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Buddhism Justice

Racial Divide and a Buddhist Response

This is a repost of an article I wrote in December 2014 on Medium. It seems relevant to post today as the same issues remain.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Man is not the enemy. Our enemy is our anger, hatred, greed, fanaticism and discrimination.

We live in a small town—Ojai, CA. It can be somewhat insular and we may not have the same experience as a person living in Los Angeles or Berkeley or New York. And yet the media is ever present, ubiquitous, guiding us, telling us what to think, how to feel, moving some of us to action, and yet others to inaction. Cynicism. Frustration. Anger. Fear. Disbelief. Perhaps these are some of the feelings you are having? Where is the voice of the Buddhist and other spiritual communities in all this talk of racism, violence, injustice?

I chose to include Martin Luther King as my image because he’s such an inspiration and a great symbol of responding to injustice, violence, hatred with the voice of love, calling for people to join together as the beloved community. Laws and regulations are all fine and good, and we need them, but what we need more is a transformation of society. We need to change hearts! And how do we change hearts? How do we change our own heart?

It’s quite distressing to live in this day and age and see our history continually repeat itself. It’s not new, many of my friends live with this inequity everyday, but it does have the attention of the media right now—it’s in the limelight. Why haven’t we changed? The images on television today could be those of Birmingham in the early sixties, the language of police violence can be hear in the voice of Richard Pryor in 1978. Ferguson. Staten Island. Cleveland. Racism is very present in American society.

There is a racial divide in our country, particularly as it relates to the justice system. My step brother, Chris Moore-Backman, has been documenting and sharing the stories inspired by the New Jim Crow in a radio documentary series. He speaks of the new underground railroad in his radio documentary; he speaks of the drug laws; he speaks of the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM); all in the Bringing Down the New Jim Crow series. There is so much obvious inequity and injustice in how we treat certain populations in America; particularly black men. For inspiration, we can look to the work of FICPM and to Susan Burton with her reentry program, A New Way of Life, as an examples of transforming our society, one person at a time.

This week on the Lions Roar blog, I read “In Buddhist meditation, our breathing is essential. Anapana, meditation on the breath, was the Buddha’s first meditation instruction and the basis for all further meditative endeavors. Breathing is not only life-sustaining and calming; it is a foremost teaching aid. Breathing, we sense immediately our necessary connection to what is other than ourselves. Without the exchange of air—inner and outer–we would die. We are not independent. We are dependent.” It goes on to say, “If one of us cannot breathe, none of us can breathe fully and deeply and we no longer experience our connection with one another. If Eric Garner cannot breathe, then we cannot breathe. If Michael Brown no longer breathes, we cannot breathe. If Tamir Rice does not breathe, we cannot breathe.”

What can we do?

Note: By “we” I mean people who are white—these practices are good for anyone, but I’m speaking to my white audience right now.

First, we learn to listen. We learn to listen with compassion. My friend and fellow dharma teacher Dennis Bohn wrote, “We listen to the families of the victims of police violence, people who have themselves been victimized by the police, police officers, black people, other people of color, white people, activists, politicians, and others.”

And how do we cultivate the ability to listen? We practice stillness. Sitting and walking meditation. Quiet reflection, using our breathing, is a great place to begin. It’s amazing what one can learn from sitting peacefully. In that quiet reflection, we begin to listen to our inner selves so we can in turn listen to those around us. This listening comes from a place of non-judgement, non-discrimination. It is through deep listening, we can begin to transform what Thich Nhat Hanh is talking about above. We can reduce our “anger, hatred, greed, fanaticism and discrimination.

The second action we can take is our awareness of mind. Again, my friend Dennis said it well, “Do we ourselves harbor unconscious or even semi-conscious biases? By “bias” I mean the tendency of preferring one thing or group over another for no apparently valid reason, specifically racial preference. These preferences are frequently formed in the mind and body even prior to the full perception of, say, “this is a person of color.” Racial bias is a seed watered by our culture, but it is our personal responsibility to transform it in ourselves. Then, we can look for ways to help transform such seeds in others and in our institutions. This is our co-responsibility.”

Many of us may think we hold no bias, no race preference. We may think we are well-intentioned, progressive, egalitarian, etc. And yet, we are a product of our society and may carry unknown perceptions deep within in our consciousness. This is the practice of unfolding our mind awareness. Here’s an experiment if you are interested in learning more about racial bias in yourself: go take the Harvard University Implicit Association Test (IAT) study. After you read the preliminary information, click the “I wish to proceed” link and then take the “Race IAT” which will be listed among many IATs. You might be surprised at what you discover—I know that I was— even though my intention is to see equality, non-discrimination, and less racial bias, the test exposed something different about myself.

The third action that white people can take to end racism in America is to be an ally. Much has been written on this topic, just do a Google search, but the video below is short, funny, and to the point on how to be an ally.

A few simple and clear tips I picked up from Chescaleigh:

1. Understand your privilege.

2. Listen and do your homework.

3. Speak up, not over.

4. You’ll make mistakes, apologize when you do.

5. Ally is a verb—saying you’re an ally is not enough.

Touching the Earth

As our Morning of Mindfulness neared the end, I offered another power practice from our Plum Village tradition called Touching the Earth. In this practice we have the opportunity to get in touch with a very specific topic—in this case, we are looking at our African-America ancestors, our European-American ancestors, and our Latino/a ancestors. If you do this at home, either have someone read it to you while touching the earth or record the words ahead of time so that you can fully engage with the words.

