Buddhist 'People Of Color Sanghas,' Diversity Efforts Address Conflicts About Race Among Meditators

Buddhism's Race Problem

This article is a part of Faith Shift, a Huffington Post series on how changes in demographics, culture, politics and theology are transforming religion in America. Find out more about it here. Previous articles have covered Muslims, Jews and Mormons.

SEATTLE -- They came from near and far on a Monday night last month for an unusual gathering in the city's chic Capitol Hill neighborhood, a place known for its vibrant restaurants, art galleries and gay bars, not for its diversity. They were nervous, confused and a bit scared. Should they — seven women of African-American, Native American and Asian descent — even be here?

None of them would use the same words to describe their race, but they were united around the colors of their skin. They entered a small church hall, sat in a circle, closed their eyes and faced their teacher, hungry for Buddhist wisdom.

"Challenge your notions," the 55-year-old woman with dreadlocks told them, sharing her journey as a black Christian turned Buddhist, a racial rarity among meditators. "I once thought there was something devilish and 'woo-woo' about this, that people would find out, that they would say bad things about me. There was a cultural 'I can't do this' thing. But I tell you: You can do it."

This class of Buddhist meditation was for beginners, tailor-made for minorities. Men could come, but the group happened to be women. No whites were allowed.

"Being an American Indian woman, I am judged all the time. I just feel more accepted if it's not white people telling me what to do, how to meditate," said Teresa Powers, a 54-year-old university researcher and mother of two who was drawn to the study of meditation after losing her job. "It's like I'm among my own."

Here in Seattle, one of the least racially diverse cities with one of the largest Buddhist communities in the country, a controversial movement in American Buddhism is forming. A handful of exclusive "people of color" Buddhist groups have started to meet each week, far away from the long-established — and almost entirely white — major Buddhist meditation centers that have dominated the Pacific Northwest's well-known Buddhist scenes. Many members, who have until now shied away from meditation and Buddhism, say practicing away from the white majority, among whom they say they don't feel welcome, has spiritually empowered them -- and they wouldn't have it any other way.

As the U.S. moves toward becoming a "minority majority" nation, the increasing awareness of multiculturalism has made its impact on many faiths, with churches, synagogues and mosques reaching out to recruit members of ethnic groups to broader reflect America's growing diversity. But in meditation-oriented Buddhism, one of the most popular and fastest-growing strains of this ancient religion -- now the fourth biggest spiritual practice in the U.S. -- one of the prime focuses is on letting go of any attachment to the individual self. The aim is to be one with the wider spiritual world in the pursuit of harmony, and ideally, that includes going beyond skin color differences.

Yet, the Seattle "people of color sangha (community)" is one of nearly a dozen that have been established across the U.S. in the last few years, many with support from some of the nation's most prominent Buddhist teachers. The sanghas' memberships vary from city to city, with black, Latino and Asian and Native American Buddhists often at the forefront.

Traditionally, Buddhism didn't make distinctions along racial lines -- 2,600 years ago, the Buddha traveled across ancient India to share his teachings with everyone from the nobility to the lowest classes. But throughout its history, dozens of sects, sub-sects and cultural variations have formed among Buddhists, and they've become separated by language and ethnicity, including the dominance of mainly white sanghas in the U.S.

People of color sanghas have met varying levels of resistance and success. Are they separatists? Or are they expanding the practice? During the height of the civil rights era, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that 11 a.m. at church is the most segregated hour in the U.S. But in 21st century America, should race continue to divide the religious?

"People say we're going against Buddhism," says Tuere Sala, the black Buddhist teacher who is one of the leaders of the movement in Seattle and taught the beginner's course in October. "They are kind of right. Only kind of."


The effort to make Buddhism more diverse and less divided is one of the biggest problems facing the religion in America today.

