The Maturation of a White Ally

White people on an anti-racist path need allies of color who can support our journey – people who will talk to us honestly, tell us like it is, while also encouraging us and believing in us. Mushim Ikeda is one of these people. As an American of Japanese descent growing up in rural Ohio, the threads of oppression, assimilation, and resistance are intertwined in Mushim’s life history. A Buddhist teacher, writer, and multicultural community activist, Mushim is widely known for her down-to-earth, humorous, and penetrating approach to Dharma and social transformation.

In this piece, created explicitly for White Awake, Mushim points out that while our anti-racist intentions might feel good, how we relate to our privileged status is where the rubber meets the road. It’s risky, yet rewarding, this commitment to true racial equity, and collective liberation.


Speaking as a person of color, I want to thank you for your intention to become a white ally to people of color.*

And, if you’re at the beginning of your ally journey, there’s something you need to know, right off the bat, if you haven’t already given it a lot of thought. Beyond feeling good about being anti-racist, you’re going to need to face your fear of losing your protected status as a white person.

In other words, it’s unlikely that you can have your cake and eat it too. Unexamined white privilege, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy are in the air that we breathe in the U.S., in the soil beneath us. Once you begin to side with the causes of people of color, it is possible that you may find yourself, at times, feeling alone. Other white people may regard you with suspicion because you side with people of color. People of color may regard you with suspicion because you are white.

And that’s one of many reasons why you’re going to need other white allies, so that you feel supported.

Many white people of good intentions feel personally attacked and deeply injured when terms such as “white supremacy” and “racism” are used by people of color and their white allies. They might prefer that softer words such as “discrimination” or “prejudice” are used, referring to the individual acts of individual persons. This is sometimes called the “Kumbaya” form of white allyship. In this approach to anti-racism work, it is thought that to combat personal ignorance and prejudice, people of different races and ethnicities can get to know one another better. We can share some meals, perhaps potlucks with foods from our varied ethnic backgrounds, gather in sharing circles, and sing spiritual songs of humanity’s unity. We might celebrate holidays from around the world together. These activities, if not accompanied by rigorous structural analysis and discussions of the inequitable distribution of power and wealth, are sometimes called the “Food & Festivals approach” to diversity work.

As a white ally, it’s also possible that you may feel unseen, at times, in the ways that you have suffered from oppression. It seems as though many white people don’t understand the term “white privilege” because they don’t yet understand that it refers to the unearned access and privilege that comes with their whiteness, and doesn’t mean that they haven’t struggled or experienced lack of unearned privilege in other dimensions of their lives and being. A white person may have struggled very hard in their life because of childhood abuse or because their parents were poor and couldn’t afford dental care for the kids. Everyone, without exception, has their own suffering. A mature white ally knows where to go for support, so that they don’t burden people of color with either their guilt that they benefit from white privilege, or their hurt feelings resulting from being rejected by people of color or from feeling not seen in their wholeness.

I treasure the mature white allies I have, because I know they have my back. And to do that, they have to be ready to speak up, to act, and to give up their protected status as white people. Allan G. Johnson, writing about “the great collective [white] silence” and how systems of privilege work in the book Privilege, Power, and Difference, says:

“Human beings are highly dependent on one another for standards of what – and who —is okay and who isn’t…. What counts isn’t just what they do, but even more what they don’t do.”

Johnson says he imagines “a scene in which a gang of white men are beating a person of color in broad daylight on a city street.” His book was published in 2006, and, ten years later, in 2016, we see how little has changed in the U.S. In the scenario, the white onlookers feel no ill will to the person of color being beaten, and they aren’t cheering on the attackers. They’re “minding their own business.” And then, he writes, “one of the men [attackers] stops, looks up, and says, his eyes panning across our faces, ‘We appreciate your support. We couldn’t do this without you.’”

“This is how racism and other forms of privilege really work day in and day out,” Johnson says, in conclusion. “It results from what is called ‘passive oppression,’ which can be defined as making it possible for oppression to happen simply by doing nothing to stop it.”

Anyone in a dominant culture risks a lot when they stop being part of passive oppression. Beyond their feelings being hurt by possible rejection, a white person who is part of an invited group of all-white presenters at a conference risks losing income and networking opportunities if they say, “There’s something really wrong here and I demand that we address it.” And that’s only one example, out of thousands and maybe millions of possible scenarios.

We need white allies who are well trained and mature, in my opinion. We need as many as possible. People of color and folks of mixed heritage in the U.S. have lots of our own work to do in the service of liberation. I’m writing this in May of 2016, subsequent to the Occupy movement, and during the current era of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the Movement for Black Lives. These are ongoing life-and-death struggles. And all of this raises the questions: What are you willing to do and say? What are you willing to give up?

These are meant to be open questions, and they deserve to be asked with deep compassion. They point toward a journey that requires courage, conviction, support, and an unwavering commitment to learning. And my hope is that it is also a joyful journey, a journey of spiritual deepening and opening and renewal. Because when we move from spiritual contemplation into the wisest action accessible to us in the moment, we can know for a fact that our lives are happier when we stop making it possible for oppression to happen, and if we mess up, which is inevitable at times, that this gives us the opportunity to learn and to grow. I have heard many white people who self-identify as liberal and progressive in their political views say they discover in anti-racism work that they need to give up their protective self-image as “the good, non-racist white person” who is down with the cause, and who considers themself to be completely separated from “racist white people.”

As Eleanor Hancock (co-founder and director of White Awake) says, “We can shift from feeling the fear of losing our protected and privileged status to the knowledge that this potential loss is inseparable from the potential for collective liberation – a much, much greater gain.”


rsz_1mushim_blm*Note: I understand that the term “white ally to people of color” is a contested term. Some people like it and find it useful; others do not. In discussions of race and dismantling racism and white supremacy in the United States, there is a constant evolution of preferred terms. My understanding and use of the term “white ally” in this context is that a white ally is a person with white-skin or white-person-identified unearned privilege who engages in anti-racism work while practicing principles of cultural humility. (Regarding the term “cultural humility” as defined by Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia, search for “cultural humility Vivian Chávez” on YouTube.)


Mushim Patricia Ikeda is a Buddhist teacher, writer, and multicultural community activist. She has taught residential meditation retreats for people of color, social justice activists, and women, and she is the guiding teacher of the East Bay Meditation Center’s “Practice in Transformative Action” yearlong program. Mushim is the recipient of the 2014 Gil Lopez peacemaker award from the Association for Dispute Resolution of Northern California. In September, 2015, Mushim was awarded an honorary doctor of sacred theology degree from the Starr King School for the Ministry.

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Does Enlightenment Matter When Police Are Shooting Black People?

Many people seek enlightenment or peace or nirvana as the goal of their spiritual practice. But how can there be peace when other people are suffering? Colin Beavan wrote this article about using practice to help understand how to respond in the face of institutional racism for the Kwan Um School of Zen newsletter Primary Point. The article’s original version (“When World Sound Equals Police Shooting Black Men”) can be found here.

Upaya Occupy Oakland Colin Post

Photo: Upaya

A Big Question
There is a teaching in the Kwan Um School of Zen in which I am a dharma teacher: We practice so that our minds become clear. Without our thoughts and judgments to muddy our minds, we can see clearly where the world needs our help and how to help it. Once your mind becomes clear, you become one with your situation and react with spontaneous compassion. So we say: When a hungry man comes, you can just give him food. When a thirsty woman comes, you can just give her something to drink.

This is a very simple and wonderful teaching, one that I like because it reminds me that my spiritual practice is not just for me but also for everyone else. But still, I have some very big questions about my relationship with the world. Even if I understand about feeding hungry people when they appear, what do I do when other, more complicated world problems appear?

For example, what do I do when I see so many videos on the news of black person after black person being shot and beaten by white police officers? What do I do when I am reminded further that people of color are getting the shortest end of the stick, not just when it comes to police violence but in every area from education to employment to home ownership? What do I do when I see that the more layers I peel back, the more complex the issues of racism are? What on Earth, as a white practitioner of Zen, am I supposed to do, then, when it is nowhere near as simple as giving food to a nearby hungry man or water to a nearby thirsty woman? What do I do when the problem seems so big and totally beyond my control?

“Perceive World Sound”
Kwan Um, the name of my Zen school, means “perceive sound.” Zen Master Seung Sahn, our founder, said that “perceiving world sound means perceiving that many, many people are suffering.” The Zen master insisted that the bone of our school’s teaching is not just attaining Buddha’s truth but attaining the correct function of that truth. Or to put it another way, not just knowing what Buddha knew but doing what he did—helping people. After all, when you live in the world, what is the actual point of enlightenment besides helping others?

Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “Only attaining truth [enlightenment] is ‘monk Buddhism.’ Keep your hair cut and go to the mountains, practice your whole life. Correct function is not necessary because you have no wife, no children and no connection to society.” He also said: “Lay practice [practicing in the world] is not like a monk’s job—it is how to help other people. First your family, then your friends, then your country and all beings: helping them is your obligation.”

For my part, if I am honest, then I must admit that sometimes, when I am practicing meditation, helping the world is not my first idea. Sometimes I want peace—“nirvana.” I want something for myself. Thinking appears that tells me “maybe my practice will help me feel less upset about the world.” Or “maybe I will learn to accept things I have no control over.” Sometimes, I even want escape from the confusion that comes with not knowing what to do in the face of big world problems like systemic racism. But these thoughts are part of the Zen sickness we sometimes call attachment to emptiness or attachment to peace. Attachment to peace is still a kind of clinging that prevents me from functioning correctly in the world—how can I help?

The great news is that “How can I help?”—the bodhisattva vow—is not something that we impose on ourselves. It is not a promise that we make on the outside of ourselves about how we will be on the inside. Because the vow is already at the core of ourselves. Our practice is just to liberate the vow. Clinging to peace is what is on the outside. Attachment to stillness is the actual imposition—because it is the desire for something that does not exist. The bodhisattva vow—to function in relation to things as they actually are—is our true nature. It is the sunlight that is revealed when the clouds of I-my-me desires for peace and heaven finally part.

It is this light that helps me understand that my confusion in the face of big societal problems is itself truth. My confusion and despair do not need to be pushed away. In fact, they cannot be pushed away. A better practice is to embrace truth. Embrace things as they are. Embrace confusion. Then the question becomes: What is my relationship to that truth? What can I do with my confusion?

Helping Is Both Possible and Necessary
Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote, “If you can hear the sound of suffering then helping is both possible and necessary.” This teaching is very helpful to me. It gives me faith in my confusion. It tells me that the fact that I feel confused about what I can do about the systemic racism I witness means that somehow I can help with it. Not knowing what to do is itself the seed that will eventually grow—if I nourish it—into knowing what to do.

Once, in relation to another problem, I asked one of our school’s very senior teachers, “What do I do about being confused?”

He said, “Get unconfused.”

So in my confusion about the racism I have been witnessing, one of my first steps is to get unconfused. I have begun by asking questions, having conversations. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “When a primary cause meets a condition, you get a result. If you want to change the result, you must change the primary cause.”

So what is the primary cause that results in people of color getting shot by police, put in jail far too often and not having the same access to opportunities that white people like me are more likely to have? I have heard many people say that the problem, when it comes to police violence against people of color, is individual racist police officers. Certain bad eggs in our society. But instead of using such a simple idea to help me escape from confusion, what happens if I keep not knowing? Keep asking why?

Eventually, what I have begun to learn from people who know much more than I do is that the problems— from police violence to unequal access to opportunity—are caused not just by bad people but by a bad “system.” The problems are not caused just by prejudiced people but by a “system” that is itself racist. There are many reasons for the racism of our “system” of federal, state and local governments, religious organizations, corporations and other institutions. Part of it is the inheritance of history. Part of it is because societal “systems” tend to automatically favor the largest groups. Part of it is because many prejudiced people have power in the systems.

So how can I assist in changing these primary causes? Where in this complicated system, metaphorically speaking, is the hungry man or the thirsty woman that appears before me whom I can help? I have learned that I have some influence in the “mainstream,” through my membership in the institutions that add together to make up the system. Each of us can reduce some of the primary causes of systemic racism to work toward a different result by using what influence we have.

Here are some examples. They are not the only methods but they are some that I have used:

  • We can join anti-racist organizations where we can help and learn: I have found that the fastest way to get involved with issues I care about is to join in with others who are already working on them. That way I can learn and channel my efforts effectively.
    We can each lovingly explain to people how systemic racism works and how we need to work to change the system. In my case, right now I am using my small amount of influence by writing this article.
  • We can each learn to tolerate and promote the tolerance of difference. For example, I recently read about a company where black workers tended to sit around and chat before getting to work. White workers got straight to the task and thought the black workers were lazy. Black workers thought the white workers were cold. But it turned out that the black socializing reduced worktime conflict and therefore increased productivity. Blacks and whites got the same amount of work done.
  • We can support institutions run by people of color. Rather than just making white organizations more inclusive, each of us can support non-white owned and run organizations with our money and memberships.
  • We can remember to hire and encourage our employers to hire outside our personal networks. When we only hire friends and social connections, we end up denying employment opportunities to people who are not like us, as well as losing the opportunity to acquire their new skills and talents. If you don’t own a business or have a say in who your employer hires, you can explore methods of building collective power at your workplace and across your industry. Be intentional about incorporating racial justice in your demands, and actively include and listen to workers of color.

Is this everything we can do? Will this fix everything? Will it even fix anything? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Who knows? Be willing to stay confused. If you make a mistake or you are not as effective as you would like to be in your first attempt, then you can fix it in your next. Our practice is not to constantly check the potential results of our actions—that can paralyze us—but to keep strongly to our vow in this moment and then the next moment and then the next. Fall down seven times, get up eight.

How may I help? How may I help? If you are holding your vow with all your strength when you die to this moment, you will be reborn in the next moment with a situation that improves your ability to help. Trust that if you can hear the sound of suffering in this moment, then helping will be both possible and necessary in the next.


Colin Beavan is an activist, speaker, and writer who focuses on helping people live a meaningful and fulfilling life while contributing to the well-being of our communities and the planet. The author of No Impact Man, and founder of the No Impact Project, Colin is well known for his family’s yearlong experiment to lead a zero net-impact existence in the middle of New York City. His new book, How to Be Alive, offers practical guidance to those seeking more meaning and joy in life even as they engage in addressing our various world crises.

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Grieving the White Void

In this piece, activist and blogger Abe Lateiner turns the lens of race inward, grappling with the emotional and spiritual effects of growing up white (and affluent, heterosexual, cis-gendered male) in a white supremacist society. Even though he was born into a family of progressives, Abe didn’t fully understand the reality of systemic racism until he was grown. This awakening has led to questions such as: How can I continue to live in the world, knowing that my mere presence is destructive? What is the absence of humanity inside of me created by Whiteness? What would it mean to fully grieve that absence? 

The product of this inquiry is the realization that: “We need to help ourselves. We need to heal ourselves.” This article is the first two sections of a much longer piece that was originally posted on Medium here


Abe as a child

Photo courtesy Abe Lateiner

“I stood to my feet in the midst of the cosmos. I discovered that all were intoxicated and none were thirsty. At the moment you are inebriated, but free from the effects of wine, you too may turn and stand.”

 — Yeshua, Saying 28, Coptic Gospel of Thomas

 

 


I am heir to the great American tradition of East coast White liberal ideology. I was raised to believe that Republicans were the problem to which Democrats were the solution, and that change in America happens at the ballot box. My political education happened around the dinner table, where we would talk politics, history, and literature and rail against the societal problems that conservative ideology reinforced.

I learned that although our American system was malfunctioning, it was a fundamentally righteous and free system, and the job of Americans of conscience was to fix it. Looking back, I had no lived experience to tell me differently. After all, my experience with the systems that came together to shape my life did seem to be working just fine for me as a White, upper-class, heterosexual male.

And yet, I had the nagging sense that something was fundamentally wrong with this system. I sensed it in the anger inside me and other White children, especially those who were working class and poor. I sensed it in a friend’s casual use of the N-word as an exclamation of general frustration at a situation that had nothing to do with race. I sensed it in my own inexplicable resentment of the Black students who sat together in the cafeteria, creating a space in which I perceived that I was not welcome.

I had no language for what I was experiencing, only shame. I was a conscious, left-leaning, intelligent, and compassionate White person. How could I allow the casual racism going on around me to continue unchecked? How could I, too, be host to that parasitic racism?

In 1990, Professor Janet E. Helms presented an illuminating model of White racial identity development. According to Helms’ framework, after White people discover that race really does matter and that its effects directly contradict narratives of equality and freedom that are deeply ingrained in White American culture, many of us go through what’s called the “reintegration” phase:

At this point the desire to be accepted by one’s own racial group, in which the overt or covert belief in White superiority is so prevalent, may lead to a reshaping of the person’s belief system to be more congruent with an acceptance of racism. The guilt and anxiety may be redirected in the form of fear and anger directed toward people of color who are now blamed as the source of discomfort.

I think that our gravitation to the reintegration phase makes sense. The denial of racism helps us to erase the contradiction between the White racial brutality that is all around us and our deeply-held belief that we are fundamentally good White people.

