industry, pop-cultural, and political leaders? How, exactly, is this marginalized?

    Without copying, verbatim, my dissertation here for you, I’ll end with my assessment that the problem is not that there aren’t different Buddhist communities in America that are composed of slightly different ethnic background. The problem is that we continue to assume that we are not effected by the same issues, not concerned with the same set of cultural problems (how to survive in consumer-capitalist America), not reacting to the same geo-political issues (war, the economy, the environment), not wrestling with the same problem of how to remain relevant in this country, or this world for that matter. In short, that we have nothing to say to one another.

    Of all the various religious organizations in the United States that are divided by race, oughtn’t the one which unequivocally proclaims non-duality be the one that can overcome the differences in skin color and work together?

    Please know that these final statements are, I’ll admit, slightly outside the focus of your original article. They’re really comments directed toward the larger Buddhist community. Ideas that float around in my head that were forced out by this discussion. And for that, I thank you!

  3. That’s a hefty response, which will take me some time to reply to, as you raise many different issues. For the time being I’ll just refer you to an article I wrote a few years ago on racial diversity in the SGI.

    Ooops. I’ve just discovered that the link to the free on-line version of that article no longer works. In any case, it appeared in the Winter 2003 Issue of Tricycle. If you have access to it, it might make for interesting reading on the issue of race in American Buddhism. I’m not sure what the “Thoghts Chase Thoughts” response to my article actually was (although I read it). I couldn’t make heads or tails of what he was trying to say about race in any case.

    On another note, I never take anything written for print (on line or off) as a personal attack. Especially not when the author has clearly taken what I have written seriously enough to craft a thoughtful response to it. Even the “Thoughts Chase Thoughts” post wasn’t a personal attack (um…even though I do seem to recall it saying something like “Why Clark Strand Must Change or Die”). Personal attacks are conducted in person, or by phone or email or personal letter and are usually heavy on feeling and light on rhetorical flourish. When they enter the public forum they become part of the literature of public debate.

  4. Really interesting post. I never heard of Strand until he came to speak at my temple earlier this year. Can’t say that I was inspired tremendously. I came to Buddhism in part to escape the maniacal grip of Christianity, and hearing him espouse Christian beliefs and practices really kind of turned me off.

    For my part, I’m trying to involve myself and my daughter as much as possible in the ritual cycles of Shinshu.

    There’s a little bit of ethnic divide at my temple, but even in the short year I’ve attended there, I’ve seen it diminish in little bits. Our O-bon festival was widely attended by people of all races & faiths, and our temple activities are just as likely to be white-heavy as they are to be Japanese-heavy.

  5. Hey Chiba,
    Thanks for your response. I feel like I ought to write someday about the Shinshu community in particular and my own experiences. You and others have made me think about this from time to time and I feel like I’m relatively quite on the subject.

    At any rate, I’m happy this post is generating so much interest! Welcome!
    scott

  6. For starters, Scott, labels are problematic. I am coming to you via America Online, which serves only a portion of those who get online, both in America and outside of it. I note too that you were curiously insisting on calling one of your webspaces “the buddhoblogosphere” when it seemed never to have been an apt description.

    “American Buddhism” is a label we have and it is used narrow, albeit inappropriately, for the converts in the US. I would be happy if someone would sort all the labels, making sure that there is one for everything and that it is appropriate. And I hope that then we will never again see the day when the National Biscuit Company [Nabisco] sells cigarettes in addition to crackers.

    My response to Strand’s latest article harkens back to his earlier rant that caucasian/white/convert/New/American Buddhism is not just racist, it’s worse than racist. I think that Clark Strand is being repeatedly knuckleheaded.

    Today’s kids are not attracted to rather-pointless rituals. Unlike kids of old, they have plenty of things that are both fun and educational to do. Besides, do we really want kids to get locked into Buddhism at an early point in life, in much the way kids get locked into many quite terrible Christian fundamentalist faiths? Don’t we want people to know what they’re doing, not because of force of a numbing life-long habit?

    In many ways, Buddhism seems much more visible than it ever has been. I am sure that it is not at risk of dying. Besides, the dharma never dies.

  7. Hey Tom,

    Perhaps it’s too early in the morning, but I’m not entirely clear what you’re driving at in your post. So, forgive me if my response to your response is not apt. But, here goes.

    First, I wholeheartedly disagree that the term “American Buddhism” is used for white convert Buddhists. Or, more to the point, I believe that using the term “American Buddhism” ONLY for white convert Buddhists is at best inappropriate (as you said) and at worst racist as it necessarily equates American-ness with whiteness. But, just because people use the term inappropriately doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use the term. Then again, I think we shouldn’t use the term at all, but for completely different reasons. Those reason are the subject of dissertation and not something I want to get into right here, right now.

