Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

The sea front at a quieter moment.

It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.


Lama Rod Owens

‘The Heart Sutra tells us that form is emptiness and emptiness is form; if that’s true, then our practice is to try to recognize the integration of form and emptiness, and to let ourselves sit in the utter discomfort of that. From this discomfort emerges a greater capacity to hold space for contradictions. Ultimately, we are not these identities, which is awesome. But relatively, we are, and that’s awesome too! Privileging one over the other is not the practice here. The practice is to bridge the relative truth of I am with the ultimate truth of I am not, to hold them together while exploring the tendency to want to bury ourselves in one extreme. This practice can be deeply unsettling, but if we can hold the ultimate truth together with our relative truth, then space opens up within our identity locations, and we can recognize them without being firmly planted. For example, for me to identify as Black is to first recognize what it has meant to be conditioned as a Black body; at the same time, I see that ultimately I am not Black but still conditioned to perform and to relate to the Black cultural conditioning.’ (Taken from Lion’s Roar website)

In my teaching and studying, I spend a lot of time grappling with the co-existence of form and emptiness, or the harmony of difference and equality. With so much current talk about identity politics, it is great to read a cogent teaching piece on how this looks from a dharma perspective.

I have also been wanting to post a link to this since I read it; I go to the Establishment regularly to learn views that are different to my own, and found this a helpful exercise. I said yes to several questions.

I am an Immigrant

My protesting days were mostly several decades ago; the early eighties was a rich time to become more politically aware, as Reagan and Thatcher stepped in to dismantle the post-war consensus. It feels to me these days that we are living through the last part of that swing of the pendulum, and I am optimistic in some ways that we will start the swing back to equality and progress after these turbulent times.
My college girlfriend was well-versed in the feminist politics of the time, and I am still deeply grateful to her for her consciousness-raising work on me (as we called it in those days). We found plenty of things to protest, and plenty of events, many of them musical, to attend: the protracted miners’ strike and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were my two starting points. Ken Livingstone was in his first stint at the Greater London Council and organising enough opposition to the government that the latter simply abolished the council, along with the other predominantly left-wing city councils. The year I lived in Paris was full of anti-racism efforts, and the burgeoning anti-Apartheid movement, which also was going strong in London.
Having missed the marches around the inauguration and the airport demonstrations a week ago, and having only joined the post-election march because it was passing directly in front of my house, this past weekend I made an effort to attend the protest in Civic Center plaza. I remembered the last time I had been there in a big crowd was watching the World Cup on a giant screen, and the mood was equally as buoyant and inclusive. The rain moved through just in time (on a lunch-time run, I had come back over Liberty Hill to see a rainbow fittingly stretched low across the Castro), and the sun shone across the plaza until it dipped behind City Hall.
Having been energised by seeing pictures of banners that people were preparing for the event,  I wondered what I could bring. Then I remembered one of the diversity trainings we had done at Zen Center in my early years there, where people talked about how long their families had been in the States; it was a surprise to me in those days that most people were only a generation or two removed from immigration, and that I was just a little more freshly through the process. So I wrote a sign that said ‘I am an immigrant’ and hung it round my neck. It was heartening that when I arrived at the plaza, the first person I saw also had a sign that started ‘I am an immigrant’ – she was also English as it turned out (she appears briefly a little earlier in the video linked to below).
There were many inspiring speakers – refugees and immigrants, children of refugees and immigrants, from Vietnam, the Middle East, and South America (places where the US has been busy interfering in the political process…); a speaker from the ACLU, and former representative Mike Honda who talked about the internment of the Japanese community. Perhaps most moving for me was the call to prayer that was offered. In my years working at the BBC World Service, where I met and worked with people from all over the globe, I spend many overnight shifts with the Arabic service, and the first piece of programming each day, around 4am local time, was a section of the Koran, on very old tape, beautifully intoned.
I have no doubt that there will be more occasions to protest before all this is over; as I left the area and its wonderfully diverse crowd, I was thinking to myself, this is what humanity looks like:

The gentleman at the mic is doing the call to prayer; the organisers are at the back of the stage; the woman with the blonde hair was in charge of security for the afternoon.