Denial is a feature found in another facet of the human psychological experience: grief. When I compare the famous Kubler-Ross model of grieving to the stages of White racial identity development, it appears that these two processes, while overly generalized and linear, resonate with one another, and generally match my own life experiences.

The parallel between these two processes has been highlighted in passing by anti-racist educator Jane Elliott, who proposes that White people who confront racism are forced to grieve the loss of power that comes with ending racism. I believe that Elliott is right, but here I would like to explore a different, more profound kind of grief — the grief of a person who was not allowed to develop into a full human being.

Grief is usually thought of as a product of losing something or someone. But what happens if parts of myself were tied off at the stump with the fine threads of White culture, never allowed to develop in the first place?

What is the absence of humanity inside of me created by Whiteness?

And what would it mean to fully grieve that absence?


The story of my experience growing up White in White supremacist culture is mine alone. I live at the intersection of many different privileged identities, including Whiteness. What follows is not an attempt to describe the experience of all White people, but only my own. I only hope that this articulation of my truth will inspire other White people to tell theirs.

White supremacy has always protected me and benefited me materially while simultaneously killing me on the inside by crushing my spirit, my intellect, and my social self. This internal death is invisible. It’s especially easy to miss in a materialistic society that gives lip-service to holistic well-being, yet typically worships material abundance over everything else.

In my life, the primary effect of Whiteness (and other supremacist mindsets) has been separation, the construction of walls between all sorts of aspects of my life, from the micro to the macro levels. As a European-American child in a mostly-White community, I was raised with walls between my heart and my head, and walls between myself and other people, particularly those whom I did not see as “White.”

It took a great deal of work for me, as a White American, to finally accept the reality of racism as real and ever-present. I stayed in denial for many years as a liberal White American, trying to cope with my complicity in the vast story of White supremacist violence. I was able to break through that denial thanks to the cumulative teachings of hundreds of individuals, writers, speakers, artists, friends, and students who, consciously or unconsciously, chose a risky investment in me through sharing their truths.

But before I began to break free from denial, I spent years trying to bargain my way out of Whiteness. I sought out opportunities to “help” people of other cultures. I felt that they needed my White help, while I needed their non-White culture. I believed that somehow, if I helped “poor” people of color, I could be invited to embrace their culture, which, I could sense, offered a chance to fill the void at the center of my Whiteness.

I took African dance classes. I learned to play the Chinese fiddle. I taught children of color, most of whom were living in some degree of financial poverty. I thought that through this bargaining I could be saved, but in reality, I was desperately flailing to fill the yawning White void.

Despite all of my well-intentioned work, I was far from understanding what White supremacy had done and was still doing to me. I thought it was a problem for people of color. I thought that “they” were the ones who needed support in coping with reality. My inability to see my own stake in ending White supremacy fooled me into working to address racism as though it were a moral dilemma, an optional experiment on behalf of unfortunate, downtrodden people of color.

But now I know that race was invented to justify turning the world on its head. As European settlers committed atrocity after atrocity against Native American and African people, they needed ways to justify their terrorism. The illusion of separation based on skin color and facial features set the stage for the grand lie of race, which enabled Europeans to sustain the blatant contradiction of ongoing genocide and enslavement in the name of freedom and progress.

Today, race continues to operate by flipping the world upside down. Because White people stole two continents and two hundred years of the backbreaking labor of millions, race reassures us that Blackness is related to thievery. Because White men have raped Black and Brown women with impunity for more than 400 years, race comforts us with the lie that it’s Black masculinity that is defined by hypersexual predation. Because White people penned Black people in the “ghetto” through the practice of redlining, race tells us that that “ghetto” is an indictment of Black pathology.

And while race tells me that racism is a problem for people of color, it turns out the origin of racism is within White families and communities. People of color weren’t the ones who created Whiteness or violated my spirit with it. That was my own people who did that…and I do it right back to them.

In perhaps the most violent world-flipping performance of Whiteness, even our tears, which should be inherently sacred as expressions of our inherent humanity, are defiled. The tears of White people under the influence of Whiteness become weapons of mass destruction, offering a thick blanket of justification to nearly any act of racial violence in which a White “victim” can conjur the image of a fearful, threatening brown-skinned person in the minds of our fellow White people. These metaphorical tears can turn Mike Brown into a “demon” and can justify the murder of 12 year old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun in the park.

This is how race turns the world upside down. And now it is our White work to turn our world rightside up again.

At first, this realization felt like the greatest burden — it felt like I was Cyclops of Marvel’s X-men, or the medusa, bearing a gaze powerful enough to destroy everything in its path. How could I continue to live in the world, knowing that my mere presence was destructive? I wished to return to ignorance, back to the time when I wasn’t aware of how much harm my existence caused.

But with the support of the teachings of my peers and those who came before me, I came to realize that this knowledge is not a burden, but instead the greatest of gifts — the gift of work that is mine to do, which is what I’ve been looking for my whole life. Like many well-intentioned progressive White Americans, I spent so much time and energy trying to figure out just what my work in the world was — where could I go to do The Most Good? Africa? Haiti? The “inner city?”

It turns out that my “Most Good” is right here within me, and in the White relationships and communities that are closest to me. We need to help ourselves. We need to heal ourselves. I am all I need, and there is nowhere I need to go.


Abe Lateiner is an organizer of White people for racial justice with Community Change, Inc. and of wealthy people for wealth redistribution with Resource Generation. Inspired by the movement ecology work of groups like Movement Netlab, Abe works to create alternative communities in which people with privilege fight for their own freedom by working to undo systems of privilege that benefit them in material and superficial ways. Abe lives with his partner and two children in Cambridge, MA and documents his journey towards collective liberation at www.risksomething.org.

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Black Lives Matter – A Reflection

In December of 2014, Insight Dharma Teacher Ruth King offered this reflection to her local community, and her online audience. She has since repeated the reflection in talks, retreats, and workshops. We hope you will allow her to take you on this journey as well, for the benefit of all.

Unarmed Black Lives Lost

Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police, 1999-2014

This Wednesday, I offered a dharma talk at Insight Meditation Community of Charlotte. After a 30-minute sit, we have a ritual where everyone says their name with a spacious breath. This ritual gives us a sense of connecting and belonging. As everyone finished, I offered a few names of people who are no longer with us:

Rumain Brisbon, 34, Phoenix, AZ – December 2, 2014
Tamir Rice, 12, Cleveland, OH – November 22, 2014
Akai Gurley, 28, Brooklyn, NY – November 20, 2014
Kajieme Powell, 25, St Louis, MO – August 19, 2014
Ezell Ford, 25, Los Angeles, CA – August 12, 2014
Dante Parker, 36, San Bernardino, CA – August 12, 2014
Michael Brown, 18, Ferguson, MO – August 8, 2014
John Crawford III, 22, Beavercreek, OH – August 5, 2014
Tyree Woodson, 38, Baltimore, MD – August 2, 2014
Eric Garner, 43, New York, NY, July 17, 2014
Jonathan Ferrell, 24 – Bradfield Farms, NC – September 14, 2013

I said to the group that these are just a few of the names of unarmed African American men, women, and teenagers killed by policemen over the past few months, and I’m Ruth King, their Mother.

Needless to say, it was a heartfelt evening, and it was just two years ago when I spoke about Trayvon Martin and the Epidemic of Violence. Some of you may have been touched directly by these killings, and my heart goes out to you. To join hearts, I invite all of you who are reading this to take a few moments and look at the faces on this collage. One person would have been too many. Click the image and read a short paragraph on what happened. When you are ready, reflect on these questions to feel into this pervasive suffering in black life:

  • Imagine stepping into the skin of the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, or families of one of these men, boys, and women. What does that feel like?
  • How might you feel if your mother, father, sister, brother, son, or daughter’s picture was included in the above collage? See them there as you look at that constellation.
  • How would you feel if there was no indictment for the observable killing of your loved one?
  • What might you feel if you were the mother or father, son or daughter of the police who did the killing?
  • What are you feeling in your heart, body, and mind as you sit with this contemplation? Are you on fire? Numb? Sad? Indifferent?
  • What action feels urgent? How clear are you about what to do?
  • How would you feel if you had done everything humanly possible to no avail? What would you do then?

Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.

This tender time calls for wise collective action grounded in a deep recognition of our kinship and karma. The Buddha’s teachings specialize in liberation from suffering and encourages us to take precepts — ethical codes of conduct that support harmony, self constraint, and safety in our kinship to each other. The five precepts common to laypeople are:

Abstaining from taking life
Abstaining from taking what is not offered
Abstaining from sexual misconduct
Abstaining from false or hateful speech
Abstaining from intoxicants that fog the mind and lead to carelessness

I have found that when I am not mindful of these precepts, I rob myself of the clarity and energy needed to meet the suffering of our times. While this list may not be your list, what I have found in my mindfulness practice is that it is essential to have a list as it supports self-accountability and guides action that safeguard our own hearts and our collective healing.

