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,
California. 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
and requested a meeting. We have been in communication ever
led to your decision to bring Dharma to African-Americans?
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.
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.
you think Dharma needs to change in order for it to speak
more directly to the needs of people of African descent?
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.
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?
you think this lack of connection with the African-American
community is pervasive in the American Buddhist community,
irrespective of tradition?
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.
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.
black people are you talking about?
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.
we do injury to ourselves by focusing on ethnicity while
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.
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
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.
do you say to practitioners who feel isolated?
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.
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
can we bring European-American and African-American practitioners
together? Should 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.
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.
is the role of black people in the bringing of Buddhism
to the West?
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?
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.
you give an example of how you inflect the teachings for
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?
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.