Categories
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.

Categories
Justice

Angry Buddhist

There is anger in me today, and I am not pushing it away. I’m so torn between staying abreast to what’s occurring in our society and crawling under a rock. Every time I see a headline or hop onto Twitter, it surges my anger. And maybe this is something that’s okay, especially if it drives me to action. It is easy to feel helpless, hopeless, during times such as we live in today. Have lived in for a long time.

Recently I was reflecting on the fact that segregated housing and education existed in my lifetime. I honestly find that astounding. And we really haven’t come much further in my 52-years. Yes, the laws enacted during the Civil Rights movement were real and helpful, but the white supremacy that exists in our society is very deep. And it remains today. It exists in me and it likely exists in you. We are collectively products of our society. Embracing and recognizing this truth is a step in the right direction. 

I am encouraged by the efforts of East Point Peace Academy, Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) that each seek to dismantle white supremacy. Yesterday on a webinar, I heard Rev. Lynice Pinkard share that “getting back to normal is getting back to power, greed, and racism.” And she encouraged us to “stay with the trouble.” And asked us, “Where do we stand in relationship to domination, subordination, and subjugation?” This event was sponsored by East Point.

Tonight SURJ will host a A Call to Action for White Folks.  And BPF will hold a vigil on Sunday night – #HonorLostLives.

Take action in your community – 5 Ways White People Can Take Action in Response to White and State-Sanctioned Violence. The first is to “come out as anti-racist and invite others to join you.” 

There is a strong urge in me to buy a plane ticket and fly to Minneapolis. To be a witness. To lend my body to the cause. But that urge may not become a reality. I know there are two sanghas in Minneapolis that practice in the Plum Village tradition – Blooming Heart Sangha and Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center. I wonder what we might do to support and connect with these fellow practitioners.

Yes, there is a place for being in nature, finding joy, nourishing peace. And there is also a place for direct action. And maybe it arises from anger. That’s okay too. We take our practice of peace and joy and apply it as a foundation to reject white supremacy and racism and violence.

I’ll end with a quote from James Baldwin – “All safety is an illusion.”

Ben Connelly, a Buddhist priest at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, prayed while seated near E. Lake Street and across from the Minneapolis Police's Third Precinct station.
DAVID JOLES – STAR TRIBUNE

Categories
Justice

Capitalism and White Supremacy

Capitalism and White Supremacy. I don’t know if that’s quite the right title. I really wanted to have the Environment in there too. Anyway, these are the topics I’ve been wrestling with lately and are the general theme of this essay.

Introduction

The quarantine of 2020 has forced each of us to live and do things differently. As a librarian at a community college, I have been very fortunate to both retain my employment and to work from home. Although it has been difficult from time to time, it is truly a luxury to have personal safety and a steady income. I know this isn’t the case for many millions of Americans. 

Throughout my life, I’ve always been a learner. It’s one of the reasons I went into academic librarianship. Not only do I get to learn from the students on a regular basis, I also get to be surrounded by the written word. And during this quarantine, I’ve definitely upped my reading. In fact, I seem to have accidentally created a curriculum for myself that focuses on capitalism, white supremacy, and the environment. 

Book Covers

This isn’t a catch-all, be-all type of essay. Just opening up with a few of my thoughts and then sharing my curriculum with you. It’s at the bottom if you want to skip ahead.

Capitalism and Racism

These topics are so intertwined together. Moving forward, it will be difficult for me to look at each individually without considering the whole. And that’s a good thing! Researching and experiencing these more deeply has been pushing me to reflect on what is most important, and therefore where I might place my attention and resources. In some ways, the curriculum has radicalized me more than I expected. 

Historically, I have rarely identified myself as “a liberal.” I’ve always considered myself a bit further to the left than the liberal. In fact, I’ve struggled to vote for a Democrat for president for decades (and 2020 is going to be especially difficult). In the end, they seem to always let me down and don’t seem to move society forward.

So, I’m probably somewhere on the anarchist, socialist, communist spectrum. It does beg the question whether someone like me should even vote in a presidential election. I don’t know the answer. If you have ideas, please do comment. This accidental course of study has definitely forced me question our current political structures as it relates to capitalism, white supremacy, and the environment. Do current politics in United States have the capacity to address the damages of capitalism, white supremacy, and environmental degradation?

Capitalism in the United States is detrimental for all workers, but especially for BIPOC communities, and the environment. It forces the lowest possible wages and the weakest environmental considerations in order to feed the shareholder. The costs of capitalism are both extremely obvious and also deeply hidden. The Capitalist State upholds this structure and the mentality permeates all aspects of society. From the church to the oil company. I’m not a great scholar, but this is the sense of what I have gleaned from my recent readings. It’s also been quite interesting during this COVID Crisis to see capitalists embrace more socialist approaches (such as the large bailouts of corporations and the IRS payment to workers). 

