On Race & Buddhism
Rev. Alan Senauke
Zen Master Dogen wrote "Gourd with its tendrils is entwined with gourd." This means we are all intimately bound up, wound up with each other. Truly inseparable. So this morning I would like to speak about the complexities of diversity, race, zen practice, and our community. Something we've been talking about at Buddhist Peace Fellowship, San Francisco Zen Center, here, and more and more around sanghas and centers in the United States. This is not just about "political correctness," it is about practice and awareness. I must confess that my own thoughts are not entirely clear, but I will try my best not to mislead you. If I sound critical, it is a voice of self-criticism. My own efforts have fallen short and I think we need to work on this together. So I will leave some time for discussion at the end. After six years of practice, homeless among householders, wayseekers, and teachers, the Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree with the firm intention of awakening. After seven days of zazen he perceived the true nature of birth and death, the chain of causation and awakened to realization with the morning star. At that moment he spoke these words: "Wondrous! I now see that all beings everywhere have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of misunderstandings and attachments they do not realize it." Allowing his understanding to ripen, allowing Bodhicitta, the mind of compassion to ripen, he took up the responsibilities of teaching, sharing his experience in a way that unlocked the mystery of our own experience. As the Buddha came to express it, "I simply teach about the nature of suffering and the end of suffering." This is a radical teaching, true to the meaning of radical, getting to the root. And his understanding that all beings everywhere have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones leaves us with a great responsibility. As the wheel of Mahayana Dharma turned , our own Zen vehicle, that responsibility was further clarified by the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings. We constantly affirm this vow. And yet this vow was there from the beginning. Why else did the Buddha rise from the comfort and joy of enlightenment and freedom to teach? Why else did he offer teachings like the Metta Sutta,where he says:
May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
All living beings, whether weak or strong,
in high or middle or low realms
of existence, small or great, visible or invisible,
near or far, born or to be born,
Let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state;
Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over
and protects her only child,
so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things,
suffusing love over the entire world, above, below,
and all around, without limit;
so let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.
And true to that teaching, he offered refuge to everyone he met on the path. Kings and paupers, ascetics and householders, people of all castes, brahmins , outcasts, and criminals. After some strenuous convincing, he even offered refuge to women. That's a long story in itself, not unrelated to the issue at hand today, suggesting that patriarchy has deep roots running through many if not most cultures. Taking refuge means committing your life to waking up, to taking on the problem of suffering and the end of suffering for all beings and ourselves. This is what zazen is about. Sitting upright in stillness to see oneself in complete interdependence with all beings, with the rocks and trees and ocean and sky. The emptiness we so often talk about is not some kind of negative space. It is total interdependence. "Gourd with its tendrils entwined with gourd." True reality is empty of any one thing, empty of self because all things, all people co-create each other. Seeing through and beyond dualistic thinking is the direct experience of zazen. I undescore the word experience, because if it we are just caught by an idea or an idle wish, we slip back into the tide of duality. All of us have such experiences from moment to moment, time to time. A moment of merging with someone or something we love, a moment of doing something completely, a moment of losing oneself in just sitting. And at times in zazen we settle fully into the realm of nonduality and recognize that this is our true mind, our true state of being. All the great spiritual traditions express an understanding of this natural way of life. But the way we often live, by habit we see a world thoroughly conditioned by duality. Driven by doubt and fear, by a lack of trust in our true Mind, we see things as self and objects, as us and them, as other. It seems so hard to recognize the truth that Tibetan Buddhists preach: that every being was at one time my own mother. The root of racism is denial of this truth. It is about seeing people as other in a systematic way that is such an entrenched habit we are not usually aware of. I would underscore the word systematic, because as ideas like a virus in society they have a power that goes beyond individual like and dislike. Racism is a system of domination that is economic and political as well as personal. It runs deep in the oppressor and the oppressed alike, though the damage caused is different. Even though I have the privilege of a good education, middle class male upbringing, white skin, I find in myself deeply ingrained and systematic survival responses as someone born Jewish. Several years ago at a meeting of international Buddhist activists in Thailand I realized that in the first day I had figured out who (among the westerners) was Jewish. And even stranger I realizedthat all the Jews were doing the same thing and had "signified" to each other. We knew who each other was, and we were more comfortable for it. This, I am sure, is a pattern that goes back through centuries of being ghetto-ized, of being the other. It's not a genetic thing. I can remember my mother telling me how to watch out for myself. That some people would exclude and threaten me just for being Jewish. It's so deep that sometimes I find myself looking around the zendo and counting those I think are Jewish. Some of you may find yourself making a similar census. From talking with them, I know that people of color do this. And yet, let's where our Buddhism come from. Our ancestors come from India, China, and Japan. In June I visited Suzuki-Roshi's temple, Rinso-in and I walked in the graveyard where the old priests of the temple were buried. How amazing it is for Zen to leap oceans and cultures and be so generously offered to us. We should accept it humbly, recognizing the price of suffering paid to plant the Dharma seed here. And we owe it to our teachers and ourselves to share this practice with the same generosity and openmindedness. Keeping in mind that most Buddhists even in America don't look like me. They are Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and so on. I come to Buddhism out of suffering. They come to Buddhism as a birthright. So how does it feel to come to Zen practice as a person of color? And they will come; they do come. My friend Sala Steinbach says an African-American woman at SFZC says, "If it is about