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The Colors of Our Practice, By LaToya Springer

LaToya Springer

We have a wonderful guest post this morning by LaToya Springer. LaToya is a California native currently living in Las Vegas, Nevada. She works as an administrative assistant, wife, poet, and community activist. She has been meditating for a little over a year, combining Vipassana meditation with Zen Buddhism.

The Colors of Our Practice: Buddhism without Boundaries
By LaToya Springer

I am a fairly new Buddhist practitioner. My introduction to Buddhism was Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse which I read in the 10th grade. My Buddhist education continued when I went to college. I took some religious studies courses that fueled my interest in the practice. In the meantime, I was still trying to be a ‘good Christian’ and attend church, but there was something about Buddhism that interested me. After a long period of soul searching, I dedicated myself to the path. I can’t really say that I converted; Buddhism seemed natural to me. It fit with my personal philosophy. There is nothing spectacular about me. I’m 25-years-old and married. I love to cook and read.

And I happen to be African-American.

I had initial reservations about sharing my new practice with others for good reason. A few people in the Black community took my decision personally. They felt that I was turning my back on my family and culture. Suddenly Easter gatherings and Sunday dinners became a war front in the battle of religious wills. I found myself constantly having to justify my practice. As a result, much of my first year as a Buddhist was spent cultivating patience and loving kindness.

I am met with both curious glances and open arms when I attend retreats or gather with fellow practitioners to meditate. Though I am often the only African-American present, I have never felt out of place. In fact, I am more at ease in these situations than in the past when I attended church services with my peers. While I value my sangha and my experiences, I am concerned about the lack of people of color in American Buddhism, particularly those in leadership roles. The sangha, or Buddhist community, plays a crucial role in the practitioner’s spiritual development. It is the community we go to for support and encouragement.

But what do we do when our sangha is not representative of us?

I have found the Web to be an excellent tool for expanding my Buddhist community. Sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter are a great way to reach out to others. The Web has been essential in helping me find other African-American practitioners. Blogs and personal websites that share the experiences of others like mine have helped me to grow in my practice. In addition, I have found great books written by African American Buddhists.

There are more of “us” than one might think.

There are times when I find myself outnumbered. I’m either the only Buddhist in a group of my peers or the only African-American in a group of Buddhists. In these moments it is helpful, when appropriate, to initiate dialogue about my experiences. As a result, I have learned a lot from others and others have learned from me. Educating others or offering a perspective not of the norm has been rewarding.

The Buddha’s teachings transcend race, color, gender, and sexual orientation. We are all brothers and sisters in the practice. However, we must be realistic and not ignore the fact that many of the prominent faces of American Buddhism do not fully represent the community in its entirety. We cannot be naive to think a lack of visible diversity has no affect on the growth of Buddhism in this country. Nobody wants to take part in something that is (real or perceived to be) exclusive or exclusionary. For that reason, it is important to reach out to other communities and make them feel included. Providing a platform to share experiences can be the best kind of spiritual education.

Feel free to leave a comment on LaToya’s article in the comment section below.

18 comments to The Colors of Our Practice, By LaToya Springer

  • Mark

    I have always thought of being a Buddhist as a personal choice

  • Sabrina

    thank you Latoya. I also am a woman of colour and sometimes I feel alienated from the sangha. But I also do not consider myself a ‘formal’ Buddhist. I agree that the compassion that I seek to cultivate transcends notions of race, which I agree is a social construct, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

    I too come from a religious background which is not as accepting as I would like (mom is Roman Catholic, dad is Muslim and my ancestors are Hindu), but I have found that rather than engage in debate (which I did ad naseum in my 20s and 30s), it is better if I simply live my beliefs and let those who witness take from it what they will.

    Thank you for your article, it resounded quite deeply with me.
    Namaste.
    Sabrina.

  • Anonymous

    “There are times when I find myself outnumbered. I‚Äôm either the only Buddhist in a group of my peers or the only African-American in a group of Buddhists.”
    .
    Same here, and still trying to get over the feelings that I have in both situations :

  • Mike B

    Great article – thanks for sharing. As a pretty liberal 30-something white guy (from a family of fairly judgemental catholic yankees) – I think feeling alone or outnumbered is a pretty “universal” feeling and I thank you for your perspective as it really gives me a way to view and handle my outnumbered-ness sometimes too!

  • Mushim

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us, LaToya and thank you for your practice and dialogue! If you’re interested, there’s a “booklet” that a group of us here in the Bay Area in California produced in 2000 called “Making the Invisible Visible.” This booklet is a compilation of stories, thoughts, resources, and articles that are meant to be a glimpse into the personal experiences of some Buddhist practitioners of color and their allies in the U.S., primarily. It is posted on the Web at http://www.spiritrock.org If you select “Programs” and then “Diversity,” you can click on “Making the Invisible Visible” and download a free PDF of the booklet in its entirety. It was originally distributed free to all the Buddhist teachers who attended a conference at Spirit Rock in 2000, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and was helpful in helping to open many deep conversations among the teachers, as well as helping diversity initiatives at Buddhist institutions such as Spirit Rock Meditation Center, San Francisco Zen Center, and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

  • Mat

    Very interesting article, and certainly one that made me think quite hard about the issue.