White supremacy is propped up by capitalism.

Perpetual growth based on theft and slavery is the name of the game. From the first arrival to North America by Europeans that forced the death and/or migration of native peoples, to the theft of the southwest (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California), to chattel slavery, to post-reconstruction lynchings and Jim Crow laws well into the 20th century, to redlining to prevent home ownership of black people, to the continued violence and murder of black Americans in the 21st century, to reliance on fossil fuels. My god, I’m only 52-years old and legalized segregation in schools and colleges existed within my lifetime! And three of the greatest Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s were all assassinated (Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X).

And white supremacy isn’t only about Black Americans. Immigration of cheap labor from “non-white” countries such as Italy and Ireland in the early 20th century, all the way to present-day immigrants from Central America and Mexico. And then we have anti-semitism throughout history that continues to this day. They all suffered at the hands of the Capitalist State. Is it surprising that some of the most polluted locations in North America are within non-white communities? Is it surprising that incomes, better health, and home ownership are all highest for white Americans? 

I’m feeling this is enough of an introduction to the topic at hand. I did want to dig deeper into the environment, since this is intricately tied with capitalism and racism, but I’ll leave that to be explored on your own through the books, podcasts, videos, and articles listed below.

A Curriculum

Books

Clark, John P. Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community (2019)

Eberhardt, Jennifer L. Phd. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do (2019)

Lowy, Michael. Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (2015)

Podcasts

Note: The title of each episode is first, followed by the guest on the show, and then the name of the podcast. You can search online or in your favorite podcatcher.

Community-Led Practices To Build the Worlds We Need, Sasha Costanza-Chock | Data & Society

COVID-19 in Black America, Ibram X. Kendi | This is Hell!

Covid19 and the Crisis Capitalism Creates in Normal Times, Silvia Federici | Latin Waves Media

Food Workers and the Virus, Raj Patel | Belabored

I Am Not Your Negro: Racism in the Us, Richard Johnson | Factual America Podcast

The Nature of Democracy in the Times of Crisis, A. C. Grayling | KPFA – Letters and Politics

Technological Change and Social Protests, Kerstin Enflo | A Correction Podcast

We Have To Begin With Emancipation, Asad Haider | Millennials Are Killing Capitalism

Any episode | The Benjamin Dixon Show

Videos

COVID-19, global climate policy and carbon markets

Life-Making, Capitalism and the Pandemic: Feminist Ideas about Women’s Work

Articles

hooks, bell. An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional | Center for Black Music Research

Kalm, Sara. Citizenship Capital | Journal of Global Society

Kendi, Ibram X. We’re Still Living and Dying in the Slaveholders’ Republic | The Atlantic

Martinez, Elizabeth ‘Betita’. What Is White Supremacy? | Catalyzing Liberation Toolkit

McGee, Julius Alexander and Patrick Trent Greiner. How Long Can Neoliberalism Withstand Climate Crisis? | Monthly Review

Saunt, Claudio. The world’s first mass deportation took place on American soil | Aeon Essays

St. John, Victor J. Placial Justice: Restoring Rehabilitation and Correctional Legitimacy Through Architectural Design | SAGE

Tittle, Chris. Now Is the Time to Take Radical Steps Toward Housing Equity | Yes Magazine

Yates, Michael D. It’s Still Slavery by Another Name | Monthly Review

Wijnberg, Rob. Why climate change is a pandemic in slow motion (and what that can teach us) | The Correspondent

Other 

White Supremacy and the United States James Baldwin

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Categories
Environment Justice

Gratitude for Trees

The living creatures of the Earth – trees, shrubs, flowers, water, rock, soil, insects, and bugs – they came before us and will likely be here long after we have departed. Today as I practiced walking meditation in my yard, there was an abundance of Butterflies. The lifecycle of these beautiful creatures is wonderful to observe. As the Caterpillar’s crawl around the yard and on the fence, they find a place to cocoon before allowing the Butterfly to spring forth. They then nurture the plants and bushes. They bring joy to those who observe. Their playful flight, to-and-fro, without seemingly needing anywhere to go or anything to do. Such a delight! And for 56 million years they have been practicing this dance.

Native Plants and Butterfly
© Kenley Neufeld

As a young teen, I delivered the local newspaper in the early mornings. I lived in a place with dense fog on many winter mornings. This being caused by a relationship between the earth and the sky. They touch each other and interact together. These early mornings brought dew to the Sycamore trees lining the streets. The density of the quiet. Each drop could be heard as it moved from the fog, to the tree, and then to the dry leaves upon the ground. This sound. This feeling. It still penetrates into my consciousness 40-years later. There is a sadness for me that the current generation of young people have not experienced this fog. The newspaper is now delivered by adults in cars. The land has heated and dried up so there is not so much winter rain to soak the ground that brings forth the fog. I do hope for its return. Fortunately, the Sycamore remains standing today. But it disappeared from Europe; will it suffer the same fate in North America? 

