Dharma Justice

Whiteness and Healing Racism

Recently I have been engaged in a conversation with a dharma friend who is questioning the idea of white people talking to each other about white supremacy and if it’s possibly doing more harm than good. What you will read below are my thoughts in response to my friend. It felt important to share some of this discussion. It may seem a bit random at times, but I hope enough meaning is present to be of value. 

Slavery and Racism

I think it’s important to understand slavery as it was practiced in the United States. Slavery in the United States is a race-based system and came with the invention of white. This is very different from slavery practiced in other countries and throughout history. The term “white” only came into being a few hundred years ago. By saying slavery has always existed throughout the world comes across as dismissive of the Black experience in the United States. 

That said, I do believe that racism extends into other parts of the world, especially in light of all the colonialism based in (European) white supremacy. Our role as white people is to take the bold step into looking at how it manifests in our lives and the impacts on POC communities. Despite working on it for over 20-years, it continues to amaze me how much more work there remains to be done to transform my own internalized racism and white supremacy. In some ways, it’s a lot like our mindfulness practice; we continue to grow and learn. 

Some of the language in the justice movement talks about decentering as a method to lift up the voices of those who have historically been unheard. It is natural and easy to center on our own experience, but that may come at the cost for others. A good example is how we practice dharma sharing. When guiding these groups, we try to say “if you find it easy to share, try stepping back, and if you are shy about sharing, please step forward.” I think we also try to make sure that everyone gets a chance to share. Recently I experienced a group session whereby the facilitators invited people of color to speak first. Very direct. Bringing awareness to who speaks first, or the longest, or wants to share more than once is an enlightening experience for me. As a white male, I am working to not speak first or to speak less often when I am in mixed groups (gender and race). It’s part of my effort to shift systemic practices. 

Regarding harm to people of color when speaking in mixed groups. We may say words that we don’t even know are harmful, especially if we come with a strong white lens. Words that might be consistent with the dominant narrative around race. We might say that others feel unsafe sharing in a mixed group for other reasons, but for POC people it may be part of their wide-ranging experience found in work, school, and daily life. It can feel exhausting. This is what I’ve heard. 

Trauma and Racial Healing

In my observation, it’s difficult to talk about racial trauma in the context of other types of trauma. And each type of trauma can stand on its own. And if we are going to focus on racial trauma then we need to stay focused on that type of trauma and make an effort to withdraw all the other types. This is where harm can come in also because it is natural for us to compare, but I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. My trauma is deep and ugly. And yet it can’t be compared with the collective trauma of an entire population. 

I think we have a long way to go in healing racism in our society. So much harm has been done to people of color that I often think we need some kind of truth and reconciliation committee. We need to find a path forward for reparations and atonement. These need to be both societal and personal. The Yet-To-Be-Named-Network says, “The possibility of full-fledged reconciliation depends on full-fledged redistribution. Any sincere redress for unspeakable crimes against humanity requires action on a societal scale that individuals can never accomplish in isolation.” And this is where sangha has a part to play. To seek restitution for past harm and attempt to repair the damage done. In my view, working on whiteness is a step in the right direction. Does it have flaws? Most certainly. But the vast majority of racial justice activists (both POC and white) recognize that a conversation must take place among white people in a way that doesn’t perpetuate more harm toward communities of color. 

Again, the Yet-To-Be-Named-Network says, “For those who identify as white in our network, this means the naming of the lives, lands, and cultures that can never be restored, and the turning over of time, energy, money and land to those impacted by the brutal legacy of colonization and white supremacy, most notably Indigenous peoples of this continent and Black descendants of slaves.” This is a concrete expression for racial healing. 

