Friday, June 18, 2010

Help the Blogisattvas

Hey everyone,

Just a quick announcement. The Blogisattvas: (an award for various creative activities in Buddhist Blogging) have been revived and need some judges. Some concerns have been raised about bringing as much diversity into the judging process as possible. Please contact them via the link above if you can serve.



Monday, April 12, 2010

Difference and Me

I am so glad to be a part of this blog. I thought I'd do a first post on my experience as a Chicana within a mainly White convert Buddhist community. I also think framing my experience with the dharma in a geographical context is helpful in explaining my experience: I was raised mainly in East L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley (the "SGV" is in East Los Angeles County). I grew up in neighborhoods that were heavily Latino and Asian. I was born in Monterey Park, a city that has the largest community of Chinese-Americans in the country. The first Buddhists I ever knew were people in the neighborhoods I frequented and grew up in.

Much later in my mid-twenties when I decided to become a serious student of the dharma, my entryway into dharma study and meditative practices happened through White convert communities. I have found great support, insight and spiritual nourishment through my sangha, but I must admit, it has been interesting to witness the blind spots in regards to people of color within my sangha, and within other sanghas I have been a part of in the past.

My first weekend retreat was a jarring experience in terms of diversity - on the last day of the retreat a white woman raised her hand in discussion and said she had a problem "with the whiteness in the room." At first I literally didn't know what she was talking about, and then it dawned on my she was talking about the amount of White people in the room. The two meditation teachers, who were also White, began talking about the lack of diversity as being a big problem. I decided to speak up and said what was my truth at the time, which was as a Latina from the eastside, I did feel somewhat uncomfortable being the only one like me there. Later on during the break a women came up to me and said "I'm glad you are here." I didn't know this person so the compliment felt very strange, I felt a bit like a token. I knew she meant well so I was not angry with the comment - I just felt sort of odd, perhaps oddly exoticized.

Since that time, I have not been in a place where issues of diversity have been brought up as a topic of discussion or reflection amongst the largely White sanghas I have been a part of. However, I am extremely grateful to be co-facilitating a local L.A. People of Color group with Erica Shehane which is a part of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society My hope is that one day, we can discuss these issues not only amongst people of color (which is still needed, I firmly believe in a "safe space" for people of color to talk about diversity within the dharma) but also with the White people of our sangha. Such a discussion about diversity amongst all people within a mixed-race sangha, would hopefully be one about understanding, discussion and listening even when the discussion at hand is uncomfortable or difficult to have: this is my dream.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What can I say? What can I do?

What can I say? Well first, my thanks to Firehorse for setting this up and getting us here, and to our first contributors for getting the ball rolling.  Second, I will say, "I am here." I am here to listen (read) and learn. I've shared a little of my background before, but I have little in the way of stories about race in the sanghas I have attended. While I have little experience or knowledge of issues of race in Buddhism, I think my background - growing up with an adopted brother from Vietnam, son of a social worker and diversity specialist, etc, has given me at least a sensitivity or awareness that there are such issues.

What I might be able to do, then, is present something of the 'middle ground' between the luminaries who are knowledgeable, experienced, and active on issues of race and Buddhism and those who are completely in the dark. From that place, here are a few observations.
  1. Visibility. To people of color, race may well be something that is visible in everyday life, from magazine covers and TV shows to the contributor pages of Buddhist periodicals and teachers at our largest sanghas. But to white American Buddhists, race is rarely thought about, let alone made a topic of discussion. Blogs like this help shed light on that, but there is much, much more to be done.

  2. Analogues. I like the analogy that Lori draws to feminism in the end of one of her pieces for three reasons. First, it shows what can be done. Feminists have won some truly wonderful and stunning victories, including those in the ranks of Buddhism.

    Second, it shows that this is not a struggle that will be won in a single fight, perhaps not even in the lifetimes of those reading this blog now. As a white male I am extremely grateful to feminists, in part because I have benefited from having an educated, active and outspoken mother and a successful sister. While feminists can by no means claim a final and resounding victory, I am sure that the lives of my mother and sister, and thus myself, have benefited enormously from the struggles of feminist leaders.

    Third, it highlights a difference for me, at least in degree, between sexism and racism. That difference is simply that about half the people I know are women, while very few are people of color. Thus when discrimination is present in these women's lives, I see it. As a man, I cannot escape the damaging effects of sexism on my friends and family. Yet as a white person, living in a mostly white community, working in white-dominated institutions, it is difficult for me to see, let alone feel the daily injustices wrought against people of color. That is something we all need to work on: those who are affected reaching out and those who do not see it reaching 'in'.