Source: maxpixel.net

Today I saw an Oak tree with one limb torn from its trunk. It was a 20-foot tear from this lovely creature. These majestic trees can live over 100 years and few saplings are produced. The California landscape is still blessed with these trees despite harsh summers and dry winters. The shifting climate will cause these trees to suffer as new trees are slow to take root and old trees fall or lose limbs. They are a part of the shifting landscape that isn’t only about the Oak, but also the bugs, insects, soil, and Chaparral that rely on the Oak for protection and food.

In the last month, I read The Overstory, by Richard Powers and Braiding Sweetgrassby Robin Wall Kimmerer. The first being a novel and the latter exploring indigenous wisdom alongside scientific inquiry. Both books look toward nature and plants as a source of wisdom, a source of inquiry, and a source for us to take a bold step forward. Kimmerer writes,

If we use a plant respectfully it will stay with us and flourish. If we ignore it, it will go away. If you don’t give it respect it will leave us.

It is from these books I draw inspiration for writing and shifting my attitude and actions. 

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. That is where we can begin our healing with the Earth. To see, to recognize, to give thanks for the offering. The trees that bring us life. Air to breathe. The Bees that pollinate so that we might eat the fruit. Like the tree is connected to the soil, we are connected to the tree and subsequently the Bee. As we begin each day and arrive in each moment, look to your surroundings and cultivate a sense of gratitude. That floor you walk upon was once a tree, cut by a person and delivered to your community by a vehicle. Can you see the tree within the floor? Within the walls? Were these created with respect and thanksgiving? What respect for nature can you bring forth today? Just saying thank you and offering to do better may be enough in the moment. 

Then gaze from your window. Do you see something alive in the world? Wonder about it. The rocks are no less important than the soil, or the insect, or the tree. We may all have the opportunity to see the sky, that which keeps us grounded to the earth and is part of the lifecycle of water, wind, and air. Each of us can do this! 

If you are one whom capitalist economics have destroyed your environment, your home, and your community then you too can begin with this practice of gratitude. Let your awareness of the damage be a catalyst to rise up in voice and action. We all need to hear your voice. I hear your voice. I see your suffering. It calls for justice! 

To be an environmentalist is to allow yourself this exercise of gratitude. To see and love nature, even when it has been destroyed. It is a place from which we can advocate for those creatures without voices – trees, shrubs, flowers, water, rock, soil, insects, and bugs. Then coming from a place of love and compassion, we can extend this love and compassion to our advocacy for environmental justice.  

One Bowl and One Spoon

The “One Bowl and One Spoon” metaphor, written about in Braiding Sweetgrass, speaks to my heart. If we can see all the Earth provides is contained within one bowl and is served with only one spoon, then perhaps we can take the step toward greater ecological compassion. Stewardship. Reciprocity. Reparations. We can take care of her and learn to share all the wealth the Earth offers, for she remains abundant. In doing so she can begin to heal. And from this healing we can live better in relationship to her and all the creatures of the land. To recover the inequities brought forth over the centuries so we can embody the Earth’s life-giving offerings more equally.

Categories
Buddhism Justice

Practicing Engaged Buddhism

Order of Interbeing Members in Oklahoma
Judy, Steve, Kenley, and Juliet

On July 20, 2019, I participated with dozens of Buddhist priests and three other Order of Interbeing members in a protest against the detention of migrant children at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The event was organized by Tsuru for Solidarity. The Fort Sill site, which was used as a concentration camp to incarcerate Japanese Americans, and was slated to become a holding facility for migrant children.

I was invited to write a short piece for Lions Roar. You can read my report of the trip at Opposition Can Come from Love.

Categories
Buddhism Justice

Why White Awareness?

If you are white, do you know what it means to be white? Do you know how this impacts your community or place of work? What about your spiritual community, your sangha? White awareness is an important training.

White awareness is not a new term. In 1978, Judy H. Katz wrote the book White Awareness: Handbook For Anti-Racism Training. More recently, Robin DiAngelo published two excellent books — What it Means to be White and White Fragility. With these titles, the white reader can gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be white and the impact it carries in our country, our communities, our place of work, and our sangha.

People of Color in the Sangha

The first People of Color retreat in the Plum Village tradition took place at Deer Park Monastery in 2004. Offering this retreat was a big deal and our Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, provided his spiritual support and direct teaching for the couple hundred participants. More people of color retreats and affinity groups have been created. Offering this dharma door has been life-changing for people of color in the sangha. For many, it wasn’t until attending one of these retreats were they able to identify a home within the Plum Village tradition. I have heard that arriving at the monastery, and seeing others like themselves, was a feeling of complete ease and it provided a very different experience from more general retreats.

