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.
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