Rev. angel Kyodo williams

‘I interpret the November 2016 election as a moment of reckoning that we’ve needed for a long time in this country, but we’ve put it off because that’s easier. Until humans are forced to look at something and reckon with it, we don’t. But it was our country’s entire history, built on a foundation of slavery, Native American genocide, and capitalist exploitation—which converts everything into a commodity for maximum commercialization—that ultimately gave us the November election results. We’re a people deeply divided on who, or what, we think this country is; and what we want it to be. Some people say this election gave a platform to hate, but I think there are deeper historical forces at work that we’ve never acknowledged—even those of us who think we’re better than “the haters.” From my perspective, the election made perfectly clear what has always been the case in this country: It was founded to favor—to make central—white, wealthy, heterosexual males.
That’s not surprising: white, heterosexual males were the founding fathers. They didn’t consider women their equals. They didn’t consider African-Americans or Native Americans full human beings. Yes, the history of the country also includes the effort to expand who the country is for—women, former slaves, and in just the last few years, the LGBTQ community. Progressives have called this progress, but there’s obviously a large segment of the population who think differently. You can’t “make America great again” unless you think there was something great about America in the past that has been lost through all these years of what some of us think of as progress.
“The reckoning” is how we come to terms with that fact. I don’t think it’s something we can do politically. It’s something that has to be done spiritually because it’s actually an identity crisis. Politics is concerned with expediency; with winning; with “winner take all.” To do that, we too often demonize our opponents—say those very same, white heterosexual males. We can’t keep doing that and expect to shift things. We have to recognize our underlying unity. We have to viscerally understand that we’re all in the same boat.’

There is a debate going on in the Buddhist blogosphere about whether we are supposed to be apolitical or not (if you are interested, I am sure you can find the posts). I came across this interview in The Moon with Rev. angel, and she takes a deeper stance that, once again, I find helpful and inspiring. There were several sections I could have pulled out to quote;  initially I had chosen a tamer section, but then I changed my mind. I encourage you to read the whole thing for her clear spiritual perspective on where we are, how we got here, and how we can move forward together.


As with other personal posts, this one has a long and slow genesis, and a hesitation before I try to commit words onto the screen. I think it started a couple of months ago reading a very successful, middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white novelist in England expressing his disdain for the idea of safe spaces in college, on the grounds that people need to be exposed to all kinds of different opinions in order to thrive in this challenging world. The question arose for me, reading that, “When did you ever not feel safe, that you can make such a pronouncement?”
I am not a successful novelist, but I meet the other criteria of privilege listed above. When have I ever not felt safe? I can think of a couple of occasions in my youth when I was suddenly surrounded by groups of men who needed someone to punch, and I got punched. If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I feel unsafe as a cyclist on a regular basis, occasionally as a pedestrian too, when the power dynamics with car drivers are firmly against me, and I know that I easily lash out with anger when things happen that make me feel afraid.
Beyond that, I can generally pass through my corners of the world not feeling threatened. So it is not my place to tell other people whether their feelings around safety are justified or not (a reminder of this amazing article). It is my job to listen and try to understand how people feel who do not have this ease of passing, for whatever reason.
Since the election, I have read any number of reaction pieces from all corners of the country and abroad. Some of them have stuck with me, and some of them are going to shape how I respond moving forward in these difficult times.

