On race and Buddhism

So how does it feel to come to Zen practice as a person of color? And they will come; they do come. My friend Sala Steinbach says an African-American woman at SFZC says, “If it is about liberation, people of color will be interested.” They are. The Dalai Lama draws stadiums full of people in Mexico. In South America there are Zen and Tibetan teachers with very strong lay sanghas. So I ask my Asian, and Latino, and African-American friends about how it feels to come here, to San Francisco Zen Center or Spirit Rock. And I ask myself what feelings come up. Dogen suggests we take a step back to turn one’s light inward and illuminate oneself. What I see there in myself is then reflected back into the world.

The answer to how it feels to anyone largely depends on two further inter-related questions. First, does one feel safe and seen in the community? Are the conditions of your life acknowedged, welcomed, explored in the sangha? I suspect that this is sometimes yes, sometimes no. Thoughtless words can turn people from the temple and from the practice. I have seen this happen here and elsewhere. An offhand comment is made about the white, middle class makeup of the community with people of color sitting right there. Again, through the unintended eye of white supremacy (hard words, I know) people are made to feel invisible and uncounted. Maybe I should say something about white supremacy. It is a building block of racism, part of my blindness to my own privilege as a white man. It is at once personal and systematic. If one wants to see it, the practice of individual mindfulness, of turning our light inward needs to be blended dialogue with friends and sangha members who don’t carry this very particular privilege.

The same kinds of painful things happen if you are homosexual, or if because of injury or fact of birth you can’t get up the steps of the temple. These blindnesses hurt and turn people away. That’s what it might feel like from one side.

On the other side, the Buddha’s understanding is “all beings have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of misunderstandings and attachments they do not realize it.” This understanding is so precious that we are obligated to share it. I don’t mean proselytizing, but keep in mind, the Buddha never stopped preaching Dharma. But now we have centers and institutions. To make zazen and Dharma available, we need to tell people they are welcome and invite them to practice with us. Already we are taking practice to jails and hospitals, to people who might not be able to come to us.

The next obvious step is to find ways to open our doors to those who can come to us. I hear that some San Francisco churches have created a kind of covenant of “open congregation.” This means that in their literature and at their services, classes, and events they make it known that they welcome people of color, gays and lesbians, and so on. Being pro-active rather than passive on questions of diversity and inclusion.

This is necessary because in America, passivity means white supremacy. It’s subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my mind as a person with so-called privilieges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Last week I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. Now maybe I did a good job talking to them, but I was the first Buddhist choice that came to mind for the organizers. There is some irony in that. Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people like me. I have to watch myself carefully not to buy into this.

Go here.

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4 thoughts on “On race and Buddhism

  1. from the article:
    “This is necessary because in America, passivity means white supremacy. It’s subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my mind as a person with so-called privilieges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Last week I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. Now maybe I did a good job talking to them, but I was the first Buddhist choice that came to mind for the organizers. There is some irony in that. Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people like me. I have to watch myself carefully not to buy into this”

    this paragraph really stuck out to me, “passivity means white supremacy” and also that the author was the first choice, but what really struck me is, with all that, he still negates privilege, “so called privileges”.

  2. Thank you for this post. I think it is helpful for the persons of color in Buddhism to hear the experiences of each other, since their stories tend not to be mainstream. I created a Ning site (http://urbanrefuge.ning.com) to support this community and provide an infrastructure for this important dialogue. It’s still in its infancy. And we need some more good voices and opinions to help it grow. Check it out. If you like it, help get the word out. If you don’t, offer suggestions.

  3. by “so-called privileges” I suspect he means that the privileges that give him economic advantages, make his voice heard, give him dispropostional power in society, etc etc etc, don’t seem so great in the end because of their ill effects. Once one recognizes the harm that white privilege does to everyone else, as well as the harm it does to whites, it doesn’t seem like “privilege” anymore. of course, it still is, from a material and ego standpoint, but you know how buddhists feel about that stuff…

  4. It has been years since you posted this entry and it is so good to find it. Thank you for your thoughts.

    “To make zazen and Dharma available, we need to tell people they are welcome and invite them to practice with us.”

    This seems very compassionate and rational, except it isn’t. I dropped my practice for this very reason. It isn’t enough for the sangha to say, “Come sit with us!” when they have not addressed their own privilege as a white hetero sangha. Specially because Buddhist dialog in American is shaped, as you said, by people like you. Here I mean to say White brothers and sister, often owning and middle class.

    I would love to get any more info about thinking done by People of Color in your sagha and you. You seem pretty smart. Anyway, thank you!

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