Being ‘woke’: Black Buddhists in America

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

Every year at this time I write a column about Buddhism. The Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on different days depending on the country. In Japan it is always on April 8, and due to variations in the lunar calendar, this year it is May 12 in South Korea and May 19 in the rest of Asia. 

A friend of mine once quipped that Americans “roll their own” Buddhism, and that certainly applies to my Buddhist practice. It is a version of early Buddhism with some personal twists, but today I will focus on Black Buddhists in America.

Smoking the “sacred weed,” the Rastafarians are the only spiritual group that literally roll their own, but if you study the world religions carefully, every religion has been established and developed by charismatic individuals “rolling their own.”

Christianity as we know it today was essentially the creation of one man: the Apostle Paul, who did not know Jesus or the Gospels. One man’s interpretation of the Bible stands behind Lutheranism, and the same applies to Calvinism. Zen Buddhists trace their sect back to a fascinating character by the name of Bodhidharma.

Some academics have criticized Black Buddhists for taking too many liberties with the Buddhist tradition. Some obviously have gone too far. One group was convinced that India’s untouchables were black Africans who migrated to India, and that the original Buddhists were these people. 

In 1925 Marita Bonner believed that the Buddha was a woman, but he was slow to accept women into the monastic community. Ananda, his closest disciple, was finally able to overcome resistance from other monks as well as the Master himself. Even when accepted, Buddhist nuns were generally subject to twice as many monastic rules.

Black Buddhists celebrate the Buddha as a person of color, but this is not quite accurate. Indeed, Buddhist art always portrays the Buddha as light-skinned. In some depictions of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, Mara, the Buddhist equivalent of Satan, is portrayed as dark-skinned, just as all Hindu demons are. 

The light-skinned Aryans who migrated to India 3,500 years ago did condemned the indigenous people as “black and filthy,” but they, unlike white Afrikaners in South Africa, did intermarry with them. The result over the centuries was that caste distinctions were enforced along occupational, not racial, lines. This means that Black Buddhists can’t claim, strictly speaking, that the Buddha spoke out about racial oppression. 

Complicating the American scene is the fact that the largest number of American Buddhists are members of Soka Gakkai International, whose membership was originally  Japanese American, but now they have become a very diverse community with 30 percent black members. 

Rock star Tina Turner is a SGI Buddhist, and she and other black members number more than all the other Black Buddhists combined. These Buddhists also see the Buddha as social reformer, and they are committed social and peace activists. 

Some critics object to Black Buddhists use of the slang word “woke” as an equivalent to Buddhist enlightenment.  The word is not just ungrammatical black speech, but it is defined at as “actively aware of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those related to civil and human rights.” 

Black Buddhists believe that the Buddha was a “brother,” because he was a social reformer who rejected the Hindu caste system and believed in human equality. He also preached that no one required a priest to attain salvation, telling his disciples, as he passed into Nirvana: “I have given you the Dharma (rules of life), and now you should all work out your own salvation.” In other words, “roll your own.”

Later Buddhists deify the Buddha and believe that he bestows grace, but here we see the thorough-going humanism of early Buddhism. Embracing this view, Black Buddhist Kyodo Williams states that “you don’t have to born into a special class or race.  Everything you need to have a better life, you have right now.” Without divine aid, I should add.

Black Buddhists object to the fact that most American Buddhists have been privileged white people who have not realized the full socio-economic implications of the Buddha’s teaching. They reject the necessity of attending expensive retreats led by leaders who have special ties to Asia. 

They also believe that these white Buddhists placed too much emphasis on reading texts and learning Pali and Sanskrit, the two major languages of Buddhism. Kyodo Williams claims that illiterate wise men and women can know and preach the Dharma.

All religious people “roll their own,” and we have a lot to learn from many of them.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Email him at [email protected]

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