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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 notremaining 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.
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.
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.
With deep joy and gratitude, I am happy to share with you the good news that I have been invited to receive the Lamp of Wisdom, encouragement to teach, by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community. Lamp Transmission Ceremonies for monastic and lay practitioners will be held at Deer Park Monastery, near San Diego on Saturday, March 17-18, 2012. My friends Karen Hilsberg, John Salerno-White, Joann Rosen, and Jim Scott-Behrends will all receive the Lamp at Deer Park next weekend. In total, there will be 8-lay practitioners and 6-monastics receiving over the course of two days. Though the transmission is coming from Thich Nhat Hanh, he will not be physically present for the ceremony.
For those of you unfamiliar with this tradition, lamp transmission refers to "the manner in which the teaching, or Dharma, is passed from a Zen master to their disciple. The procedure establishes the disciple as a transmitting teacher in their own right and successor in an unbroken lineage of teachers and disciples, a spiritual 'bloodline' theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself." According to Zen schools, the first instance of Dharma transmission occurred as transcribed in the Flower Sermon, when the Buddha held up a golden lotus flower given to him by Brahma before an assembly of "gods and men."
This is a deep honor along with a long term commitment. I am very grateful for my sangha, my family, and my friends who have supported me on this path. My hope is to include some pictures and words about my experience after next weekend.
I’m exploring the joys of being busy and taking a close look at the commitments in my life. What does it mean to be busy? To have commitments? Is it possible to have to many? I’ve heard Thich Nhat Hanh talk about something called busylessness, or businesslessness, [the correct term is “businessless” invented by Master Linji – added 4/26/08] but I’m not exactly sure what that means. I think it is a word just for those of us in the West who strive all the time. Who pursue something outside of ourselves. We work so hard that sometimes we don’t allow space for openness, for rest. We don’t allow enough space for doing nothing. Let’s take my life as an example (since I’m the one writing). As I look beyond my permanent commitments of being a partner and a parent, I see myself involved with many volunteer activities.