Courage is key in kinship and karma. Just as it is necessary to blow the whistle on Uncle Jim who is sexually abusing your sister or brother, knowing it will upset the family but in the end it is the right thing to do for all, we must also point out the violators — which may include ourselves — and transform the mental and social constructions that systemically and generationally kill and oppress human life and nature, and put a stop to it. Ideally we cultivate our heart mind so that we can do this with as much kindness and wisdom as possible, but it must be done.

We begin by being willing to look, feel, care, and act as if our life depended on our actions, because it does.


Ruth King, MA, is an international Insight meditation teacher and leadership coach. She is a guiding teacher at Insight Meditation Community of Washington, an affiliate teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and founder of the Mindful Members Practice Community in Charlotte, NC. She is the author of “Embracing the Mad Mind”, “Mindful Approaches to Cultural Competency”, “Healing Rage”, and the Mindful of Race Training Program. This post was first published on Ruth’s website, here, and is used with permission.

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Opening the Heart: We are not separate

The practice of mindfulness—bringing a conscious, non-judging awareness to our own present experience—is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings of liberation. In this talk (given at a daylong IMCW retreat, co-taught with Ruth King), Insight Meditation teacher Hugh Byrne invites us to expand our practice of loving-kindness and radical acceptance beyond the personal. Byrne’s focus on racism breaks through what is often a taboo subject in majority white settings, and insists that we include social suffering as something firmly within the realm of our spiritual practice. The invitation is to look, with an open, unflinching heart, at our capacity to create, endure, overcome, and transform suffering. This article is an adaptation of the original talk; audio link follows the text.


Part One: Opening to Everything
Part Two: Causes and Conditions, the Weight of History, and the Path of the Bodhisattva
Bio, and link to full audio of talk


Part One: Opening to Everything

Earlier this morning, I read a poem from Rumi that I want to pick up again here. These are the last lines of the poem:

“The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from Beyond.”

The great Thai teacher Ajahn Chah put it like this: “Let go a little, and you will experience a little freedom. Let go a lot, and you’ll experience a lot of freedom. Let go completely and you’ll experience complete freedom and peace in your life. Your struggle with the world will be at and end.” I like that last line: “Your struggle with the world will be at an end.” It all points to the complete letting go that the Buddha talked about, which is enlightenment, which is awakening, which is freedom from suffering. There is no longer any basis for being hooked anymore. The work has been done. And that was the Buddha’s experience and the place from which he taught.

So the invitation really is to open to everything, to leave no stone unturned. And when we do this, when we do let go, what naturally happens is the separation between ourselves and others breaks down. It kind of falls away. Because the illusion, when we are clinging, is that there is separation. There is me and you, and there is a fundamental difference. If you get what you want, I won’t get what I want. When we are in that unwholesome, unskillful relationship, the illusion of separation limits us. But when that falls away what naturally arises is connection, non-separation. In a broad sense, you might call it love, this friendliness, this connection with others and all beings.

I believe that this training, what we are doing here, really is a training of the heart and the mind. It is a practice of paying attention, as Ruth talked about earlier today, to the habitual tendencies of the mind that get us into trouble, and to see that we can let go. We can abandon what is unskillful and cultivate the good. We are cultivating wholesome states of mind that support connection, love, and awakening.

I think that this training has enormous potential to help heal the world. The world around us really is on fire. There is so much suffering. How many wars are going on around the world? How many people are living in abject poverty while a a handful of people have more wealth than whole nations? What is going on? What we are doing to our planet, to our home, through the way we are using resources and the lack of awareness, the lack of mindfulness, in terms of how we are living on the earth?

It is so natural for us when something is painful to want to shut it off and not go there. And yet if we are going to heal our own hearts and help in the healing of the world, we really have to open to the suffering. We have to find our way into our own suffering and the suffering around us. We have to find a kind and loving way of being with the suffering, and transforming it. I’m not talking about being “saviors”. I’m just talking about bringing the wisdom and compassion of these teachings into contact with the suffering of the world.

So I’m going to talk about one specific area of suffering. It is one that I and other members of our community have looked at a lot more closely in this last year or so, and I think it is a crucial form of suffering for us to pay attention to. I do not intend to imply that other forms of suffering are in any way less important, but I want to bring into the room, in an explicit way, the suffering of race in our country today.

I want to acknowledge that just bringing this up brings up difficult feelings. It can bring up all sorts of ways in which “I don’t want to go there” arises. And yet it offers potential for healing our own hearts and also for healing the suffering in our society and in our culture more broadly.

Ruth, this morning, spoke about some of the killings that have taken place in the past few years in our country. I want to begin to focus on race by mentioning some of these names and situations, and invite you to pay attention, with great kindness, to whatever arises for you while I share.

I want to go back a couple of years and recall the death of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager in Florida, who was killed by a neighborhood watch guy, a white man, who felt fearful and responded in this way. Recall the suffering that came out of this shooting for the family, for the community, for the whole society. Then about a year ago, another African American teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer. His body was left out, bleeding on the street, for four hours while the community looked on. There are different interpretations about Brown’s killing, but one thing that came out very clearly in the department of justice’s report is that the whole judicial system in that area was organized like a mafia, like a racket. You arrest people, you fine them $100. When they can’t pay, you double the fine. An African American woman there had a fine of $100 that went up to $5000; she spent time in prison. If you had heard that this was happening in Alabama in 1954, it might have been more believable, but this was Missouri, in 2015.

That same year in Staten Island, New York, Eric Garner, an African American man, was selling loose cigarettes, and killed by police, choked to death while a crowd looked on. We all remember his last words: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And also in 2014, 12 year old Tamir Rice, African American, was in the park playing with a toy gun when he was fatally shot by Cincinnati police who fired, without warning, seconds after arriving on the scene. Right here in Baltimore, Freddie Grey was seemingly given a rough ride in what we call the Paddy Wagon, the wagons where you are taken off to the jail. He died soon afterwards. Walter Scott, an African American man in North Carolina, was shot 8 times in the back as he fled the police.

The question arises, kind of implicit, is this just happening now? Has this been going on unnoticed? We can watch where our minds go with that.

More recently Sandra Bland was arrested, thrown to the ground, for basically a traffic stop. She died by hanging while she was in custody, three days after her arrest. A black woman, in this case, a white officer. And finally, just in the last few days, Sam Dubose, in Cincinnati, shot by a white University of Cincinnati police officer when he was stopped for a minor traffic violation. The officer is now being charged with murder.

I put all of this out to say that something is happening. I am not trying to say: “You should think this” or “You should think that.” I put this out in the spirit of inquiry and awareness and kindness. When faced with situations around us, we are called on to respond.

There were a number of studies published in the Washington Post and other places this year about the mortgage crisis in Prince George’s County. Some of the information coming out about this is really disturbing. A woman of color is 2 ½ times more likely to get a sub-prime mortgage than a white male. This is a mortgage with high interest rates, and terms that require much greater payments and much greater risk of foreclosure.

Something is terribly wrong. Let’s just put it that way, without pointing any fingers. Something is terribly wrong and one of the things that white people have the freedom to do, that people of color don’t have, is to put it out of our sight. We are not faced with the consequences of this on a day-to-day level. We can say, “That is really bad”, and then we can look away.

There was a woman at Wellesley College, back 25 years ago – Peggy McIntosh – who spoke about white people having an invisible knapsack of privileges. She named 50 ways in which she was privileged in comparison with African American colleagues or friends. She could go into a store and not be followed around. If she was stopped by the police, she could presume that she wasn’t being stopped because of her race. She could look at TV programs, and read newspapers, and be sure that people she’d see would represent her race. McIntosh gave 50 of these examples.

The question that comes to me is. how do we bring mindfulness to areas of our life where we have the freedom not even to let them into our awareness? That is why this is such a challenging area, particularly for white people. I myself wasn’t born in this country – I came here from the UK in my mid-twenties and I had the ability to take advantage of many, many freedoms that were available in this society, even though I had just moved here. By virtue of being white, there were things I could take for granted. I never even questioned this until quite recently. And yet there are people whose forbearers have been for generations who don’t have the same freedom.

So speaking to white people, white practitioners, how do we bring awareness to areas of our life where there is an inherent lack of awareness? Because when we are born into privilege, born into white skin in a white dominated society, this privilege is invisible. How do we actually see the privileges that we have? How do we bring them into awareness? I believe that we really need to make an effort. We really need to make a commitment to do that because people of color don’t have those freedoms. And we need to make the effort, because this is part of our own freedom, as well. This is part of the practice.