Bias and White Fragility

I heard the criticism of Robin D’Angelo’s (White Fragility) work from some people, and at the same time recognize that just about any work in the public domain is going to face some criticism. I read both her books. The first was very academic and was based on her doctoral research. The second one tried to take that research into a more accessible format. I read them both as a means to grapple with some of the research findings and not to agree/disagree with everything. Another book that looks at research is called Biased by Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt. It finds much of the same information but focuses more on inherent biases found in everyone socialized in America. It links nicely with the Harvard Implicit Bias studies. Like white people, people of color also carry internalized racism and white supremacy. In the myriam francois podcast, the discussion said as much–we all contain internal white supremacy, including BIPOC people. I don’t believe we need to feel “guilty” for these circumstances, but to take action toward healing and reconciliation. 

For me, transformation needs to take place at the level of consciousness. And at the same time transform wealth, patriarchy, and racism. Our practice talks about the historical and the ultimate dimensions. I think the ultimate dimension is where we can see equality and harmony. But in the historical dimension we are still very stuck in suffering, harm, and discrimination. A friend said to me, no oppressed group can liberate itself without the cooperation of the dominant group (for example, the right to vote for women required the men to approve). 


Thich Nhat Hanh was a revolutionary. Constantly challenging the status quo. He did this directly and through his practice. I don’t believe that working on whiteness and how it has caused suffering for people of color is focusing on what’s wrong. It’s focused on healing. On reconciliation. On interbeing. It’s not making the situation worse. And not acknowledging the experiences of people of color will make the situation worse. 

I am reminded of the Tenth Mindfulness Training where it says, “As members of a spiritual community, we should nonetheless take a clear stand against oppression and injustice.” 

Subscribe to Receive Notifications


Practice through Darkness

This is a talk I offered on May 11, 2020 to the Be Here Now sangha in Montana. An audio version is available at the bottom of the post.

Ancestor Acknowledgement

Before we begin, I want to acknowledge and embrace the many generations of Vietnamese who carried Buddhism to us through our Teacher, Thay, and helped build the sangha in new lands. Their history and practice are present with us today.

We see and hold too the Indigenous and First Nation peoples who lived on the lands before us, who cared for it as we do, and lived their lives in community. Here in the Ojai Valley these are the Chumash People. Think now and name the people in your location.

Today we also honor our sangha diversity, whether that be gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or political affiliation.

My name is Kenley Neufeld. My dharma name is True Recollection of Joy. I have been practicing with the Plum Village community just over 20-years.

My family heritage the past 500-years is rooted in the German-speaking Anabaptist tradition that began in modern-day Netherlands then migrated to Poland, Ukraine, and finally to Canada and the United States. This rich tradition has informed my values and beliefs. And also some historical trauma. 

A Possible Path

In the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing, also known as the Anapanasati Sutta, the Buddha shows us how to transform our fear, despair, anger, and craving. Breathing is a means of awakening and maintaining full attention in order to look carefully, long, and deeply, to see the nature of things, and arrive at liberation. It is an invitation for to us breathe and to enjoy our breath.

This simple practice can be very profound to the degree that it can transform our outlook on the world. 

The Sutra contains sixteen exercises with each group of four focusing on a different aspect of ourselves – form, feelings, mental formations, and perceptions. Each of these four groups also align with the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (also known as the Satipatthana Sutta).

We can apply these teachings in our daily lives. Whether living as a householder, retired from the work environment, or independently caring for yourself. This teaching on breathing can be applied in order to discover joy and happiness. There is no need to be a Buddhist to apply one of the deepest mindfulness teachings passed through the ages. 

Further, the exercises can be done in any order. They are all wonderful. That said, the earlier ones related more to stopping and the later ones on looking deeply. But these too are interconnected.

There are many reasons to practice these teachings. They can help us work with our habit energies. They can help us move from forgetfulness to being fully present. They can provide freedom from fear, anxiety, frustration, and even despair. They can help us Practice through Darkness. 

A Breaking Point

In June 2018, I suffered from a mental breakdown. I had been working 55-hours a week as Dean at a community college. The campus was experiencing a great deal of turmoil and difficulty with the overwhelming majority of the campus leadership new to their role. I was one of a handful of “long-termers” with only 4-years in my dean position. I had been through four supervisors in those short years.

