Garry Younge

‘This refusal to engage with our full racial history matters not primarily because it impedes our capacity to understand what happened, but because it thwarts our ability to understand what is going on now. “I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships,” the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes in his book After Virtue. “The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”

Since we did not get to this place through accident or ignorance, we will not get out of it by luck or learning either. The issue is not simply remembering better, rewriting the history books, removing some statues or even making reparations to those we have harmed – though all of those things would be welcome – but whether we can make the political progress to accept, understand and process what we already know.

The aim is not simply to be more aware of our past but more relevant in the present and, therefore, more capable of building a future from reality rather than self-delusion. As Paul Gilroy explains in his 2004 book After Empire: “That memory of the country at war against foes who are simply, tidily and ­uncomplicatedly evil has recently acquired the status of an ethnic myth. It explains how the country remade itself through war and victory but can also be understood as a rejection or deferral of its present problems.”

Today people will say “we won the war”, even if they didn’t fight and even if they weren’t born. They will say “we won the World Cup”, even if they didn’t play or weren’t born. Nobody takes the “we” literally. It signifies a collective identity that can span centuries and experiences. But when you mention slavery or colonialism, the same people will say: “I am not responsible. I wasn’t alive. I wasn’t there.” The collective, historical British identity that people would otherwise embody in moments of victory and national pride becomes suddenly and urgently estranged and elusive when it comes to less flattering periods in our history. This contradiction is clearly unsustainable.

But power has many parents, while the brutality it took to acquire it is all too often an orphan. As such, Britain is not nostalgic for “empire” per se but for a period when it felt better about its past. The ailment here is not amnesia or aphasia but addiction. Britain is hooked on its status as a world power and anxious about the unrelenting decline in that status. Looking to a future in which it is smaller and less influential, it finds more comfort in nostalgia. But in order to remember that it was powerful it must first forget how it became powerful.’ (from The Guardian)

The Guardian has been running a revelatory series about uncovering the links between the founders of the newspaper in the early 19th Century, and the slave trade, principally via the cotton industry in Manchester. I can attest to the attitudes written about here, as those were the ones that imbued the culture I grew up in. As with all these things, saying now that they are wrong does not condemn us for having believed them, but encourages us to learn more and be more generous as a result.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘In reflecting upon opening to blackness and darkness, I considered the mantras regarding blackness from a historical collective of black people. The mantra “Black Lives Matter” brought a love movement into the world through black women warriors Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Their mantra came from an old cry: “Black is Beautiful.” It came from James Brown’s “Say It Loud–I’m Black and I’m Proud.” From janitors on strike during the civil rights move-ment: “I Am a Man.” From Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” From Jill Scott’s song “Golden,” in which the mantra is to live one’s life “like it’s golden”-a golden black life.

The mantras honoring black people come from the same place as the cries of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. The mantras of awakening come from the darkness of suffering, from collective assault upon the soul, spirit, and consciousness. There has been a long-standing cry for dignity by black people and other marginalized groups. It is a cry for the return of love given despite acts of hatred for centuries. The calls are from the deep caves where many bones of those marginalized were left without honor. Loud chanting is not hatred. It is rage for all that has gone against the well-being of humanity. Dark people, along with others who could see, have carried the rich, dark energy of the dark mother deities from all over the world to guard the integrity of humanity by destroying, as Mahakali would, those things that harm living beings. This destruction of ignorance can come through a collective mantra.

“Black Lives Matter” was the first chant of a collective dark body that crossed racial color lines. When others joined in the mantra, we, collectively, opened to darkness and blackness- not just black people but many others. It was the beginning of opening and seeing darkness in the world as an interrelated experience among all humans, whether it was received that way or not.’ (Opening to Darkness)

I was able to take a quick look at this new book when I was at Wilbur, and it is, as is all Zenju’s writing, heartfelt and thought-provoking.

Lama Rod Owens

‘I advise people all the time to “go where you’re loved.” For most of us, there aren’t a lot of places that qualify. That’s why so much of my work in the world is helping to create these communities of authentic love and vulnerability. To do that, I have to model what it looks like to be loving, to be in love with myself, to be in love with others around me, and to be vulnerable. Most of all, I have to model what it means to hold the vulnerability of others around me…

The questions I am most interested in are: How can we be radically open? How can we take risks? How do we have the conversations that begin to build communities where we can actually be ourselves? And how do we leave communities where we’re being hurt over and over? If you don’t have a community where this kind of radical openness and vulnerability is being practiced, then you leave, and you may have to create your own.’ (Radical Dharma)

