Power, Agency and Control

Another attempt to think out loud on the subject of diversity:

In the discussion around the Heart Sutra last Saturday, we talked about prajna paramita as the wisdom that understands emptiness. I tend to trust that at a certain point in a  meditation practice, the truth of the three marks of existence (that all things are impermanent, that all things are unsatisfactory, and that nothing has an independent self) becomes clearer, and that it is possible to let go of conventional notions of looking at the world, accepting emptiness as an equal truth. In zen, especially as articulated by Dogen, the emphasis is on being able to embrace, as one whole,  the contrasting or paradoxical views of conventional difference in the relative world and the interconnected unity of the absolute (‘form itself is emptiness, emptiness itself form’ as the Heart Sutra puts it). This is itself the liberation of practice-realisation.

I often teach that we have less control over situations than we imagine, and that letting go of the desire for control can be very liberating. But that comes from a place of privilege as well as a place of emptiness. Over the years I have heard people of colour close to Zen Center saying that communities with less privilege and power have had resistance to being told let go when they don’t have so much to let go of, and are instead fighting for a fairer share of agency in the world.

It was easy for me, as someone who scores pretty much a full bingo card on privileges (white, male, middle class, English as a first language, heterosexual) to be able to give up some of the power afforded by that privilege. During my years of high school education in England, it was explicitly and repeatedly spelled out that we were being groomed for leadership, and we were constantly reminded that preceding generations of boys at that school had led the country and the empire, serving and dying in many wars. Some people I met in those years are now running the country, or at least imagining they are. Since none of that appealed to me very much, it was not hard for me to forge a more individual path – that is a benefit of starting from a place of privilege.

When I read around this subject (most pertinently recently here, and here), the tone in the below-the-line discussions that bothers me most is that the people who have historically found themselves without the kind of power I took for granted, are constantly being told -by those who have more power – that they should let go and accept the way things are, that the problem they are at pains to highlight do not exist, as if power and privilege dynamics were not real and entrenched and worth fighting against. This is only something you can claim when you are in the position of privilege.

I do not believe it is my place to lecture people who have a different experience of privilege, as to how they are supposed to respond, but instead I need to listen, and pay attention to what I am being told. This is not so hard to do; it does perhaps require understanding everyone to be a child of Buddha, with equal access to, and potential for, buddhahood, but also having their own unique circumstances which they are having to meet and respond to. As the New Yorker article notably puts it:

‘Garza’s argument for inclusivity is informed by the fact that she—a black queer female married to a trans male—would likely have found herself marginalized not only in the society she hopes to change but also in many of the organizations that are dedicated to changing it. She also dismisses the kind of liberalism that finds honor in nonchalance. “We want to make sure that people are not saying, ‘Well, whatever you are, I don’t care,’ ” she said. “No, I want you to care. I want you to see all of me.”’

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7 thoughts on “Power, Agency and Control

  1. White and privilege? Not so much! I wonder who is saying — ‘when they don’t have so much to let go of’ — We must ask and be very intimate with these populations; and ask if they have much to let go of vs. summarizing, from a position of perceived privilege. Can we speak of Diversity w/o speaking of race?
    And Shundo – can you say what you’ve given up?
    In my opinion, the three marks you speak of can really make a difference, if populations are working in these realms. I’m caught and It has always struck me funny—the dominate population think they have the answers to diversity and race issues. And I feel the same about the AA population and how we tend to offer solutions. We are all so vastly different in our opinions and stations in life that a sustainably solution to these issues, seems so far away — when actually, if we wanted to solve these issues, we could, right now.
    When we have a physical injury, I understand that it will take 2.5x from the time the injury happens, to heal.
    Most race challenges in this country are at critical-mass, in my opinion, because we just don’t know yet, what are all the symptoms. And we are so afraid of what will be there once the scab is totally lifted.
    What is working for me right now—I face racism each and everyday of my life, for 64-years; merging past knowledge and future goals and working with the before mentioned issues in the present moment. This has been most helpful as I work with different individuals, very intimately.

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  2. Hi Shalamah,

    I edited the second paragraph to say ‘people of colour close to Zen Center’, which more accurately reflects that discussion, which to me is different to people online wanting to dictate other people’s responses.
    What have I given up? Mostly a level of material ease that I was expected to be accumulating, and the social power that comes with that. I have had little money over the past fifteen years, though I have never felt especially poor.

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    • Shundo thanks so much for your response! There is a mystical parallel between how you and I were raised. My very wise mother would not let her nine children relax into a well established socio-economic of porverty and the notion of being ‘less than’ was not verbally tolerated. However, the programing was so very deeply set: Kinky hair, large nose, dark skin, laziness, non intelligence, etc. And this type of programming is so very deeply steeped in all of us, as a human race, even today. I thought of the founder of Bhuddism and Dogen; both privileged, I’d say; and it was their station in life to understand and teach about the human condition. I’m turned completely-on and totally-optimistic in being engaging and intimate with Self and Others, to let go and just love this process of returning to the Self. I look forward -engaging and simply turning-over different ways to shine a big bright light on this age-old phenomenon of race and diversity. Thanks for your big heart, your way seeking mind and your ability to climb, the sand ladder with ease. Deeply bowing!

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  3. It’s letting go of the Euro-Centered life-style and view points, it’s the letting-go of the dance of acceptance, and in many cases; it’s the dance of saving ones life and the dance of sparing white folks feelings when discussing hot button issues; such as race, gender and diversity, etc. The aforementioned are great stepping-stones to the Self.

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