    Speaking of my dissertation, many of the arguments I make in regards to American Buddhism are NOT directed at actual, living, practicing Buddhists who are wrestling with the day-to-day issues of being and practicing their religion. My comments are NOT directed at them. My comments are directed at the scholars and academics who study them (regardless of whether or not they are themselves Buddhists). This is an important distinction that I ought to make more clear more often. It’s important because the way scholars study their subject is often, well, fucked up. And that’s got nothing to do with Buddhism or Buddhism as it’s being practiced on the ground, so to speak.

    The question of whether or not people want ritual or whether or not we ought to be teaching our kids to be Buddhists before they’re old enough to know better is a tricky one. But I think that regardless of whether or not I or you or Clark Strand or anyone else on the planet is for or against these things isn’t going to change the fact that (a) people are making up rituals left and right and (b) people are teaching their kids to be Buddhists. So, given that reality, my response to Mr. Strand’s article was really why not use the pre-existing rituals within Buddhism rather than searching outside the tradition?

    I don’t know if Mr. Strand is being knuckleheaded or not. I don’t actually know him personally so all I have are his ideas some of which I think are on point and some of which I disagree with. But there’s one thing that I will defend to my death and that is that Buddhist self-rightousness is wrong wrong wrong. To clarify, the idea that there is some “right” way to practice Buddhism and that as a result “my” way is better or more correct and “your” way is stupid and lame and not really Buddhism and should be railed against and shunned and ridiculed is pointless and completely misguided. I mean, given all the crap in the world, given all the other religious zealots and hatred and animosity, oughtn’t the Buddhist all try to get along? I mean, who cares who’s practicing Buddhism or how? The only real question is are they practicing it with compassion and not beating people over the head with it? Yes? Well then good for them. And if not, then they’re being self-rightous and they ought to knock it off. But responding to that self-rightousness with self-rightousness isn’t going to make any of the self-rightousness go away.

    Thanks for your comments, Tom. This may be the most traffic my humble little site has gotten in the four-plus years I’ve been live!

  8. Scott,

    I’m not meaning to defend the use of “American Buddhism” for white converts to our religion in this country; I very much see your point that it creates the idea immigrant Buddhists are not American. I am only saying that we need another term and none has come along that has stuck.

    I will aviod getting into the territory of your dissertation except to say that language is problematic; there’s no Congress of English to sort things out and so we each are stuck using the terms that are out there, many of which we might say are sorry choices — only we shouldn’t say that because terms come into usage in strange, accidental ways, seldom by anybody’s choice.

    On another matter … if you use the term “racist” loosely, scattering it about, I think it is unfortunate. “Racist” is a fighting word and should be used only in an appropriate way. I would doubt that there are many racist Buddhists in America. Strand’s words from three years ago were ridiculous, saying that white sanghas in the US were overtly racist.

    I don’t object to how people choose to practice Buddhism, but I am very troubled with the idea of creating or using rituals as a honeypot to catch unsuspecting children. Buddhist rituals never have been nor should they ever be used to improve marketshare. Buddhism traditionally does not use coercive means to capture members. Indeed, it is very admirable — and perhaps even a mark of how repectful so very many Boomer Buddhists are — that so many children of Boomer Buddhists learn to think on their own and are especially free to make their own choices. We should be teaching our children HOW to think, not WHAT to think. Were that parents in other religions were as kind and compassionate as the average white Boomer Buddhist parent.

  9. Tom,

    Yes, yes, yes, to your comments. Thank you!

    However, to clarify. I use the term “racism” or “racist” or might suggest that groups or institutions (even Buddhist ones, gasp!) are racist in the sociological sense of the word. From this perspective, we can’t reduce racism to an irrational form of bigotry or ignorance because racism has little to do with individuals, their intentions, or their stupidity. Rather, the sociological definition of the term usually says something along the lines of racism as a social system which privilege one race over another. I think the “privilege” is the important bit here. From Wikipedia (I know I know, but it’s too early to actually pick up a book!) I pulled this definition from David Wellman: racism is a set of “culturally sanctioned beliefs, which, regardless of intentions involved, defend the advantages whites have because of the subordinated position of racial minorities.” Note the “regardless of intentions.”

    This is not to say that white Buddhists are intentionally being assholes. It just means that we live in a society that favors whites folks over black folks. I’m sure we could debate the specifics of this or we could invite a Pat Bucchanan in here to take up the cause of the poor disenfranchised white folks, but from where I’m sittin’, white folks like me have got it pretty good in America and my friends of color keep getting pulled over for diving while black. This has nothing to do with individuals but rather with social systems which assume certain things about certain groups of people.

