“Beloved Community: Healing What Separates Us” – BuddhaFest, 2015

BuddhaFest Beloved Community

BuddhaFest contributors: Tara Brach, Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei, Femi Akinnagbe, and Eleanor Hancock

In the spirit of MLK’s vision of “beloved community”, this special, 2 hour BuddhaFest program takes a look at how we can make our Buddhist/Dharma communities more inclusive. The program explores how issues of separate-ness connect deeply both with our collective spiritual journey, and with our own personal paths of awakening. What do the Buddha’s teachings have to say about the causes of separate-ness? And how do we go about healing it?

Tara Brach opens the program with a short talk that is followed by a panel discussion with Tara, Zen priest angel Kyodo williams Sensei, and Femi Akinnagbe of Common Ground, moderated by Eleanor Hancock of White Awake. George Mumford makes a guest appearance, and attendees have an opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings on this important topic.


In this post you will find:


“It’s the community’s job to figure out how we can stretch into the so-called margins to broaden our understanding and the ability to be inclusive. Inclusivity is not ‘how do we make you a part of what we are?’ but ‘how do we become more of what you are?’…

We have to get clear that an essential aspect of our practice is to shift these things internally for ourselves because our personal liberation, the very thing we come to the dharma for, is completely bound up in making these kinds of changes.”
– angel Kyodo williams Sensei


TaraBuddhaFest

Tara Brach

Tara Brach: The Trance of the Unreal Other

“We move through daily life with conscious and unconscious judgments about most everyone we encounter. Not only does this limit intimacy in our personal life, it is part of the collective trance that perpetuates racism, social inequity and war across the globe. Tara draws on her own experience in creating separation, and explores the meditation practices that can awaken our heart, create truly inclusive spiritual community and serve the healing of our world.”

An expanded version of this talk can be found in another post, here, which includes an article adaptation and link to the full audio version.


Panel Discussion – Abbreviated Transcription

Tara: I’m now going to hand this over to Eleanor. She has been one of my beloved mentors this past year. She has experience in this whole field of diversity and training, consulting, and will be taking over to lead us in the panel. Please close your eyes and sit quietly. We are going to do a continued meditation.

Eleanor-Hancock b&w headshot

Eleanor Hancock

Eleanor: I’m the director of a program called White Awake, which has been built from the work of practitioners in IMCW who self organized – white practitioners who wanted to educate themselves about race, many of them are in the audience – and so I’m privileged to be carrying that work forward, still in collaboration with IMCW teachers, staff, and board members.

In preparation for our panel discussion, we have two community members here who are going to read the personal accounts of individuals who have experienced discrimination or a lack of access to the teachings when they were coming to Western Buddhist communities for refuge and for guidance. I invite you to listen to these readings as a form of meditation. I will ring a bell, we will hear a story, then I will ring a bell and we will sit for a moment before continuing on to the next reading. We will listen to four of these personal accounts.


Making the Invisible Visible – selected readings can be accessed on another post, here


Eleanor: Before we start our discussion, I want to express appreciation for everyone who is here. You might have come because you signed up for this program. You might have come because you have a four day pass and you are along for the ride – whatever the reason, your presence really matters, and I’m touched by how many are sitting in the audience.

In our promotion of the Beloved Community event, Eric and I said we would use our time today to “look at how we can make our Buddhist communities more inclusive”. We used a quote from Rev. angel, Sensei, in which you explained it this way:

“Inclusivity is not ‘how do we make you a part of what we are?’ but ‘how do we become more of what you are?’”

I wanted to start, Rev. angel, by asking if you could say a few more words about that.

Rev angel headshot

Rev, angel Kyodo williams Sensei

Rev. angel: I want to first appreciate Tara’s sharing a bit of context about the historical situation that we find ourselves in. The past is the present, so we are actually sitting within the outcomes of the past. One of those outcomes is that we have a dominant culture; a Euro-centric, white culture.

Of course there’s diversity within whiteness, and that’s a whole other conversation we should have, but that dominant view includes ways to behave, perceive things, show up in the room, body language, even the tone of voice. All of these things are held as though there is a central “is-ness” to it, and everything else is other. So when we think about being inclusive, our inclination is to say, “Oh, how can get more of that ‘otherness’ to be more like ‘this-ness’?” And then we’re including you into our thing.

When I say white folks, I don’t mean just white skinned people. Many of us have been acculturated to uphold a paradigm of white skin privilege even if we don’t have white skin ourselves. So it’s not sufficient to just say “it’s white people.” We have all been moved to uphold the centrality of the white view.

