Thursday, March 25, 2010

Being heard and listening

I'll start, but I'll start with a massive qualification: I'm not a member of any particular sangha and haven't been for awhile. I have studied Buddhism, taught it as an academic subject and written about the history of Buddhism in the US. I do, however, practice after a fashion and after many years of dormant interest, I've recently started down the path of practice again.

I say all that because the story I'll tell took place at a conference of academics, practitioners and teachers. I was finishing up my dissertation on the subject of race and Buddhism in US history and was anxious to speak to an audience of what I thought would be like minded people - people who might understand my work because they had more than an intellectual interest at stake.

I was on a panel - typical academic style - three or four people and a moderator in a hot room, late in the day. The moderator was not doing a good job of moderating so we were behind schedule by the time I began to speak. Now, if you've ever been to an academic conference, you know that it can be very difficult to fully present the scope of your ideas in 10 or 15 minutes. You have to provide some context for your remarks and you walk a fine line between reading what you've written and extemporaneous skipping around and summarizing.

I think I had just done the set up for my remarks - it was a paper about the role of race in the history of Buddhism and so I was providing a little historiography and description of how I had come to the subject and why I thought it mattered. I thought I had plenty of time but as I began to read the substance of my paper the moderator cut me off and said "I think we should move on to the next presentation so there's time for questions at the end."

I looked down the table at her and , in spite of my instinct to go on, I put my papers down and shut up. If I hadn't been sandwiched between four other people, I would have gotten up to leave. The next presenter read her paper - using her full allotment of time, there was a brief discussion and then the session broke up.

Let me re-cap here: I was the only Black person on the panel; I was the only Black person in the room; I was giving a paper on race at a conference full of Buddhist women and the moderator had effectively shut down any possibility of my discussing my ideas because we were "out of time." I'm not suggesting that she cut me off because I'm Black or because of my subject matter; that would represent a kind of raw bigotry which is common and not really worthy of comment. What I saw and felt in that moment was much more disturbing because it wasn't an act of bigotry. It was, to me, the thing we so often overlook - the way institutional power and control shuts down discussion before it can even begin.

Because I was in a place I couldn't leave, I ended up at dinner with some of the people who had been in the room during the talk. Someone apologized and asked me to summarize what I was going to say. I gave an extemporaneous version of my talk and, as I finished one woman said: "I can understand why it's important to talk about sexism in the sangha. But this whole race thing .... I just don't get it." This time I did get up and leave.

I've learned a lot about teaching since then and learned a great deal more about how, why and when to engage discussions of race with reluctant audiences. As a Black woman, I have to tread very carefully because, like it or not, my presence can be intimidating, or a source of discomfort. I have learned that when I want to be heard I also have to listen. I have learned that I had to be aware of what I bring to these situations – a deep need to be hear, a selfish desire to be right, lots of anger and resentment and a nagging sense that no matter what I say, it won’t really matter. I have to hold these conflicting emotional responses in an open palm.

We started this discussion with the intention of providing an open forum for Buddhist POC, sympathizers, allies and friends to speak openly about experiences of alienation within the American Buddhist sangha. It is, I think, a worthy goal because I am sure that I am not alone in feeling angry and frustrated by the way that White privilege has shaped American Buddhism. It is worth acknowledging, however, that what we’re attempting to do here is incredibly difficult. Not only are Americans woefully under-educated about Buddhist practice, but we are also in deep and chronic denial about the history of race, privilege and oppression in our culture. We turn away from this history as much as we can because it is so deeply painful and shaming to us all. I have a great deal of sympathy for White Americans who do not want to hear the history of racial oppression in this country because as difficult as it is for me as a descendant of those oppressed people to hear these stories, it must be equally, if not more problematic to recognize and absorb that history as a descendant of those who benefited from that oppression. It is hard enough to wake up every day and be present to our own small mindedness, our own petty jealousies and the thousand ways we hurt the people around us. No small matter, then, to bring awareness something as deeply entrenched and impossibly complicated as racial oppression and privilege.

I’ll tell one last story that ends with a question: when I was in graduate school at a Large Prestigious University, we were required to visit our advisors once a year. The advisors had a list of questions they asked us so as to assess our learning and their teaching. This was a graduate program in theology so I was a little surprised when my advisor asked how my class work was helping me to address questions of race, class and gender. My answer was – they’re not. It could be that my answer was an indication of the failure of the program to more fully integrate these issues into the curriculum. But that was the first time it occurred to me that questions of race, class and gender should or could be a part of my theological education. It’s a question I’ve been struggling with ever since. I suppose the point is that even if the initial response to our discussion here is a kind of "no," - silence, rejection or non-engagement, we should carry on. Because you never know when that "no" might turn into some kind of a "yes."


  1. It took me awhile to find time to read this, and I appreciate what you wrote, Lori.
    Oakland, California

  2. Hi Lori,

    Just found this blog and would like to read your paper about race in the history of Buddhism. Would you mind posting it? As a white member of a predominantly white Sangha and UU church, I've wondered about the racial dynamics and hope to learn.

    In peace, Jack

  3. I'll have to try to make copies of papers to post, but I can certainly send you some relevant references. This is a long standing debate/question/problem in American sanghas. I'll put this on my list of things to do at work next week.