There are at least two million Buddhists in the U.S., and each usually falls into one of two camps. On one side are Asian-American Buddhists, who have been in the U.S. since the mid-19th century and whose numbers blossomed after 1965, when immigration quotas were lifted. About two-thirds of U.S. Buddhists are Asian, while one in seven Asians in the U.S. is Buddhist. Most Asian-American Buddhists practice at home, and small numbers also observe their faith at Buddhist temples, the kind known for their ornate architecture and large Buddha statues. Studies have found that most Asian-American Buddhists seldom or never meditate. Their practice of the faith includes venerating ancestors, spiritually observing holidays such as Lunar New Year and doing yoga, and most believe in nirvana and reincarnation.

The second camp of Buddhism is made up largely of white converts, who count for about a third of U.S. Buddhists, but whose practice of the faith has arguably seen the most cultural popularity. This group, which mostly focuses on meditation, has its origins in Tibetan, Zen and Vipassana traditions that were popularized by a handful of white Americans who traveled to South and east Asia to learn from Buddhist masters as interest in alternative spirituality peaked during the countercultural movements of the 1960s. The Vipassana ("insight") tradition has become one of the most successful because of its secular appeal. The practice hinges on the idea of "mindfulness," which is accomplished through meditation techniques, and is focused on centering and grounding one's self in the current moment to see true reality. For many non-Buddhists, it's stress-reduction. For Buddhists, it's on the path toward self-awakening.

"Outside of these people of color sanghas, many of the Buddhists who claim to meditate are not Asian-Americans. And many Euro-Americans who are Buddhist would place meditation very high on the list. Most Asians would call it a small practice," says Sharon Suh, a professor of specializes in Buddhism, race and Asian-American spirituality at Seattle University. "There is an assumption that the Buddhism brought over by Asian-Americans is less authentic."

With a few exceptions, the two groups — mostly Asians and whites — do not mix. One of the main reasons is that while they may share a common name for their faith, their practices are often foreign to each other.

Buddhist leaders, long aware of their growing differences, have tried to unite themselves around what they share in common. One of the first efforts, a 1967 meeting of the World Buddhist Sangha Council -- an international group with representatives from nearly every nation where Buddhism had blossomed -- produced a statement of "basic unifying points."

"We consider that the purpose of life is to develop compassion for all living beings without discrimination and to work for their good, happiness, and peace; and to develop wisdom (prajñā) leading to the realization of Ultimate Truth," it said. "We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha."

It's taken time, but such conversations have begun to trickle down to on-the-ground action in places such as Seattle, a city both known for its liberal culture and its segregated populace. And though meditation-oriented Buddhists have yet to successfully integrate with more traditional Asian-American Buddhists from whom they adapted their practice, the meditators have recently tried to diversify among themselves, as Sala puts it, "at least make our practice less white, more open and more diverse."

Tuere Sala
Tuere Sala, ateacher at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, is part of a newmovement in the region to create "people of color" Buddhist meditationgroups that are exclusive to people who are notwhite.

Sala is a teacher at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society, one of the major and most well-known meditation-based Buddhist organizations in the Seattle metropolitan area, which is home to an estimated 40,000 Buddhists and dozens of Buddhist organizations and temples. With about 4,000 members, SIMS splits its classes and meditation groups between church buildings, yoga and art studios, and members' homes.

While the organization doesn't break down its membership numbers, it's leadership admits it's almost entirely made up of white Seattleites who skew in age toward 50 and above. Of 10 teachers listed on the SIMS website, only one besides Sala is not white. The situation has not changed much since her first time in the meditation hall 11 years ago, but her belief in the practice has grown. Over the last two years, Sala joined together with Bonnie Duran, a Native American Buddhist, the other non-white teacher at SIMS, with a lofty goal: to bring more minorities to the wider meditation community, but to draw them in on their own first.

"We need to bring the dharma beyond where it's been. We need to be able to teach the unusual practitioner, the outcast practitioner," Sala says. "You can't get to those deep places without someone there to guide you, to hold your truth while you take a chance with yourself."

