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Black Buddha:

Bringing the Tradition Home

An interview with Choyin Rangdrol
By Rebecca Walker


© Turning Wheel Magazine, Summer 2003

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Choyin Rangdrol is a Vajrayana teacher in the Nyingma tradition whom I had the good fortune to meet at the historic African-American Buddhist retreat held last summer at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA.  After listening to his nuanced teaching on the importance of both honoring cultural heritage and transcending it in order to achieve complete realization, I visited his website, www.rainbowdharma.com and requested a meeting. We have been in communication ever since.

What led to your decision to bring Dharma to African-Americans?


When I discovered that it was possible to avoid becoming ensnared in the mentality of an angry black man by applying Buddhism, I felt I had found a great treasure not just for me but also for my people. I could immediately see the potential for resonance in millions of black people's minds. I could see how this could reverberate down to the core of the hurt so many of us carry and that one could emerge from Buddhist study and practice healed.


The most profound injury that Buddhism can address in African-Americans is the fracture in our identity we continue to hold as a result of slavery. The nature of the injury is disconnection from our ancestral lineage and indigenous Divine. When we ask the question, "Who are we?" Buddhism offers us great clarity in realizing that being a human being is enough, and the rest is a footnote.

Do you think Dharma needs to change in order for it to speak more directly to the needs of people of African descent?


Dharma doesn't need to change, people need to change. They need to begin to understand the difference between inclusion and exclusion in terms of the environments they create, the books they write, the language they use, and presentation of the structure that houses dharma. At the centers, they need to look at who is in charge, who greets who at the door, what the Buddha statues look like, and what resources are offered for African-Americans to find their own inherent connectedness to Dharma. Finally, there needs to be an admission of the fact that African-Americans have not always been welcomed into the inner sanctum of Buddhist activity. There must be a heartfelt analysis of how past intentional and unintentional exclusion is reverberating in the identity of American Buddhism.


For instance, how can a dharma center be in existence for a decade or more and have no connection with the African-American community they see right outside their own window? How is it that American Buddhists can create something that is so alien and foreign to African-Americans that even though they stand and look at it they still don't know what it is? How does this happen?

Do you think this lack of connection with the African-American community is pervasive in the American Buddhist community, irrespective of tradition?


There have been Buddhist communities in America that have been more open, like Soka Gakkai International (SGI)-USA for example, but at the same time, this issue of Asian ethnocentrism is real. Buddhism that is encased in Tibetan, Japanese, or Chinese cultures can be very confusing because often people can't see where culture ends and Buddhism begins. With African-Americans, you're dealing with a people who have had to fight to maintain their culture through two hundred years of slavery and another hundred years of segregation. In order to practice Buddhism, they now have to figure out how to hold it as well as be the agent of the culture they find it in. It feels as though there is no such thing as practicing Buddhism without assimilating to Asian culture under the watchful eye of the dominant culture. To African-Americans this can appear to be a destructive cultural process that goes against the grain of their historicity, their heritage, and their legacy in America as survivors of cultricide.


There is also a sense of narrowness in the presentation of Buddhism from Asia. It does not seem inclusive of the black people in Asia. We know that there are hundreds of millions of black people throughout Asia. They were there before there was an Asia, and yet when we go to a dharma center where are they represented? Conversely, we find many European Americans in American Buddhism. Sometimes the statues of Buddha in the west even have a chiseled European nose. When one considers that Europeans en masse are not found in Asia's antiquity, but black people are, then the puzzlement and disinterest in African Americans minds is better understood.

Which black people are you talking about?


Look at the statues at Angkor Wat or look at Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism, who is depicted with a broad nose, thick lips, and curly hair. There are also some interesting murals in India's Ajanta caves depicting black people handing a lotus to a prince. Or look at Runoko Rashidi's book African Presence in Early Asia and read about black people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and so on. I have personally met black people from Burma and I have a student who is currently living among the black people of south India. And that is just skipping the rock over the surface because we don't have a lot of archaeological information to discern the complete history of black people in Asia. The African diaspora in Asia has been mislabeled and African Americans continuity with the black Global diaspora has been broken as well. African-American's disconnection with the black people of the world is an injury resulting from slavery in America and in some way, western Dharma's exclusion of the black Asiatic experience in Buddhism has become conjoined with that continuum of injury.

Do we do injury to ourselves by focusing on ethnicity while practicing Dharma?


