La Sarmiento

‘I mean, BIPOC all count, right? When we go into a room, we count. If there are four people of color and everybody else is white, then we’re always trying to get the context, to figure out how safe does it feel to be here? But white people don’t do that. They’ll be in a room and just take up the space and not notice dynamics or consider who’s there. In my experience, dominant culture folks don’t like being uncomfortable. To me, if you’re on this path to be comfortable, I think you’re on the wrong path, because this path is super uncomfortable if you’re actually practicing it. It’s confronting our conditioning, our habitual tendencies, our ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. And if we’re not willing to be humbled or listen deeply to how others experience life, then what are we doing together?’ (from Lion’s Roar)

And if reading this makes you feel uncomfortable, then sit with that feeling.

Frankly…

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.

Rev angel Kyodo williams

‘While it has long been established by scholars that the lineage as written couldn’t possibly be historically accurate and therefore literally true, any teacher undertaking the ceremony would be hard-pressed to deny that a mysterious and visceral comfort attends the affirmation of one’s belonging, regardless of its being symbolic and maybe even precisely because it is. In this way, I am no exception. After ten years of mostly avoiding the Buddhist mainstream while dealing with the demands of starting up a small dharma community and being a full-time residential teacher, I had become accustomed to going it alone.

The public acknowledgment of what one already is, what is already so, is very much like getting married to a long-held beloved: at the end of the ceremony, you return to the place you’ve always lived, but now it is truly your home. Still, I observe any system of perpetuating a special transmission with the wary eye of a justice-seeking person who has existed in a multiplicity of categories that are famously marginalized in America: black, female, queer, working-class, non-degreed, and under-resourced…

While many people wish to paint over the blight of racism that permeates the Buddhist community by casting it under the rug of a misguided fixation on identity, it was the Buddha himself who expressed an awareness of the need to address race, caste, gender, and class oppression by modeling the path to liberation. In reaching down and touching the earth, the Buddha of that time, and all of the buddhas who follow his radical example, are witnessed by the earth itself and join a sacred, timeless, and unshakeable lineage of liberation—one that is evidenced both inside and out.’ (from her website)

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘Multiplicity in oneness does not mean that preferences, opinions, likes, dislikes, or even hate cease to be present. Everything is here. Challenges arise when we cling to one extreme among multiplicities, unwilling to acknowledge the presence of difference. It isn’t always necessary to engage that difference, but giving it an “inner bow” allows us to experience the whole landscape of oneness. By not acknowledging difference, we unwittingly exaggerate the difference until it screams to be acknowledged.’ (The Way of Tenderness)

This one resonates fully every time I read it.

angel Kyodo williams

‘If you have not laid down on the floor in tears, you have not started your work in the dharma. You should be completely undone. You should come completely apart at least once, asking, Who is this person? You may be doing some really awesome meditation. You might be reading commentaries, reaching different jhanas—I don’t know. But you are not doing the work of liberation if you have not come completely undone. That’s where it begins. I have no idea where it ends.

I’m not talking only about the Buddhist path; I’m talking about the path of liberation. You can come to that as an activist. You can come to it as a yogi, or as an agnostic, or as a humanist. If you’re on the path to liberation, you have to be motivated by this fierce sense of undoing, this willingness to come completely apart, to know that everything you think you know about yourself, you inherited from someplace else. You need to take account. Be willing to face and acknowledge that much of what has come to you has been unearned and has come at great cost to others. Start balancing the books. And then: relax. Relax. Enjoy your life. Let it unfold. This is the tension of the path: the fierce, fierce undoing and the perfected ability to just be with what is.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Rev angel offered a teaching on liberation over the weekend, which I was not able to attend, but I paid for access to the recording, and I am looking forward to sitting down with it soon.

angel Kyodo williams

‘Everything I see, everything I say about liberation comes from this very dharma, the same dharma that you hold dear, these fundamental truths that give us the path to see ourselves. The only way I can sit here and not be absolutely furious, livid with every man, every white body, every straight body, is because of my path. Even when I want to be mad or hating on folks because they represent dominant paradigms, I cannot, because liberation wants nothing else but liberation for all. That’s the only reason I can speak from this place—because one day I woke up and much to my chagrin, I loved the very same people who would rather see my body lying in the street. I loved the very same people who would ignore me in my dharma center. I loved the very same people who would make me invisible. I didn’t say I liked them! But I do love them. This is not the path of “Everything is going to be neat.” This is not the path of “All the answers will make you feel good.” This is a path of complexity. And that love is not an easy burden.

I’m not here to say that you should now go and study race, or study patriarchy, or study oppression to the detriment of your practice. We need the container that our spiritual life provides. We have to find that resonant truth in ourselves that helps us to see more clearly what is happening outside. Those of us who are monastic and solely want to turn inward cannot be free. Those of us who are just activists or just wrestling with how to deal with oppression? We can’t be free either.

