unfolding process (herbivore) wrote in buddhistmodern,
unfolding process

Class, race, and the American Sangha

Something odd occurred to me some years ago. It's the simple fact that almost every last American Buddhist I've ever met is either:

a) an Asian immigrant from a traditional Buddhist culture, or a child of one, or
b) an upper-middle-class white person.

Needless to say, I find this a little unsettling. It's weird that the two groups rarely, if ever, mix. One might argue that Americans tend to practice differently from traditional Asian Buddhists, but I can't accept that the difference is so huge we can't associate. And it's not like most American Buddhist lineages didn't come from Asia less than thirty or forty years ago -- well within living memory. It's also weird that it's only upper-middle-class white people that end up converting.

I've got a few different racial lines in my ancestry, but I can easily "pass as white;" so by outward appearances I don't add any diversity to the American sangha, but the weird disparity may be more obvious to me than it is to them. (I'm pretty sure they think about it too, but I don't know for sure.)

Everybody at my Zen sangha is white. When I used to practice Tibetan Buddhism, everyone at the temple was white except for a Chinese-American woman from a Vajrayana Buddhist family, and of course the lamas, who were Tibetan. Furthermore, I think there was a grand total of one guy there with a manual labor job.

So why is it? I can't really believe that too many cultural barriers are a factor here. Buddhism had to cross enough of those to get from the Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Tibetans to the mostly Judaeo-Christian American converts. I've heard people argue that black Americans have deep traditional and family ties to Christianity; but a lot of American Zen teachers I know are from Jewish backgrounds, and their ties to their ancestral religion are at least as strong. And there are plenty of white converts who come from militantly Christian families. So I don't really buy that argument.

Firstly, I don't think that Buddhist teachers, both Asian and white, have made a very big effort to communicate outside of the groups I've named above. I don't know why this is, but it seems evident.

Secondly, the practice of charging for teachings has been pretty commonplace in America. And we're not talking about donations to pay the rent on a humble little dharma center -- we're talking about "suggested dana" in the hundreds for exclusive-sounding retreats in resort-like locations with teachers, and the implication that you have to do such things to be a serious student.

It also seems like American Buddhists tend to have a close relationship with academia and to communicate in terms that are vastly more understandable if you have a college education. This means that, once again, upper-middle-class white people are going to be more likely to hear about it. This is certainly not to say that there's anything wrong with teaching the dharma to college-educated people (hey, I'm one!), but that there is something wrong with not teaching it to others. As far as I know, there aren't too many people teaching the dharma out in the market like Hui Ko.

These factors seem to me to explain a part of the situation, but far from the whole thing.

What do you think?
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