‘At the core of racial suffering is denial about our belonging—that is, our kinship and our membership in each other’s lives. The separation inherent in the entrenched patterns of racial suffering is not just a division of the races. The consciousness—or unconsciousness—that supports racial suffering cuts people out of our hearts, then has us try to live as if “cutting” does not hurt. We have come to accept this dismemberment as normal and move about our lives in search of spiritual freedom and contentment, as if we are not bleeding from the wounds of separation. It’s as if we were orphans in search of our family, not realizing that they are “the other”—the ones we despise, don’t see, or think we know. We have convinced ourselves that we can live with missing body parts—with some folks and without others—and still be whole, happy, and peaceful. But the reality is that we live in a state of pervasive unsatisfactoriness and confusion, not able to see or touch a deep sense of belonging, nor put language to it. We work harder at belonging because we only make use of a fraction of our wholeness and overcompensate with what remains: righteousness or avoidance that masks fear. We waste energy that our communities need to heal and transform. In these moments of dismemberment, we have forgotten that all of our parts matter.’ (from Lion’s Roar)
‘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)
Unwilling to acknowledge the presence of difference seems to encapsulate many of the sufferings in the US right now.
Here are some shifts I’d like to see in the future of American Buddhism:
From hubris to humility: fixating less on expertise and celebrity and focusing more on an honest acknowledgement of our blind spots in order to examine the ways we (intentionally or otherwise) harm others through our actions, speech, and thoughts.
From assumptions to curiosity: suspending our stereotypes to make room for questions and deep listening.
From narrowness to diversity: getting outside our limited experiences and viewpoints to meet and learn from those who are, too often, after- thoughts in our Buddhist circles.
From enclaves to interconnections: moving past our tendency to stick with those who are similar to us (and to alienate those who aren’t) so as to build communities that honor differences and cultivate empathy.
From two Buddhisms to intersectional Buddhism: because why constrain ourselves to simplistic dualities when a vast kaleidoscope of possibilities remain unexplored before us? (from Lion’s Roar)
I appreciate these points very much. I sometimes feel that some sanghas have not tried to re-imagine themselves in decades, and I trust that this generation of Buddhist teachers, and the next, will be doing their best on this front.
‘I gave meditation another shot after I began to work with a healer who explained that meditation would be the foundation of self-care that would help me to address not just my anger, but also the debilitating experience of depression that I was also connecting to. So I took practice seriously and took risks in learning how to sit with all the discomfort that I previously ran away from.
And somehow I knew that I was taking a huge risk. This was the risk of beginning to work with my own mind, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to hide from the secrets my mind had to reveal. I began to pull the veil back. When you pull that veil back, you can’t just put it back if you don’t like what you see, because you’ve seen it and there’s no unseeing it (though we may try!). We can’t undo the things that we witness, unfortunately, even though we try to forget.’ (Love and Rage)
I received this book this week – it took a while to shop from being on pre-order – and I have been glad to dip into it. I chose a section around this passage to talk about with my student group on Tuesday.
There is a combination going around in my head, and has been for several months (I may have even written about it here): enraged and powerless. One member of my student group mentioned it as his reaction to seeing white militiamen invading the Michigan Capitol; my response at the time was the the men with guns were also enraged and powerless, but rather than acknowledging their actual lack of power, were overcompensating for it, by the brandishing of automatic weapons. Lama Rod, in what I have read, and heard him speak about recently, points to how Black men do not get to be enraged, without a severe chance of punishment or death. I think the book is going to be an exposition of how to create a liberatory power through a skilful meeting and harnessing of one’s own anger.
‘Dharma helps us develop a relationship to the nature of the thing itself. So when people and communities are saying “We’re all ultimately the same; there’s not such thing as race,” ultimately of course, that’s truth, and you want to thank them for their dharma teaching. We all need to be reminded of that, but then we have to bring our focus back to the way in which we still relate to one another as if race and skin color has this inherent meaning.’ (Radical Dharma)
At time of writing, I still hadn’t received my pre-ordered copy of Lama Rod’s new book (perhaps because I went for the cheapest shipping option), but I have been dipping back into Radical Dharma for a refresher. It occurred to me that this passage might help illuminate Reb’s words from Monday.
