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Legitimate Heirs - Not Invited Guests

Black Buddha:

A Dharma Classic in American Buddhism

Featured in Buddhadharma, Summer 2005


Like many of my American dharma brothers and sisters, I took my first steps on the Buddhist path because an Asian monk came to this country and showed me the way. I was in college, and within a year of reading several slim, inspiring volumes, I decided to make Buddhism my spiritual home.

Even though I had concerns about the patriarchal underpinnings of mandatory celibacy in the Catholic Church, I revered the celibates of Buddhism. When I dreamt of enlightenment, I dreamt of renunciation. I wanted to be as peaceful as a Vietnamese monk, as gentle as a Tibetan nun. It did not occur to me that the dharma might completely transcend any particular culture or subculture, including Asian monasticism, until I came upon the teachings of Lama Choyin Rangdrol, and his self-published book, Black Buddha: A Diversity Perspective.  A mere fifty-nine pages, Black Buddha is an unpretentious dharma jewel with great implications for the future of diversity in American Buddhism.

It begins by upending the notion of Asian ownership of the dharma by identifying not just Buddha, but the entire population of India as the genetic descendants of the African migration of 50,000 years ago. Furthermore, drawing on the scholarship of anthropologists and historians such as Williams, van Sertima, and Rashidi, Lama Rangdrol points out that the people of the Indus Valley, where the legacy of Tantric Buddhism began, were as much African as they were Indo-European, and in fact many were endowed with features such as thick lips, wide noses, and curly hair. Even Padmasambhava, who brought dharma to Tibet, came from Oddiyana, a region sustained by the waters of the Indus River.

Lama Rangdrol also reminds African-Americans that they did not come to this country as Christians, and that slavery severed Africans from their indigenous belief systems. It is quite possible that Africans who were forcibly brought to American shores held spiritual ideas and practices much closer to Buddhism than is commonly imagined. This concurs with Joseph Campbell's observation that Buddhism is closer to African religions and philosophies than it is to Occidental faith practices. When I first read Black Buddha, I was skeptical. I found it too close to Afrocentri-cism, which itself is an expression of cultural bias. And then there was the fact that I didn't feel alienated from Buddhism, and had my malas and pashminas to prove it.

But the dharma has nothing to do with these objects and everything to do with being open, and open I was not. I resisted the concept of a black Buddha, but had no problem with the thin-lipped, narrow-nosed Buddha familiar to most American Buddhists. Where was the freedom I had been cultivating for ten years? Why couldn't I investigate Buddhism from an African-American perspective as part of my own emergence as a serious practitioner? After realizing I was denying myself an opportunity for growth, I picked up Black Buddha again and read through to the end. I was happy to find that the second half of the book was dedicated to Lama Rangdrol's personal story of finding liberation through the dharma. In one of the most moving sections of the book, he writes about the process of letting go of his attachment to being a middle-class professional, even at the risk of becoming homeless. He tells the story of meeting and falling in love with his future wife, a young white woman who challenged the last vestiges of his resistance to transcending race, class, and culture. On a quest for peace and stability, Rangdrol and his wife sold all of their belongings and moved into a small cabin at a forest retreat center, where they lived for two years. This is where he met the late Khenpo Gyurmed Thinley, a Dzogchen master with whom he studied for nine years.

Black Buddha's approach is dramatically different from most contemporary perspectives on diversity in American Buddhist communities. Instead of inviting people of color to sit at the table of Amerasian dharma, we instead begin to talk about the origin of the table: who made it, and the fact that it has always been open to everyone.

People of any culture, including African-Americans, are then free to interpret and inflect the dharma in their own language with the confidence of legitimate heirs, not invited guests.

Over the years I have come to recognize Black Buddha as the seminal piece that it is. Challenging, audacious, and downright unnerving, this book addresses the people we don't see in dharma centers, and the reasons why. It dares to expose an important truth, which is that despite our intellectual discussions and well-meaning attempts to diversify, a much more skillful approach is needed. The challenge for all practitioners will be to remain open, even when that truth is different from what we have chosen to believe.

As Lama Rangdrol points out, "This discussion is not just important for people of color, but for white practitioners as well. There is no such thing as a culturally-biased enlightened person."





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