The Language of Power

I have been able to listen to a lot of dharma talks recently, in addition to my usual amount of reading, and that has been helpful as I work on my material for talks I will give while I am in England. One of these was given by Liên, who I have known since we arrived at Tassajara together in 2002; in it, she referred to a talk that was given by someone during one of those practice periods there. I must have been present, but I don’t remember the incident she talked about.

She remembers it distinctly because for her, it was an experience of being othered, of feeling separate from the community of monks present at the time. I noticed that my initial response to hearing her telling of her reaction was a kind of instinctively defensive dismissal: ‘was it that big a deal really?’ And then I remembered a resonant phrase I read a few years ago: ‘neutrality is very often the favourite language of power.’

Pausing to look a little closer at my first reaction, I could see I was working within the confines of my own position in the matrix of power, where it is easy for me to posit a ‘neutral’ perspective, which is often couched along the lines of ‘most people wouldn’t find that offensive,’  or perhaps, ‘a reasonable person would not have that reaction.’

And the point is that as a person outside the main positions of privilege, Liên did have that reaction, and I understand that my work is to listen to her experience and accept that this is how she felt; as I read somewhere in the context of trans and gender non-conforming people, but which works for all people impacted by oppression, we should see them as credible narrators of their own experience. Of course as a straight white middle-class male, I don’t see things the same way, and incontrovertibly, the kinds of views I grew up with have formed the dominant narrative in our culture for the longest time. Now is the time for a broader spectrum of voices and experiences to be heard, and I do my best to welcome that, even when it can make me uncomfortable.

I do remember some of the things Liên had to go through at Zen Center as a person of colour, and how hard she and a few others – Ryumon and Zenju come immediately to mind – had to work to shift perspectives around diversity at Zen Center at that time; the work is far from done, though I feel there has been some improvement in the past two decades. It is no coincidence that the three women I have named are all dharma heirs of Blanche – she was very clear in wanting to broaden the range of the voices of authority in the community.

I have written before about how I view racism in the US from my  privileged immigrant viewpoint. It always feels tricky to try to put this into writing – I think about Dogen’s line from the Genjo Koan, ‘you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach’ – but I read pieces like this one, recently in the New Yorker, and it underscores exactly how wide-spread and deeply-rooted systemic racism is in this land. We all have a long way to go.

Names of Liberation

My weekend at Wilbur was shorter than usual as I had an event to get to in Berkeley on Sunday afternoon: a jukai with Zenju as the preceptor and my friend Shalamah (who I know from Tassajara and Wilbur) as one of the three ordinands.

Traffic on the way down was mercifully non-problematic, so I arrived in plenty of time, and had a chance to chat with a few people I knew from Tassajara and Zen Center, as well as Shalamah’s friends and family I had met at the tea a few weeks ago where we helped Zenju’s deliberations on suitable dharma names (I wrote about this event on Patreon).  I took my seat in the zendo early, and then watched as it filled up, and kept filling; the usher managed to squeeze everybody in somehow.

Apart from the Zen Center folk, and Zenju’s sangha members who were running the ceremony, I imagine that no-one in attendance had been at a jukai before, but Zenju welcomed everyone and led proceedings both with gravitas and a loving touch, especially when she went around the room with the wisdom water.

I was moved several times during the ceremony, at moments when murmurs of approval went around the zendo: as each name was revealed to the ordinands (the names were all obviously apt to their friends); as each ordinand stood to offer personal vows in addition to the sixteen Bodhisattva precepts they had recited with their teacher, all deeply open and heart-felt; as Zenju unrolled a scroll invoking Daikokuten and Daikokutennyo, the powerful deities of great darkness; and most particularly when she spoke about the ordinands new dharma names as names of liberation, not names of oppression. I was also happy that Blanche, Zenju’s teacher, was brought into the room as well. I remember her at several jukai over the years, always happy to more newly-minted Bodhisattvas in the world.

DSCF8518.jpgZenju went around all corners of the room with the wisdom water.

DSCF8546.jpgZenju holding up her Daikokuten scroll .

DSCF8601.jpgNot the formal shot of the group, but probably my favourite – Zenju with Ashara, Shalamah and Aja.

DSCF8646.jpgZenju with members of her sangha.