As a white person, I did not attend these retreats. But I have listened deeply to those who attended the retreat. What they shared is inspiring and has deepened my compassion and understanding.

White and Middle-Class

And yet we continue to struggle as a sangha to open the doorway for all practitioners. The American sangha remains predominately white and middle-class. For many, white awareness may be difficult to explore when everyone else is similar. This isn’t a criticism, but a reality. In fact, as a white man in America, I don’t need to think about being white whereas people of color receive regular reminders throughout their lives. I can live outside the experience of race and ethnicity. At a retreat, white people usually begin thinking about race when a small group of practitioners create an affinity group and call it “People of Color” – the affinity group proceeds to meet together for meals and for sharing together.

At that point, many whites begin to feel left out. They begin to question the need for separateness. Isn’t Buddhism about interbeing and inclusion? There is often a litany of reasons to question the people of color affinity group. But how often does the white practitioner ask themselves what it means to be white, what impact does being white have on the sangha, on the retreat?

White Awareness at Deer Park

At the recent Deer Park Monastery Holiday Retreat, the retreat organizers set aside time for affinity groups to form. Retreat attendees were asked to suggest groups the day before by writing suggestions on the board, and then everyone could mark down our interest level for each of the suggestions. In the morning, several groups were listed, with a few tick-marks on each. The list included a “people of color” group and a “white awareness” group. The white awareness group was absent when the final list was posted. The person who had suggested the group asked for my support in speaking with the retreat organizers. We asked to understand the reason and to request the affinity group be added to the program. After the conversation, the organizers added it to the program.

This would be the first time a white awareness affinity group is offered during a retreat.

And then the questions began to circulate. What does this affinity group mean? Is this a response to the people of color group? Is this a racist group? In the afternoon, and the next day, attendees shared confusion by the affinity group and didn’t understand the purpose. That said, one person did write on the signup sheet: If you don’t know what this means, then this group is for you.

Seeking Understanding

We can do better, but the lack of awareness and consciousness among white practitioners feels surprising. Intellectually, I know many people simply lack the framework or the language to navigate anti-racism work. When the affinity group gathered later that evening, we were 8 white practitioners and 1 Vietnamese.

For the 90-minutes of sharing, we each offered our experiences, insights, fears, shame, and a deep desire to be an ally for people of color within the sangha. By not remaining silent, but speaking up and voicing support for people of color affinity groups and retreats. To be aware and speak up about our place of privilege as white practitioners. To name those who have remained un-named. And to see what has been obscured by socialization and that white people can choose not to see race.

This will take many years of deep looking, training, and conversations. It is ongoing education for each of us. And it will take creating true friendships with people of color where we can talk about what it means to be white.

Healing Actions

White Awareness through Reparations + Atonement

The white awareness affinity group at Deer Park feels like a small step in the right direction. A direction toward racial healing and atonement. It’s not perfect and we have much to learn. There will be controversy and there will be misunderstanding. Practitioners will say we are creating division in the sangha by talking of white awareness. Some will be hurt. But this is action. It is important and necessary action.

White awareness is a work in progress to opening pathways of trust and healing. If we don’t understand our own whiteness, and the power it wields, then we will struggle to truly heal.

Spiritually and rationally healing actions in solemn acknowledgement that only a tiny fraction of what has been stolen and destroyed can ever be returned or repaired.

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This is racial healing, atonement, and an expression of reparations. People of European descent have a responsibility to allow this to occur through action within our spiritual communities. To name the lives, lands, and cultures. To see the outcome of colonialism and white supremacy that has been carried forward to the present day.

Addendum: Reflecting further on the specific experience at Deer Park Monastery, some methods to improve do exist. For example, being able to publicly share the intention of the group or to allow more planning than the day before. Perhaps a different name for the group that is more explanatory. Such as “What does it mean to be white?” or “The impact of being white in the Sangha.” Ultimately we are on a learning continuum and I look forward to hearing other people’s insights and experiences.

Categories
Justice

Exploring a Direction

It is just a seed in me right now, but it is a conscious direction I am moving. A movement toward reparations, atonement, and racial healing.

In a racial conflict, particularly involving Black Americans or Indigenous people, I feel as a white man that I should follow their lead. If I need to speak, and I better be certain speaking will help, then I will do so with the language of love and empathy and not force or dominate an outcome. Doing otherwise seems unwise and continues the white supremacy that has dominated American society. I will recognize the times when this makes me feel uncomfortable.

This is my intention.