‘Activism is not separate from who I am as a practicing Buddhist; it is inextricably connected. If we have compassion and peace, it’s natural to want to help the world live in justice and peace. In some ways, we don’t even have to add the word “Buddhist.” We’re just good people wanting the world to reflect what we feel inside. We’re not limited to our own liberation. Liberation is impossible if we’re disconnected from others’ (from Lion’s Roar)
‘Healing is movement and work toward wholeness. Healing is never a definite location but something in process. It is the basic ordinary work of staying engaged with our own hurt and limitations. Healing does not mean forgiveness either, though it is a result of it. Healing is knowing our woundedness; it is developing an intimacy with the ways in which we suffer. Healing is learning to love the wound because love draws us into relationship with it instead of avoiding feeling the discomfort.
Healing means we are holding the space for our woundedness and allowing it to open our hearts to the reality that we are not the only people who are hurt, lonely, angry, or frustrated. We must also release the habitual aggression that characterizes our avoidance of trauma or any discomfort. My goal is to befriend my pain, to relate to it intimately as a means to end the suffering of desperately trying to avoid it. Opening hearts to woundedness helps us to understand that everyone else around us carries the same woundedness.’
As I have turned to teachers of colour for wisdom in these current times, Lama Rod and Rev angel come to the fore again and again. I have pre-ordered Lama Rod’s new book, and have been enjoying the passages from it and the teachings he has been offering on social media.
‘Since becoming a transmitted dharma teacher, others’ preoccupation with blackness—specifically, my blackness—has been nearly inescapable. I have been told by students and teachers of all races that my purpose is to speak and act against racial injustice. And I am to do this with the mahasangha looking on, feeling relief at having accomplished the diversity agenda. My black skin has been a desired commodity in some corners as an obvious marker of diversity, as if diversity is not a complete cosmology of the entire universe…
Many, because I interweave my experience of blackness with Buddhist teachings, assume my teachings are limited to skin color. The assembly often seems perplexed by the turning of the dharma wheel from a lived experience unfamiliar to them, and many express confusion as to whether I am actually espousing Buddha’s teachings or just speaking about my skin color. This is not to deny that many do hear and receive the truth in my dharma teaching, but it can be hard-won when someone recognizes the Buddha’s teachings as being expressed from a different lived experience.
Conversely, I have been condemned for my participation in Buddhist centers that perpetuate racism. But who among us does not walk every day in the mud of the world? And yes, I have suffered within these places. Even while wearing Zen robes, some students and teachers do not see me as a legitimate Zen teacher, even within the institution in which I was ordained. Of course, this is humbling and keeps my head from swelling up while wearing the brown okesa. As my late Zen teacher, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, shared, “When bothered with not being seen, ask yourself, who do I think I am?” There is no answer, only a sober moment and space for nothingness to do what it does. The silence enters and the mountain speaks.’ (from an article in Lion’s Roar)
Zenju at last year’s jukai that she refers to in the article.
Zenju holding up a Daikokutennyo piece at the ceremony.
I have wondered a few times this week, how people would have responded if they had been told at the beginning of the year, how things would look now, six months later. I imagine many would have run away screaming. And yet here we are. We are living history, as we always are, but more acutely now, with no sense of how this will all turn out. How will things look at the end of this year? Would I run away screaming if I knew?
This week has been pretty exhausting for many in this country. I feel relatively sheltered, as I have also mostly felt through the pandemic so far, but the energy is strong, and is impossible to ignore.
As I have been teaching, these past three months, there have been shifting flavours, as we navigated new realities, started to get used to them, and then started to chafe. And now the outpouring of outrage lands on top of that, and pushes everything in a new direction. Words that seemed to fit a couple of weeks ago are now inadequate; so what can we say now?
This week I had four virtual teachings: two on Monday, with my student’s biotech company, and then with the Core folk on Instagram; with my students on Tuesday, and with Hebden Bridge on Wednesday. Thanks to the ongoing sessions for Core Studio, and also the weekly conversations with the Hebden Bridge group, I have been getting better at speaking more extemporaneously, and trying to find words to help people find ways to practise with everything that is going on. It felt very tender to be in the dharma seat trying to help, and I know that is one of the contributions I can make.
