The way of oneness
More African-Americans are embracing Buddhism, a sign of hope to some followers striving for greater diversity
By Vanessa E. Jones, Globe Staff | April 19, 2006
Roslyn Springer first heard about Buddhism 18 years ago. A friend she practiced yoga with had told her about an upcoming retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, where people could meditate in silence. A ''woman on fire" at the time, she says, she jumped at the opportunity for some self-reflection.
Springer, a 57-year-old African-American from Cambridge, had struggled with depression. As a teenager, she says, she was suicidal.
''Three-quarters of my adult life [was spent] just suffering, wanting to get out of here," Springer says. ''I knew death wasn't the way. I had to get out some other way."
For Springer, Buddhism provided the alternative. Since that first nine-day retreat, Springer has spent stretches ranging from seven to 21 days at the Barre center.
''I was hooked," says Springer. ''I saw my mind. It was like a puppy that for the first time in its life was brought to a dog park and it went crazy."
When she wasn't in Barre, Springer schooled herself in Buddhism, focusing on ''metta," the practice of kindness. She chose to stay away from the local Buddhist centers, though; she felt uncomfortable in those communities, which she found were often ''not only Eurocentric but geared to those who were highly educated, highly intellectual, highly academic."
That perception changed a few years ago, after she started going to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center. She first went there for readings. Then workshops. Soon she discovered she'd found her spiritual home; Springer became a member two years ago. It's a journey occurring more frequently among African-Americans as some Buddhist communities nationally begin working on diversifying their membership.
For a long time, the highest-profile African-American Buddhist was Tina Turner, who discussed her conversion in her 1987 ''I, Tina." But over the past few years a small collection of books by African-American women have detailed the black experience with Buddhism, including ''Dreaming Me: From Baptist to Buddhist, One Woman's Spiritual Journey" by Jan Willis, a religion professor at Wesleyan University; ''Meeting Faith: An Inward Journey," which describes Harvard graduate Faith Adiele's experience becoming ordained as a Buddhist nun in Thailand in the 1980s; ''Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace," by Angel Kyodo Williams, which offers an easily understandable explanation of Zen practice; and ''Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism," a collection of writings by Buddhists of color edited by Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin, a Cuban of African and Spanish descent.
The common thread shared by all these writers is how beneficial Buddhism can be for African-Americans as they deal with racism, classism, and other sources of stress.
''This really is applicable to a group of people who have been historically oppressed," says Adiele, ''because the basic idea [of Buddhism] is that life is somewhat unsatisfactory and we don't have control of it. But we can control our responses to it. We can be consumed by anger, hatred, greed, negative emotions, which . . . they just say are destructive and will distract you from wisdom and from peace and from knowledge. Whereas if you're working on compassion and forgiveness, and these positive emotions, it will bring you greater peace."
Reaching across barriersUnfortunately, African-Americans who try to embrace Buddhism haven't always found the community welcoming. When Williams's book came out in 2001, she and her publisher were surprised to discover that Buddhist bookstores wouldn't carry it; they objected to her casual tone, and they considered it an African-American book rather than a Buddhist one.
Often the problem people of color have with Buddhism is just getting in the door. Buddhism as it's often practiced in the United States can be economically inaccessible.
''Most Western convert Buddhists," says Willis, ''are white, middle to upper class, and it takes money and it takes free time to practice Buddhism in the way it's been structured in America. People do three-month retreats. Well, a working-class person can't do that. You want to hear [Vietnamese Buddhist monk] Thich Nhat Hanh at a retreat over a week? It costs $750, and a working-class person can't do that."
To deal with these problems, some Buddhists of color have created their own spaces to practice. Williams founded her own diverse community, the New Dharma Meditation Center for Urban Peace, in Oakland, Calif., more than two years ago. Locally, the People of Color Meditation Sitting Group, which originated in the Dorchester home of Rebecca Johnson, has been drawing about 10 people since it began meeting every Friday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at 1 Brigham Circle.
