I had been planning to write something anodyne about the rain on Sunday and getting wetter on my bike than I had expected. Monday morning was pencilled in for cleaning the crud off my bike, but before I started, I got into an exchange with someone I know. For the sake of anonymity, I will just say that this is a person of colour relatively new to practice, but interested in going deeper. They expressed enjoying a recent ceremony, and then went on to say,
“However, I am just sitting with this question of whether I can “practice” wholeheartedly knowing that the teachers here can’t meet me in my race… which is really the root of so much of my suffering and conditioning.”
My response, which I have amended slightly for clarity: “You should be able to include all parts of yourself in your practice. If you aren’t able to, it cannot be a fulfilling practice. If your teachers can’t mirror all parts of you back to you, I think you need new teachers, even as you can love these ones in their imperfections.”
Later in the exchange, the student said, “My comments are my perspective. I know I’m operating from a place of confusion. [One teacher] says I can’t do anything from a place of confusion. So I’m supposed to just sit and find my calm.”
“Frankly that’s bollocks,” was my initial reaction.
As I tried to articulate why, I went on, “[Another student] was undoubtedly operating from a place of confusion and what [they] said was needed and essential. How is a POC or person used to being oppressed or targeted supposed to find any sense of calm if their perspectives are diminished or even dismissed out of hand? People’s confusion is the ground of our practice. None of us get to sit in equanimity and make serene “objective” statements about how things really are. As a quote that really resonated for me says, “neutrality is very often the favourite language of power.” You can operate from a place of confusion and understand that it is confusion and still come up with better understandings than someone who refuses to see that.”
I was reading about the ancestors this morning, and how our ceremonies cultivate gratitude to everyone who passed down the practice through many different cultures so that we can avail ourselves of it today. And, as I get to be more senior, I understand how essential it is to ensure that the teaching is not cut off, that it continues to reach down the generations. I have been listening to Suzuki Roshi emphasising this point in the first few months at Tassajara.
Fifty-five years on, there are so many more options for people wanting to study Buddhism, or even Zen, and as dharma centres we cannot be complacent in assuming that the way we have always done things will be sufficient, especially when the communities have been so homogenous and inward-looking. As a male from the dominant culture, I can’t claim to have the answers for what everybody needs, and in the past I have suggested other teachers to students of colour, teachers who might be better placed to help the student deal with such aspects of their practice. Still, I don’t think it’s okay to suggest that people, especially people from non-dominant communities, need to just stay quiet and not get to express who they are and what they need, even if they are coming from a place of confusion, and even if ultimately this practice is not for them. As a teacher, I know need to allow everyone that space, meet them where they are the best I can, and use what I hear to examine my own blind spots and shortcomings.