My friend Larry Ward wrote, “To touch the earth is an act of reconciliation, not an act of worship. It is an act of coming home to what is here and what is now. It is an act of embracing and being embraced by our mother Earth.” This is practice of placing our feet, hands, and head on the ground and allowing the earth to hold us. As we do this practice, we will listen to the text in order to help us get in touch with our (North American) land ancestors. In the original text, there are five specific earth touchings, but I am highlighting only three today. The text is from Touching the Earth to our Land Ancestors by the Plum Village Fourfold Sangha, published in Together We Are One, by Thich Nhat Hanh. 2010. The text not included here by that is in the book are Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native American ancestors.

Touching the Earth Practice

In gratitude I bow to this land and to all the ancestors who made it available.

(Bell, all touch the earth)

I see that I am whole, protected, and nourished by this land and all of the living being that have been here and made life easy and possible for me through all their efforts. I see all those known and unknown who have made this country a refuge for people of so many origins and colors, by their talent, perseverance, and love?—?those who have worked hard to build schools, hospitals, bridges, and roads; to protect human rights; to develop science and technology; and to fight for freedom and social justice.

(Bell, all stand up. Take three breaths)

I touch my African American ancestors, you who were enslaved and brought to this land, who poured your blood, sweat, and tears on this land, whose unrewarded labor helped make this country an economic world power.

(Bell, all touch the earth) .

I am in touch with the crippling violence and inhumanity that my African American ancestors faced every day, the loss of your land, language, culture, family, and freedom, and how you always found ways to resist, to subvert oppression, to maintain your humanity, through soulful singing, prayer, humor, slave revolts, communities of escaped slaves, as well as through political struggle, a strong commitment to education, and economic empowerment. I aspire to preserve, nourish, and pass on your strength, patience, perseverance, love, forgiveness, humility, your creativity and innovation in agriculture, inventions, history, music, dance, art, the sciences, sports, oratory, literature, religion, civil and human rights activism, and community spirit. I see Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Garrett A. Morgan, W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Ernest Just, Roger Arliner, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Henrik Clarke, Ivan Van Sertima, and all others known and unknown inside of me, and in gratitude I honor you all.

(Bell, all stand up. Take three breaths.)

I touch my European American ancestors, you who came to this land to find freedom from political and religious oppression and poverty, who came seeking a new vision of society.

(Bell, all touch the earth).

I touch the deep insight and compassion of these ancestors: the Quakers, Abolitionists, peace activists, and the great conservationists. I am aware that many of you European American ancestors lost your fortunes and even your lives to resist the oppression of people of color. At the same time, I touch the great suffering experienced by some of you in my ancestry who were misguided in their views, whose belief in your superiority led to the decimation of Native peoples, the horrors of slavery, and the exclusion of people of color. I pour all this suffering on the earth and ask the earth to help me transform it into wisdom and compassion. I aspire to preserve, nourish, and pass on your courage in coming to an unfamiliar land, your strong faith and commitment to democracy, your perseverance, respect for the arts and ingenuity. I see Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Benjamin Franklin, William Lloyd Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, John Dewey, Amelia Earhart, Dorothy Day, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Woody Guthrie, Ralph Carr, Isadora Duncan, Myles Horton, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Howard Zinn, Jane Goodall, Paul Farmer, and all others known and unknown, inside of me, and in gratitude, I honor you all.

(Bell, all stand up. Take three breaths.)

I touch my Latino/a ancestors of this land, you who are the children of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Spanish colonizers, some who for centuries lived on and built up roughly half of the present day U.S., and some who immigrated from Central and South America more recently.

(Bell, all touch the earth).

I touch the blood, sweat, and tears you have poured on to this land as farm laborers, skilled artisans, teachers, politicians, architects, and activists. I am in touch with the suffering of my Latino/a ancestors due to war and racist policies, like the deportation of two million Mexican American U.S. citizens during the Depression, as well as loss of land and culture. I am in touch with the United Farm Workers movement to end dehumanizing conditions for migrant workers, and I feel this collective energy, courage, intelligence, and dedication nourishing and supporting me to also do my part. I aspire to preserve, nourish, and pass on your strength, patience, perseverance, love, forgiveness, humility, humor, your creativity and innovation in the arts, your tradition of nourishing food and taking care of family. I see Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Emiliano Zapata, Pablo Neruda, Simon Bolivar, Rigoberta Menchu, Sandra Cisneros, Emma Tenayuca, Gloria Anzaldua, Rodolfo (Corky) Gonzalez, Sonia Maria Sotomayor, and all others known and unknown, inside of me and in gratitude, I honor you all.

(Bell, all stand up. Take three breaths.)

I feel the energy of this land penetrating my body, mind, and soul, supporting and accepting me. I vow to cultivate and maintain this energy and to transmit it to future generations. I vow to contribute my part in transforming the violence, hatred and delusion that still lie deep in the collective consciousness of this society—in all ethnic groups—so that future generations will have more safety, joy, and peace. I ask this land for its protection and support.

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