Dharma, Color, and Culture, edited by Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín, marks a historic transition point in the cultural movement that is the transmission of the dharma to the West. In this new anthology, twenty-six writers—Asian and Asian American, Latino, and African American—speak specifically from their experiences of practice as people of color. They share perspectives of the Four Noble Truths as a path to liberation that crosses the spectrum of Buddhist traditions. The book is a gift from tenacious teachers and practitioners who have paved the way in what has been a predominately white cultural movement in this country.
Gutiérrez Baldoquín is a Soto Zen priest and founder of the People of Color Sitting Group and the Buddhist Meditation Group for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco. In her introduction she states, “In every land where the winds of change have brought dharma seeds, indigenous manifestations of the teachings have arisen closely woven to the cultural context of the times.” The essays she includes in the book place the dharma teachings in the cultural context experienced by many people of color, immigrants and “others” here in the West. These teachers open the gate for those of us who hold ourselves just outside, waiting, unable to see ourselves in the practice as it is often presented yet knowing that something rings true for us, too.
What does a Buddhist practice look like for people of color in a society tainted by oppression, slavery and racism? Despite the prevalence of these attitudes, for some reason, most of us are still hurt, shocked or dismayed when confronted with racial and class oppres-sion in our spiritual search. Many of us came to our meditation practice with the mistaken perception that the practice is one of turning inward and away instead of inward and into. The writers in this anthology speak to the experience of so many people of color struggling to establish a dharma practice here in the United States.
Reverend Merle Kodo Boyd, in her essay “A Child of the South in Long Black Robes,” writes of growing up in the Jim Crow era and the challenges it brings to her practice. A priest and dharma holder in the lineage of Maezumi Roshi, she finds herself “pitting my African-American identity against my universal identity, ” which calls to her from an old Chinese painting or the Japanese form of zazen. In her essay “Coming Home,” Sister Chan Chau Nghiem, bhikshuni in the Vietnamese Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, talks of her mixed European-American and African-American heritage and the suffering that racism causes. Her practice is a commitment to realizing her own true Buddha nature and overcoming the doubt and fear buried deep inside her “that realizing my true self is not possible.” She sees that Black is beautiful and Black is “Buddhaful.”
In “This Was Not an Area of Large Plantations,” Alice Walker’s “psychic assault” takes us directly to the source of hurt and deep sadness that people of color carry and endure on a daily basis—and that goes unnoticed by the white majority. Exploring the basis of rage and pain experienced as an African American, a woman and a human, she describes how Buddhist teachings have assisted her on her way out, or through. In “Finding True Freedom,” Viveka Chen, teacher at the San Francisco Buddhist Center, describes the Buddha as a freedom fighter who “launched a spiritual movement empowering people to end mental, physical and spiritual enslavement” and provides glimpses into enlightenment experienced in the everyday.
Like all good teaching, just as I’m feeling seen and recognized—whack! Author Charles Johnson begins his essay: “Race is the grandest of all our lived illusions.” He challenges us in some way to make a choice: “With the same sword we can either cut through people’s hearts and cause them suffering, or cut through our own ignorance and be the cause of emerging love and compassion.” I think shamefacedly of the unskilled ways in which I have tried to raise culture and race within the sanghas that I have participated in. On an individual level, how attached am I to what Marlene Jones refers to as “struggle as a survival tactic”? Or will I do the work, the real hard individual work on the cushion, to “decolonize the mind and spirit,” as Gaylon Ferguson calls it. Will I bring forth the clarity and discernment that will allow me to choose the true liberation that the Buddha taught?
More broadly, is the desire (or the struggle?) for diversity within our sanghas an experience unique to the United States? As the authors point out, in the literature originating from the East, we do not see these issues referenced, and yet we know of such things as the caste system. Similarly, there has been very little Buddhist literature originating in the West that voices the experiences of people of color in our dharma practice. That’s what makes this book so important for sanghas struggling to realize diversity as well as for individuals struggling with issues of race in their practice.
Larry Yang tells of a seven-day meditation retreat early in his practice in which he was the only person of color among 100 practitioners. Distracted by feelings of inequality, anger and frustration—and put off by a teacher to wait until after the retreat to address the issues that were arising within him—he left, unable to return to his dharma seat. Yang uses this story as an example of developing the “Right Concentration” that allows him to return to his practice over and over again. This is how “the liberating understanding of the true nature of our experience can emerge . . . turn[ing] the wheel of suffering in a different direction.”
Not all essays in Dharma, Color, and Culture will speak to each reader, but there is something for everyone. More importantly, the collection includes teachings at many levels, which makes this a book to hold on to. As we look to developing our own training and as we look to teach others, the lessons collected here will help to cross the boundaries within our culture in order to communicate what is universal in the dharma.