Part Two: Causes and Conditions, the Weight of History, and the Path of the Bodhisattva

One of the things we’ve been doing in our community over the last year, as white board members, teachers, and staff of IMCW, is to bring awareness to the privileges we have and the things we are not aware of because of our position in society. The question for us is how we can be a force for healing in our community and in the wider society.

One of the things that I’ve learned, and I think had the freedom and maybe the privilege not to know until I really paid attention, was how much the weight of history affects the current moment. It is very, very easy not to be aware of the weight of history. One of the things I was unaware of, until recently, was the importance of slavery to the accumulation of white wealth. In the years preceding the Civil War, cotton accounted for 59% of US exports. In seven cotton states, 1/3 of white income came from slavery. There was a culture of all white southerners owning slaves, and slaves were the single largest financial asset of property in the entire American economy. In 1860, just before the Civil War, slaves were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.

This history of 250 years of slavery was followed, in the South, by Jim Crow laws, where African American’s were disenfranchised, excluded and marginalized. One of the ways in which Black people were kept in their place was through lynchings. There were almost 4000 lynchings between 1877 and 1950. This is being called “racial terror lynchings.”

Something else I was unaware of, was the way in which the New Deal – the legislation under Roosevelt in the 30’s – was unevenly applied by race. I always thought of this legislation as very progressive, and very recently I had no idea that African Americans were largely excluded from the benefits of the New Deal. Under the New Deal, old age insurance and unemployment insurance excluded farm workers and domestic workers. So in 1935 when FDR signed the Social Security Act, 65% of African Americans nationally, and 70-80% in the South, were ineligible for these benefits. We think of that, I think of that, as very progressive legislation, and yet into it was what I think of as Affirmative Action for white people. Affirmative Action for white people has been going on for centuries.

Between 1930 and 1960 home-ownership in the US rose from 30 to 60%. The G.I. Bill, one of the last of the New Deal reforms, excluded African Americans from the benefits of home-ownership, and this exclusion was reinforced for years by FHA redlining policies. As one writer put it, “locked out of the greatest, mass-based opportunity for wealth accumulation in US history, African Americans who desired and were able to afford home-ownership found themselves consigned to central city communities where their investments were affected by the self-fulfilling prophecies of the FHA appraisers”. The FHA is the Federal Housing Administration.

In Buddhism we talk about causes and conditions. Everything comes out of causes and conditions. If we look at history, we look at slavery, we look at the Jim Crow era, we even look at the New Deal, and the decades of redlining that followed, there is a built in exclusion that carries over from generation to generation, from decade to decade. Everything we are experiencing now is a product of that history – and what I have touched on today is a small slice of these causes and conditions.

There is a whole weight of history that we are living in and with. And I say again as white people, it is very, very easy to close our eyes and have the privilege of looking away. What these teachings and these practices invite us to do, I’m saying here now for white people, is to open to the pain.

So ask yourself, “What is it that I’m feeling right now?” And for different ones of us, it is different. African Americans and other people of color may feel pessimism, that “things are never going to change.” Maybe there is anger, maybe there is rage. For white people there may be a sense of turning away, shutting down or shutting off, and the freedom to do that. How do we hold these difficulties, these painful realities in our hearts? How do we become a source of healing, a force for healing rather than for perpetuating suffering? Because the cycle has to end. As Buddhist practitioners and teachers, this is our practice, this is our belief: the cycle can always end right here, right now, with me.

In his book The Wise Heart, Jack Kornfield describes three qualities of the Bodhisattva, or spiritual warrior. The first step is acknowledging and accepting the truth of the situation – taking refuge in reality and the truth. Right now we might have different language for what I shared with you, and I’m not trying to put forward a particular point of view, but there is a truth here that we have the possibility of opening to, of recognizing, saying, “Yes, this is true. This is really painful, and it is true. Can I open my heart to this?”

That is the first quality of the Bodhisattva, to acknowledge and accept the truth of the situation. The second is to work to find peace within ourselves by engaging in a training of practices to let go of painful and afflictive states and develop positive ones. This is what we have talked about today, of abandoning the unskillful and cultivating the good.These are the practices that we are engaged in to find peace within our selves, to stay open to what is painful and difficult an,d to let that transform our hearts, to let that be a place of awakening for us.

The third quality of the Bodhisattva is to envision actions and a path of freedom for themselves, for their community, and for the world. As Jack says, envisioning has enormous power. With our vision and imagination we can help create the future. Envisioning sets our direction, marshals our resources, makes the unmanifest possible. If we look at the situation of racial justice, and the painful situation for our country right now, we might ask: “What does this call on me, and us, to do? What is it that I, and we, are able to do? How is it that our hearts call us to respond?”

It’s important that this response not come from a place of “should,” but from a sense of connecting with the suffering and asking ourselves, “What can I do? What can I do to be a force for healing and for ending suffering?”

So the invitation is like sending Metta to a difficult person: to train our hearts to be open, to take in what is hard to take in, and to see where we are shutting down. This is not to say that we don’t ever take a step back to breathe and rebuild our resilience. When we are able to take a break, this can be a very wise response, but we only pull away in order to replenish ourselves so that we can step back in and say, “There is suffering, there is suffering all around us. How do I respond? How do we respond?” and then we make that response. I think there is nothing that has a greater potential for healing than the practices that we are doing today. That is, the practice of training ourselves in awareness, of learning that we can be in the fire, we can take the heat, we can cultivate a heart that can hold the most painful experiences.

As the Buddha said, “You can do this. If you couldn’t do this I wouldn’t ask you to do this.” I love the way he says that, or the way it has come down to us. I don’t think he was speaking English (laughter).

We can do this – we can transform our hearts, we can work to heal our world. How do we do this? We do it together. It is not something we do on our own. We wake up together. We work together. We support each other in our waking up, in our healing, and in the healing of our world.


Hugh Byrne, Ph. D. is a senior teacher with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, where he has been on the Board of Directors and a member of the Teachers Council since 2003. Abandoning habits that cause suffering and cultivating those that bring greater ease and happiness are a current teaching focus and the subject of his recently completed book, The Here-and-Now Habit: How Mindfulness Can Help You Break Unhealthy Habits Once and For All (New Harbinger Publications, March 2016).

If you would like to listen to the full audio recording of Hugh’s “Opening the Heart” talk, you can do so here.

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“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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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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“Beloved Community” – talk by Tara Brach

Martin Luther King’s term, “Beloved Community,” points to our potential for living together with love, justice and respect. This talk is an expansion of Tara Brach‘s opening contribution to the “Beloved Community” program at BuddhaFest, 2015 (the corresponding article and link to video of the BuddhaFest program, including panel discussion with Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei, Femi Akinnagbe, Tara Brach and Eleanor Hancock, can be found here).

In this teaching, Tara explores the often hidden expressions of racism that fuel separation and violence, and pathways toward healing and freeing our collective hearts. This article is an adaptation of the original talk; link to audio at bottom of text.

Beloved Community Trayvon circle for Site

Photo: Lukas Maverick Greyson / Shutterstock.com


Part One: The Delusion of Separateness, and the Violation of “Other”
Part Two: The Current of White Privilege, and the Ghost of Racist Past
Part Three: Freeing Ourselves from the Prison of Separation
Part Four: Closing Meditation
Bio, and link to full audio of talk


Part One: The Delusion of Separateness, and the Violation of “Other”

So Sunday, at Buddha fest, the program we had was called “Beloved Community.” This is a phrase that Martin Luther King made popular. What it speaks to, for me, is the aspiration that we wake up from that which separates us and, in particular, that we wake up from the suffering of racism and live together in a way that’s truly respectful, loving, and equitable. The conference organizer set the stage by introducing those of us who would be the panel, and then, as he began to describe the topic, you could hear Siri’s voice saying very loudly, “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.” It was such an amazing way to start the program! I think you can understand why. This is how it is for us, when we begin to explore how we create separation, and we get a glimpse of it, a glimmer of how we create distance with each other and in our world, and then we turn away. We don’t quite get it. We don’t stay. We go back to our old habits and automatic identifications … we don’t quite catch it!

One way I understand beloved community is as our evolutionary potential. If we look at brain development over the eons, we see that the most recently emerged part of our brain, the frontal cortex, has this deep capacity, this whole neuro-net, for empathy, compassion, and what we might describe as an inclusive heart – that’s our potential.

Inclusive, loving community is an intrinsic part of the spiritual path: the vision, the aspiration, and the movement towards it. It was so for Martin Luther King, and it is part of the Buddhist tradition as well. In Buddhism beloved community is called “sangha.” Sangha means that we truly get our relatedness. We live from that place of deep respect and appreciation, this being-ness that shines through each of us. In the Buddhist teachings, there is no freedom possible unless we really get that interdependence and we really live with the sense of true belonging. It’s not like you can go off into a cave and get very very still and have these wild experiences and realizations if you don’t have that sense of being with others and sensing that these beings are part of my web of belonging.