Further, I was spending 10-15 hours a week taking care of my dharma community. Not to mention commuting 2-hours a day and trying to be a father and partner. I strove for perfection and arose each morning at 3:45am to allow space for meditation and exercise. But ultimately it became too much for me and I broke.

Something had to give. I requested a sabbatical from sangha activity and commenced to share weekly with a spiritual friend in the practice. 

When we are living in moments of fear or anxiety, it is not always so easy to cultivate our mindfulness practice. And when we are in despair, the challenge becomes even greater. But it’s not impossible.

This is where these sutras come in handy. They are a guide. A foundation. Life is both painful and miraculous. And conscious breathing is our foundation and can bring joy – helping to set aside our difficulties. Or least not to be so burdened by them. 

Practicing Through Darkness

Let’s look more closely at the sutras. From the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing:

  1. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.
  2. Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.
  3. Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.
  4. Breathing in, I am calm my whole body. Breathing out, I am calm my whole body.

These are the first four exercises. They are matched with First Establishment of Mindfulness. Which states, “A practitioner remains established in the observation of the body in the body, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving in this life.

It’s a lot of words. And seems to have a form. But don’t get too caught by the structure and format. In times of darkness, we may only be able to do this for a moment. But each time we do, we can touch peace. Just for that moment.

During that summer of 2018 and into the fall, I was only able to do this part of the time. A few moments here. A few moments there. Sometimes all I could say is, “there is a body here.” And take a look at my body. My hands, my fingers, my legs, my feet. I could touch my face and know there is a face. And see that I have a body. 

We can call this following the breath in daily life and awareness of the body. All meditation practice begins with the body. In doing so, we can touch our physical manifestation. We can touch our trauma. We can touch our ancestors. We can touch our breath.

The first thing we do when sitting on the meditation cushion is to adjust our body. Slowly and gently positioning our legs, our feet, our hands, our back. We can do this as we follow our breathing and settle the body.

The rest of 2018 brought a lot of tears. I would cry with my spiritual friend. I would cry in my car as I drove home from work. I would cry as I would lie down to sleep. My feelings were overwhelming me. Loss. Despair. Hopelessness. Fear. Anxiety.

Not so different from what many may be feeling today during this COVID crisis. Not so different from what many people in this country experience in their daily lives. The spiritual friendship I had was important. Critical even. A dharma friend who would listen with compassion and kindness. And to help me to practice the First Foundation of Mindfulness. 

The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing continues,

5. Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful.

6. Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy. 

7. Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations. Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations. 

8. Breathing in, I calm my mental formations. Breathing out, I calm my mental formations.

These four exercises align with the Second Establishment of Mindfulness. Which says, “She remains established in the observation of the feelings in the feelings, diligent, with clear understanding, mindful, having abandoned every craving and every distaste for this life.

In full disclosure, I was not able to practice the fourth and fifth exercise very well. I could say them intellectually, but I wasn’t able to allow them to penetrate deeply. But just the effort of saying them probably touched something inside.

And I know that joy and happiness are the medicine to give us strength to cure our deepest, most fundamental causes of our sickness.

To be able to ask, what are my conditions for happiness? To name them by writing them down or saying them aloud. These would often come forth in my conversations with my friend. And to be able to see the connection between suffering and happiness. 

Mental Formations

What are mental formations? In the Buddhist tradition, there are 51 mental formations. They range from feelings and perceptions to mindfulness, insight and concentration. Some other wholesome mental formations are diligence, non-harming, faith, joy, and humility. On the unwholesome side we may see hatred, ignorance, arrogance, doubt, anger, resentment, selfishness, and jealousy. And the ones I was struggling with: fear, anxiety, and despair. 

Using the seventh and eighth exercises, we can become aware of our mental formations and learn to calm those mental formations. We can begin with naming, just like we did with the body. There is fear here. Or, mindfulness is present.

We can practice this exercise with mere recognition. No judgment on whether it’s a wholesome, unwholesome, or indeterminate. The mental formation is simply the mental formation. 

