Is American Buddhism Really “Too White”?

According to the Pew Research Center, Buddhism is the fourth most racially diverse religion in America. In fact, American Buddhists leave everyone except the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims in the dust. 

The numbers are staggering. Less than half of American Buddhists are white as compared to other religions like the Episcopal Church (90% white), Orthodox Christians (81% white), or the National Baptist Convention (99% black). American Hindus are 91% Asian, according to Pew. Thirty years ago, the numbers for American Buddhists would have looked about the same. 

And yet Buddhist centers in America — particularly Zen Buddhist centers — are increasingly feeling pressured to make efforts to become more culturally sensitive and inclusive. There’s not enough diversity in our sanghas, they say. 

And so our major Zen centers ask attendees to go to seminars on “Unpacking Whiteness” and elect formal committees for Cultural Awareness and Inclusivity. The head of the Brooklyn Zen Center wrote an article called  “Waking Up to Whiteness” in which he advocated replacing Dogen’s central dictum “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self” with “To study the Buddha way is to study whiteness.” He further suggested that we should ignore Dogen’s instructions about practicing zazen purely for its own sake and instead use our time on the cushion to contemplate “whiteness” like a koan.

You may wonder what all of this has to do with Buddhism. Was the Buddha interested in “unpacking whiteness”? Did Dogen have an officer in charge of Cultural Awareness and Diversity at Eihei-ji temple? Was Bodhidharma a champion of inclusivity? If you were to attend many of our larger American Zen centers without any prior knowledge of Buddhism you could be forgiven for believing these were major concerns of Buddhist thinkers throughout the ages.

Spoiler alert: They weren’t. The Buddha was against the Indian caste system and he allowed women to join his monastic order, which was very uncommon in his time. Dogen railed against the anti-inclusive sexist practices of some Zen Buddhists in Medieval Japan. But that’s about as close as you can get.

If race and diversity are not major philosophical concerns of Buddhism, then you may wonder if perhaps these American Buddhist centers have exhausted the voluminous teachings of the Buddhist ancestors and are now ready to move on to other matters. Have they gone through all 96 chapters of Shobogenzo, read the entire Lotus Sutra, answered all the koans, and now they need some new material? Somehow I doubt that’s the case.

OK. So since this stuff isn’t part of the standard Buddhist curriculum and that curriculum has hardly been exhausted, you might then be inclined to ask if rampant racism is a major problem at American Buddhist centers. You might wonder if the latest scandal isn’t another supposedly “enlightened master” groping his students, but that Buddhist teachers are preaching white supremacist doctrine from the dharma seat (the Buddhist equivalent of a pulpit). I haven’t seen any evidence of that, and I’m certain that if it was happening we’d all know about it. 

The issue that seems to have been defined as a problem is that a lot of people who show up at American Buddhist centers tend to be white folks. But, as the Pew research establishes, American religious spaces in general tend to be mono-cultures. There are predominantly black churches, predominantly white churches, predominantly Latino churches. And it often gets even more specific; there are predominantly Irish churches, predominantly Italian churches, predominantly Guatemalan churches, and so forth. The fact that religious centers are generally mono-ethnic is not something any amount of diversity or cultural sensitivity training is going to fix. And remember that Pew’s polls show that, compared to most religions, our American Buddhist centers are already a veritable rainbow of skin colors.

According to Pew’s research, American Buddhism is 44% white. But even more interestingly, 68% of those who claimed to be unaffiliated or “religious nones” are white and 78% of atheists are white. That’s the population Buddhism in America draws from — those who are not part of established religions or who have left the religions they were born into or who reject religion entirely. 

Zen Buddhists do not proselytize. Trying to win people over to Zen is antithetical to Zen. We can make efforts to let people know what Zen is and where to find it, but anything more than that is counter to the philosophy we’re trying to teach. As long as most religiously unaffiliated people and atheists in the USA are white, Buddhism will probably continue to be mostly white. And if Zen Buddhists start trying to woo people away from religions they’re perfectly happy with, they’re not being true to what they say they stand for.

My suggestion is that we just relax. People come to Zen Buddhist centers to learn about and practice Zen Buddhism. There is no evidence that there is any pressing need for Zen Buddhist centers to worry about diversity. In fact, the evidence indicates the exact opposite —we are already more racially diverse than the vast majority of other religions in America.

When we divert our efforts away from the core teachings that people come to our centers to learn about, we are doing a tremendous disservice to those who come to our centers, and we are doing a disservice to Buddhism itself. There aren’t many places in America that teach Buddhism. And there is a whole lot to learn about Buddhism for those few Americans who are interested in the subject. Furthermore, by offering classes that reaffirm our attendees’ racial identities or suggesting that people meditate on them, we are going counter to the Zen Buddhist training of trying to become less attached to all aspects of personal identity.

I think we ought to stick to what our centers were established to teach and leave other subjects to others.


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