Tag Archives: Race and Buddhist Sanghas

Decolonizing Sangha Space

I wrote this article below that went on to be shortened, edited, and published in BuddhaDharma Spring 2018 edition where it is called Dismantling the Master’s House. Some friends have been using this longer piece as a guide for their work on race dynamics in their Sangha. They wanted to share it around more widely, so first I thought to blog it so they have it online.  I also thought that as this original version has more nuance and is a practice piece, it may be of interest to others. Thanissara.

Since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, some 500+ years ago, American society, built on the genocide of First Nation People and Trans Atlantic slave trade, has systematically advanced white, Euro-centric culture and economic entitlement at inordinate cost to people of color. Privileging “whiteness” generated a system that has been internalized by everyone. It manoeuvres us all along the scales of “good” self/people (privileged), and “bad” self/people (oppressed) generating a complex value system rooted in a grievous falsehood; that one racial group has more rights and worth than another. The Buddha clearly rejected this premise of racial superiority by ordaining all castes equally. In doing so, he demonstrated that equity and freedom is not just an internal realization, but also integral to the structure he constructed as essential for awakening, which is the Sangha.

Over the last decade or so, white, male led Sanghas, particularly in the U.S., have recognized the need to diversify, mostly as a result of outside pressure. To date, this has been happening while maintaining white centrality, partly due to first generation Western Buddhist teachers being white. However, we are now in a process that requires a far deeper exploration of how our contemporary Sanghas unwittingly replicate oppressive systems to the detriment of the Buddha’s original intention. As the toxic karmic results from a Euro-centric colonial past intensify around the world, it is becoming clear that for Buddhism to having meaning, it needs to empower a non-racist Sangha space as a ground for authentic awakening. This requires entering the curriculum of de-centralizing white supremacy. As this is a challenging process, reading this piece may be uncomfortable. If so, I invite entering this territory as a mindfulness and inquiry practice.
Notice how it lands in the body, and what thoughts and reactions arise as defences and judgments are activated
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Essentially, we are called to a journey that requires “Leaving the Master’s House,” a term, familiar to African Americans that was coined by Caribbean-American writer and Civil Rights activist Audre Lorde. It’s a term we as white people should now consider. It describes perfectly the construct of systemic power, which is further defined by bell hooks as imperialist, white, supremacist, capitalist Patriarchy. This power paradigm is woven into the institutions that shape society, the economies we live within, opportunities afforded or not, and the quality, and even length of life. In essence, it forms the very core of how we experience ourselves.
What privileges to you get from being in the “Master’s House?” How have you colluded with power for fear of being alienated from the Master’s House?

Being acculturated as white is to have continual affirmation that we are the norm and people of color are not. The dissonance between insider norm and invisible outsider is fuelled by a lack of awareness of how privileging whiteness wounds. The fact is violence underwrites racism and the social and economic engineering that enables it. The politics of segregation has so successfully alienated us from each other that instead of authentic and meaningful relationship, we settle for “normalizing” stereotypes that continually rip at our collective soul. The first thing we have to understand is that racial prejudice is not normal; it is learnt. This learning is accompanied by an emotional searing that has to do with fear of the other. For people of color in a dominant white society, this learning comes early, cuts deeply, and usually devastates the sense of worth and belonging. For whites there is also a learning, the fear of losing centrality. Violence projected from fear fuels and shapes implicit bias; the unconscious narratives, emotions, defences, and assumptions that shape our shared cultural space.
A true story: A woman sent her manuscript to 50 publishers, but has no response. She sends the exact same cover letter and ms in a male name. Seventeen publishers respond enthusiastically. How does this example apply to our own implicit bias, on the spectrum of privileged and marginalized, within our “imperialist, white, supremacist, capitalist Patriarchy?”

When I first saw a black man, I was about four years old. It was in the 1960’s when Jamaican and Asian Indian immigrants were fast arriving into West London where my family lived. I was with my mother in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. I stood in front of him, close up. I didn’t feel fear, only curiosity. I noticed his fingernails bitten right down, and his nervous stress. At about six years of age, when an Asian Indian family moved into our street, there were disapproving mutterings from parents, aunts and uncles. Something was wrong. “They have so many people crammed into that house.” One night I woke up screaming from a nightmare where I was caught in that house chased by a fierce bull I couldn’t escape. The perception of “them” as dangerous was lodged in my emergent heart by adult fear. I don’t know the source of my fear, but that my unconscious deposited fear in the house of the “other” is potent to understand.

When white centrality is threatened, people of color easily become receptacles of projected mistrust, alongside a whole range of complex reactions, from hatred and suspicion, to patronization and guilt. Being continually on the receiving end of such shadow energies means people of color experience their realities flattened and their stories, struggles and cultures, invisible.
How and when did you first experience racism? What resonance does that early learning have in your life?