So that’s what I mean. We have to be able to recognize that whiteness is not all that there is. It is not “the thing” that everything else is should organize itself around in order to be included.

Eleanor: The next question is directed towards Femi and Rev. angel explicitly. We’ve listened to stories in Tara’s talk, and just before the panel, of how people experience discrimination or lack of access to the teachings. I wanted to ask the two of you, specifically, how have you experienced a lack of inclusivity in communities where you have trained or practiced? How have you worked with this? Why did you stay? And do you have any words for the people of color in the audience who likely have had similar experiences?

Femi headshot

Femi Akinnagbe

Femi: Speaking to the point Rev. angel made earlier, that whiteness is central and everything else is other – I have on numerous occasions, in big ways and small ways, but rather consistently, engaged with this feeling that I don’t belong. “This is our thing. This is not for you.” No one has ever come waving a burning flag, yelling, “You, dark person, get out!” But expectations are delivered in very subtle ways.

Today I was standing here, just settling in, watching all the beautiful people file in. A lady came up and asked me, “Excuse me, sir, are you security? I need to come up and do something on stage.” I say this not to embarrass that person, but to say that these moments happen all the time. I don’t think that that lady said to herself, “Let me go down there to that chocolate man and make him feel ‘this big’.” She didn’t say that consciously. She was working with the ideas and perceptions that she had in her mind. Who knows … my work is not to judge her words or her actions; my work is to take care of this heart right here.

So I needed to let her know, “No, I’m not security. I’m actually going to be speaking on the panel.” And then just let the feeling of discomfort that arose in both of us be present. She was uncomfortable, I was uncomfortable, and we were both human beings.

That kind of situation happens over and over. I went to graduate school at Georgetown, and I am in medical school at the University of Minnesota right now. The first week of classes at both institutions of learning I went to the bookstore to buy my books.

Both times, when I approach the manager, who is directing traffic, before I can ask my question she says, “Oh, you – the deliveries? They go around the side door.” From my lips to God’s ears, that’s what she said.

I say, “Ok. Thank you. I’ll let the delivery man know! In the meantime, can you help me find the textbook for Biochemistry 500?”

Almost the exact same situation occurred in week one of medical school. The reason I share these stories is because they happen again and again, and it’s not a matter of this person being an evil person. The causes and conditions that give rise to this thinking process in that individual have been in motion for hundreds of years before this instance took place. I actually think that it’s with great compassion that we turn to it and we see, this individual is not the cause of, of … Ferguson! But being unmindful of the causes and conditions that are bearing fruit through this person in this moment, as they are through me in this moment, allows things like Ferguson to perpetuate.

[Applause]

Rev. angel: Maybe the most significant thing is that I didn’t stay. That is a response, too. As Femi said, there is a point at which your role, as a person who is marginalized, is to take care of your own heart. And sometimes that actually means to leave. And the leaving is actually an act of love. A consideration that this coming to understand what is happening here … some of us have been in a trance, a bubble, as Tara said, a trance. Then there is a disruption, a little glichiness, like the Matrix is starting to come apart.

For many white skinned people the recognition of whiteness is new. It’s like, “Oh, I’m white!” Not as in “we don’t have the broad sense of being white”, but recognizing “I’m white” with all of what comes with that. “I’m white” with all of the sudden realizations that the ways with which I thought I was thinking and reacting to people are not all mine. One of the biggest challenges, I think, for white folks, particularly in America, is that white folks don’t think of themselves as part of a collective. That’s what the individualistic society has done.

Collectively [among white folks] there is a deep immaturity about that [racial] reality. On the other hand, most people of color (not all) have greater maturity about the reality of the racialized society that we live in, if for no other reason than because (as Femi pointed out) it is reflected back to us over and over again – generally by white folks (unbeknownst to them!) We are receiving the experience of that, processing that, all the time.

Having to bear the burden of white people coming into an awareness, with all of the pain and discomfort and awkwardness of that, is sometimes not our job. Sometimes we are just done with it. Sometimes we don’t have the capacity because it’s too painful for us to continue to bear it. Sometimes we just have other business to get on to, and we need white folks to tend to their own business –

[Applause]

– not so that we remain separate, but rather that we can come together in a place of a little bit more evenness around our maturity.

