The Language of Power

I have been able to listen to a lot of dharma talks recently, in addition to my usual amount of reading, and that has been helpful as I work on my material for talks I will give while I am in England. One of these was given by Liên, who I have known since we arrived at Tassajara together in 2002; in it, she referred to a talk that was given by someone during one of those practice periods there. I must have been present, but I don’t remember the incident she talked about.

She remembers it distinctly because for her, it was an experience of being othered, of feeling separate from the community of monks present at the time. I noticed that my initial response to hearing her telling of her reaction was a kind of instinctively defensive dismissal: ‘was it that big a deal really?’ And then I remembered a resonant phrase I read a few years ago: ‘neutrality is very often the favourite language of power.’

Pausing to look a little closer at my first reaction, I could see I was working within the confines of my own position in the matrix of power, where it is easy for me to posit a ‘neutral’ perspective, which is often couched along the lines of ‘most people wouldn’t find that offensive,’  or perhaps, ‘a reasonable person would not have that reaction.’

And the point is that as a person outside the main positions of privilege, Liên did have that reaction, and I understand that my work is to listen to her experience and accept that this is how she felt; as I read somewhere in the context of trans and gender non-conforming people, but which works for all people impacted by oppression, we should see them as credible narrators of their own experience. Of course as a straight white middle-class male, I don’t see things the same way, and incontrovertibly, the kinds of views I grew up with have formed the dominant narrative in our culture for the longest time. Now is the time for a broader spectrum of voices and experiences to be heard, and I do my best to welcome that, even when it can make me uncomfortable.

I do remember some of the things Liên had to go through at Zen Center as a person of colour, and how hard she and a few others – Ryumon and Zenju come immediately to mind – had to work to shift perspectives around diversity at Zen Center at that time; the work is far from done, though I feel there has been some improvement in the past two decades. It is no coincidence that the three women I have named are all dharma heirs of Blanche – she was very clear in wanting to broaden the range of the voices of authority in the community.

I have written before about how I view racism in the US from my  privileged immigrant viewpoint. It always feels tricky to try to put this into writing – I think about Dogen’s line from the Genjo Koan, ‘you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach’ – but I read pieces like this one, recently in the New Yorker, and it underscores exactly how wide-spread and deeply-rooted systemic racism is in this land. We all have a long way to go.

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