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  • "Yes, We're Buddhists Too!"
  • Jan Willis

On occasion, people have said to me, "Oh, I didn't know that there were African American Buddhists!" Mostly my reaction is demure, but I sometimes want to respond with the question, "Why shouldn't there be?" After all, African Americans are human beings who think and breathe and experience suffering just as other human beings do. More than 2,500 years ago, at the very end of his life, the Buddha declared, "In all these years, I have taught only two things: suffering and its cessation." What a marvelous statement! And, given the end of the declaration, pretty good news.

Who, having heard and reflected upon such teachings, would not wish to undertake and practice them? As the Dalai Lama often says today, "All beings wish to have happiness and to avoid suffering. In this regard, we are all exactly alike, exactly the same." It should come as no surprise, then, that at this historic time in Buddhist history— when almost all the world's traditions of Buddhism are found together in one geographic space, the United States—that African Americans too would find Buddhist teachings attractive.

Many African Americans of my generation who later inclined toward Buddhism had already heard similar teachings in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. Striving to move this country closer to being a more just society, King and others had built the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement around the principles of love, forgiveness, and interdependence. Hearing these same principles and practices extolled in Buddhist teachings was like coming home.

When we learned the details of the Buddha's life, he became even more of an inspiration. Here was a man who actually, in practice, rejected the systemic oppression of his country's people by denouncing the caste, or varna, system of the Aryans (originally founded on color discrimination) and allowing all castes and women to enter his community of practitioners. Both actions were extremely radical—even revolutionary— for his time. Because of the Buddha's teachings and because of his own life example, many African American children of the Civil Rights Movement have been finding their way to Buddhism.

Yet, as has so often been the case, we have been doing this without much fanfare or even recognition, once again being made almost invisible. Why is this the case? And, why is it important? We should, it seems to me, explore these issues.

According to a number of recent essays and reports, Buddhism is now one of the [End Page 39] fastest-growing religions in the United States. In terms of adherents, it is said to rank either third or fourth behind Christianity, Judaism, and the "nonreligious," and has grown at a rate of 170 percent since 2000. The Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey1 published in 2008 said that people in the United States who say they are Buddhist account for about 0.7 percent of the total population (which translates into around two million followers), but a study by Wuthnow and Cadge suggests that at least 12 percent of the U.S. population—some 25 to 30 million people—have "been impacted or influenced in their spirituality by Buddhism or Buddhist ideas."2 Clearly, Buddhist ideas have affected many Americans, and some of them are African Americans.

In many ways, the history of Buddhism in America is a distorted and racialized one, with one group of people being extolled while other groups are disparaged or ignored. When we trace the roots of Buddhism's introduction to the United States only to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, we ignore the fact that there were Chinese and Japanese Buddhists in this country decades before that event. The first groups of Buddhists were actually the Chinese who came to the West Coast as menial laborers in the mines and on the railroads. In 1860, the California census showed that one in ten California residents was Chinese. Around this time Japanese also came to Hawai'i and other West Coast states, bringing with them their respective forms of Buddhism. While these different forms caught the attention of some Euro-Americans, the Chinese and Japanese Buddhists...


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