Born in South Seattle in a largely black neighborhood, Sala grew up in public housing projects. Her younger years, she says, were full of violence. She was raped. She was abused by an ex-husband. As an adult, she was nearly always in financial ruin. Raised as a Missionary Baptist, she instantly turned to faith to cope with pent-up anger and emotional distress. For 15 years of her adult life living in Kansas City and Seattle, she hopped between Baptist, Presbyterian and Catholic churches.

Sala's Buddhist journey began with her own suffering and a resolve to improve her life, a path similar to that of many other Buddhists. She's practiced meditation for 20 years, and credits it for freeing her from emotional turmoil. Her life's goal, she says, is to bring Buddhist practice to those who are suffering. On weekends, she teaches Buddhism to prisoners, and has found herself spending vacation days from her day job as a criminal prosecutor to attend Buddhist retreats to be certified as a "community dharma leader." One day, she hopes to leave her job to be a full-time meditation teacher.

"Hopefully, to people like me," she says.


SIMS' largest meetings are on Tuesday nights, when about 100 experienced meditators come to St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in Capitol Hill for a weekly "sit" and dharma talk. A sit is exactly what it sounds like. In a semi-circle, members sit on cushions and in chairs in silence for 40 minutes. While most people would get lost in their own heads and daydreams in such a situation, the idea in meditation is to avoid any complex thoughts, often called "hindrances." Instead, the meditators are supposed to become aware of their own bodies and breathing, and pay attention to how one interprets the sounds and feelings around his or herself.

On a recent Thursday, Sala was one of seven non-whites in the crowd. Facing the group was Rodney Smith, a nationally known Buddhist teacher and former hospice caretaker who founded SIMS 19 years ago. After the meditation, Smith, who was trained in Thailand and Myanmar as a monk, gave a dharma talk, a Buddhist teaching, on one of his favorite topics: the Buddhist view of the body versus the spirit. Meditators, he said, too often get caught up in comparing themselves and their own spiritual progress to other people, a negative vortex of practice. For an hour, Smith told the crowd to let go of attachment to individuality, be it self-assessment based on outward appearances, career, money, power or something else entirely.

"What we are doing in our spiritual journey is we're transforming what we thought we were, which was the expression of ourselves in form, to spirit, the expression of ourselves formless."

But where would that leave race?

"You can see differences, I can see differences, but does it have to create an anxiety or stress? I would say no," Rodney, a silver-haired, slim 65-year-old, said later. But in the people of color sanghas, that's precisely the reason many give for joining: They feel anxiety, stress and a sense of being rejected by white Buddhists or are unable to find a connection to the established sanghas.

"So the people of color, they feel they are at the stage of their development where they feel they need special groups of people leading them who are the same ethnicity of themselves; they want to gather around that common factor of color to feel a sense of relaxation. They have had enough tension being in a broader society that is often prejudiced against them. So we give them that."

He meant it literally. Smith and the board of SIMS list Sala's people of color introductory class in their pamphlets and pay the rent for the church room it uses each week. "The point of dharma is to add a point of consciousness to the society, it doesn't do any good for just a group of people in Seattle or New York to do this, the point is to make the culture as a whole more conscious," he said. "And we began to think: Are there ways we are excluding people?"

That doesn't mean he's entirely comfortable with the idea of separate meditations.

"Buddhism goes against identity. Race is a very superficial way of looking at things," he said. "Hopefully at some point the (people of color) will be relaxed enough within their humanity to be able to come into a greater room full of people and feel that same degree of relaxation, but that's a stage of development and that can't be pushed or forced upon them. And at some point they do, like Tuere, she just naturally started to come [to the broader meditation groups]. But it may take long."

After almost a decade of meditating on her own, Sala began attending the main sangha at SIMS in 2001 at the invitation of a friend. She was immediately put off.

"We walked into this room and there were 60 white people. No black people. No people of color,” she said. “I did not want to stay … We had been there only five or 10 minutes, and a woman in the group began asking a question and talking about how she had transcended her body, and was looking at herself from the outside. It was way too 'out-there,' for me and it just seemed to reflect a whole different outlook on meditation than what I was used to. It was what I stereotyped white sanghas as, you know, a little hippie, a little self-involved."