It’s an inside-out job—we need both paths. We need self and we desperately need other. We need to understand the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to know. We need to understand the parts that society tells us we should have shame about. We need to understand our history and our context and then live through that, live into that truth. We don’t have to know the answers. We just have to choose to live into the truth. And the truth, both universal and ever-unfolding from moment to moment, is not easy for most of us to apprehend. We want it to be clear, to be fixed. We want to have a neat, packaged answer. We want somebody to come and give us the answer, to tell us what to do, so we can abdicate our responsibility, give up our agency, and hope for the best. But you don’t get to walk a path of liberation and not be accountable. First and foremost, liberation is about choosing to be 100 percent accountable for who and how you are. And if that sounds like a really big job that you are going to be working at for the rest of your life, it is. There are other things you could be doing with your time. That’s fine—you just don’t get to say you’re walking a path of liberation.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

angel Kyodo williams

‘Something got stolen from all of us. So you have to have compassion for the voice of the heart that has been lost or obscured, whether in others or in yourself. People need spaces of their own in which they can find those stories, reclaim them. No one escaped—no one. So if you think you don’t have a story because you’re privileged, that just means you’re completely in the dark. It is only when you find your story—when you realize the way you think and how you are has been utterly conditioned—that you will understand that even if on the surface you get to do all kinds of things, in truth, you have absolutely no choices at all. You have no choice at all other than to abide in this location and uphold it and be complicit in it for fear that to disrupt it will destroy who you are. You have a right to reclaim yourself, but you have to do the work of finding out how it is that who you truly are has been obscured…

When dharma teachers try to tell me that this work is not the dharma, I say they’re confusing the true dharma with the dharma they’ve made small. Even the notion that the dharma is somehow limited to the historical Buddha’s teachings says a lot about the work they’ve been doing and their understanding of what this is. The dharma—understanding, peering into the nature of reality—is not specific to Buddhism. The dharma is truth. And the only choice we really have is whether to try to be in relationship with the truth or to live in ignorance. There are no other choices. You have to actively engage. How did I come to be? How do I think of myself? How did I get what I have? (I don’t mean your degrees.) Where did I come from? What land are we on? If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. All of us, in some way, have profited from our wrong knowing.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

I have quoted from this talk before, and, having been steered back to it by reverend angel’s newsletter, I will be sharing another part of it soon.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘When the journey of finding home takes ancestral homelessness into account, we begin to understand the need for sanctuary in a new way. The hunger for home is deeply layered. When seeking a vision of being healed, multi-generational displacement motivates within some of us a desire for our indigenous lands of origin, or to create sanctuary or shared community with those of similar ancestral origin, places where we can enter life fully without fear. We need places to breathe and heal our disconnection from the earth. Our spiritual journey requires us, first of all, to understand the pain and loss of our ancestral identity and to experience the extent to which we have wandered. This loss of our homes is in our bones and begs to be acknowledged, not merely transcended.’ (Sanctuary)

This is a repost, and if you would like to read my commentary on these words, please click the almost invisible link.

Joy Brennan

‘The Yogacara understanding of mind as subjective and objective both accounts for and counters the invisibility of whiteness. Yogacara, unlike earlier schools of Buddhist thought, uses the term “mind” to refer both to the subjective aspect of awareness (the part of the mind that does the thinking and feeling) and to its objects, whether they are internal (like a thought or feeling) or external (like a material thing or another person’s voice). For example, the mind that becomes aware of a feeling of anger, or the mind that perceives a loved one’s voice, is not distinct from that feeling or that voice. Here, the nondistinctness means that the subjective and objective aspects of awareness share a set of causal conditions, rather than arising due to entirely separate sets of causal conditions. Subjective awareness and its objects are therefore co-constructed, or brought into being together, in relationship to one another.

However, Yogacara teaches that the ordinary person does not know that these two aspects of awareness are co-constructed. Rather, we commonly take it that the subjective aspect of awareness and its objects are distinct and arise from different sets of conditions. Yogacara uses the term “constructed” to refer to both aspects of awareness when taken as distinct from one another. And this term is meant to be a corrective to how they appear—they appear as natural, fixed, distinct features of experience, when in fact they have been constructed to appear that way and are two aspects of a single experience. Our lack of understanding of this point, according to Yogacara thought, is also the nature of delusion…

Many nonwhite writers and thinkers have identified the delusive belief white people share that while nonwhite people have a race and see reality based on their experiences as racialized people, white people are free of such “distorting” influences. White people commonly take their own perceptions to reflect reality and nonwhite people’s perceptions to be filtered by their specific experiences. In this way, white experience is taken by white people as a human norm, while the experiences of nonwhite people are taken as distinctive, nonnormative, and even distorted. But if the Yogacara school is right that all ordinary people’s experiences include subjective and objective aspects that are mutually and fully shaped by conditions—which include the past experiences and actions of white people as a collective—then white experience, too, must be shaped in this way. The call for white people to understand how whiteness as an identity construct came about and how it shapes our own experiences is a call to overcome this false subject–object divide and to see the workings of the mind for what they are…

Finally, the Yogacara school emphasizes both the intersubjective aspects of experience and the collective aspects of karmic conditioning, two points that cut against white individualism. Intersubjectivity refers to the fact that through shared language and shared conceptual constructions—or ways of dividing up the world of experience—beings actually share structures of consciousness. In this way of thinking, my mind is not in fact mine alone and awareness is not a private affair. And because the subjective and objective aspects of experience are mutually conditioned, intersubjectivity entails interobjectivity. We share an object world—a world of shared institutions, social practices and ideals, norms, and references—not because they are natural and fixed features of reality, but because they are shaped by the same shared conditioning forces that shape our subjective experiences. Collective karma refers to karmic conditioning that is shared by a group of beings. The fact of collective karma follows from the intersubjective nature of experience and the inter-objective nature of our worlds. Shared karmic conditioning is nothing other than the fact that important features of both our subjective awareness and the objects it encounters arise from the same set of conditions.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Joy spent time at City Center while I was there; I knew she was in academia, and enjoyed this very dense unpacking of Yogacara and whiteness – I learned more about Yogacara from this article than I have previously.

angel Kyodo williams

‘Anyone who has insisted on liberation so that they may know joy and love represents for the rest of us the possibility, the promise that the dharma puts before us and says, yes, liberation is possible even for you. Liberation is possible even for you.’ (from her website)

To which I will add that if you are a person of colour, reading this early enough on Saturday, Rev angel is offering ‘the Black SIT‘ for Juneteenth.