    For me, the point of calling attention to race in Buddhist communities (American or otherwise) should simply be to acknowledge that even though we’re participating in an “enlightened” religion doesn’t necessarily mean we, as individuals, are enlightened and that the social systems and institutions we create might do a better job at acting out what we preach. You know. Mindfulness. Compassion. Non-duality. All that good Buddhist stuff! What we should not use this knowledge to feel guilty or beat other Buddhists over the head. That, after all, is the epitome of self-rightousness.

    Anyway, that’s my racism rant.

    s

  10. I am roughly aware of the definition of ‘racism’ you refer to. I think it is unfortunate and not the usual way the word is used. Where’s the Congress of English, when I need it? I think that words that have strident meanings, often take on a diluted form of what they were and it creates problems.

    One of the problems is that using racism as you do hypes an argument if a word has two diffent magnitudes dependent upon who hears it. A charge of “racism” is extraordinarily powerful and potentially toxic. It is a discussion ender; not something that can foster understanding, whatever the degree to which the charge is valid.

    Three years ago, Strand accused Buddhists of being racist without even vague examples of what he was talking about. I think that if anyone intends to change a culture they have to offer people a rather-concrete template of what an other/better/idealized-yet-realistic environment would be. That’s hard, I know. Culture is foggy with lots of subtext and subtle communication going on. But I would bet a lot of Buddhists would, like me, tend to immediately view a charge of extensive racism in Buddhism in America as mostly ridiculous. It may be unfair, but you have a burden to meet showing that what you believe isn’t shrill and doesn’t come from a view that Ken Wilber calls Boomeritis Buddhism that has its own network of thinking that is intolerant.

    Boomeritis Buddhism: http://wilber.shambhala.com/html/books/boomeritis/sidebar_h/index.cfm/

  11. The definition of racism I’m employing may not be the way it’s usually lobbed about in casual conversation, but it is a fairly standard definition used by people who study race and social structures. Perhaps, to help clarify, it’s better to think of it as “institutional racism.” When we stick that modifier on there it’s easier to see that we’re not talking about individuals behaving badly but rather individuals participating in larger institutionalized structures that favor one group over another.

    A prime example of this has been education in California. One of the things people talk about are SAT tests which, when I was applying to college, assumed a “normative” education. In short, not to belabor the point, SAT tests were written for white kids who got a better than average education. Poor and/or kids of color didn’t have the larger social context for the test to make sense and therefore couldn’t get into good schools. The argument then was that the educational system is a racist one because it rewards one group of students over another. Whether or not you agree with this argument is not my point, I’m just using it as an example to explain the difference between a definitions of racism as “you’re a closed-minded idiot” and institutional racism as “the system is working against people of color and we need to fix it.”

    That being said, I agree that often the term “racism” is a discussion ender. But why should it be? Is it because there is no racism in Buddhism or because people are uncomfortable with the possibility of racism in Buddhism? In my view, the things that make us uncomfortable do so for a reason and we really ought to examine them more closely.

    Furthermore, would you or would you not agree that racism exists in a more general way in our society? If you think racism exists in American culture in a more general way, why would racism suddenly stop at the door to the temple? Buddhist sanghas do not exist in some parallel universe where everyone’s happy and being nice and doing good stuff. Sanghas exist right here in this world and are, as a result, susceptible to the same promises and pitfalls of other social institutions. So, if you agree that racism exists in America you have to at least entertain the notion that racism might exist within Buddhism.

    Here’s a good article on African-American Buddhists published by the Shambhala Sun. I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this article put it points to an important issue for African-Americans: they’re experiencing the effects of discrimination even in Buddhist communities.
    http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1741&Itemid=0

    My point in all of this is not to accuse individual people or sanghas of knowingly and consciously being discriminatory or overtly racist. My point is that racism exists in America. If it exists in America, it must exist in our social institutions including Buddhist sanghas. Since Buddhism prides itself on being a religion which emphasizes compassion and self-reflection and honesty, then we, as Buddhists, ought to ask ourselves if our institutions are not perpetuating racist attitudes. This argument is not claiming that all Buddhists in America are hate-filled racists. It’s merely suggesting that we need to be honest with ourselves and change if change is in order.

    For example, in my own tradition, there are a number of Japanese members who would prefer that the Buddhist Churches of America remain a Japanese-only Buddhist group. Hey guess what? That’s a racist attitude. The response, I would argue, is to engage those people who want to exclude others in a compassionate way and then, as a Buddhist leader, go ahead and include non-Japanese people anyway and hope for the best.

