I was raised Christian and while I'm very optimistic, faith as a sort of visceral idea--like "I have faith in this God that's out there somewhere"--that just never worked for me. So I left the church seven or eight years before I discovered the dharma.
Later, I was in San Francisco and started going to meditation classes at the San Francisco Zen Center. It wasn't this big epiphany like, "Oh, I found my spiritual path." But when I walked in Zen Center, I just had this sense of "This is it."
Why did you write this book?
When I began studying Zen, I actually felt annoyed that more people of color didn't have access to information about Buddhist practice and philosophy. I thought, "This has to be done," and people were like, "Then you have to deal with it." So I did. I am actively promoting the idea that we need to open the doors widely to people of color in this country in order for there to be such a thing as American Buddhism.
That said, I did not do the book to urge people of color to go practice Buddhism but to urge people of color to make use of whatever tools are available and accessible. And the thing about Buddhist principles is that they're incredibly useful in helping you learn how to take responsibility for your own spiritual health.
I think it could be a difficult leap. For very good historical, political, and socio-economic reasons we are fixated on instant gratification. Buddhism is not about that. Feeding our desires is very much a part of our culture here, and part of the culture we have created in order to have some sense of equality with our white counterpart. But that has also led to a dearth of spiritual sensibility.
For a black person here in America, does "letting go" necessarily mean we have to drop our battles in this country?
Not at all. I think one of the reasons it was so important for me to put out this information is that it's intrinsically revolutionary. When you finally understand, from experience, what letting go means, it's completely transformative. It transforms the way we respond to everything.
We struggle with political, social, economic issues, but we are too attached to the struggle to get the kind of movement that we need. Our battles are crucial, but we have to learn how to take them up in such a way that they don't consume us. Between having desires and allowing them to consume us is the difference between attachment and detachment. People who are detached don't not want anything. It's that they can still live and function and flow when they don't get what they want, or when things don't work out as they wish.
There are a few people of color, like Tina Turner, who are Buddhists. But how do you get your foot in the door of a practice center if you wanted to? Do you think that black people would be well received in seeking out this information?
I think they would be well received in some places. The issues around race are not specific to Buddhism; they're specific to America. A lot of the people who practice Buddhism are progressive and liberal in their outlook on life. And yet we know very well that progressive, liberal white folks are racists too, but not aware of it. They don't even know how their racism functions.
Beyond that, people of color have to claim Buddhism if they want it. The tradition of looking into our selves for the answer is age-old and a-cultural. We should be well received, and if we are not, who cares. We should take it anyway. That's basically what it comes down to.
I hope it operates on two different levels. I hope that more people of color, black folks especially, are going to incorporate some of the Buddhist principles, even at a very nominal rate, into their lives. If a thousand more people on the planet meditated for five minutes a day, we'd have a much, much better planet to work with.
At the same time, I hope the Buddhist community uses this as an opportunity to do what they have failed at doing for the last 30 years--that is, reach out to people of color and make them welcome in practice settings. That would be a wonderful thing, but there is resistance. If nothing else, the fact that the book is out there will point to their resistance and shine a light on it, so that ultimately, even if it doesn't happen immediately, it will have to be dealt with.