I invite you to explore these two sutras and begin to apply them in your daily life. They are foundational teachings regardless of where you are in your practice. They can be used in times of joy and happiness. And in times of sorrow and suffering. Our practice is to be aware of our feeling that is present right now. Is the feeling pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, or mixed? We can ask where our feelings arise from? 

It is also important to practice non-duality – an unpleasant feeling is not the enemy – we draw awareness to it. We approach our awareness with compassion and nonviolence; with our hearts filled with love.

The Story Continues

Now to finish my story. Surprisingly, it got worse before it got better. I had been experiencing major depression and anxiety coupled with an obsessive-compulsive personality. This led in turn to a second major mental breakdown in January 2019 that forced me to seek professional help and long-term care. I didn’t work for most of 2019 and toward the end of the year I resigned my position as Dean.

When a person spends an entire year caring for only oneself, the landscape becomes populated with virtually all the 51 mental formations. Through this time, the main practice has been following my breath in daily life and awareness of body. Two practices directly from the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Just learning to be okay with what is. Much easier said than done.

With this new year (2020), I am doing much better. I have returned to work doing something less responsible. I have begun to pick-up pieces of my sangha activities. And doing so with mindfulness and attention. Along with setting careful boundaries. 

And then COVID hit. But that is a story for the future. 

Buddhism Dharma

Buddhism in Everyday Life

This is part two of a talk I gave at the Vista Buddhist Temple on November 9, 2019. You can listen to part one here. In the second part, I explore what mindfulness means, how to practice mindfulness, how to maintain mindfulness, and the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Buddhism Dharma

Touching Ancestors: Guided Meditation

“For over 4 billion years the earth has been here, holding and feeding single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, plants and flowers, and humans. We acknowledge and embrace the many generations of Vietnamese who carried Buddhism to us through our Teacher, Thay, and helped build the sangha in new lands.”

Thus begins a guided meditation offered at the Vista Buddhist Temple on Saturday, November 9, 2019. This is part one of a dharma talk I offered with the theme Buddhism in Everyday Life.

Buddhism Dharma

Sangha Can Be the Next Buddha

Earlier this year I was invited to contribute to the November issue of Lions Roar magazine as part of their Buddhism’s Next 40 Years: A Time of Reformation series. In this article, I offer three ways we can rethink community and fulfill Thich Nhat Hanh’s aspiration for the Buddhist community.

Buddha, dharma, and sangha are three precious jewels in Buddhism. According to Thich Nhat Hanh, “The most important of these is sangha.”

Illustration by Sydney Smith.

For many years, the Zen master has taught that “it is probable that the next buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next buddha may take the form of a community, a community practicing understanding and loving-kindness, a community practicing mindful living.”

Continue reading at Lions Roar.


Screaming Mind and the Love Meditation

The words begin “May I Be…”, and they have been a practice for the past six months. When we reach those places in our meditation practice when nothing seems to work, we can turn toward those actions that are more simple. More basic. This is a place I’ve found myself this year. Sitting meditation went to the wayside. Chanting went to the wayside. Same with Touching the Earth. Asking for help was about all that could be mustered in these moments of difficulty. 

When speaking with my mentors and teachers, each one shared how important it can be to turn toward the body. Body awareness is tactile, real, and evident in virtually everything I do. When I walk, I can walk with awareness. This is a deep meditation. My body is often in motion and so these moments can be an opportunity  to know there is a body present. Legs are there to provide locomotion. Feet are there to touch the earth in each moment. 

And yet, even this most basic practice of being aware of the body and its locomotion can be a challenge in these deserts of practice. When my frustration or distraction arises, as it often does, then if I can bring mindfulness to the moment. This moment is an opportunity to be free. Seeing and touching the movement without judgment. And not to push away the mind with force, but to offer an acknowledgement. Drawing attention to my mind as it screams at me about all my suffering and then learning to calm it with bringing my attention to my body. 