I often refer to a verse from Rumi, which really says that our path isn’t to seek for love, but to seek and find the barriers that we’ve erected against it. This is a very deep theme in spiritual life, that the loving and the awareness are already here. We have conditioning that stops us from inhabiting it, and that’s what we’re going to look at together tonight. What is that conditioning. And we’re going to look not only at individual conditioning, but what it is in our collective psyches that stops us from really feeling beloved community. And I’d like to, in this class, shine a particular lens on the separation we create through racism. For me, this inquiry is deeply personal, immediate, and alive. It’s not something about which I can say, “Oh, yeah I looked at that and worked through that one.” It’s very alive for me. And I’m very aware of the depth of the challenge.

I’d like to start broadly, looking at how the sense of separation is created generally, and then narrow the focus. The broadest way to start is the existential sense of separation that every living organism has. Every living organism has some perception of “in here is self” and “out there is universe”, and integral to survival is the need to protect and further the self. Einstein calls it an “optical illusion of separateness.” Most of you are familiar with that, the way he describes it. It’s very useful, and it’s universal. It’s not like it’s a mistake – all creatures have this sense.

Einstein describes this sense of separation as a prison because the primal mood of the separate self is fear. To the degree that you feel separate, there is fear. There’s also craving, the flip side of fear. I often describe this state as a trance: the sense of self in here, and other out there. In this trance we are organized around defending and getting. That which is outside of “self” is viewed as what I call the “unreal other.” You can’t see the reality of another person when you’re feeling separate. You can’t sense the subjectiveness of the sentience of who’s really there. So what happens, when another is unreal to us, is that the more stressed we are, the more the unreal the “other” becomes. And the more that another is unreal, the more we can violate them.

So this is the broadest sense in which we can discuss the experience of separate self. We can also look at separateness in terms of human evolution. Up until about ten thousand years ago, humans ran around in small bands, maybe 8-15 people. It was life or death to recognize who was your “in-group” and who was the “other.” We lived in these little bands that were surviving by having in group and out group for much longer than we’ve been in more current forms of community. This evolutionary pattern makes a deep impression on our psyches. There’s an in-group and an out-group and we are trained to look for these differences.

When we move from this deep evolutionary history to more modern history, and look at the last several hundred years, we can see this in-group, out-group view at work. These last several hundred year have been dominated by European colonization. From the Eurocentric world view, white is “in” and everyone else is “out” – you have a white centered world for the dominant group. And the white, Eurocentric worldview has been marked by a growing individualism within the ego.

Carl Jung describes a very interesting dialogue he had in 1924 with an American Indian chief. The chief was describing to white men. “Their eyes have a staring expression,” he said. “They’re always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something. They’re always uneasy and restless. We don’t know what they want. We don’t understand them. We think they’re mad.” Jung asked why the chief thought white men were mad and his response was: “They say they think with their heads.” Jung was surprised and asked, “Well, what do you think with?” And the chief’s response was, “We think here” – and he pointed to his heart.

This conversation had a profound effect on Jung. You can see it in his writings. The truth is that when we think with our heads, and we’re not connected to our hearts, we’re dominated by fear, by a sense of separateness, the need to posses, violate, and dominate. It’s not until we evolve to use these good minds, but have them informed by our hearts, that we can have access to relatedness and beloved community.

This chief was pointing to a Western, white mentality that is a collective identity. There is a certain madness in it, which is the way he put it. A certain tendency to violate and dominate, and how else can we understand, first of all, the violation of planet earth? How could it have happened if we were connected to our hearts? But more to the theme of tonight, how else can we understand racism, and the history of European colonialism? I want to talk about what this madness translated into in the United States. How, in just a few hundred years, we decimated the indigenous people of this continent, we kidnapped and enslaved people from another continent, and we created an ongoing system of oppression of these people on the basis of a distinction of skin color. All in just a few hundred years. That’s that madness. That’s that collective psyche that thinks that in some way, white is the “in-group” and anything can be done to the “other.”

Part Two: The Current of White Privilege, and the Ghost of Racist Past

What happens when you have 200 years of this kind of violence and oppression, where white people are dominating? What happens to the psyche? This represents trauma. Most of us understand the individual effects of trauma. We even get it generationally, that if someone has been traumatized, that’s gonna effect other generations. If we look at it in terms of what happens, the experience of being perpetrators and the experience of being dominated or oppressed, we can see how this continues over generations and effects everybody involved.

One of the things I’ve noticed, when the subject of racism comes up, is how white people (especially liberal white people) will say, “Oh yeah this is an important thing,” but the sense is that it doesn’t really involve me, or my life, or my spiritual path. And yet, you can’t be in a field of humans where there’s been trauma and not be involved. We’re all involved. Slavery in it’s formal expression, doesn’t exist, but there’s new versions now, and there have been new versions over time; we can see it in education, access to resources, access to jobs. There are twice as many blacks than whites who are unemployed. Twice as many. And we can see what is happening in terms of mass incarceration.

But the legacy of racism does not only effect access to resources in our society. It effects our psyche, and our very deep sense of identity. What that means is, if you’re the one who doesn’t have access, there’s a sense of inferiority, disempowerment, and threat. But what happens if you’re the one who has access? Here something interesting takes place: the identity gets more unconscious. There is an unconscious sense of privilege and superiority and of deserving and of taking what’s do. If you’re white, you might be in a group of people and describe people who are not white as, “yeah that’s an African American” or “that’s an Asian person.” But if you’re describing a white person, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s a white person.” Because it’s given that white is how it is, and everything else is different. Toni Morrison writes: “In this country, American mean white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Isn’t that true?

Living in a white dominate context, we get these constant messages. As white people, we experience our centrality in history text books and media advertising, in our teachers, role models, hero, heroines, everyday discourse about “good neighborhoods” and “good schools”, who’s in them and who’s not. We watch popular TV shows centered around friendship circles that are all white, and we are exposed to religious iconography that depicts God, Adam and Eve, and other key figures as white. What happens? If you’re white, you don’t really notice it, but if you’re not white you do.

This has all become really personal for me. Within about the last 8 years I’ve been on a very humbling, and amazing, spiritual journey. I’ve been sort of “peeling the onion” on all this, and becoming more and more aware of my own conditioning and lens, as a white person in America.

After beginning to watch my own assumptions for some time, I was on a trip with my husband one summer, and we were going for a swim. Our goal was to get to this island that was a little ways out. It was the first swim of the season for me, and I was a little nervous about how well my body would do. But I was amazed, when I got into the water, at how I got into this rhythm and I was really moving. I felt strong, athletic, balanced and good. I got to the island, took a little rest, then started back … and oh my god, I was winded and off balance! I didn’t feel strong or athletic anymore! And suddenly I realized that, on the way out to the island, I had been going with the current! But I didn’t know it. That, to me, was an incredible moment of realizing: “Oh, that’s white privilege – that’s white dominance!” The current supports you. You don’t notice how many doors open in this life for you. A deep part of it, in terms of the current, is the feeling of fitting in, the feeling of being part of the culture that’s on top. And it isn’t just in society out there, it plays out in spiritual communities every bit as much.

I wanted to share with you a blog post that a man wrote after coming to this class for the first time about four years ago. This is written by and African American man and he called it The Color of the Buddha Heart:

When I arrived, I was a little early, so I sat down at the end of the second row and began to read a book I had purchased awaiting for the meditation. The building slowly filled to capacity and it seemed that by the time the meditation had began, every seat in the house was filled except one – the one next to me. I became a little set off by this until the ghost of racist past sat down next to me. He said, “Empty seats are devoured in this hall, so why am I sitting next to you?”

His rap filled my mind with anger and frustration. I ignored and tried to focus on the meditation. I couldn’t. He said, “Why am I the only person to sit next to you? Do they think you’d rob them?”

“No, that’s absurd,” I replied. “I don’t think they felt that way.”

The ghost responded, “Well maybe you have an awful smell?”

“No I’m clean.”

“You look intimidating?”

“I don’t believe a 41 year old black man in dress pants and a button down creates fear and intimidation.”

“Is it because you’re new?”

“I don’t know.”

This situation bothered me for the rest of the evening to the point that I didn’t and couldn’t follow the rest of the dharma talk. I remember the teacher announcing that volunteers were needed with the tea and snack table. It was my intention to help out, but I thought to myself:

“They don’t want a black man to help.”

So right after the service was over, the ghost of racist past escorted me out.

