misc-joy

Explorations by Kenley Neufeld

Deer Park Monastery

Why White Awareness?

By on January 8, 2019

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.

Renewal and Taking Care of Yourself

By on January 6, 2009

The new year brings us the opportunity to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Our family spent two weeks at Deer Park Monastery with a six-day Holiday Retreat in the middle. The second day of the retreat I was honored when Thay Phap Hai asked me to participate in the planned dharma talk.  We did this talk with our friend Karen Hilsberg.

The Plum Village sangha has a practice called Beginning Anew that we used for the foundation of our talk, since the theme of the retreat was renewal. Rather than focusing on another person, as we typically do with this practice, the focus of attention was ourselves. Karen provided us with four meditations that we explored in the one-hour talk. Please enjoy the talk.

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Four Meditations for Self-Renewal

  1. Flower Watering/Sharing Appreciation. Looking deeply, I see many positive and wholesome qualities in myself such as…
  2. Benign Regrets. Looking deeply, I regret that I have caused myself pain through my thoughts, speech and actions in the following ways…
  3. Hurts and Difficulties. Looking deeply, I can understand my own hurts and difficulties with deep compassion and friendliness toward myself, without blame or criticism as follows…
  4. Challenges and Intentions for the Future. For the future, I anticipate the following challenges and intend to practice mindfully and skillfully in the following ways…

The key here is to be kind and honest with yourself. If you can’t listen here, you can download the talk.

4 days, 25 Monastics, 80 Children, and More

By on July 7, 2008

With almost 250 people filling Deer Park Monastery, the 6th Annual Family Retreat was a great success. Leslie and I (with kids) arrived a couple days early to help setup and plan for the arrival of many friends. From July 2 through July 6, the monastery was transformed into a time of families practicing together. It was very nourishing to see many old friends from past retreats and to share, learn, and grow together. The Dharma is deep and lovely and it was very present in those attending the retreat. How wonderful to spend time with parents on the path who have similar values and interests as we do in our family. About half the people camped while the others stayed in the simple dorms. The weather was hot, but not unbearable. This Retreat was the most culturally diverse I’ve experienced at Deer Park (having never attended the People of Color Retreat) and I was happy to be sitting and practicing with friends on the path. So, some readers may wonder what happens at a monastery with 80 children.

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Sustained Practice and Well Being

By on April 5, 2008

Over the past seven years, I have spent many days/nights at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, but usually it is for a weekend or even just a day. On two occasions our family have spent 3-weeks at the monastery (once at Deer Park and once at Plum Village in France). These times are always nourishing and provide a nice time away from our regular environment. After our last long visit, in January, the children both said they’d like to stay longer the next time we visit. And though we only spent this past week at Deer Park, it was better than no time, and the children loved the visit especially since the Abbot Thay Phap Dung was available to play silly games with them.

The first question people often ask us about time at the monastery is – what do you do there? What about the children? My best response is that we participate in the activities of the monastery as best we can. For things like sitting meditation, dharma talks (teachings) and dharma discussion, Leslie and I must take turns. Aside from that, we join the community in eating together, cooking together, walking together, playing together, and working together. It is a time to slow down. How often can you take 45-60 minutes for every meal? How often can you take a 45-minute walk in the middle of the day with friends? Or, to sit and have tea for two hours in the afternoon while the children play? (more…)