Making the Invisible Visible – selected readings for “Beloved Community” at BuddhaFest, 2015

In the spirit of MLK’s vision of “beloved community”, this special, 2 hour BuddhaFest program focused on how the maha sangha can make Western Buddhist communities more inclusive. Tara Brach opened the program with a short talk that was 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. 

These readings were shared in a meditation format, following Tara’s talk, as preparation for the panel discussion. To view the “Beloved Community” – BuddhaFest, 2015 post, including an abbreviated transcript of the panel discussion and unedited video of the full program, go here.

Moderator: 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.

– Bell –

“A friend of mine recently went to his first all-day session of meditation practice at a dharma centre on the East Coast. He was supposed to meet his buddy–long-time dharma practitioner–at the door before sitting the day together. Unfortunately on this particular day the friend was sick and needed to cancel. So my friend entered the centre alone. He was nervous, as most of us were when we first started out. While standing in line to enter, he noticed that the woman doing registration smiled at each participant ahead of him and checked their name off on a list. However when his turn came, she looked at him and asked him his name three times and whether he was sure he was in the right place–even though he was on the pre-registered list. My friend felt unwelcome and left–hurt, angry, and disappointed.

When my friend walked in the door of that dharma centre, and had the interaction I described
above, he and the white woman registrar were not only acting as individuals. They were each acting as representatives of larger groups. This interaction happened between a representative of an institution that had been perceived as a place of refuge and a person coming for refuge who was perceived as a potentially threatening black man. The message given was that refuge is offered for some, but not for everyone.”

– Bell –

“I have not ‘practiced’ Buddhism for very long; that is to say, in the ‘American Buddhism’ definition. I have wanted to for a long time.

I remember talking about meditation with a friend in college in 1983 but the only meditators we saw in North Dakota were White ones. When I moved to San Francisco four years ago, I lived down the street from a Zen center but once again, I was daunted because of its Whiteness. … as a person of color, joining a mostly White group is always daunting, especially as meditation encourages one to touch and learn to expose one’s essential self.

On top of that, as a Vietnamese American, learning from White people teachings that I knew in
my bones as having roots in my childhood in Vietnam, was hard to work through. Though there
are strong Vietnamese Buddhist communities and many temples within the Bay Area, because I
have lost my native Vietnamese language, due to well-learned acculturation, I cannot attend these temples. This is ironic to me.”

– Bell –

“For Black folks, joining a predominantly White convert Buddhist sangha entails an immigration–a cultural border crossing into a land that is unsupportive of Black individuals and communities. These convert sanghas are also thoroughly disconnected from the public concerns that members of Black communities cannot help but bring with them, given the position of African Americans in the American racial hierarchy.

My hope is that we will not view increasing diversity as a simple matter of assimilating African Americans and other people of color into existing centers as they are. Rather, I hope that we will seek ways to make the Dharma available to African American communities in an appropriate cultural and social idiom.”

– Bell –

“In one metta retreat, teachers ignored my written request for help around being only one of three people of color in a room of ninety. In an extended retreat, a teacher would not read aloud my question about diversity during a Q&A session. I was told in one interview that “This is not the place to process this issue. That is why there are diversity committees and people of color retreats.”

My personal experience is that most caucasian teachers will ignore the issues, focus the attention back onto my practice and my response and my attachment to ego/identity, or ask me to drop my baggage at the door, and just talk about my practice. I have experienced all these situations and know that all of these strategies can deepen practice, and in fact all of these have deepened my practice. But I also know in my body and my heart that there are other ways to address hindrances and to present the Dharma.”

– Bell –

Making the Invisible Visible is a compilation of stories, thoughts, resources, and articles that are meant to be a glimpse into the personal experiences of some Buddhist practitioners of color and their allies. This booklet, comprised of multiple voices from a wide range of cultural and ethnic origins, was offered to the “Buddhist Teachers in the West” conference from June 20- 24, 2000, as a part of a larger process of shining the light of awareness on the difficulties encountered by people of color as they try to participate in Western Buddhist Sanghas.

You can link to the booklet on Spirit Rock’s website, here, or go directly to the full PDF online, here.

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