Meanwhile, some Buddhist communities across the country, including Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California and Insight Meditation Community in Washington, D.C., have started programs aimed at increasing their diversity. Locally this week, Springer will co-lead the first ''Friday Evening Practice for People of Color" at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Boston Old Path Sangha, which has hosted diversity programs annually for the past four years, will hold a retreat for its members titled ''Race, Privilege, and Oppression" in New Hampshire from April 27 to 30. It will be led, in part, by Baldoquin.
''We're hoping that we can do some really important work that will help us shed some of the attitudes of privilege and racism that we were kind of born with, a lot of us," says Louise Dunlap, a white member of Boston Old Path Sangha who helped organize the retreat. ''Buddhism, a lot of it, is about examining one's -- well, we call it 'habit energy,' or conditioning. So it's a good match."
A sense of well-beingOne of the people who will attend the Boston Old Path Sangha retreat is Alicia Carroll, a 42-year-old African-American resident of Dorchester who also co-organizes the People of Color Meditation Sitting Group. Her interest in Buddhism was piqued during a trip to China in 2001, when she read Hanh's classic book ''Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life."
She saw many similarities between the ideas of Hanh and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who nominated Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. When Carroll returned to the States, she wanted to learn more about Hanh. That research introduced her to Buddhism and meditation. She liked what she read so much that two years ago she joined Boston Old Path Sangha.
Carroll joined not only because of the group's commitment to diversity; she also liked the way its members received her from her first visit.
''I was nervous going in there," says Carroll. ''Showing up and looking in -- 'Wow, I'm the only person of color.' But they welcomed me with open arms."
Now she practices sitting meditation with Boston Old Path Sangha members every Thursday at the First Congregational Church in Jamaica Plain and attends the People of Color Meditation Sitting Group on Fridays.
A kindergarten instructor at the Hurley School in the South End, she happily reels off the benefits of Buddhism. ''The meditation helps me to really be balanced and be able to handle my stress level," she says. ''I'm a teacher. I'm a black woman living in America. The stress that comes into that is just daily life. [The meditation] gives me a feeling of well-being and oneness."
Carroll, who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, now sees herself as a Christian Buddhist. In fact, the message in Willis's ''Dreaming Me," which details her study of Buddhism under Lama Yeshe in Tibet beginning in 1969, is that people don't have to abandon the religions they grew up with if they decide to embrace Buddhism. ''Part of what my teacher told me was that we would have to . . . discover what forms [of Buddhism] were most appropriate for us" in the West, she says. ''And that will be different [for various] ethnic groups."
For example, Willis says Buddhism has devotional similarities to Christianity that many white converts to Buddhism have ignored in favor of meditation. She rejects that approach and suggests that some African-Americans may find it off-putting. ''I've had African-Americans ask me, 'Was anything left out?' " she says, referring to what they've learned from people who practice Western Buddhism. ''I think . . . there's a feeling of guilt. 'Do I have to leave my tradition?' 'Is there any devotionalism in Buddhism?' And I want to say, 'Well, yeah!' Really, in Asia, out of the 308 million Asians who practice Buddhism, 306 million are practicing the devotional kind. It's not so different from what we do in our churches . . . people are praying to the Buddha."
But not all African-American Buddhists focus on reconciling the Christian and Western Buddhist traditions. Williams's New Dharma Meditation Center for Urban Peace, for example, simply offers a diverse group of people a conflict-free space to practice.
''It's not just that white folks are racist," says Williams, ''and that's terrible for the people of color. But also, folks of color can get caught up in that [racism] being the primary focus of their relationship to their spiritual home, and that's a waste. We need some places where that discourse is set aside for the sake of true, honest-to-goodness, stripped-down-to-the-bone practice."
What is Buddhism?Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a prince in the Sakya tribe of Nepal who was born around 566 BC. It is the fourth-biggest religion in the world, behind Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Although there are several strains of Buddhism throughout Asia, the practices are linked by a core concept called the ''Four Noble Truths," which essentially state: (1) Life means suffering; (2) Desire causes suffering; (3) Suffering can be ended; and (4) The end of suffering can be attained through the ''Eight Fold Path," a series of steps toward enlightenment that include meditation.
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