Just the other day, I received an email from Soren of Wisdom 2.0, which acts as a good starting point:
‘It seems to be an appropriate time to explore what it means to truly listen. Here are some suggestions:
In challenging conversations, can we pause, become curious,and ask questions?
Can we wait until someone is finished speaking before we share our thoughts?
Can we as Lao-Tzu suggested, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”?
Can we take the time to see from another’s viewpoint, as if we are in their shoes? This does not mean we give in or do not share our views, only that we lead with curiosity.
Thich Nhat Hanh says this about the practice: “Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart.”‘

Here are some people whose views I have enjoyed listening to,and I hope you can take the time to hear what they have to say:
Ijeoma Oluo writes fiercely on many sites, and The Establishment is a place I go to hear views I do not encounter on many other sites (if you know some, please feel free to suggest them).
This piece by Julia Serrano is long, but it spells out in compelling ways how we can move beyond some of the toxic levels of discourse that are so prevalent right now.
Pablo Das writes movingly on Lion’s Roar about wishing to feeling safe within Buddhist communities; his line ‘non-reactivity simply creates the conditions for a wise response’ perfectly encapsulates what I have been trying to articulate recently.
This piece by Briana L Urena-Ravelo was written before the election; in my initial draft for these ideas, I thought of this as the anger translator for whatever I might manage to say.

This Land is Our Land

These days, instead of getting up early in the morning to sit, I tend to stay in bed and assemble a morning reading list from a variety of online sources. This may make my mind a little busier than it used to be first thing, but it satisfies some need in me to know what is going on (I went four months without reading any news at Tassajara once, and found at the end of it that the stories had not really changed at all). I have been linking to articles that inspire me on my ideas page, but I know that not many people visit that.
I wanted to highlight two long articles I have read recently, that have been the most memorable and moving. I think in both cases it is because they took off in directions I had not expected, and by the end had managed to make a strong and moving case about how people find themselves in this country I live in. I encourage you to read both of them, one based around class (I would also urge you to watch the video in this one), the other around race.

The author of the second article describes visiting a section of Oakland, which I was imagining to be somewhere around here – taken from the window of BART on my regular commute.

A Sick and Sorry Mess

Lou Hartman did not give many talks in his later years, but when he did, they invariably followed a theme, to the extent that I came to believe that this theme was the message more than the content was. He would start off by saying that he had had a wonderful talk prepared, but then something had happened – something he had read, something someone did – that meant that he couldn’t stick to his prepared script, and so he gave a different, fresher talk, though to his telling a less adequate one.

I had been meaning to try to write something that might synthesise some of the various pieces of atrocity and suffering in the news this week – before the Dallas shootings happened. Now the narrative is inevitably different for the moment, but the underlying issues are not changed – as powerfully articulated in this article by a writer I have found constantly illuminating. We can still ask the deeper questions about why these events happen, even as this article, at just a few days old, seems out of date already. The elements of the equation are still power, fear and anger.

As all this was unfolding, I was reading a quote presented by Jasmine Seydullah in Radical Dharma: 

‘The perception that human life has different exchange value in the marketplace of death when it comes to “civilized” and “uncivilized” peoples is not only quite common in liberal democratic cultures; it is necessary to a hierarchical global order.’ (Talal Asad)

The context for the quote was a reflection on the American criminal system as an extension of slavery, but it also resonated as I read articles wondering why terrorist atrocities in other countries get far less media attention than ones close to home, and also as I read about the report published in London this week that highlighted the political flaws that lead to the second Gulf War, the repercussions of which are being played out across the region and the entire world and will be for many years. Alongside which, these articles about the narrow cliques involved in British politics and the gender politics currently in play after the referendum to leave Europe might seem unrelated, but I think it is important to thread these connections, as they all speak to power, and who feels entitled to it.

My starting point for this post had been the speech made by Jesse Williams that different people alerted me to, which is perhaps even more moving to listen to in the light of everything that has happened since. These lines stopped me in my tracks:

‘Now dedicating our lives to get money just to give it right back for someone’s brand on our body, when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid for brands on our bodies.’

‘If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.’

Which did not stop the inevitable pushback, admirably dealt with in this article.

I don’t know if I have a neat way to wrap this up; I know the tone and the title may not be as phlegmatic as I was the other day, but this is how I feel right now.