Buddhism's pedagogical structure moves step by step. We don't start with enlightenment, we start with suffering, and then we proceed in a direction. The purpose of that is to clear obstacles that prevent us from living as a fully awakened, unobstructed human being. Some of these obstacles are intellectual, some are emotional, some are psychological, and some of them are cultural. It is how we move through these obstacles that gives Buddhism its ability to penetrate into the depths of people's hearts.
It is important for African-Americans to be free to use their culturalisms as a means of liberating themselves from their culturalisms. We're not in competition with our Asian Buddhist counterparts, but just like Tibetans or Chinese or Japanese people can use their culture to achieve enlightenment, African-Americans can use their own culture, too. No one questions Tibetan, Japanese or Chinese culture in Buddhism, but the moment African-Americans say, "this is my culture and I am doing Buddhism," people say we are being ethnocentric.

In fact, culture itself can be a vehicle for liberation when we use its narrowness and divisiveness as a teaching of what we must transcend. This is not just for African-Americans, but also for all human beings to consider carefully. What is your culture and has your practice allowed you to transcend it, or are you maintaining your culturalisms under the guise of Buddhology?


Ultimately, we must always remember that the seed syllable Om is Buddha's gift to all of humanity. Buddha was not thinking about giving it to ensure the longevity of one cultural group.

What do you say to practitioners who feel isolated?


Over the past seven years I have heard from many African-American practitioners from all over the country on this subject of isolation. I get questions like, "I am in this major metropolitan city, do you know any place I can go where there are other African- Americans practicing?" Although they are in a major metropolitan city with millions of people, they feel alone. So I have recommended and also adopted as a teaching style a very intimate presentation of Buddhism in the African-American community. Buddhism in my view needs to spread like the works of a good country doctor, from one house to the next, so that the teacher knows the living rooms of all of his or her students.


The adoption of a new faith practice in the African American community is confidential and its power lay in people being able to hear the teachings unobstructedly. It is the genesis of establishing dharma in one's family, not just as an individual practitioner, but in teaching people the legacy of how Dharma is transmitted from parents to children. Very quickly a small living room can become a safe haven for new practitioners. That does not mean that larger organizations and centers have no role, but time is of the essence. No further delay is necessary. It is a matter of understanding that Buddhism in the African-American community is an idea whose time has come.

How can we bring European-American and African-American practitioners together? Should we?


We have to. Despite all that has happened in America between African-Americans and European-Americans, the answer for the Buddhist community, for America, and for peace on earth is for the descendants of slaves and slave-owners to use Buddhism to become One.


The only Buddhism that needs to be practiced in America is called world peace. We can see that peace is disappearing from the world. It is no longer a matter of the environment or the devastation to the animal kingdom, it is humanity itself that is perishing. To the extent that we can disallow our history to be a factor in what we must do together, the potential for us to save humanity and the world has its best chance. We have to become bigger than our differences and to know that we are the same in our ability to improve the world or to serve as obstacles that will lead to its destruction. This is not a racial issue, this is not a cultural issue, this is not a Buddhist issue, it is now an issue of human survival.

What is the role of black people in the bringing of Buddhism to the West?


America plays a pivotal role in Western Buddhism, and that role is not separate from the history of America.

The plight of African-Americans and their ancestors is living testimony to the barbarism that samsara can yield. When African-Americans as a community find an indisputable, irrevocable, unshakable healing, America is likewise healed from the karmic onus of its devastating history. When we as a society intentionally or unintentionally obstruct the path of African-Americans' quest for self-healing, we are in essence still enslaving the minds of our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. How can we say we have a new realization when the essence of our conduct remains the same?


I don't think white people need to be told what to do. I think they already know what to do. Really what is needed are offerings from people outside their group to help them to jump start the deep compassion that dwells within their hearts, and maybe a little bit of direction about where to put the accumulated resources that are at their disposal as a result of the privileges they have had. White people are human beings and human beings are white people, just like everyone else. Privilege can be a burden like blinders on a horse and so again we must figure out how to be one so that the mutuality of our hearts can resonate together. Buddhist philosophy and practice alone has enough instruction. The rest is just knowing that to do the right thing has boundless benefits for many lifetimes.                            

Can you give an example of how you inflect the teachings for African-Americans?

African-Americans are known for their appreciation of ritual -- music, dance and an affinity for written doctrine. However, I teach my students to look at the meaning of ritual itself, the meaning of sacred art, and how a doctrine is used to create or alleviate suffering. I ask what is the purpose of the symbolism, what is it all pointing to? What is it that transcends these things and is uniquely common to all human beings?
Just the pure statement of Buddha nature itself without any elaboration is a quintessential instruction to African-Americans because it is the essence, like a basketball is to Michael Jordan, or a tennis racket to the Williams' sisters, or a golf club to Tiger Woods. Mastery of this one tool, Buddha nature in and of itself, is liberative, and then having mastered that one tool, to feel free to evidence it in the world through one's own culture is the process. And the goal perhaps could be that one day we may see a Buddhist version of Martin Luther King, and then the meaning of what I am saying will be abundantly clear and the benefit to humanity immeasurable.

     

 

 

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