So that was here, about four years ago. The unusual and beautiful end of the story is that he and I became friends, and he is now serving on IMCW’s board. So he didn’t go away. But that’s not what would usually happen. And I can understand why it wouldn’t. It’s painful to know that for all our best intentions, we’re missing an awareness of what it really means to carry a certain identity and how to be sensitive to the impact of that.

Tamir in Chalk SURJ DC for Site

SURJ – DC Chapter, 2015

Part Three: Freeing Ourselves from the Prison of Separation

I want to spend the rest of the time with the inquiry, “Okay, so what heals us? What helps to awaken us to that space of beloved community?” Because I’ve been watching how the dharma, the teaching, the ways of paying attention, will do it. They will do it. The more we pay attention, the more we’re gonna really want to feel what iss creating separation, and we’ll start examining it, but it needs to, at some point, become very intentional. So we’re examining it because we really want to learn and understand. Because we really want to get the landscape of what actually has happened in this country and what’s actually shaping our own identity. “What is it that I’m not seeing?” That’s been my biggest question. What is it that I’m not seeing?

At a personal level, up until about 8 or 9 years ago, if you had asked me, I would have said that I was pretty conscious about race. And I would have assumed that the Buddhist sanghas were welcoming to everyone. My father was an attorney who did a lot of civil rights law, and he had a very racially mixed group of friends, which was very unusual at that time, but that’s just the way I grew up. When I was in grammar school, I was one out of five white kids in an all African American school, so I had an unusual experience there as well. I’ve also lived a number of seasons of my life being an outsider, including wearing garb for ten years, where anyone who looked at me saw me as different. So because of those things, I just assumed that I was somewhat awake to this stuff, but I got the rug pulled out from under me, and it happened because of certain friendships that got really deep with a handful of people of color in the D.C. Area. These friends started letting me know what life was life beyond my bubble. Really letting me know.

One of them was one friend in a diversity focused sangha, an African American women, who described driving around with her father when she was growing up. Periodically, he’d be pulled over by the police for nothing, just because he was a black man, because that’s what happened. And she described how painful it was to see the humiliation he experienced at her watching it happen. It hit me what that was like, to have his dignity was taken away, he felt, in her eyes, and the profound impact of that. If that had happened to my father, if I had watched him be humiliated like this, it would shaken my world as a young person.

Another experience like this happened in this room, where a friend of mine from the same diversity community came to the class here. I was talking about raising our children, mirroring their goodness and giving them a sense of confidence in themselves, the unlimited capacity that they have to really make it and be all they can be in the world. My friend raised her hand and said, “I’ll tell you, I want to give my son fear. I want him to be afraid, because I am scared to death, every time he leaves the house, that he’s going to get either arrested or killed.” And she had a right to be afraid. She didn’t want her son being cocky or oblivious to the risks he faced as a young, African American male – she’d rather him be scared and alive. Again, this started making a dent in my white “space suit.” I basically assumed that doors would open for my son. That he’d go into the world and have opportunities and if he trusted who he was, he could take advantage of those opportunities. That was just an assumption. And I realized tat that assumption was white privilege.

When we don’t pay attention, others are still unreal others. We have to get close in to feel that the trouble “others” are having isn’t “out there” in the world, separate from me. It is “in here”, and it wants my attention. Shortly after Ferguson, I went into Washington where there was a vigil of grieving mothers. Did anyone here go to that? This was a group of about 15 grieving mothers. These were women whose sons had been killed by the police. They were from all over the country, and they got together and traveled around, telling their stories. One of them told us how her son got shot the day before her birthday. He had been planning her party. Another described that after her son was shot, he said to the police, “I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Why did you shoot me?” One woman’s son was about to get married, and another was shot yards from a hospital but the police refused to take him to an emergency room. These mothers were telling stories that broke my heart and would break the heart of anybody here who would get close enough to listen. And we have to let our hearts be broken, or else we’re gonna stay in a very insulated identity, because as a white person you can live for decades and not get exposed to this reality; not care enough to be part of the healing. We have to pay attention.

The truth is, I’m actually hopeful. Part of me wants to cry, and part of me wants to say to you I’m hopeful right now. I’m hopeful about beloved community. For those who are listening and who are from this country, the United States, there’s a very particular history we have. The legacy of slavery and genocide is very particular, and the ways in which white people occupy a place of privilege and dominance, which we’re blind to, is also very particular. It takes effort to get to know what happened and to get to know our part in it. It’s not about making anybody wrong. In fact, one of the things I find inspiring about the very beautiful movements that have been emerging, especially among the front-line communities who make up Black Lives Matter, is that one of the main teachings is love. For the folks fighting against oppression, self love is a central force, and that’s true for all of us. We’ve gotta love ourselves and each other through this. It’s really true, that if white people are gonna have the courage and honesty to look at where we’re blind, or holding onto dominance and not even knowing it, or enjoying our privilege, we have to be incredibly forgiving because it’s not a personal. We are not personally bad. It’s just collective conditioning. It’s not our faults, and yet we can be responsible. We can respond.

So we have to learn about the particulars, the realness of what’s emerged, and we need to engage with others. In Washington D.C. we have affinity communities, including groups for people of color where it’s safe enough to really begin to process the effects of racism. We have white affinity groups as well – right now I am part of a year long white awareness group. We need to be in situations that are safe enough to speak what’s true and examine the identities that have collected, and we need to be with each other in mixed racial situations as we get a little more mature and able to speak from wisdom. We need to be able to name where the hurts are; be able to name our sorrows and fears; not to be afraid of anger. So often in Buddhist communities, anger is described as bad and there’s not room for anger, when anger is part of the weather systems that are moving through. We have gotta make room for these emotions, and there are wise ways to do that.

So we’ve got to be with each other, engaged with each other. White people need to be in solidarity, in helpfulness, aligning ourselves with those who have been suffering from white dominance. We need to get on their team. Not in order to help out “the other,” but because it frees us; it frees us all.

Last month I was part of a teaching team for a historic retreat in the Buddhist community, because we had a very mixed race teaching team and body of participants. On opening night, when I looked out on the group of people that had gathered and 45% of the people in the group were people of color, I started to cry. The realness of it. Because everything in me went, “This is the community I want to belong to!” This richness of being together, not being in little bubbles. To be in our togetherness with a shared intention to wake up.

Earlier I shared from Einstein, who writes about this optical illusion of consciousness that keeps us separate, and he ends that quote by saying: “Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures in the whole of nature in it’s beauty.” Beloved community. Let’s practice together, and take a few moments to give ourselves that gift of deepening attention.

Part Four: Closing Meditation

From the starting place of deepening attention, notice what is going on inside you right now. See if it’s possible to recognize whatever you’re feeling right now, and allow it to be as it is. Just allow it to be as it is.

If we want to wake up from limiting identities that separate us, we have two tools. One is to notice what’s happening: notice what’s happening in our own bodies and minds, notice what’s happening in the collective. And the other tool is to regard that with deep compassion – no blame, just compassion.

So we begin right now in our own individual body and heart: What is happening? What’s the feeling tone in the body, and the heart? If you’d like you can put your hand on your heart and just offer a very kind presence with however it is. If in listening tonight you’ve had reactivity of any sort – feelings of anger or hurt, confusion or overwhelm, aversion … just agree to let those weather systems move through. It’s okay. It’s part of it.

We’ve been talking about collective identity … You might now widen your attention to sense whatever your identity of race is – as a person of color, or as a white person – just notice what the attitude, beliefs, or assumptions might be. Just notice and hold with kindness – if you have felt oppressed. If you have felt treated unjustly. Let that be there, as part of this collective identity. And if you’ve been in the dominant culture, just notice, what is the “space suit” identity that comes with that? Holding with honesty and curiosity and kindness.

You might notice if there have been assumptions of superiority or inferiority, in terms of skin color. Just have the inquiry here.

You might bring to mind one particular situation with a person of difference from you where you feel separation, and where you are aware of it. Just look honestly at whatever assumptions or biases are at work. Maybe you feel the bias that you are inferior, or you are looked down upon, you are pushed out. Or it may be one, in some way, of feeling superior, in charge. Just take one example in your life, of your experience with a person of difference. Again, let yourself be aware – with honesty – seeing if it can be not so personal, more just sensing, “Okay, so this is a space-suit identity, a collective identity, that has this kind of built in conditioning.”

Honest, and accepting.

I wonder if you can look at that person, that person of difference who seems unreal, see the possibility of looking more deeply at who that person really is, whoever you have in mind, whether that person is one who is dominant, who is oppressing, or whether that person is someone you are feeling superior to. Just look more closely. See if you can see into that person’s humanity and goodness.