  3. Inclusiveness. While I will never know just how it feels to be a person of color in our society, I do know what it feels like to feel out of place, unsafe, ridiculed, called names, bullied, etc. The harm of institutionalized and personal instances of racism is a deep, deep harm that can manifest in many ways. It is that harm which, together, we hope to address. While not to dilute or detract from the conversation of race, my goal as a Buddhist practitioner is to fight for racial equality and harmony not out of concern for myself or for any particular person or class of person, but because racial inequality and disharmony are causes of suffering. The suffering imposed upon the LGBTI community, those with mental illness, countless religious minorities and others deserve our equal attention. Something we all should never lose sight of is that suffering is suffering everywhere. All oppressed groups and individuals in our society should be treated as Allies in a broader/universal struggle.
As a fellow academic, I do so feel for Lori in her post here. Academia is rife with difficult, awkward (and often contentious) situations, but hers goes beyond anything I've experienced. Our discipline seems focused, like a high-speed train, on analysis and results, a constant outpouring of new ideas and insights. Those who work on the periphery, like Lori in studies on race and to a lesser extent myself in the field of Buddhist ethics, are often left to watch, like spectators, as the great train passes us by. 

Luckily for me, I have experienced really wonderful people in academia, both the contentious and the mild-mannered. So my plan is to both do my best to fit into this at times odd little world, and to work to change it such that our next generation of Loris never experience what she did.

And like Nathan, I am a supporter of POC groups, but still wonder what more I can do given the often paralyzing affects of racism. I hope that, for now, listening a lot and giving my tentative feedback, feelings, and opinions at times will be of help.Watching a final episode of the BBC's Planet Earth series today, I couldn't help but feel that environmentalism could be another fitting analogy for the struggle against racism. Just as we are deeply conditioned to consume, even to our own potential demise, we are deeply conditioned to divide between 'self' and 'other', and our physical differences are an easy target. Similarly, solving the problem cannot be a 'top-down' process where an enlightened few bestow upon the masses a new way of seeing the world. For anti-racism efforts to work, we may need to take the 84,000 Dharma-door approach, skilfully guiding each person and each group toward an awakening to the harm of racism.

Apologies if I've gone too far astray from our suggested format of sharing personal experiences and/or listening deeply to the experiences of others.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Storytelling and Silences

Last year, a visiting teacher was leading a workshop at our zen center. The teacher was a white woman, and the participants were almost all white, middle class folks. During a break towards the end of the second day of the workshop, several of us sat around a table, drinking tea and listening to the visiting teacher tell stories. She dominated over most everything that weekend, very set about how things should go, in what steps, and in almost exactly what way. I was impressed with how prepared she was in leading the studies we were doing, but also surprised at how rigid and almost flat emotionally she sometimes came off during the workshop.

Like the rest of the weekend, she was clearly at the center of the break period, telling long-winded stories about travels, and cultural events, and lord knows what else. I faded in and out during the entire break, exhausted from the previous session's material and exercises, which had brought up some "shit" for me, for lack of more precise term. At some point, the visiting teacher started in about something about "poor black kids" in Oakland, and how there were so many screwing their lives up in gangs, drugs, and whatnot. I was sort of half listening, kind of irritated by this time by what I perceived to be an unconscious elitism running throughout her weekend narratives. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was, other than a few too many references to classical music, opera, "educated people," and travel exploits tossed about way casually.

Drifting back out, I suddenly was jolted by a loud sound of frustration, followed by the words: "We have many good stories too! Why do I always have to listen to this shit from white people!" This from a normally very kind and generous-spirited African-American member of our sangha, who sat across from me, now visibly upset. Stunned, confused and drowsy, I quickly noticed the silence. A few jaws dropped open. A head or two turned away. This went on for several seconds, before the visiting teacher tried to steer the conversation to African-American musicians, a terribly embarrassing attempt to appear conscious about race. For a few minutes, she went on about Ray Charles and perhaps John Coltrane (I can't recall), and then turned to our sangha member and said, "Is that good?"

I felt my stomach turn, and wanted out, instantly out of there. I also wanted to say something, anything to support our sangha member, who was clearly experiencing yet another place where she had to deal with unconsciousness about racial narratives. However, I just sat there. As did everyone else, while her and the visiting teacher volleyed back and forth for a minute or so. By this time, the visiting teacher was visibly embarrassed, but also able to quickly return to her role of conversation domination.

I got up and walked over to get some tea, and some air - thoroughly convinced that if someone like me, who had spent over a decade studying race and racism, supporting POC groups, fighting bad legislation, speaking out in workplaces as well as in groups of friends and family - if someone like me couldn't find a way to comment about what had just happened in my dharma center, then we were in trouble, grave trouble as a spiritual community. Even though I had been reading about racial dynamics in American Buddhist centers for several years, and said a few things about race, racism, and social justice in dharma classes and after talks, this incident made it profoundly clear that being serious about Buddhism in 21st century America has to go hand in hand with a deep, broad, and continuous examination of race and racism.

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."