The goal of "more diverse dharma," as Smith calls it, has proliferated across the nation in recent years. Race is just one factor, though the most easily seen in many cases. In places such as New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, though, diversity has become an ever wider effort. At the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, Calif., there are Buddhist groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender meditators, people with disabilities and those with allergies to perfumes. In New Mexico and Arizona, Buddhists and Native Americans have joined to launch meditation centers that combine teachings from both traditions and include traditional Native healing rituals. In western Massachusetts, meditation communities have formed "diversity councils" to recruit minority practitioners. In Atlanta, meditators thought separate meditation groups were too divisive, so they launched a broad campaign against all "the 'isms."

Rodney Smith
Rodney Smith is thefounder of Seattle Insight Meditation Society. "Buddhism goes againstidentity. Race is a very superficial way of looking at things," hesaid.

"My hope and imagination would be that we would have a few years of retreats for people for color and then there would be a much more obvious period when we were back together, but it seems to have been a naive thought early on," says Jack Kornfield, who is considered to be one of the first western Buddhist teachers to bring meditation techniques to the U.S. He has supported retreats and teaching groups for what he calls "marginalized or historically traumatized" communities for more than a decade, and at his Spirit Rock retreat center in the San Francisco area, a scholarship has been established for minorities who want to become Buddhist teachers.

"Some of that combining has started to happen. But there are other ways in which retreats for particular communities will be important for a long time," Kornfield continues.

A similar view is taken by some members of Salzberg's Insight Meditation Society, which has been at the forefront of funding and supporting diversity initiatives and exclusive people of color courses and retreats.

"Ultimately, I don't think it's anyone's vision to have lots of specialized retreats for all these groups of people, but to provide a genuine resource for everyone," said Salzberg, who co-founded the organization with Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein, and another well-known Buddhist teacher. "But I don't know when that will be the case."


In Seattle, a big city for Buddhism but nowhere near as popular or diverse as Los Angeles or New York when it comes to Buddhist practice, efforts to combine Buddhist communities are slowly beginning, though attempts at racial diversity are generally new.

In addition to their beginner's course, which ended in early November, Sala and many of her students attend a group called POCAS each week. It stands for "People of Color and Allies," and is made up black, Latino, Native American, Asian and white practitioners. They meet at the home of Duran, the Native American Buddhist who co-taught the beginner's course with Sala, and follow the same schedule as most meditation gatherings: a 40-minute sit, a dharma talk and socializing afterwards.

After a recent meditation and discussion on vedana, the Buddhist idea of the body and mind's sense of good, bad and neutral "feeling tones" in everyday life, the conversation turned, as it often does, to race. A woman passed around flyers for a conference about race relations that was coming to the city, while others reminisced over a shared experience the weekend prior, when dozens of Buddhists from the region joined for the region's first people of color retreat about two hours south of the city.

Conversations about race are almost as much a part of some people of color sanghas as meditation, and that can be a source of conflict. At the POCAS group, which was established 11 years ago, meditation was once secondary to talking about politics and race relations. Some members say the group ceased to be Buddhist at all. But in the last five years, it has refocused itself on Buddhist teachings.

At the recent meeting, the conversation alternated between discussions about Buddhist paths toward spiritual liberation and race. A few meditators began to discuss the merits of being separate from the bigger, whiter sanghas.

"I go to lots of places to meditate. I'm going to California next week (for a retreat of) Native American meditators, and the week after that, I'll be back at SIMS, where everyone's white. I just think there should be options," said Duran, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

"You know, I just feel like we're friendlier here. We can giggle, we don't have to be so serious about this meditation stuff all the time," said another woman, Barbie-Danielle DeCarlo, who almost exclusively meditates with people of color. "I just don't get the style in other places."

From across the living room, Sala chimed in: "Just make sure you keep doing it, wherever you go. Meditate. Be proud. And let the people of color out there know we're not the only ones."

This story appears in Issue 40 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 15.

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