I just read an article that was originally posted on lionsroar.com titled “The False Comfort of the Familiar,” written by Jules Shuzen Harris. The article asks why people of color are not present in Buddhist sanghas. He states:
“There is a basic human tendency to seek comfort in the known, in a familiar world that mirrors our prior experiences. Because of this, people naturally tend to self-segregate and align themselves with others with whom they find similarity, familiarity, and comfort. As a result, we find a notable lack of significant racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in many communities—including Buddhist communities.”
I unfortunately agree completely with the above statement. We are still, to some degree, a tribal species, no matter how much we try not to be. My disagreement with Mr. Harris is that he seems to throw the blame, for lack of a better word, on the current Buddhist community. He asks:
“As Buddhists, we would do well to ask ourselves, where is no-self when we surround ourselves with people we feel most comfortable and aligned with, consciously or not? How genuine is our bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings when we seek out the company of certain beings and avoid others?”
As the person who is the unofficial – and maybe self-appointed – head of bringing new members to our sangha*, I look at this a different way. (And yes, I’m a middle aged white male.) On the rare occasion that we get person of color in our sangha they rarely come back. We would LOVE to have them back. Our sangha has addressed this several times. But until we have consistent POC visitors, there are no “others with whom they find similarity, familiarity, and comfort.” Therefore, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are very few POC in American sanghas. POC won’t feel comfortable coming to an “all-white” sangha, so POC will not come to American sanghas. Until some brave souls get over their discomfort and say “fuck it, I’m staying,” POC will continue to be sparse in our communities.
I’ve been to an all-black Baptist church. The people were extremely nice and I was never made to feel unwelcome. But I wouldn’t go to an all-black church on a regular basis. I look at it as “theirs.” I feel like I would be infringing on their space and their community. This may all be in my head, of course. I don’t really know how they would feel. But until I take the time to find out from them, it’s my issue, not theirs. By the way, I realize there is historically more to this situation than what we face in Buddhist communities.
Part of the problem is that Buddhism, and Zen in particular, has a problem with proselytizing. We don’t “recruit.” Mr. Harris mentions reaching out to people of color and different socioeconomic classes, but does not suggest a path to doing that. Our sangha has a website, Facebook page, and a Meetup.com page. That’s about all the reaching out we do. Part of the reason is, again, we don’t proselytize. But I also don’t even know how we would effectively increase our awareness in specifically non-white communities. And even if I did, I would feel somewhat guilty trying to take away from other faith communities.
We are open to everyone at our sangha. We are present for all sentient beings. We are all too aware of the lack of diversity, but don’t people of color have some obligation in this too? I don’t think we are consciously or unconsciously excluding minorities from our sanghas. I think minorities are somewhat excluding themselves. Let me know what you think and give me some ideas your community has used to try to solve this problem.
*As always, the views of my blog in no way should be seen as representative of my sangha or my teacher.