There is also the delicacy of speaking from my privileged position of shelter, in a week where the request was to let the voices of people of colour come to the fore. I found myself looking back at articles I had read from wise people writing after the election, and of course the issues were being raised then – as they were being raised after Ferguson, after Katrina, after Rodney King, back in the sixties, and long before. Can we believe there is really an inflection point happening this time?
I feel freshly inspired by the people who have inspired me before – Rev angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, Ijeoma Oluo, Roxane Gay among many others – who are stepping up again to say things they have been saying clearly and fiercely all along, in ways that must be exhausting for them. Taking my cues from how social media has reacted, for all that it sometimes feels performative, I have been happy to highlight words of wisdom, new and old, that speak to the systemic oppression that is woven into the fabric of the US, and that I know I benefit from as a white male with all my privileges intact.
Riding my bike on a windy morning on Friday, I thought of the various times I have encountered violence or the threat of violence, in particular an incident a year or two ago when I was threatened on a BART platform. I was shaken for a day or two by the words that were shouted at me with menace, but I was also aware that it was an isolated occurrence for me, and not the kind of stress that I have to endure as part of my daily life, as people in many communities do. As such, I am not not going to pass judgement on those who endure such violence, and have throughout their lives, and who are now responding as they see fit.
On Wednesday I went down the street to Dolores Park, where there was a large protest. I stayed on the edges, as I still have no desire to get sick, but I still got to enjoy the enormous feeling of solidarity in the huge crowd – as I remember from demonstrations after the election. I left after a while – unable to hear the speeches with the helicopters overhead – and intended to ride over to Rainbow to get food. It was then that I discovered the march was coming right up my street. I couldn’t even attempt to cross the street for twenty minutes. When I did get my bike across in a slight break in the crowd, I navigated around all the closed streets and stalled traffic, and then discovered that I was only just in time: Rainbow was closing at six pm due to the city-wide curfew… This is our life here now.
The scene in Dolores Park – there were thousands on all the blocks leading to the park as well.
Right by my front door.
This is one of those posts I feel a little uneasy about writing and publishing. I have a few drafts on similar themes that I have not followed through to the end. And I think this one will be a little unfinished. I mainly wanted to pull a few things together to provoke some thoughts:
Following the news of fires in Australia – not to mention all the fires closer to home in California, and the many other examples of extreme weather constantly recurring now – it is hard not to feel immensely depressed about the future of the human race. In this sense, I am glad not to have children, as I suspect conditions by the end of their life span will be quite horrific.
This is a lingering dread, and writing about it now is mainly spurred by a series of articles I have been reading, as well as some dharma pieces, and I was wondering how to connect them until I read a long and well-argued piece in the New Yorker about the state of relations between America and China.
This was a few hours after reading, in the last chapter of Dale Wright’s book, which you are all becoming more familiar with, on the wisdom that understands emptiness:
‘Wisdom, therefore, is the ability to face the truth and not to be unnerved or frightened. It is the capacity to be disillusioned, but not disheartened. It is the ability to consider the contingency and groundlessness of all things, oneself included, and not turn away from that consideration in fear. Wisdom means setting aside illusions about oneself and the world and being strengthened by that encounter with the truth. It entails willingness to avoid seeking the security of the unchanging and to open oneself to a world of flux and complex relations.’ (The Six Perfections)
In Evan Osnos’ article, it seemed clear that American politicians – much as many of their counterparts in the UK are in different arenas – were trying to fight the battles of the Twentieth Century, two decades into the Twenty-First:
‘The former C.I.A. analyst, said the United States must make realistic decisions about where it is prepared to deter China’s expansion and where it is not. “If we think we can maintain the same dominance we have had since 1945, well, that train has left the station,” he told me. “We should start by racking and stacking China’s global ambitions and determining what we can’t accommodate and what we can, then communicate that to the Chinese at the highest levels, and operationalize them through red lines we will enforce. We’re not doing that. Instead, what we’re doing are things that masquerade as a strategy but, in fact, amount to just kicking them in the balls.”’
‘The most viable path ahead is an uneasy coexistence, founded on a mutual desire to “struggle but not smash” the relationship. Coexistence is neither decoupling nor appeasement; it requires, above all, deterrence and candor—a constant reckoning with what kind of change America will, and will not, accept. Success hinges not on abstract historical momentum but on hard, specific day-to-day decisions—what the political scientist Richard Rosecrance, in his study of the First World War, called the “tyranny of small things.”’
