Diversity and Inclusion

I recently attended the Federation of Dharma School Teachers Conference, hosted by the Bay District, along with eight teachers from OCBC. It was a wonderful conference, and it focused on the issue of diversity and inclusion in our Dharma School classes. I felt that this issue is really an issue for the entire temple and Sangha as well, as the makeup of our Sanghas in our temples is transitioning from a predominant Japanese American Sangha to a more diverse Sangha, ethnically, and in other ways as well.

The conference was provocative, and it made us think very carefully about whether we are both diverse and inclusive. We could be diverse, but if those who attend do not feel included and truly a part of our Sangha, then we will have failed to be a true Sangha. We have to make everyone who attends feel as if they are included, a part of our Sangha.

I have met many people over the years who are new to Buddhism, and I often ask them how they happened to become Buddhist. More often than not, they reply that when they attended, they felt warm and welcomed and were made to feel that they belonged. This is very important, almost as important as how they connect with the teachings. Even if they connect with the teachings, if the Sangha is not warm and welcoming, they might not continue to attend. I think we all feel this way, whether it is working at a new company, being a new teacher at a school, or new nurse on a large hospital staff. Without a warm and welcoming environment and a feeling of being included, we would not want to stay anywhere, whether it is a job, a tennis club, a civic group, or a Buddhist temple.

I think it is wonderful to see the diversity that is growing at OCBC. We have Hispanic families, African American families, Indian families, in addition to our traditional Japanese and Japanese American families. We have interracial couples with mixed race children. We have gay couples and individuals who have found a home at OCBC and a teaching that embraces and does not exclude them. I hope that all of our families and individuals, both traditional and non-traditional, feel welcomed and included here at OCBC.

Diversity and inclusion have been a part of our Buddhist history and Sanghas from the very beginning. During the time of the Buddha, people of various backgrounds became his followers. There were the five ascetic monks who became his first five disciples, who were joined by many others as the first Sangha grew.

Shakyamuni Buddha was quite radical in that he spoke out against the caste system in India. In the caste system, there were clear and distinct classes of people, from the highest, Brahmin class, to the lowest, Sudra caste. There were even “outcasts” who were not considered to be a part of the lowest class of society. Shakyamuni Buddha embraced all castes of people into his Sangha, which was unheard of at his time. Even the criminal, Angulimala, became a disciple of the Buddha.

During Shinran Shonin’s time, people of various backgrounds became his followers. When Shinran Shonin was exiled to Echigo by the orthodox Tendai Buddhism of his time, he lived amongst farmers and fishermen. He embraced all of them into his Sangha. Before Shinran, such people were not included into the Sangha. They were only lay people who were asked to donate and support the monastic temples and monasteries. They were not given the teachings, nor were they allowed to participate in services and gatherings.

If you visit ancient traditional temples and monasteries in Japan, what you notice right away is that there were no places for lay people to sit and attend a service. All of the services and rituals were for the monks, inside the temple. After Shinran Shonin, temples were built with a larger “gejin” or seated area, than the “naijin” or inner altar for ministers or monks. In Jodo Shinshu temples, the seated area is always larger than the altar area. Here at OCBC, we just completed the expansion of our hondo to increase the seated area. We didn’t expand the altar area.

I hope that our newer, non-traditional members and families will always feel welcomed and included here at OCBC. Everyone’s diversity brings so much to add to the depth and richness of our Sangha.

I also hope that our traditional members and families continue to feel welcome and included as well. I am always encouraged to see some of our traditional members being the “ambassadors” to speak to new people and to welcome them.

I hope that the non-traditional member can appreciate the history of OCBC and our pioneering founders who established the Orange County Buddhist Church and made it what it is today. I also hope that our traditional members can feel gratified that OCBC is growing and that the Dharma is being shared with more than just the Japanese American community.

As long as we continue to focus on the Dharma, then we will always have something that connects us, no matter how diverse we become.

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life.
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding and love.
I take refuge in Sangha,
The community that lives in harmony and awareness.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Rev. Marvin Harada