    I really don’t see how I have a burden to meet, or how this idea is shrill or ridiculous. To sum up, what I am saying is that as long as racism exists in our larger culture, it might pop up in our Buddhism. To the extent that we ought to be honest about our religious lives, we ought to acknowledge that possibility. If you’ve already done that and belong to a sangha that isn’t racist in the slightest, good. Great! Wonderful! But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other institutions out there that still have work to do. To be quite honest, simply calling someone’s ideas shrill doesn’t make them so.

  12. The reason the term “racism” is a discussion ender is because if someone OR a sangha or institution is merely accused of being racist it is impossible to refute, by your terms. A person or institution can be smeared without there being substantive evidence. A person or institution can be destroyed that shouldn’t have been.

    Use of such a hyperbolic term can send things into the nutty realm.

    WHY was the SAT test racist (using your chosen definition of the word)? The people designing the test were insensitive and it made the test unfair. Or, I should say, less fair than it should have been — because the test, if we insist on using such a test — will be unfair.

    Also unfair, and blatently so, is this definition of the word racist, that you seem to like, that piggybacks on its established usage for overt race hate.

    I understand what you tell me that the second definition is “established” now, and that there is no other.

    And so, are you capable of seeing the ugly irony in all this?

    You object to the term “American Buddhist” — why, exactly?

  13. When I said that the definition of institutionalized racism is pretty much established in sociological or cultural criticism circles I meant just that. So, I’ll say it again in an attempt to be as precise as possible. This is a definition of “institutionalized racism,” not racism in general sense. This is a definition used within sociological and cultural criticism circles so that those scholars working with these issues have a common vernacular and know what the hell they’re talking about.

    That said, I’m also going to repeat that when I said there is the possibility that institutionalized racism exists within American Buddhist sanghas, I meant just that, a claim that I don’t think is hyperbolic and one that I think can be both substantiated and refuted. To whit. First, note how I said that the possibility exists. That’s a far cry from saying that all American Buddhists are a bunch of hate-filled bigots, which I would never claim. Second, when I talk with Buddhists of color who feel as though they are not welcome at certain sanghas because those sanghas make Buddhists of color feel uncomfortable or as though they are not welcome, the sociologist in me calls that phenomenon “institutionalized racism” because the definition says that institutionalized racism is a system that favors whites over people of color. A sangha that makes white folks feel comfortable but excludes people of color? What else would you call that.

    Let’s take a second and re-assert that what I just said is that I’m labeling a phenomenon as an act of institutionalized racism. I am not making the claim that the individual Buddhists within that particular sangha are racists. Do you see this distinction? Do you understand that I’m not using this word in the common vernacular now but in a specific academic sense? You can fault for me for that, but this is the nature of language. Words have different meanings in different contexts. The word “wave” is ambiguous until you stick in it a conversation about particle physics versus surfing versus fans at a football game.

    Back to the point. Just as I may be able to find a sangha that exhibits this behavior, I am just as likely to find its opposite: a sangha that is open and welcoming to everyone regardless of race, gender, class, whatever. Of the first sangha, the solution for that particular group is for its leadership to simply be mindful and honest with itself and change its behavior if it feels it’s necessary. If a particular sangha doesn’t need to change its behavior, then it shouldn’t. For example, if you come across an all-white sangha in the middle of a corn field in Nebraska which serves a community of a hundred people, two of whom are black Baptists, I wouldn’t charge that that sangha is racist simply because it’s all white. It’s simply serving the needs of its particular community. If, on the other hand, you have a sangha in the middle of the Tenderloin in San Francisco, I hope to hell it’s a bit more ethnically diverse because, well, so is the larger community.

    The only thing I am really saying, Tom, is that I wish sanghas would be open and honest to the possibility of their own shortcomings, whether those shortcomings are institutionalized racism, sexism, agism, or some other discriminatory act, however unintentional. I have seen and experienced these things in a number of sanghas, and it saddens me because it seems to me that Buddhists do a pretty good job of critical self-reflection and mindfulness. So I would like to see that extended to the nature and structure of our institutions as well. Again, this is not the claim that all American Buddhists (or even one particular American Buddhist) are in point of fact hate-filled bigots. It’s an acknowledgment that our institutions might not always be perfect.

    And if acknowledging that our institutions might not always be perfect is a conversation ender, well then I don’t have a lot of hope for Buddhism’s ability to change.

    As for “American Buddhism,” I’ll deal with that one in a bit.

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