Jasmine Syedullah

‘Sangha is a Sanskrit word meaning association, assembly, company, or community. Sangha might me that homeleaving means letting go of the desire to save master from himself. It means learning to let people go, and to even let them go back home. Sangha has taught me to mind the gap between what we say and what we do. The practice pulls us together, but we are not all headed in the same direction at the same time. We long for community but do not know how to sit with difference. We try to take connection and eviscerate what makes us distinct. Just as the commuter watches for the train from the busy platform, I have watched the crowds try to form community, peeling into the station, pooling together, waiting on the arrival of their most trusted form of transportation. Time passes, and we grow anxious. So many promises. Such promising destinations. We can get lost in all the excitement of waiting for deliverance from the presence of what bell hooks so wisely names white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. We can get so obsessed in the anticipation of reaching a sense of escape, of touching this shiny, intoxicating promise that when the train arrives, we don’t think. We jump on board! Won’t any way out of isolation do? Maybe if we all just board the next one, we can get there all at once.’ (Radical Dharma)

Rev. angel Kyodo williams

‘Zen tradition doesn’t have a centralized structure, but they have power structures. Marginalized people are largely challenged by the power structures. Of course, once you’re deeply inside, you may know that there’s ways to reorganize your own mind in relationship to that power, but you have to get inside, which is why we see the experience of people coming and leaving. I have the benefit of being invited to different communities. And all white-dominated communities have slightly different permutations of the same thing.

Zen is single teachers. Once the teachers get to be teachers, they get to do anything they want, which is the only reason I can exist and be of use at all. It happens to be built into Zen that now that I’m a teacher they can’t say anything really to me.

On the other hand, in non-decentralized structures, teachers of color are threatened with their participation and existence. It’s subtle, but they’re not as vocal. It’s not because they don’t think the same thing I do. I’m having the same conversations with them, but the structures that exist and the way the power is disables their voices. That creates a ripple effect. People of color that come go, “OK, this is great. But every time I look up there, once again, I’m being told that the only people that can tell me something about myself and help me to learn and understand myself isomeone that has no shared conditional experience with me.”

Human beings are about communication, so there’s a communication in the power structures themselves. So who’s sitting here says something. All my life, this is never who was going to be sitting up here. That meant that I had to, as you said, weather it – stick it out. As the demographic changes and people are more empowered in their own lives and finding power in their own lives, they’re more and more unwilling to stick it out.

So as we have more people that are ready and open to different teachings outside of the traditional, conventional religions that they grew up with, they’re simultaneously politicized in such a way that they’re not willing to subject themselves to what many of us subjected ourselves to for a long time.

They’ve had enough.’ (Radical Dharma)

I have a couple of upcoming talks that I am starting to think about, and right now the notion of sangha and what it means is uppermost in my thoughts. This week, the posts will be in service of that notion.

Henry Louis Gates Jr

‘Heated debates within the Black community, beginning as early as the first decades of the 19th century, have ranged from what names “the race” should publicly call itself (William Whipper vs. James McCune Smith) and whether or not enslaved men and women should rise in arms against their masters (Henry Highland Garnet vs. Frederick Douglass). Economic development vs. political rights? (Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Du Bois). Should freed Black people return to Africa? (Marcus Garvey vs. W.E.B. Du Bois). Should we admit publicly the pivotal role of African elites in enslaving our ancestors? (Ali Mazrui vs. Wole Soyinka).

Add to these repeated arguments over sexism, socialism and capitalism, reparations, antisemitism and homophobia. It is often surprising to students to learn that there has never been one way to “be Black” among Black Americans, nor have Black politicians, activists and scholars ever spoken with one voice or embraced one ideological or theoretical framework. Black America, that “nation in a nation,” as the Black abolitionist Martin R. Delany put it, has always been as varied and diverse as the complexions of the people who have identified, or been identified, as its members.

I found these debates so fascinating, so fundamental to a fuller understanding of Black history, that I coedited a textbook that features them, and designed Harvard’s Introduction to African American Studies course, which I teach with the historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, to acquaint students with a wide range of them in colorful and sometimes riotous detail. More recent debates over academic subjects like Kimberlé Crenshaw’s insightful theory of “intersectionality,” reparations, Black anti-Semitism, critical race theory and The 1619 Project — several of which made Mr. DeSantis’s hit list — will be included in the next edition of our textbook and will no doubt make it onto the syllabus of our introductory course.

As a consultant to the College Board as it developed its AP course in African American Studies, I suggested the inclusion of a “pro and con” debate unit at the end of its curriculum because of the inherent scholarly importance of many of the contemporary hot-button issues that conservative politicians have been seeking to censor, but also as a way to help students understand the relation between the information they find in their textbooks and efforts by politicians to say what should and what should not be taught in the classroom.

Why shouldn’t students be introduced to these debates? Any good class in Black Studies seeks to explore the widest range of thought voiced by Black and white thinkers on race and racism over the long course of our ancestors’ fight for their rights in this country. In fact, in my experience, teaching our field through these debates is a rich and nuanced pedagogical strategy, affording our students ways to create empathy across differences of opinion, to understand “diversity within difference,” and to reflect on complex topics from more than one angle. It forces them to critique stereotypes and canards about who “we are” as a people and what it means to be “authentically Black.” I am not sure which of these ideas has landed one of my own essays on the list of pieces the state of Florida found objectionable, but there it is.’ (from the New York Times)

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.


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.