issue 25 Winter/Spring 05
15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 26 | current

Dharma, Color and Culture

New Voices in Western Buddhism
Edited by Hilda Gutierrez-Baldoquin
Parallax Press 2004, $16.00/£11.99

Meeting Faith

The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun
Author: Faith Adiele
W.W. Norton & Co 2004, $24.95/£19.95 h/b

During the past five years there has been a steady stream of publications by people of colour engaged in Buddhist practice. These two books are a welcome addition to this developing body of work. Dharma, Color and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism is an edited anthology by 23 practitioners of colour. Most contributors are major figures in their own right and this adds to the weight and quality of the work. The collection is structured around the respective themes of the Four Noble Truths with a final section on 'The Truth of Bringing the Teachings Home'. The authors share their perspectives on dukkha in its general forms and specific manifestations for people of colour.

In the first section Maxine Hong Kingston writes movingly of her race against time to save the manuscript of a book threatened by a forest fire. She beautifully expresses how the things we invest in can be removed at any time and the suffering this creates - yet the possibility of hope always remains. José Luis Ressig's chapter addresses issues of identity and challenges us to question the enclaves we can unwittingly make.

In the second section Thich Nhat Hanh urges the reader to recollect interconnectedness, to question the separate categories caused by race-thinking, and to address issues arising out of such thinking through non-violence. George Mumford shows how attention to our experience can enable us to bear witness to suffering, giving rise to greater understanding, empathy, compassion and the ability to alleviate suffering.

The third section continues the message that true freedom, independent of external conditions, can be found through freeing the mind in a way that does not ignore difficult social realities. Viveka Chen usefully distinguishes between self-created and other forms of suffering and explains how moment-by-moment practice can give rise to a sense of deep well-being and more effective action. Sister Chan Chau Nghiem speaks of how she has been better able to come to terms with the racism she endured as a child through Dharma practice and the support of her teacher, who urged, 'If Buddhism is to really make a contribution to western society, it must use the insights of the Dharma to heal the suffering of racism'.

The fourth section looks at how each element of the Noble Eightfold Path can be used by everyone to address the realities of racism. Bonnie Duran speaks of how her Buddhist practice has helped her overcome internalised oppression and has informed her communication and understanding of 'race' as a construct based on dualistic thinking. She describes how mindfulness enables her to question the assumptions that grew from the privileges gained through her education, and suggests that this approach can also be used as a tool by those in more privileged social positions.

In the final section Alice Walker shares her experience of Buddhist practice, suggesting that it can heal not only the selves of people of colour, but also the ancestral pain carried by both people of colour and their oppressors. Rosa Zubiazarreta's chapter reminds us that meditation is not necessarily a fundamental Buddhist practice, and that mindful communication can be a rich and rewarding method.

While I enjoyed this anthology, I had some concerns. There seems an implicit assumption that all readers have the social and economic resources to explore such Buddhist practices as meditation. The majority of contributors also seemed highly-educated and this was sometimes reflected in their writing styles - for instance in Charles Johnson's piece, which seemed dense in places. I think the anthology would have been enriched by contributions from people such as (ex-)prisoners about how they apply the Dharma, given the large number of incarcerated people of colour. But these are not major criticisms, and hopefully they can be addressed in future works.

Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun is no less engaging. This coming-of-age story of a woman of mixed heritage describes how its author was forced to take a year out from Harvard after a breakdown. She went to Thailand and decided to undertake an anthropological study of Buddhist female monastics (maechi) and their status in Thai society. She therefore took temporary ordination, only to find herself - to her surprise and horror - in a monastery that is part of the Forest Tradition. This meant an intensive programme of mindfulness practice and meditation with minimal communication, one meal a day before noon and four and a half hours of sleep each night.

Despite her initial reservations, Adiele decided to engage in the programme. She shares her struggles with the routine in a witty and humorous style. And her spiritual experiences are described in a moving way that brings out the depth of practice and insight developed during her three months as a maechi.

Initially I was concerned that this memoir would be little more than the classic 'westerner finds wisdom in the East'. But the book is far richer and more complex. Her representation of Thailand is honest, respectful and unsentimental. By the end of her period as a maechi, Adiele's position on personal identity and identification has changed significantly. She describes the stereotyping and discrimination she has experienced as a black woman in the US and as a traveller. She also mentions her insider/outsider status as a mixed-race, western woman at home and abroad. By the end of the book she has experienced a greater sense of freedom. Her points about identity, especially its ethnic and gender dimensions, are highly relevant to us all.

As a Tibetan proverb (included as an epigraph in Dharma, Color and Culture) suggests: 'The Dharma is nobody's property. It belongs to whoever is interested'. Both books go some way towards making this a more tangible reality for people of colour who want to explore Buddhism in their lives. They also make a significant contribution to the understanding of practitioners of any ethnicity who are interested in the questions people of colour might bring as they engage in Buddhist practice, and how the Dharma can help everyone address these issues.

Sharon Smith (Vijayatara) is researching the development of western Buddhism in multicultural and multiethnic societies at Goldsmiths' College, London