liberation, people of color will be interested." They are. The Dalai Lama draws stadiums full of people in Mexico. In South America there are Zen and Tibetan teachers with very strong lay sanghas. So I ask my Asian, and Latino, and African-American friends about how it feels to come here, to San Francisco Zen Center or Spirit Rock. And I ask myself what feelings come up. Dogen suggests we take a step back to turn one's light inward and illuminate oneself. What I see there in myself is then reflected back into the world. The answer to how it feels to anyone largely depends on two further inter-related questions. First, does one feel safe and seen in the community? Are the conditions of your life acknowedged, welcomed, explored in the sangha? I suspect that this is sometimes yes, sometimes no. Thoughtless words can turn people from the temple and from the practice. I have seen this happen here and elsewhere. An offhand comment is made about the white, middle class makeup of the community with people of color sitting right there. Again, through the unintended eye of white supremacy (hard words, I know) people are made to feel invisible and uncounted. Maybe I should say something about white supremacy. It is a building block of racism, part of my blindness to my own privilege as a white man. It is at once personal and systematic. If one wants to see it, the practice of individual mindfulness, of turning our light inward needs to be blended dialogue with friends and sangha members who don't carry this very particular privilege. The same kinds of painful things happen if you are homosexual, or if because of injury or fact of birth you can't get up the steps of the temple. These blindnesses hurt and turn people away. That's what it might feel like from one side. On the other side, the Buddha's understanding is "all beings have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of misunderstandings and attachments they do not realize it." This understanding is so precious that we are obligated to share it. I don't mean proselytizing, but keep in mind, the Buddha never stopped preaching Dharma. But now we have centers and institutions. To make zazen and Dharma available, we need to tell people they are welcome and invite them to practice with us. Already we are taking practice to jails and hospitals, to people who might not be able to come to us. The next obvious step is to find ways to open our doors to those who can come to us. I hear that some San Francisco churches have created a kind of covenant of "open congregation." This means that in their literature and at their services, classes, and events they make it known that they welcome people of color, gays and lesbians, and so on. Being pro-active rather than passive on questions of diversity and inclusion. This is necessary because in America, passivity means white supremacy. It's subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my mind as a person with so-called privilieges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Last week I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. Now maybe I did a good job talking to them, but I was the first Buddhist choice that came to mind for the organizers. There is some irony in that. Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people like me. I have to watch myself carefully not to buy into this. But the wondeful thing about what the Buddha taught, what we can experience in zazen, is that each of us can go beyond duality. It can't be done just by reason and talk. We have to get the reality of the world deep in our bones and then bring it back out again into the world. We must make a lot of mistakes. Maybe like this talk. Suzuki Roshi said giving a talk is making a mistake on purpose. Make our mistakes, learn the lessons and go back at it. bell hooks, the African American scholar/practitioner writes about this in "Buddhist Women on the Edge": In a culture of domination, preoccupation with victimhood and identity is inevitable. I once believed that progressive people could analyze the dualities and dissolve them through a process of dialectical critical exchange. Yet globally the resurgence of notions of ethnic purity, white supremacy, have led marginalized groups to cling to dualisms as a means of resistance....The willingness to surrender to attachment to duality is present in such thinking. It merely inverts the dualistic thinking that supports and maintains domination.
Dualities serve their own interests. What's alarming to me is to see so many Americans returning to those simplistic choices. People of all persuasions are feeling that if they don't have dualism, they don't have anything to hold on to.
If we are concerned with dissolving these apparent dualities we have to identify anchors to hold on to in the midst of fragmentation, in the midst of a loss of grounding. My anchor is love.... I like to think that love and compassion are anchors of my practice. But they depend on mindfulness too. Zazen is rooted in mindfulness, breath after breath, thought after thought. This kind of training carries over into life outside the zendo. I try to uncover my own thought patterns. This is sometimes painful and embarrassing, but it is the essence of saving myself and all sentient beings. It is amazing to see the stories one can make up about other people, and how these stories are conditioned by race, or class, or privilege. Check it out for yourself. When you meet someone you consider different from yourself, do you think you know something about them? Would you think you know the same kinds of things about another white person or someone more like you? This is mindfulness practice, watching one's thoughts about race, or any kind of difference. And it is for our own sake. Not for the sake of political correctness. I think that this is where our personal practice begins. Then we can take it further into our extended communities. Ask your friends of color how they experience the practice and the community. This is entering the realm of not knowing, a little risky, but ultimately necessary. In the wider Buddhist community, it might mean making some excursions and visits to Asian Buddhist temples. They are friendly places. The same Dharma resides there, though it may take some different forms. We think nothing of going to restaurants featuring Asian cuisine. This is just another form of basic nourishment. Maybe when we have closely examined ourselves, and begun to look around and share our thoughts with others, then we have created the conditions for change. If our American society could take such steps, it would be the start of a wonderful, hopeful era. Could there be racial peace for the first time in history? This is no pipe dream. It is the Bodhisattva Vow, the working of our Way Seeking Mind. If each of us and the sanghas we cherish could nurture this process of mindfulness, the change could come much quicker. Compassion and peace could blossom in very surprising ways. And zazen would be a golden wind blowing across a meadow of wildflowers. How can we take up this work together. I welcome your thoughts.
From a talk given at Berkeley Zen Center, Berkeley, California
August 23, 1997
Rev. Alan Senauke (Soto-shu)
Buddhist Peace Fellowship
Berkeley, CA, U.S.A.