Rev. 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.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

Reading these words feels bracing – as it should. I have dwelled in the kind of position of dominance the Rev. angel addresses throughout the article. I don’t feel personally attacked – I am being asked to keep waking up, to keep looking, to keep supporting everyone to be the buddhas they are. I don’t always know what that looks like, but I am resolved to keep trying, and I am always grateful for these reminders to make my best effort.

Dawa Tarchin Phillips

‘If you’re just looking to confirm what you’re already thinking about people and the world, the Buddha’s teachings might not be the right place for you. It’s the job of the Buddha’s teachings to challenge assumptions and show you that you have a limited perspective if you think you’re the only one in the right. ‘ (from Lion’s Roar)

You may have noticed that I have posted three quotes from this article in the past week – it is because I found some wonderful pieces of wisdom there, and I have found these to be deeply illuminating in the current debate in Buddhist circles about how to deal with current levels of partisanship and division in our communities.

Rev. angel Kyodo williams

‘I don’t think taking sides suggests that we negate the humanity of everyone else’s position. We take sides and we understand that we must take care of the whole.

We take sides in a way that doesn’t take sides. We take sides in a way that doesn’t separate. It distinguishes and it discerns, but it doesn’t negate or erase. I think this is a very important aspect of what the dharma can bring to the Western constructs that live inside of dichotomies. Much of the time it’s either me or you. Even “take sides” sounds from our Western perspective like I’m seeing only my side. It’s hard for us to see the nonbinary nature of taking sides in which it is actually a wholeness, not a separation.

We find our wholeness in our firm and clear locating of ourselves on the side of love. In locating ourselves on the side of love, we become more whole. It’s a yes, rather than a no. Taking sides is a yes to love, rather than a no to you.’ (from Lion’s Roar)

I remember having the thought (which for some reason came with the image of a windscreen wiper going back and forth) that there is the yes of yes-and-no, and the yes that covers both sides; I think this is in line with what Reverend angel is saying.

Gina Sharpe

‘Sometimes we may think that a Buddhist life comes through the mind. But actually it involves the mind, the body, and the heart. It’s not just what we think. That’s important, but it’s not 100 percent of our practice.

Practice involves what we do with our bodies and how we live in community. It involves what that community means for us and how we support the community with justice and kindness. It involves all of the ways we live together in that one body that we call interconnectedness. This understanding is so missing in our world.

For me, activism means manifesting these beautiful teachings that I have been given. I am sharing that gift with my body, with my mind, and with my heart. 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)

Roxane Gay

‘Every single day there is a new, terrifying, preventable tragedy fomented by a president and an administration that uses hate and entitlement as political expedience. If you remain disillusioned or apathetic in this climate, you are complicit. You think your disillusionment is more important than the very real dangers marginalized people in this country live with.

Don’t delude yourself about this. Don’t shroud your political stance in disaffected righteousness. Open your eyes and see the direct line from the people in power to their emboldened acolytes. It is cynical to believe that when we vote we are making a choice between the  lesser of two evils. We are dealing with a presidency fueled by hate, greed and indifference. We are dealing with a press corps that can sometimes make it seem as though there are two sides to bigotry. Republican politicians share racist memes that spread false propaganda and crow “fake news” when reality interferes with their ambitions. Progressive candidates are not the lesser of two evils here; they are not anywhere on the spectrum of evil we are currently witnessing.’ (New York Times column)

Roxane Gay is one writer I always pay attention to, so this pre-midterm column caught my eye last week when it was published. I was also taken by this piece by the always wonderful Rebecca Solnit, and another article from the Guardian that spells out exactly why the US fails to be a participatory democracy in so many ways.

In some ways it feels that everyone has been holding their breaths for months, waiting to see the outcome of today’s vote. I regret not being able to vote, as a non-citizen, and that I don’t have so much money to donate to the causes I support; I can only hope that a sense of the common good comes to prevail again.

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)

I don’t have any way of knowing what the African-American experience feels like. As a white European who chose to live in California, I can feel some longing for my homeland. My ancestral home – a place I did not grow up – is, and was always, readily available to visit, and I have thought of living there one day in the future. Reading this passage encouraged me to stretch my small understanding of this feeling, to try to imagine how it deep its impact can be. This is the work that those of us in positions of privilege need to do  – to listen to those who come from a place of less privilege, without trying to gainsay their experience of being themselves (something privilege lends people to doing), and to practise feeling what the world feels like from that perspective.

