The People of Color Sangha
Most of my life I have never felt included in black spaces. As a child and as an adult I felt singled out as not black enough.
At the beginning of 2016, I decided to work on my ability to build relationships, especially with those within my race. I had always been perceived as an outsider or someone not aware of blackness. I had also had a horrible experience in Concerned Black Men (CBM). After the CBM experience, I had no real interest in joining a specifically black organization.
I had known about the People of Color Sangha for three years before I went the first time. I just figured I would meet a ton of extremely judgmental people that would judge by expression of blackness negatively. I had been part of another Western Buddhist Sangha for many years. After a while, my relationships in the Western Buddhist Sangha became strained because of racial misunderstandings. Ultimately, I needed a new group.
I went the first time, and I was very nervous about going and being rejected. That was usually how things went for me in black organizations and groups. So I sat quietly and just said hi to a few people.
Then a Dharma (Truth) sharing started. For those that are not Buddhist the Dharma sharing is when the members of the Sangha talk about their personal experience on a subject. I can’t remember what the theme was that night. For some reason, I decided to share my experience at CBM in which the other members made a lynching joke after they found out I was dating a white girl. I expected to get ridiculed, but as it turns out people were receptive and sympathetic. After that, I felt more comfortable.
I have been going to the People of Color Sangha for two years now. It is my favorite Buddhist group in the city. My experience with the People of Color Sangha is also the first time I have felt genuinely respected in a group of black people. I express myself reasonably freely and am developing some pretty strong honest friendships.
One of the problems I see in Western Buddhism is its lack of focus on social justice. All religions use some spiritual bypass when talking about ethnicity. I
I do not think Buddhism does a worse job than other religions. I just felt the infrastructure in Buddhism can deal with race in a more robust way. Just like with all other personal issues I had used Buddhism to help me through, race can become something that no longer gives me anxiety, and at the same time, I would not have to ignore. With Buddhism, I could see race as it was.
Of course, I had found black Buddhist teachers. These teachers used blackness to inform Buddhism and Buddhism to inform their blackness. The best example of this is Lama Rod Owens. He is originally from Georgia and is steeped in the black church. He converted to Buddhism in adulthood and had many of the same problems with racelessness in the Buddhist community. He had not turned bitter though. Instead, he studied the works deeply to understand where he and his community fit in the religion.
Lama Rod along with other teachers showed me how to become authentically black and Buddhist. However, I still wondered if we were projecting solutions onto the religion or is social justice inherent in the faith. Another aspect I felt necessary in adopting a religion from another community is staying true to its origins. I wanted to know that social justice was always a part of the Buddhist expression historically and in Asia.
Buddhism is an Asian religion because it started there. Many Western Buddhist try to play down the importance and centrality of Asia in Buddhism. Some do it because they want the religion to be inclusive and egalitarian. Others want to whitewash the religion. Still, others have done a spiritual bypass of ethnicity and couldn’t deal with it.
In my mind, I have to find a cultural and historical case to include Buddhism in my understanding of social justice. Luckily, I discovered Bhimrao Ambedkar from a Facebook post. I found out that he was a political reformer from the lowest Indian caste. I have written extensively about him on this blog as a result of my deep admiration for him.
However, I feel it is essential not only to know the history from an intellectual standpoint but know understand the community produced by the religion. I went online to google Ambedkar organizations in America and discovered the Ambedkar Association of North America. I found out they had weekly online meetings and began attending them. From there I found out about tons of Ambedkarite organizations in the USA. I have gone to many events and felt welcomed. Many are interested in my story and connecting the struggle of Dalits and African-Americans.
Ultimately, I consider myself connected to the social justice struggle. So my Immersion stage looks different than what originally was purposed by Dr. Cross. However, I do think I have delved into my culture more lately than any other time in my life. I hope these experiences will help me to show up in the world in a more loving manner.