American Buddhism widens its appeal in the age of #Black Lives Matter

Black Bodhisattvas at the recent first-ever gathering of Buddhist teachers of black African descent held at New York's Union Theological Seminary. (Photo by Garlia Cornelius)

In the century that followed the epochal messages brought to the United States by the reformist Hindu scholar Vivekananda near the end of the 19th Century, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 and in lectures around the county – the swami’s vision of Hinduism’s precepts and practices attracted many Americans.

It is a theme around which the author and spiritual counselor Philip Goldberg built his widely read 2010 book, American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. He had become “enchanted” by Hinduism in the 1960s, he explains in his introduction to the work.

“As I plunged deeper into my study and began practicing meditation and Yoga, my life changed for the better,” he wrote. “Soon I saw the same thing happening to others, then others, and others still.” He saw scholars, scientists, psychologists and others adopting Indian thought to their professions.

By the end of the 20th century, he wrote, “American spirituality as a whole had acquired a distinctively Eastern flavor; India’s influence had spread wider and penetrated deeper into the culture.”

It was also a time when all things Indian – music, classical dance, food and international fashion echoing Indian themes – had found a following in the West, producing a spate of breathless books about an unstoppable cultural diaspora.

Now it appears that more than a century after Vivekananda (and leaving aside the ageless dispute over whether Buddhism is no more than a sect morphed out of Hinduism) there are signs that in the West, the teachings of Buddhism from the Buddha, born as the princeling Siddhartha in what is now Nepal, to the Dalai Lama are more accessible and influential among a wider general public than the Hinduism that drew so many erudite intellectuals.

As India moves closer to a general election under the leadership of a prime minister who supports strident Hindu nationalism, and the U.S. sees its first Hindu-American, Tulsi Gabbard, join the 2020 American presidential race, many people will be curious about the faith and its place in society and politics, in both India and North America.

To outsiders, Hindus often appear to live in closed, defensive, highly stratified societies less open to change than Buddhism, that other great Eastern religion that arose in the Indian Subcontinent. Though the two may share practices, they are very different in the U.S.

Melvin McLeod, editor-in-chief of the journal Buddhadharma and the magazine Lion’s Roar (formerly Shambhala Sun) is a leading analyst of North American Buddhism. McLeod, who is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, recently wrote a fascinating essay on LionsRoar.com titled “After Baby Boomer Buddhism,” in which he said that his generation, rejecting conventional religions, thought Buddhism was all about “meditating until we found enlightenment, or something.”

That generation has passed, he added – “and that’s a good thing, because there were big problems with that particular version of Buddhism.”

Looking back, he wrote that “it was Buddhism for privileged people. It was by and for white, middle-class, college graduates, and didn’t serve people who suffered from injustice, financial pressure, or trauma.” In his view, it was incomplete.

“The good news is that today we are seeing the beginning of a more complete and beneficial Buddhism, one that meets both the needs of different communities and the full range of our needs as human beings,” he wrote, calling attention to the presence of Buddhist “churches” doing social work in the U.S.

Articles recently published in Lion’s Roar reflect that in an emerging Buddhism in the U.S., African American Buddhists are finding space to think about and rewrite Buddhism’s narratives within the framework of an egalitarian, open world view.

In 2017, Pamela Aye Yetunde, a pastoral counselor and community dharma leader in the Insight Meditation community, wrote in Lion’s Roar in an article titled “Buddhism in the Age of #Black Lives Matter” how black Americans find relevance in the stories surrounding Siddhartha Buddha’s life and thought.

“Their experiences can update Siddhartha’s story,” she wrote. “We can reflect on the ways the Buddha taught his followers to address people who slandered and physically attacked monks, as #BlackLivesMatters activists are being attacked.

“If we can remember that the transformation of suffering is a communal and collective endeavor, we can seek temporary refuge from the pain of racism for refueling purposes, but not for the illusion of safety. There is no absolute safety, as Siddhartha discovered, only relative moments of painlessness. This reality can inspire us to think about how we can tell the Buddha story in culturally relevant ways to other targeted populations.”

In October, Lion’s Roar organized the first gathering of Buddhist teachers of African descent at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. A transcript of question-and-answer sessions appears in the March 2019 issue of the magazine.

One of the teachers, Gina Sharpe of the Insight Meditation Center in New York was asked about Buddhism’s role in social justice and the political process. She stressed, as other American Buddhists do, that being a Buddhist is more than self-centered, cerebral practice.

“Sometimes we may think that a Buddhist life comes through the mind,” she said. “But actually it involves the mind, the body, and the heart. In some ways, we don’t even have to add the word ‘Buddhist.’ We’re just good people wanting the world to reflect what we feel inside. We’re not limited to our own liberation. Liberation is impossible if we’re disconnected from others.”

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Barbara Crossette was formerly the New York Times chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia, and the paper’s UN bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

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