So the not-staying is about figuring out how we can really be together, rather than forcing ourselves into variety (i.e. “diversity”) that doesn’t’ actually allow us to fully be who we are … and doesn’t allow people who are coming into maturity to explore at their own pace, their own rate. I imagine even the person that may be hearing the story about asking if Femi was security, feeling a little bit of shame and a little bit of guilt, not because they are a bad person but because that is how we feel, and we work our way through that. I hope that we can all come back together.

Eleanor: Thank you. Last question, for all three of you: What are the ways through which an organization that is white dominant can shift? In answer you might give examples of organizations you respect. Perhaps they did shift from being white dominant, or perhaps they were set up in a way that was not white dominant to begin with. You could also talk about initiatives you are directly involved with, or anything else that fits the question!

Tara: I can speak to a little bit of what is happening in IMCW. We are really in early stages, but I that Rev. angel put it so clearly that it is a developmental process, and there has to be a certain amount of self awareness and awakeness for it to work, for us to meet together and deepen into true belonging.

What this means right now is that we have a white awareness group that is meeting for a year that is really drilling down on that inquiry of, “What is it that I’m not seeing?” Not individual conditioning so much as, “What is my identity within the collective?” … and all the thoughts, reactivity, associations that I am not aware of, that are actually informing and creating separation. So we are doing that inquiry, and Eleanor’s leading it, and it is a very powerful process to be a part of.

The last piece I’ll mention is that we had a slow response, as a Buddhist collective, to the growing … what was happening in the media, whether it was Baltimore or Ferguson … and that really was horrifying to a group of us that were beginning to sense that “this is ‘us’ – this isn’t ‘them’. This is our world – our community.” And so, what that led to was the beginnings of a statement from white teachers to the white community, beginning to name this waking up. Beginning to name the maturity that’s happening, and that we pray will happen more.

I want to just read you a little bit of this letter, signed by many senior white teachers of the different traditions, including Zen and Theravada and Tibetan.

“Right now we believe there is an immediacy and urgency in focusing our attentions and efforts on the pervasive and ongoing violence done to people of color in our country. We are inspired by the courage and leadership of the people of Ferguson and many other communities in recent months in drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Enough’, and ‘Black Lives Matter’, and calling for deep-rooted changes in our economic and justice systems.

We see the timeliness of adding our voice to theirs, and we know that it will take a dedicated focus to recognize how our own hidden biases and assumptions make us participants in a society that is depriving our peers of their basic rights to justice, opportunity and human dignity.

We are inspired by and honor the Buddhist teachers of color who have worked for many years for diversity and inclusion in our teaching communities, often in the face of a lack of willingness, interest or understanding among white teachers and practitioners. We acknowledge the lack of inclusivity in our communities and the many ways in which they mirror the broader society in patterns of exclusion, inequity, unseen bias and privilege. For the harm this has caused to people of color in our communities—we feel a deep sorrow and regret.

Our aspiration is to transform our sanghas into truly welcoming, diverse and beloved communities. In this process we are committed to honestly and bravely uncovering the ways we create separation and unintentionally replicate patterns of inequality, inequity and harm. We are committed to being active allies with our siblings of color; standing in solidarity both in our local communities and more broadly, in support of undoing racism throughout our society.”

Rev. angel: My own awakening around my racism, both internalized and externalized, was through the Dharma. I am not a person who was politicized elsewhere and then said, “Oh, let me map this Dharma thing onto it.” I got it from the Dharma, because I took seriously the inquiry, “What is this thing that I ‘shamelessly refer to as me?’”

In the examination of “me-ness”, this construct of “me”, I think that what can happen is that white America can begin to recognize that we have this another me-ness, and it’s this social me-ness. Literally this socially constructed ego, written into law.

No one here actually came from some place called “white”. You came from a real place, and have a heritage and a background … We have allowed a paradigm that was required to move the economy in a particular way and to privilege a particular people to take over our understanding of who we are and to cut ourselves off from love.

This often strikes me as such an enormous opportunity for healing for white America,  to allow itself to drop into this experience of what has happened … not to the people of color – it’s clear that that needs to be examined and seen – but what has happened to you? What have you lost.

[Applause]

What have you cut yourself off from? How are you participating in holding each other in these binds that allow this to unfold? Because this construct is not you, and these ways of separation are not who you are. It requires you to suspend your belief in this social ego for just long enough to be willing to see yourself as who you really are.

