Ralph Steele asks us to consider what a racially and culturally diverse American Buddhist community would be like.
I remember the days of being a retreat addict, chasing that sweet sensation of getting high. The dharma teachings often tasted dry, like dust in my mouth. However, hearing teachings was not my primary motive in attending Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan retreats for more than four decades. Doing ngondro practices, chanting 108 Hanuman chalisas, sittin g long hours in sesshin, practicing vipassana right through lunch, sitting and walking until 10 p.m. or even through the night—these were sweet times of being neck deep in the addiction of making love to, or getting drunk on, God.
My spiritual practice began in my childhood with dancing, singing, and hearing the sweet pearls of grace while attending church on Pawley’s Island in South Carolina. Switching modes as an adult to listen to dharma talks, without that juice that rocks your bones, I felt like a tiger in a group of leopards. I did not hear my experience, the particular forms of suffering as a black American, reflected in the teachings. For three decades I was usually the only person of color at the retreats I attended, and to survive my sense of alienation, I traded my recovering heroin addiction for addiction to the bliss of spiritual practice.
Later on, initiating People of Color retreats opened a dharma doorway that helped me see the trauma I carried and the subtle forms of social suffering in this country, where the bones of 15,000 slaves still lie buried underneath the towers of lower Manhattan. I was motivated even further to not see myself as “me” or “self,” but to look at what my makeup actually was.
The Buddha’s teaching affirms every person’s capacity for liberation, and he was radical in his time for defying the caste system—welcoming all castes and women into the dharma community. While practicing in Thailand, I often experienced how people there seemed to genuinely appreciate each other’s uniqueness. In America, by contrast, the dominant culture—the white mainstream—is the norm, and you are expected to dress, act, and, especially, speak in the same way. This mainstream style is reflected just as strongly in our dharma centers. Walking into many such centers, you would scarcely know that we live in a multicultural society where minorities will soon outnumber the white population.
The modern term is “traumatized,” but the Buddha called it oppression. All people of color have experienced it. War veterans—and I am a war vet, having served in Vietnam—have experienced it too. American vets carry guilt, and in our hearts we feel that we are not accepted, maybe especially in dharma communities.
When I was practicing in Burma, I experienced the good feeling of meditating with as many as a hundred Burmese military personnel. They were welcomed at the meditation centers and would come in their uniforms, practicing for several days—as an assignment!
Change begins with being able to imagine it. Can you imagine a Buddhist community embracing the younger generation coming home from war? Can you imagine meditation retreats where there is no dominant race, where everyone feels welcome? Can you imagine a staff of teachers teaching from many kinds of life experience, including race? And teachers of color training in all of the wonderful lineages? Can you imagine the old practitioners of color coming out of their caves to nourish the various spiritual communities with their presence?
Still, it’s one thing to imagine having a diverse dharma community in North America, but the soup needs to have the proper ingredients. We of course need the teachers and the infrastructure of meditation centers and temples, but just as importantly we need to be able to speak honestly about our experience and examine and uproot unconscious patterns in the collective consciousness. That responsibility falls to all of us.
Ralph Steele is the founder of Life Transition Therapy, a trauma-healing center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A longtime practitioner in the Theravada tradition, he has been teaching and leading programs since 1987.