    I too feel at times like I don’t fit in (with the sangha) despite being white, male, and (I guess) middle class. Similar to the comment from Mike B, I’d say this is a pretty universal human experience. Funnily enough while not always feeling like I don’t fit in with the UK sangha, when practicing in Asia (despite being the only westener) at times I haven’t at all felt like I don’t fit in.

    The senior western teachers also probably didn’t fit in with their Thai, Tibetan or Indian teachers and their sangha – so i’m left wondering whether this isn’t so much an issue for the western dharma, but one for us as individuals. I’m not convinced the buddhist organisations and teachers should necessarily be representative in order to function effectively (and i’m certainly not suggesting that they should be un-inclusive or exclusionist either). I’m also not convinced of the importance of seeing Buddhism grow in the USA or elsewhere (not that I think that would be a bad thing either – far from it). I’m far more inclined to be interested in the dukkha when it arises in me – for instance when I feel like I don’t fit in – and seeing that as part of me and my process rather than an issue with western Buddhism or the sangha.

    I personally see those aspects of my embodied and cultural identity (white, male, middle class) as just part of what I am – and look for that which includes all of the aforementioned, but isn’t limited by that either. For me freedom lies in not being limited by concepts and ideas, and being comfortable with my stuff when it arises, knowing it fully but without becoming identified with concepts and my ideas, or pushing them away.

  • Lee

    and I on the other hand white male poor have a different problem… I don’t want to fit in! I have to much ‘i’d rather do it myself’attitude and have trouble taking advantage of the sangha … I have worked on it with my teacher but I find myself most often alone on my cushion doing my own thing and I’ve heard there are many many westerners who suffer from the ‘cowboy’ mentality of I can do it myself …

  • Mat

    Having discussed this article with my wife (born in India but now living in the UK) – she made the comment that she feels far more comfortable and feels like she fits in better with the (largely white, middle class) buddhist sangha than with the working class UK Indian Sikh sangha her family are part of. It seems we all have very different reactions to being the only person of colour in any given sangha.

  • Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world; this is because it does not actively seek converts, they do not have any evangelist monks. Buddha does not go to the mountain the mountain comes to Buddha. People of color will have to seek out Buddhist teachings and then assume active rolls in the community and this will take time. As Buddhism attracts followers here in the USA it will become more colorful.

  • JJ Simon

    Good for you LaToya, its people like you who will become leaders inside of their communities. Just stay present and be kind.
    JJ

  • amy

    great post – thank you!

  • Abe Simpson

    This is a well written, thoughtful and compassionate article, but I do not agree that the sangha should use recruitment to try and makes its composition similar to its surroundings.

    The Buddhists in my area do not seek out new members, they simply leave the door open. This is something I believe is very important.

    I guess I am fortunate. My Buddhist friends are black, white, Asian, male, female, young, old and every one of them is treated as equal and as long as they follow the path, they are welcomed with open minds.

  • Latoya,

    I am one of a few African American Buddhist teachers and feel you did a good job of writing about your personal experience. Since Buddhism is on the inside it really doesn’t matter what others think. Certainly, you want to be understanding and compassionate to their differing views but the real work to be done is finding your own inner peace.

    I’ve written several short volume books on Buddhism, Diversity and the African American experience. They are available on my website: http://www.rainbowdharma.com

    You may want to listen to my discussion on African Americans and Buddhism here:
    http://www.rainbowdharma.com/Conversion.htm

    Very best wishes to all,
    Lama Rangdrol

  • kim

    Hi Latoya,
    I loved your article. I have shared similar feelings of separatism from family ect….but at retreats and meditation groups I have thought to myself that there is no one of color here. Yes it is true that Buddhism does transcend race. I think this is an important topic to write about.

    thanks again,
    kim

  • Great article. I can empathize with you. However, I believe you may become a leader in the Buddhist community, if your knowledge and skill in writing is any indication!

  • LaToya

    I wanted to wait and see all responses before I posted any comments. First I want to thank everyone for sharing their opinions on the subject and for the kind words. I am glad that my article was able to touch some of you and make others think. That was my goal. I do want to address something in particular. It has been pointed out that Buddhism does not seek to “convert” people and I did not mean my article to suggest that Buddhist should recruit. Buddhism is all about the “open door” policy so to speak. All I was trying to convey was that it’s important that once practitioners “walk through the door” that they feel welcome and included. That the issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation should not be overlooked.

  • You may be interested in this webpage re diversity in sangha – http://www.shambhala.org/diversity/

  • sumy

    I just read this article this morning while searching for some sharing about practice from Buddhist friends. What a wonderful sharing LaToya. I’ll share it with my Sangha here. Thanks a lot.