It might only last a minute or five minutes, but that is enough in my relearning to tune the mind and the body. These moments of nuance are guiding me in the practice of mindfulness. A long journey unfolds on this path toward ease and happiness. 

The other practice suggested by my mentors is the Love Meditation. It has been a daily reading practice with my focus on myself throughout this year. The words appear on the page as I read and though I don’t believe they will help, I read them anyway. Slowly and with intention. 

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit. 
May I be safe and free from injury. 
May I be free from anger, fear, and anxiety.

The first stanza ends with anxiety, a place I know all too well, and it’s easy to get caught by the word as I read it into my mind. As I feel the anxiety present, I turn back to the the word happy earlier in the verse. There is anxiety and there is also happiness. It is possible. 

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love. 
May I be able to recognize and touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May I learn to identify and see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.

This verse has been really difficult. My criticism and unhappiness for myself has been strong. There is understanding, so the verse says, but I can’t see it. I’ve felt love for myself, but it has been missing. Can it be cultivated by into my consciousness? Sometimes it feels impossible. And yet I read it into my mind each day, hoping and trusting that it may arise again. 

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day. 
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May I be free from attachment and aversion, but not be indifferent.

Here we have advanced practice! For me, I have to embody and hold the first two verses as true and experienced before I can move into this lasting experience. Knowing how to nourish the seeds of joy can be identified. For example, stopping to smile at the ocean before arriving at work. This can be done each workday. But how can it be sustained at other moments in the day? That is the challenge and the practice. 

Pacific Ocean with Fog Bank. Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara, CA
Leadbetter Beach, Santa Barbara, CA

During this year while practicing with the Love Meditation, I’ve had to let myself trust that it will work. For many days, I didn’t have faith that reciting these verses would actually help me. But I read them anyway. Allowing the dharma rain to penetrate into me even if I’m always wearing a raincoat. In some form, the words can seep in through the sleeves or around the neck. And if I let them touch me every day, then at some point I’ll be saturated. 

It’s been a good practice. A foundational practice. One that I know is working. Moving me from despair and criticism to gentleness and love. 

The journey continues. 

Buddhism Dharma Justice

A Welcome for Sangha Gatherings

In recent years, I have been reflecting with other friends on the path on methods to make our practice communities more inclusive. Also, to recognize and honor those who have gone before us including those who were instrumental in building Buddhism in America. In particular, as a result of the war in Vietnam we have the Venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh living in exile for fifty years. And with that exile, along with thousands of Vietnamese, we have the practice centers at Deer Park Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and Blue Cliff Monastery that serve and support mindfulness practice in the Plum Village tradition.

Making our practice communities more inclusive is no easy task. It will require everyone to transform themselves and be willing to do things differently. As the Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams wrote on Lions Roar, this is the “back of the bus” moment of our time.

For the last two or three practice events I’ve offered, both in-person and online, I have begun the session with a short statement. It is offered as a guided reflection followed by a guided meditation. The reflection is drawn from several sources. Please use, adapt, and share with your groups.

Sunrise in Santa Barbara

For over 4 billion years the earth has been here, holding and feeding single-celled organisms, dinosaurs, plants and flowers, and humans. We acknowledge and embrace the many generations of Vietnamese who carried Buddhism to us through our Teacher, Thay, and helped build the sangha in new lands. Their history and practice are present with us today. We are also grateful to hear that our Teacher has been able to return home to his root temple, where he was ordained at the age of sixteen, to spend the rest of his days in the care of the community.

We see and hold too the native and First Nation peoples who lived on the lands before us, who cared for it as we do, and lived their lives in community. Here in the Ojai Valley these are the Chumash people. And today we also honor our diversity, whether that be gender, religion, ethnicity, national origin, age, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or political affiliation. We hold a special place today for the communities who are recovering from the wildfires in California and earthquakes in Alaska (insert something timely and appropriate).

All this is present here today as the Sangha is invited to come back to our breathing so that the collective energy of mindfulness will bring us together as an organism, going as a river with no more separation.