Monday, December 16, 2013

Privilege and Prajna

Lori Pierce

Photo: Bellah via Compfight cc
It is famously said that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America. Churches and religious spaces are stubbornly resistant to integration. In some ways it makes sense; religious communities are supposed to be intimate. They mirror the relationship we want with the divine when we sit closely together, like a family, sharing a meal, confessing our shortcomings, being asked to feel our most authentic self in a room full of strangers. You don’t want to go to a church, temple, or mosque and feel uncomfortable. You want to be there, alone together, with people who are in superficial and profound ways just like you.

This comment was made about Christian churches but could the same be said about Buddhist sanghas? Buddhism in the United States reflects some of the social and racial segregation that has always defined American culture. Scholars call this the “two Buddhism” problem—the passive social segregation that separates Asian Americans from White Americans. Asian Americans created institutions that catered to their social needs and cultural traditions. The Buddhist Churches of America protected the Japanese American community that was often under siege and subject to the kind of vitriolic bigotry that contributed to their imprisonment during World War II. White Americans have, ostensibly, done the same, creating and supporting zendos and retreat centers that meet their own needs and reflect their own interests.

But we need to be more critically aware of the unspoken nature of ethnic segregation that manifests itself in Buddhist institutions that have developed over the last three or four decades. Our professed values are that America is striving to be more inclusive. We are, as a country and a culture, trying to disavow a past that is steeped in individual bigotry, personal prejudice and institutional racism. The fact that Buddhist institutions are as segregated as their Christian counterparts says something about the insidious nature of racial privilege in our culture.

Children watching parade (photo courtesy of http://blogs.wsj.com)
I once heard a dharma talk about affinity groups and the need for White members of the sangha to be more aware of how race shapes their practice. One woman said, “I come here so I don’t have to deal with all that stuff. If other people want to get together, that’s fine. But that doesn’t have anything to do with me.” What struck me was the fact that this was a room full of people whose whole spiritual practice was devoted to awareness and compassion. This woman felt free to be dismissive of people who were creating affinity groups because she knew her position would not be challenged. Her privilege acted as a shield; she didn’t have to think about why gay and lesbian, Latino, or Black people who wanted to practice or be a part of their sangha felt the need to create “safe spaces” where they could talk about their frustrations and struggles away from a White audience.

A sangha does not have to have rules about who can and cannot join in order to replicate privilege and discrimination. The fact that the most prominent and well-known Buddhist institutions in this country are, by and large, dominated by White upper-middle-class people is a legacy of deeply entrenched social segregation. A meditation group that meets in the suburbs is out of reach for people who live in an urban center without a car or for people who don’t want to risk driving to the White suburbs at night. The same could be said about a retreat center that charges hundreds of dollars for a weekend with famous and beloved teachers. (Offering “scholarships” to those who can’t afford to attend these gatherings is an indication of exclusivity.) Or a beautiful zendo which looks inviting with its precious artifacts and gleaming wooden floors, but looks intimidating to someone coming from work in muddy boots—not to mention stressful to someone who is not used to sitting quietly in a room full of White people.

These might seem like small things, but if the purpose of the Dharma is to be aware, to bring insight to everything we do, then how might we integrate that practice into building Buddhist institutions? Buddhist sanghas should be built for diversity from the ground up. I think there are good models—the East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland (not in the hills), was founded as a community devoted to fostering Buddhist practices for a diverse group. The group is accessible to people who might otherwise have no contact with a meditation center. They are building a sangha that is first and foremost comfortable for people of color and other marginalized groups. This does not, I think, exclude Whites because their privilege gives them access wherever they want to go. But by considering people of color and marginalized communities first, they can build a set of rituals, practices, and a Buddhist community that does not have to bend over backwards to accommodate people who do not feel comfortable in the privileged realm of suburban Buddhism.

It’s tempting to want to absolve religious institutions of their complicity in racial projects or exempt them from critique. But this is a mistake because it leaves us with an impoverished understanding of Buddhist practice. Any religious practice is meant to be transformative. If we’re only interested in transforming ourselves, we might as well not do it. If we’re only interested in transformation that doesn’t make us uncomfortable or doesn’t disturb the status quo, then what are we practicing for?

Lori Pierce

Dr. Pierce holds a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and a PhD in American Studies from the University of Hawai’i. Her research includes study of the history of race and ethnicity in the United States before World War II, the history of Hawai’i before statehood, and Asian American studies. She has previously published articles on Buddhism in the United States and race relations in territorial Hawai’i. Dr. Pierce teaches courses on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, American ethnicity, racial formation, Asian American history, and American Buddhism for the American Studies and Asian American Studies Programs, the First-Year Program, and the Honors Program. 

Photo credit:
Photo one: by Bellah via Compfight cc
Photo two: courtesy of http://blogs.wsj.com


  1. My observation, at least in Canada, is that many of the Buddhist temples and centres are cultural centres. The pretense is that it is a Buddhist temple, but, in fact, they are centres for people of a particular ethnic origin to meet once or twice a week. I don't have a problem with that, but though Western people may want to attend and would be very welcomed, they won't get any teaching in English. Not all temples do this, but a very large number of them do.

  2. How do we begin to address the color boundaries? In my experience, ethnic Buddhist temples welcome people of all backgrounds. The same is not always true of Dharma centers that are primarily white.

  3. I attend a monastery that is regularly attended by white, middle-class American Buddhist converts, but during lunar celebrations is overflowing with ethnic Buddhists. All pujas and official teachings are in Tibetan. Those of us who do not speak or read Tibetan follow transliteration and translation, and there is a weekly English discussion group. I find this integration of traditional ethnic and American Buddhism to be meaningful, as I can learn from the venerable lamas, but I can also ask questions and learn from my peers. This has made me comfortable in both ethnic monasteries and American Dharma centers, and has allowed me to create a meaningful personal practice.