These closing words come from Nelson Mandela. He writes:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, or their background, or their religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when our comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Human goodness is a flame that can be hidden, but never extinguished.”

As we close may we feel that longing of our hearts for beloved community, and may we feel our potential to wake up from that which separates and to hold hands with the depth of love, and the depth of respect, in which we find our freedom together.

Namaste, and thank you for your attention.

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.

If you would like to listen to the full audio recording of Tara’s “Beloved Community” talk, you can do so here.

click here to return to Community Voices table of contents

Action and Practice: Memorial for Tamir Rice

“We need you defecting from White supremacy and changing the narrative of White supremacy by breaking White silence.”
– Alicia Garza, co-founder Black Lives Matter

White Awake’s goal is to support white people in educating ourselves, engaging in spiritual practice and community ritual to walk down the path of inner transformation. However, education and soul work, on their own, are not enough. Transformation requires reflection and action. As Unitarian Universalist Rev. Rebecca Parker wrote in her seminal essay, “Not Somewhere Else, But Here”:

Racial injustice is perpetuated by the passive absence of whites who are numbly disengaged with the social realities of our time. Conversely, racial injustice will fail to thrive as more and more of us show up as present and engaged citizens.

adrienne maree brown, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, puts it this way:

“White supremacy is an overwhelming crisis for humanity, one that is making it impossible for any human to evolve in right relationship with the planet and the species. It has not, and will not, be resolved merely by Black and other non-white people fighting for a change – it must be unlearned, relinquished by those who walk with the privileges of whiteness.”

To put it simply, racism is not going away on it’s own. There is no way for us to abandon white supremacy without deep introspection, as this social construct is intimately bound up with our very sense of self. However, reflection is hollow without action, and transformation only occurs when action and introspection are in balance.

wide year without tamir sidewalk chalkIn order to step into action, we need support. One place to receive this support is the rapidly growing organization: Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. White Awake is proud to say we are a SURJ affiliate organization. We encourage you to sign up for their national mailings, participate in basebuilding and action conference calls, and access their site to look for local chapters in your area (SURJ boasts 100 local chapters, and counting). If there is no local chapter near you, consider starting your own! SURJ offers a Chapter Building Toolkit on their site, and can connect you with other local leadership; we are learning together. White Awake can help you organize your educational practice; SURJ can support you in taking action.

We offer you this story from a local chapter of SURJ (in Washington, DC) that integrated action with reflection and ritual as part of a public awareness campaign on November 22, 2015, National Day of Action for Tamir Rice. Given the failure of indictment of the officers involved in Tamir’s shooting, 13 months after his death, it is all the more important to keep Tamir’s story alive in public conversation. Black Lives Matter organizers are currently meeting in Cleveland, to plan their response, and Color of Change is launching a campaign to move prosecutors like Timothy J. McGinty out of office. What will be our response?


SURJ DC - Tamir Memorial

SURJ DC – Tamir Memorial

#YearWithoutTamir – Washington, DC local chapter of SURJ – Canvassing and Memorial

The afternoon was unusually cold, but still over 12 folks came out to form small groups of two or three who would fan out through the Clevelend Park neighborhood in Washington, DC’s affluent Northwest quadrant, to knock on doors and start conversations about Tamir Rice. Drawing on the resource kit made available on SURJ national’s website (here), these small pairs and groups of “regular, white folk” signed people up for the local SURJ mailing list, promoted Black Lives Matter yard signs, and reminded neighbors that this day was the one year anniversary of Tamir Rice’s death. Here’s a little piece of the script that the folks used while canvasing:

Notes: Be personal and curious about what the other person thinks/believes. Ask questions! Remember that “Why?” and “Tell me more about that…” are good follow ups.

STEP 1: START! (Approach the door and knock loudly, step back.)

Hi, my name is ____________ and I’m with Showing Up for Racial Justice. We’re out today talking about the Movement for Black Lives and the anniversary of Tamir Rice’s death. Have you heard of Tamir Rice?  (Wait for their response.)

Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old boy, who was shot and killed by police one year ago today in Cleveland. He was shot within 2 seconds of the police arriving on the scene.
It makes me (sad/angry/??) that this happens in any community, let alone to a child.

STEP 2: HAVE A CONVERSATION

In the past 18 months, there has been an outcry across the country about the police brutality, racial profiling, and discrimination that black people experience. I’m out here today because …(Say why doing anti-racism work is important to you – personal/authentic.)  

How about you? What has been your reaction to stories like Tamir’s?

Are there people in your life who are impacted by racism?

SURJ DC Canvasing for Site

SURJ DC Chapter, 2015

How do you try to work against racism? Why is that important to you?

STEP 3 …

After a couple of hours knocking on doors, and initiating conversations, the groups reconvened in a local library to warm up, then headed down to the nearby metro station – in a bustling, business area of the neighborhood – where they would conduct a simple, public memorial for Tamir.

SURJ organizers had prepared posters, and a script, for the small crowd that convened in a semi circle on either side of the altar (pictured in photo at the top of this post). The script was divided into paragraphs that could be read by different people. After reading their paragraph, each person laid a stem of flowers near the base of the street-side memorial. When the story was complete, the group maintained a moment of silence, and then individuals were invited to share from their hearts. After spending some time sharing, about Tamir, about the canvassing, about the desire for real justice and an equitable society, the group closed with a simple dedication of the merits.

Below is the story of Tamir Rice’s last day. As you read it, contemplate within your own heart: What is arising? What do you long for? How are you called to respond?


Tamir Rice was 12 years old when he was shot and killed, one year ago today, by the Cleveland police.

His mother says that he was incredibly sweet and bright, and had a wonderful imagination. His friends say that when it came time for Tamir to pick his super powers for their games in the park, Tamir always wanted the power of super strength to stop “the bad guys.” At 12-years-old he still watched Curious George. It was his favorite cartoon.

**

On November 22, 2014, Tamir was playing in the park outside his family’s home. Seen on a local security camera entertaining himself, alone, Tamir makes snowballs, walks around, and plays with a pellet gun.

Concerned, a man calls 911 to report Tamir. The call itself was very thorough and reported that Tamir appeared to be a young kid and that the gun he was flashing was probably fake. Tragically, these facts were left out when the police dispatch operator radioed the call into local officers.

**

Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback responded to the call. In less than 2 seconds after arriving on the scene, and with no verbal warning, Loehmann shot Tamir in the abdomen at point blank range. For over four minutes, the two officers stand beside the boy, offering no medical assistance, while he bleeds out into the snow. Tamir only received medical attention when a nearby FBI agent came upon the scene. The agent said that when he attended to Tamir, the boy responded to his voice:

“He turned over and acknowledged and looked at me, and he reached for my hand.”

**

Tamir’s 14 year old sister, Tajai, was inside the park’s recreation center when she heard the gunshots and learned what happened. The surveillance footage shows Tajai running towards her brother’s side, but as she neared Tamir, Officer Garmback forced her to the ground, handcuffed her, and placed her in the back of the police car, less than 10 feet from her dying brother.

**

Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, learned of the shooting moments after it happened and went out to the park. She says:

“I noticed my son laying down on the ground, and I went charging and yelling and everything at the police because they wouldn’t let me through.

Then I saw my daughter in the back of the police car as I was trying to get through to my son. The police told me to calm down or they would put me in the back of the police car”

**

Nearly 10 minutes after the incident, emergency responders arrive and take Tamir to the hospital. His mother was not allowed to accompany her son in the back, but required to sit in the front of the ambulence truck as though she was a passenger. Tamir died overnight. The medical examiner’s report that ruled the boy’s death a homicide.

The grand jury investigation has dragged out for one entire year, and still no decision has been made about whether or not Officer Loehmann will be prosecuted for any crime.

**

We know that Tamir’s case is not isolated, but is part of a larger pattern in which police kill, on average, one black person per day. Over 30% of the victims police kill are unarmed, many of them going about their daily business – shopping, driving, and, in Tamir’s case, playing in the park. The website “mapping-police-violence-dot-org” recorded 292 of police killings over the course of six months in 2015. So far only 3 of these have resulted in officers being charged with a crime.

We take a moment of silence today to remember Tamir’s death, with any chance of justice for Tamir and his family still so far away, one year later. During this moment of silence, we allign our hearts with all victims of police violence and excessive force. May Tamir rest in peace. May our society know peace. May our society be just.

year without tamir sidewalk

Community Voices – the White Awake blog

Our “Community Voices” blog features essays, interviews, and talks from a diverse array of spiritual leaders, teachers and professors, organizers, activists, and others who are taking leadership around racism, white supremacy, and life-affirming spiritual practice and engagement. You can jump straight to an article from the Table of Contents below.  Please engage us, and one another, with a comment on what you read!

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