(Having written the bulk of this post, I was amused to find an article in the New York Times about a Chinese company resurrecting a paper mill in Maine, complete with monks and feng shui).
What do we do with the world as it gets smaller?
Two other recent articles I had read from the New Yorker had seemed to me to stand in nice juxtaposition – the first concerning those who have great wealth and who are trying to be better citizens by using the power this gives them, the second on a previous generation of Asian-American writers setting out their stall vis-a-vis the establishment.
‘In the U.S., executive compensation has increased, on average, by nine hundred and forty per cent since 1978, according to one estimate; during the same period, worker pay has risen twelve per cent… People who support tax cuts for high earners and reductions to social programs are “very deliberately attempting to create a permanent underclass… You want people to suffer and die earlier, because your greed is more important to you than another human being.”’
‘Identity politics offers a voluntary response to an involuntary situation. Power structures beyond our grasp sort us according to categories not of our own choosing, predestining us to be seen in a certain way by (as Ching might put it) “the average person.” Choosing to call oneself an Asian-American, rather than answering to “Oriental,” makes the most of an imposition. It offers some people a ready-made sense of purpose, short-circuiting the power of an epithet imposed from without.’
Who belongs – and what do we do with a place on the podium?
I remembered, as I was thinking about this, words of Zenju Earthlyn Manuel that I have posted before:
‘Yes, my bones know the absolute life, unencumbered by labels, fixed perceptions, and appearances. But the absolute life has never been the problem I have to face in the world. In this twenty-first century, many have agreed that race is a construct or illusion used to create racism. It is also acknowledged in some places that sexuality and gender comprise a continua between opposites, and are not fixed states, as was once assumed. The very words “women,” “men,” “male,” and “female” are being transformed to include the many genders between those polarities. However, simply knowing race to be constructed or an illusion does nothing to change the mind saturated with hatred. To know that there are many ways to live sexually, with or without a prescribed gender, does not affect the extent to which one might be tortured or killed for doing so. Hatred remains potent whether directed at a construct, an illusion, or at the reality of others. Therefore, identity should not be dismissed in our efforts toward spiritual awakening. On the contrary, identity is to be explored on the path of awakening. Identity is not merely of a political nature; it is inclusive of our essential nature when stripped of distortion. In other words, identity is not the problem, but the distortions we bring to it are. (The Way of Tenderness)
And, over the end of the year, I donated to a fundraising drive on behalf of rev angel Kyodo williams – because I want any extra money I accrue to be going to worthwhile and powerful causes – and received access to a large library of radical dharma:
‘All of my work is rooted in a persistence of the people that keep holding it down on the margins in the face of the mainstream saying that you can’t exist the way that you are that you have to leave something of yourself behind in order to belong. To continue to belong to this. The ways in which our society doesn’t understand that we are enriched by our difference rather than undone by it.
I am here because when it wasn’t cute and it wasn’t comfortable, because Alicia Garza continued with Black Lives Matter, when it wasn’t cool for queer people to insist that they could be married, that they could have equality, that they kept insisting. My work is lifted and held by those people that insist on being who they are, and they do that at great cost…
I thank the people that while we were saying “this is the way to go” there were people that were saying, “but you have to include this, too. You have to include this, too.”
So i’m really, really grateful for the people that insist— persistently — to just be who they are and know that they belong for it and that out of their insistence on their own belonging they give permission for each of us to belong, too.’
I don’t know what it’s like to be extremely wealthy, and I understand my position of privilege in the overall scheme of things – I am not struggling in any meaningful way to survive in this land which has plenty. I don’t know what it’s like to be Asian-American, and I understand the disclocation of not fully belonging in the culture of where I live. I don’t know what it’s like to be a queer black woman, and I appreciate everything that I learn from those who identify as such.
In the wisdom of emptiness, we each take our dharma position – real, individual, cultural, institutional, systemic, global – and we are all in this together.
A part of me truly believes that a pendulum is swinging back towards a position of welfare for everyone (I talked about ‘the health of the people is the highest law’ in my dharma talk as well) , and that a global push of ingenuity and co-operation to avert the worst of the climate disaster will happen. I trust that everybody individually has the capacity to be a buddha, but really I don’t know if we can pull it off collectively.