Fear perpetuates racism and activates violence, like the predatory killings of African Americans by police, the ubiquitous acts of racial profiling, and ongoing theft of native lands. The abhorrence felt by witnesses, not directly threatened, often freezes into silence. A silence that is treacherously complicit. The struggle for many people of color is to break through that silence. This is easier done collectively. However, when movements like #Blacklivesmatter are turned into All Lives Matter it alleviates whites from having to speak out, while attempting to silence the black community and uphold the status quo. In Buddhist practice, while silent introspection is encouraged, it can inadvertently alienate those who struggle to find an inner cohesion that depends on collective truths being named. Truths like racism is real, it is violent, and it’s being perpetuated all the time.
As we practice with this truth, how have you experienced being complicit through silence? What is it like to speak out?

Naming uncomfortable racist truths in a predominately white space often provokes defensiveness; it requires a collective effort, which is why increased awareness in white Sanghas is vital. What I learnt in my two decades of work in South Africa is that engaging white fear is complex. Centuries of colonialism normalizes a schizoid dissonance that is devastating. For whites, that norm thinly veils the fear of being engulfed by black Africa, of not surviving. Although the context is different in the U.S., it’s similar in that racism emerges from a perceived threat to the separate identity of white entitlement. Paranoia and irrational racist beliefs are the currency of white belonging. A belonging that also injures whites. It shames empathy, distorts trust, and wounds sensitivity.
As you read this, notice how this lands in your body, what feelings and thoughts are activated?

I like to think I am not racist because I’m a meditator and have superior liberal views. That is until one day at a supermarket when an elderly Zulu man was struggling to free a shopping basket. He finally wrenched it free from the pile of metal just as I walked past. I took it, like the white Madam erroneously assuming he was a worker rather than a fellow shopper. An everyday incident easily shrugged off was a moment of shattering. My nice Buddhist veneer had not managed to halt the insidious inevitability of internalizing a basic racist assumption.
In what ways does your “niceness” and patronization deflect from internalized racist assumptions? How does that feel?

The humble journey for whites involves seeing the layers of internalized prejudice that defend against the obvious. The obvious being that we live in a deeply inequitable narrative where white skin is always seen as more worthy than black, brown, yellow, and red skin. Beneath the surface of skin there is a grievous injury to the collective soul of cultures buried and diminished through the pervasive favoring of a white Euro-centric world view that lionizes the frontier, independent, rational sense of self learnt through our history and educational systems.

How then, can cultures that have a vastly different way of knowing and being find traction? Especially when such knowing has equal, if not more value than the abstractions of Western civilization. For example, the wisdom of First Nation People who understand land is inseparable from our bodies, community, and spirituality,  as is the cosmos, and unseen elemental forces that humans need to be in ritual relationship with to maintain harmony. Or when, as I experienced in rural African communities, the correct response to a problem is not from the smartest, quickest, individual, but from a slower group discussion where everyone feels involved, comfortable, and included in the response. The point is to belong to each other, not to be the most right.
How does racial cultural arrogance, oppression, conditioning operate within you? How do you notice it operating in society?

Sangha processes laid out by the Buddha mirror the practice of group consensus and wise ways of knowing embodied by Elder Cultures. Our ability to access Buddhism is due solely to centuries of Asian transmission undertaken with care, dedication and sacrifice, which we don’t often respect. In its journey across continents, Buddhism undergoes adaptation; the same is true as it enters the West. We, however, are undertaking this at speed, and not always with care. This complex territory is not the focus of this article, but where it intersects is in our tendency to promote a rational Euro-centric view as superior, and therefore dominant, without much thought to the consequence. This keeps us in comfortable in the “Master’s House” where, alongside internalized racial prejudice, we assume a norm that becomes standardized in the forms, views and practices we feel represent a truer Buddhism. While this makes sense for a Western secular society, it may not for cultures that inhabit a felt-sense, relational experience of self rather than an overly individuated, idealized and abstracted one.
How do you feel having the norms of “our way of doing things” challenged? What, in your sangha, is assumed as unquestioned “tradition” that is in fact only several decades in the making?

In the 1980’s I trained as Buddhist nun in of the Forest School of Ajahn Chah in the UK. We were renovating an old Victorian house, which became the first Western monastery of that lineage. Some monks thought a large inverted V shaped beam in the structure at the center of the house was unnecessary. That is until they began to take it out, nearly bringing the whole roof down. When we prematurely pull out the bits and pieces we don’t like about Buddhism, we are likely doing a disservice for those who are already struggling to land into an eviscerated, soulless, overly cognitive Western paradigm. In the same way, as we approach deconstructing the norm of internalized racist oppression and white privilege, we tend to come from a place that is too fast, not careful enough. It’s true we need to challenge, but we tend to do so by overly politicizing and positioning, by being on script with political correctness, rather than moving into the place we really need to stay – the raw, lonely wound at the heart of the disembodied abstractions and the crazy-making splits inherent within the colonial world view we inherited and perpetuate.
How is it to be with our inner wounded emptiness, and not rescue, patronize, or manipulate, those less powerful (or more powerful) to make us comfortable?

