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The Struggle To Fit In As A Black Buddhist

HOST INTRO: In America the number of practicing Buddhists is increasing, but within the African American community, numbers are stagnant and small. According to a 2009 Pew Research Study, African Americans are the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of the African Americans polled were Protestants. Whereas, less than half a percent of the group identify as being Buddhist. Felice León takes a look at some members of a truly small minority in New York City.


The Buddhist Society of Wonderful Enlightenment is a temple in Chinatown one block south of the Manhattan Bridge.

AMBI: person speaking in Chinese

In the meditation room three gold life-size Buddha statues sit cross-legged in the front elevated in a glass case. There are traditional offerings like apples, oranges, mangoes and flowers. A not so typical looking Buddhist practitioner stands in front.

WISDOM: My name is Reverend Great Wisdom. I am a Chan Buddhist Monk.

As a Buddhist monk, Reverend Great Wisdom wears long robes that are layered with long vest and scarf that’s just as long. He has a baldhead, a round Buddha-belly, and he’s Black. Wisdom’s branch of Buddhism dominates in China – and, he’s picked up some Mandarin.

WISDOM: [Speaks in Chinese] What I said was I speak like a little bit, but I speak like a kid.

He is a junior priest at the temple. He’s held this position for a few months, but he’s been a monk for seven years and a Buddhist for 15. Reverend Wisdom grew-up in Brooklyn, where he says he was only exposed to Christian religions.

WISDOM: It was basically Baptist, Pentecostal those type of churches.

He converted to Buddhism after what he says was a rough period in his life.

WISDOM: There’s not too many evils that I do not know of. I was a very sick person, and I found the right medicine.

But being a Black Buddhist isn’t all Zen. He says other Blacks often confuse Buddhism for martial arts, or the vegetarianism of other religions.

WISDOM: One guy, he actually made me laugh. We were on the train and he said, “You mean, like, you don’t eat fried chicken?”

He says it’s more than misunderstandings outside of the temple. He’s even encountered racism from other Buddhists, like when he was accused of stealing 100lb bag of rice.

WISDOM: Now, I’m no angel. As I said I’m from Brooklyn, baby, baby, but never in my wildest imagination would I ever conceive of stealing a 100lb bag of rice.

He was kicked out of that temple and then a second one six years later. In the seven years since he became a monk, Wisdom’s been kicked out of two temples for reasons that he claims are racism.

WISDOM: They have a term in Mandarin called the [speaks Chinese], that means the bad egg. And that’s me.

SUH: I think that there is a quiet racism that takes place; it’s usually not that explicit.

Sharon Suh, is a professor at Seattle University says that in the US, there are few communities that are accepting of people of color, and that does exist within the temples. She says that part of this is because people of color are not represented and also because of a level of denial.

SUH: Most Buddhist temples that you go to will say, “yes, we accept everybody, we’re very diverse,” but, if you don’t have people of color in the leadership, then it will be harder to imagine feeling comfortable.

In Queens, Paige Bell, is also a Black Buddhist. She was raised in a Catholic church, but later became agnostic for a while, and is now Buddhist for four years. It took some time to come “out” as a Buddhist.

BELL: It wasn’t that I was ashamed of it or hiding it, but I was definitely more private with it in the beginning.

She’s gotten used to explaining to friends and family, but now she’s like to worship with other Black people.

She’s gotten beyond the misunderstandings and now focuses on her Buddhist practice. But, a common lament amongst Black Buddhists is that numbers are too low. Bell would like to practice with more Blacks.

BELL: You’re bringing people together with common thoughts, common feelings, common beliefs, but you share a common background.

Recently, Reverend Great Wisdom was asked to stop teaching and his fate at the current temple. His goal is to one day become a high-priest and even open his own temple. He’s hopeful, and grounded in Buddhist ideologies.

WISDOM: What he doesn’t teach is racism, because our belief is to believe that all beings can ascend to Buddahood.

If he gets kicked out of the temple he’d be happy to teach under a tree. If the Buddha can do it, he says, then so can he.

Felice León, Columbia Radio News.

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