Racial diversity is an issue in the development of Western Buddhism that I feel is often ignored. Recently I learned that a Buddhist conference is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles during July sponsored by Buddhist Geeks. Most of you readers are probably more familiar with this group than I am. I understand from my online reading that it’s a company, half for profit and half not, which basically operates a podcast aimed at “exploring trends in Western Buddhism.”
Well, diversity does not seem to be one of those trends. I don’t mean to beat up on the Geeks as I am sure they are fine people, but I do have some concerns about this upcoming conference which connect to some relevant issues. The conference is tagged with the line “Discover the Emerging Face of Buddhism.” Apparently, that face is decidedly Caucasian, because out of the 19 presenters they have thus far announced, only 3 are non-white. I wonder where are the African-American Buddhists, the Hispanic Buddhists? I know they are out there and some are monks and teachers. Asian Buddhists are also underrepresented as presenters. They are part of the West, too. In fact, here in Southern California where the conference is being held there are probably more Asian Buddhist temples and groups, not to mention teachers, than anywhere else outside of Asia itself. I find it difficult to believe that all Buddhist Geeks could find is one Tibetan and
one Japanese guy.
I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Others have blogged about the sameness of these faces, most notably a fellow who describes himself as Angry Asian Buddhist.
Ironically, the location for the conference is The University of the West in Rosemead, founded by a Asian teacher, Master Hsing Yun, also founder of the Taiwan-based Buddhist order Fo Guang Shan. For some further irony, look at the screen shot from the Buddhist Geeks site: UWest has studies you can afford, but you probably can’t afford to attend the conference there.
The Geek’s conference costs a whopping $400-$500 to attend, which leaves me, and most of the people I know, out in the cold. I realize that conferences of this sort are usually pricey, but I have to wonder about the value of a conference that only the well-heeled can attend and is so lacking in diversity.
Now, they don’t indicate if their conference has a theme or not, but from the tagline you would assume it has something to do with the development of Western Buddhism. Check out some of the topics to be discussed: Lessons From The Interdependence Project, The Mind-Body Connection…The Next Frontier, Meditation by Design, and The Three-Speed Transmission. My impression is that these are probably the pet projects and topics of the presenters themselves. They don’t seem to be topics dealing with the “emerging face of Western Buddhism”. So, combined with the high price, the whitebread look, there also seems to be a lack of cohesiveness and purpose.
I am concerned that we Western Buddhists, meaning white Buddhists, have the wrong priorities. I’d like to see conferences that focus on the problems real people face in their daily encounters with Buddhism, beyond the practice or philosophical aspects – topics that deal with questions on the minds of “rank and file” Buddhists and not the subjects that a small elite group of teachers and leaders want to discuss. Really, I think one pressing issue is how to wrestle Buddhism from the grip of so-called intellectuals and put it in the hands of the people who could most benefit from the teachings – everyday people.
Again, I want to be fair to the Geeks. I don’t know any of the background or what challenges they might be facing in pulling the conference off. Perhaps this is the best they can come up with, but I hope if they continue with this effort they will strive to do better.
I am waiting for the conference that has topics like these: Bringing Buddhist teachings to more rural areas. Creating better training and certification opportunities for those who want to be dharma teachers. How to start and maintain dharma/meditation groups. Making Buddhist groups more racially diverse. The ethical responsibilities of spiritual teachers. How to relate to traditional Buddhist customs, rites and ceremonies. The question of “cultural baggage”, gender issues and so on.
What the emerging face of Western Buddhism needs more than anything, besides diversity, is teachers. I don’t know how it is in other Western countries, but in the United States there are few avenues open to those who want to be dharma teachers and they are not very good. Perhaps, a degree in Buddhist studies from UWest is one way, but it seems rather limited.
We definitely need more teachers on the ground. We should to populate the cities and small towns of this nation with qualified dharma teachers, because the best mode of teaching is face to face, in real life, in brick and mortar sanghas, and they should be largely non-sectarian teachers acquainted with more than one tradition so that they can serve a diverse Buddhist community. This is not only a daunting challenge, but to my mind, an absolutely necessary one.
It’s not a gauntlet we pick up out of a desire to proselytize, but simply to make Buddhist teachings more accessible. Nothing wrong with that. We don’t have to become missionaries, but I do think we need to focus on the problem.
Buddhism was not meant to be a purely cognitive affair. Mindfulness should be coupled with action, and not just the politically “Engaged Buddhism” sort of action. We have a opportunity not only to reshape Buddhism so that is truly a living dharma, but also to put it into the hands of everyday people in a much more meaningful way than has ever been done before. We should have a burning desire to reach out to those who suffer the most in our society: the poor, the disenfranchised, minorities. If we can put chaplains in prisons, why can’t we put monks, nuns and dharma teachers in ghettos? It’s not something that can be done overnight, but something to aim for.
Buddhism must never become an instrument of power in the hands of great prelates or priests, however venerable these may be. It must present to all people the simple wisdom and truth of the Enlightened One and of all those great beings who followed in his footsteps and realized it for themselves in order to reinterpret it for their own times.
– Lama Anagarika Govinda