[Applause]

In a practical sense, one of the questions that makes my (short) hair stand on end is, “We just don’t know what to do!” I have gotten together with some folks to start an … organization a stretch; a body called “The Mandala Project: widening the circle of sangha for all”. The intention is to be very proactive in getting in the hands of all American Buddhist communities basic information and best practices around how to relate to a wide variety of peoples that have been traditionally, historically marginalized. To help be a conduit for people who need to drop into awareness around how to relate to trans-gender folks, LGBT folks, Western-born Asians (to not exotify them and assume that they know everything about Buddhism, because they’re Asian, and be weird with them … [laughter] …), all of these things … the Mandala Project [is designed to address].

An organization that I love and appreciate, that I sit on the board of, is called “Forest Ethics”. They are navigating these important issues of our time: climate change and structural racism; and they understand that they are linked. Inextricably linked. And so they are taking these two things on by doing training’s, getting everyone involved understanding that they have to bring people up into a level of maturity … which doesn’t mean that we can’t make mistakes, by the way.

Part of the white paradigm is also perfection and control, having to have everything together. You are not going to have everything together so get over that – ! Right? Get over that, too. And bring your heart to it. Your love for yourself and your deep desire for liberation for yourself first. And then the liberation of others comes through.

Femi: I made the mistake going last this time – no more needs to be said!

A couple things – the commitment to practice is so central to what we are speaking about right here. I don’t see how this can move forward in any real way without practitioners – yogi’s, yogini’s, the people in this audience, the people on this stage – thoroughly committed to their personal practice, growth, and evolution.

I find that working in this way, doing this heart-work, can become very dry and brittle if it’s not fueled from love and compassion. I can get exhausted very easily with this work. Get frustrated, don’t want to touch it. That is what I see in my well-meaning, whole-hearted, and burnt-out white friends., who don’t want to do this work anymore. Who are essential to this process changing.

When we recognize that what we are really asking of ourselves, and each other, is the path of the Boddhissatva – that is, the person who is committed to their own awakening and through that awakening, growth, and self-love, coming back and offering the fruits of the practice to those around them – then I think Buddhism becomes an essential tool, not just going to sit on our cushions once a week … This isn’t finishing school for middle class America!

[Laughter and applause]

This is an opportunity to grow and have our hearts changed by this practice.

In Minnesota, our meditation center is Common Ground. From the top down there is just a buy-in, at this point, to doing this work. We have our inclusivity sangha, we have our diversity sangha (which is different than our inclusivity sangha), we have our POC sangha – because, as Tara touched on earlier, sometimes you to caucus. So the POC sangha is just people of color; we sit, and we caucus. The white allies-white privilege sangha, they get together and caucus there. Then we get together in our inclusivity and diversity sanghas, and we build relationships like that.

We also eat in one another’s homes. That is one thing that is really powerful for me: once a quarter, we get together – about 10 of us, a diverse group that includes leadership; we rotate whose home we eat at – and we break bread with one another, and we build sangha and community like that. That’s woven in. It makes the challenging stuff that comes up, errant words every now and then … we have the mosaic of friendship to know that this silly comment is not the whole of who that individual is.

If this work isn’t done in relationship, or in community, then what happens is, somebody says something that is inappropriate and they become defined by that. This person is now “a racist” because they said a racist thing. And what I’m suggesting is that there is no person defined by any one action, especially not in community.


“Beloved Community” Program at BuddhaFest, 2015 – Full 2 hour video

  • Tara’s talk, “Trance of the Unreal Other”, begins at 0:00:40 (0 hours, o minutes, 40 seconds)
  • Meditation upon selected readings from “Making the Invisible Visible” at 0:38:02
  • Panel discussion begins at 0:45:00
  • George Mumford addresses the audience at 1:37:15
  • Q&A with audience at 1:42:11

Speaker Bios:

Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei is an author, spiritual teacher, master trainer and founder of Center for Transformative Change. She has been bridging the worlds of personal transformation and justice since the publication of her critically-acclaimed book, “Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace”.

Tara Brach, Ph.D., is is nationally known for her skill in weaving western psychological wisdom with a range of meditative practices. She has practiced and taught meditation for over 35 years, with an emphasis on Vipassana, or Insight, meditation. Tara is the senior teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington.

Femi Akinnagbe is an active member of the Common Ground Meditation Center in Minneapolis, MN where he helps facilitate the men’s group and sits on the Inclusivity Advisory Council and the People of Color sangha steering committee.

Eleanor Hancock is the director of White Awake, an educational project that helps white people develop their racial awareness through mindful inquiry and community practice. At the time of this program she was co-facilitating a year long white affinity process with IMCW teachers, staff, and board members.

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