Lorde’s statement, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is a Zen Koan. How do we deconstruct our racially conditioned self when we only see through its limited prism? Perhaps begin with “I don’t know.” That is, of Zen, not the “I don’t know” as an excuse, but as a willingness to unlearn our colonized conditioning in order to hear something else. Sometimes when we leap to be white allies, we do so from confused motives. We need to feel better about ourselves. We want our Buddhist niceness, our very intelligent diagnostic, and our brave willingness to challenge authority to quickly alleviate an uncomfortable strain. When we shift quickly from insecurity to expedient solutions, strategies, and quick fixes, we land up perpetuating the root problem. We want the “other” to feel comfortable so we can be comfortable. Often we do this by asking people of color (or other marginalized groups) to settle for compromise rather than the radical realignment we know needs to happen. We want a diversity that populates our white world, our Buddhist institutions, and our hallowed practice paths, without too much impact.

Don’t get me wrong. The focus on diversity, and the cultivation of white allies is vital. At least it has been for me, and for many others. I appreciate the education, dialogue, inquiry and trainings. All of this is, however, is fast hurrying us to a cusp that has the potential to initiate a paradigm shift, which is the decentralizing of power, the dismantling of patriarchal hierarchy, and the decolonization of the mind, heart and body of Sangha. Such a process will transform the styles of practice we’ve deified and are comfortable with. It will also demand something hard, which is a high degree of self-honesty.

To see the conditioning of self is easier through the lens of non-self, which helps us understand that white supremacy is a construct that diminishes everyone. The Buddha articulated his enlightenment as the deconstruction of the house of self. “Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge pole is demolished too.”
What does it mean to you to deconstruct racist, patriarchal processes in the house of Sangha?

In the same way Buddhist male monastic hierarchy cannot authentically shape what a nuns’ community should look like, so white Buddhists are not the ones to dominate the shaping of a decolonized Sangha. This doesn’t mean that white teachers and Sangha members don’t have a vital, collaborative role. Where appropriate, and regardless of race, the weight of experience, realization, wisdom and depth compassion should have influence. There’s a balance here. In the formation of Sangha processes the Buddha taught both consensus and attunement to elders and teachers. But also, length of time in a Sangha, or visibility as a popular or charismatic teacher doesn’t necessarily translate into freedom from racial, sexist, or class bias. On the other hand, appropriate challenge, based in Dharma principles, from a white, male, or female teacher is not always racist or sexist. The giving of feedback, across race and hierarchy can be important for preserving a training or Dharma principle. Often, there is often a core confusion that plays out in dialogue across race. Whites tend to take critique personally while people of color can sometimes interpret it as part of a racist agenda.

While it is optimum to educate around how experience is perceived and interpreted differently due to racial (cultural, gender, class) conditionings, we can’t expect this work to be comfortable. We shouldn’t dread this, or think something has gone wrong because the controlled, peaceful spaces we associate with being faithful Buddhists are dislodged. Instead bewilderment, heightened emotions, indignation, misunderstandings, resentments, blame, and accusations, whether true or not, are signs something is going right. As centuries of injustice and distorted conditioning are unpackaged, how can it be any other way? Why, anyhow, should white patriarchal Sanghas maintain their comfort zones, their controlled calm spaces, when the norm for the marginalized is the experience of struggle as the direct result of those in the Master’s House refusing to give over power.
What does it mean to you to hand over power?

I love the teaching of Ajahn Chah when he said, “True but not right, right but not true.” Wherever we are in the spectrum of this dialogue, when we take fixed positions we miss something essential, which is the territory of the unbiased heart that relinquishes identification with self-view. Ultimately, this is the only space where real freedom lies. Aligned with that, we realize something truly authentic and liberating is happening; the deconstruction of white, patriarchal, hierarchal Buddhism is answering the imperative of the heart that rejects the agony of division.

The root cause of suffering is the heart dividing against its deeper alliance with all beings. When we cease to do this, then our unbroken hearts, attuned to the intelligence of the living Dharma, will hear a way through the tangle of delusion that perpetuates racism. Instead of staying stuck in a separatist, entitled, non-relevant paradigm we can pro-actively make bridges into the post-modern world that is calling us forward.

My experience of decolonized spaces, which for me reflect the Buddha’s original intention, is that while challenging, they are often dynamic, collectively intelligent, emotionally coherent, beautifully creative, deeply healing, and optimum for realizing our innate potential. Together, we have a chance to construct a different kind of Sangha house, one that supports a truly equitable ground for awakening. Without that, we will land up offering only a partial transmission to future generations.
In your wildest, hopeful dreams, what would a decolonized Sangha space feel, look, and be like?
What are some steps toward realizing that dream.

Thanissara, San Francisco, June 22nd, 2016.

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