Connection in dark times

When, for a few days last week, it looked like I wouldn’t be getting up to Wilbur after all, I wondered if I should write a post about the World Cup in the space I had left for myself. After all, it has consumed a fair amount of my time this past fortnight; the first round of games were immensely entertaining; England had not embarrassed themselves – rather they were playing with something approaching joy and confidence (this might not last for many hours after this post is published…); there was also the meagre schadenfreude of lasting longer in the competition than the Germans (I saw many pieces of writing suggesting that our inferiority complex stretching over fifty years of competitive football could only be mitigated by references to the world wars, which does say something about the attitude of many people in England); there was a partial reliving of conflicts in the Balkans; there was expressive play from many countries, even those on their way out of the competition.

I also got to read a piece by England team member Raheem Sterling, a divisive figure in the UK solely, it seems, by dint of being a successful Afro-Caribbean player who feels no shame in being successful and thus wealthy. Alongside which, I recently saw two articles around players whose careers and talents I remember enjoying in my younger years, belying the lazy stereotype of footballers being inarticulate working class oafs: Stan Collymore, who is also not shy to point to endemic racism, and Neville Southall, who is championing the marginalised in all areas.

In not-unrelated news, the political discourse in the States seemed to take a sharper turn last week with the impending Supreme Court vacancy. I noted that it was two journalists of colour who I enjoy reading, Charles Blow and Ijeoma Oluo, who sounded the alarm most clearly, no doubt because they can see and feel more acutely the reactionary forces at work.

Personally, apart from my general disgust at how so much of the political scene has wallowed in division and exclusion these past two years, I am at a loss to imagine that abortion could soon become illegal again, especially so soon after Ireland, which we grew up regarding as the most socially conservative country in Western Europe, has just voted in the opposite direction.

I would like to believe, as I read from time to time, that these are the death throes of the old white patriarchal system, reluctant to give up its ingrained privileges (many of which I share in, of course) in the face of demographic shifts, trying anything to maintain the static social hues they feel most comfortable in. I look forward to the resumption soon of the ongoing arc towards social justice and inclusion for all, especially those who currently have less of a voice.

Screen Shot 2018-06-22 at 13.39.10
I had saved these two pictures for myself already; this one of Xherdan Shaqiri from the match refered to above.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 21.46.18And this one of a disconsolate Peruvian fan.

Pride and joy for all

I live just a couple of blocks from the Castro Theater in San Francisco, so for Pride, my neighbourhood is even busier than usual. Knowing that there would be late-night parties happening both downstairs and next-door, I was in the East Bay for much of the weekend for the sake of getting some sleep, but came into the city both days, and riding on BART seemed like a huge, high-spirited fancy-dress party.
Many of the rainbow-hued crowd seemed to be of school age; I wondered whether for some of them Pride was much different from Hallowe’en, a chance to dress up and enjoy participating in a massive event. At the same time it seemed clear that many of them were coming in support of their LGBT friends, and I reflected back to when I was that age, and there was way less support of difference (it was not until my college years that my horizons were broadened more towards tolerance).

I have only marched in the Pride Parade once (you can read about it here) and I remember the grumblings of some older gay residents that Pride had been taken over by straight people. I have been mindful of this since, and since I hold many overlapping positions of privilege, it’s not really my place to expound opinions about this. My main feeling from the weekend, though, was that having so many people coming together to celebrate difference can only be a positive thing. It seems to typify the critical mass of social and cultural progress that has been made in my lifetime, and I imagine that this is why so many people I know are so dismayed by much of what the current American administration represents, as it seems to be trying to drag society back to that less inclusive time and way of thinking.
From my dharma perspective, I mainly want people to stop suffering, and was strongly reminded of hatred or anger as one the three poisons which are the causes of suffering. When crowds of people come together and meet each other in the absence of hatred or anger, it can only be beneficial.

I passed by Dolores Park on Saturday afternoon, where the heatwave helped draw a huge crowd.

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I found this wonderful picture online, of a Pride gathering in the Castro in the seventies.