Saturday, October 23, 2010

You go your way and I’ll go mine

Racism in our sanghas Part 2. Part 1 is here and Part 3 is here.

In another post, I explained how my investigation into racism and white privilege is fraught with challenge because our very notion of race is often a hindrance to our attempts to overcome racism. These notions are largely automatic, and I ended this other post with the question of how, then, do we overcome these automatic responses?

Again, it comes down to investigation of our own actions and of those around us.

Wakoh Shannon Hickey writes in the very interesting article “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism” found in the Journal of Global Buddhism that regardless of the multi-cultural and multi-racial makeup of a Buddhist congregation, not-so-subtle but unconscious segregation often occurs.

“One can indeed observe significant differences between groups catering primarily to Buddhist converts and those catering to people whose cultural heritage is Buddhist. Communities in each category tend to approach practice differently, and serve different purposes for their members.”

“In the temples Paul Numrich visited, he found “parallel congregations” operating side-by-side: one composed of immigrants and their descendants, who engaged in cultural and merit-making activities; and one composed of converts, who were mostly white, and who were interested primarily in meditation and Buddhist philosophy.”

This parallels discussion I’ve read elsewhere that presents an idea that a “Western Buddhism” is needed that is “devoid of cultural baggage.” (link to more writings by the author)

“White people may not notice these characteristics—either because it is easy for us to associate mostly with people who are like us, which leaves our cultural assumptions unchallenged, or because we may be reluctant to face the full, painful implications of white privilege. As Addie Foye, a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist of Scottish and Japanese ancestry noted, ‘In white racist America, there is no way for a person of color to relate to any all-white situation without experiencing racism. This is an unavoidable fact that white people must wake up to’ (Foye, Fall 1994).”

When I read these passages, I realized how that has been my experience in all the sanghas that I’ve been affiliated with.

There’s a temple in Chicago I’ve gone to on occasion whose congregation is predominately Thai. There are some white members, or at least white people who show up for the Sunday ceremonies, and I’ve seen one black couple. Most of the white people group among themselves during the lunch buffet and when it comes to the chanting, it is only the Thai members who participate. After the lunch, one of the monks leads a walking meditation session followed by a sitting meditation session that is almost entirely attended by white people. Instead of the meditation sessions, the Thai members that stay do so to chant with the other monks.

This is what I am talking about regarding automatic notions of race. We don’t even realize how we separate ourselves into our various tribes when it comes down to something as fundamental as how we practice.

Please listen to the following “video” before reading further.


When people of color attempt to explain their experiences with white privilege and racism within the Buddhist community, it is unfortunate that their words are often discounted by us whites. We tell them that they shouldn’t feel that way. How arrogant is that? To tell someone that their feeling is wrong, that he or she shouldn’t be feeling that way – what makes us think that we know what constitutes a valid feeling? These words, found in Making the Invisible Visible, are extraordinarily humbling and constitute an important call to action:

“The oppressive racial and economic conditioning of our greater society, whether intentional or not, manifests in our sanghas. Practitioners of color face many obstacles of access, as well as of attitude, when attempting to join Western Sanghas in order to develop and sustain their practice. It is extremely difficult and painful for people who are already marginalized in society to then be marginalized again in their spiritual community.”

I strongly encourage you to download and print this 75-page document, as it is filled with important testimonials by both white practitioners and people of color. It is sobering to read their experiences and there are too many for me to excerpt here. But I will include this passage because of its importance as a call to action:

“White people must educate themselves about these issues. Racism in the United States is now and always has been a White problem, and therefore it is incumbent on White people to talk amongst themselves about how they propose to solve this problem. Waiting for people of color to enter White spaces in order to educate White people about their blindness to racism is arrogant, patronizing and disrespectful. Feminists have, for years, called men to task for not taking responsibility for dismantling patriarchy. The same is true for the responsibility White people must take for dismantling racial hierarchies.”

Time for another video I think.


Although writing about Buddhism and violence, Elizabeth J. Harris makes some excellent points that are relevant to racism.

“In another sermon handed down to us, two men are pointed out while the Buddha is talking to a headman, Pataliya. One of them is garlanded and well-groomed; the other is tightly bound, about to lose his head. We are told that the same deed has been committed by both. The difference is that the former has killed the foe of the king and has been rewarded for it, whilst the latter was the king's enemy. Hence it is stressed that the laws of the state are not impartial: they can mete out punishment or patronage according to the wish of the king and his cravings for revenge or security.”

If we look at racism as a form of institutionalized violence, we can see how different groups, when members rise to power, establish laws that protect the status of members within the group. The Buddha recognized, also, that religious practices can involve violence that is ostensibly justified:

“The austerities practiced by some of those who came to the Buddha were worse than any enemy might inflict as punishment. The Buddha himself confessed to having practiced them before his enlightenment. In the Maha-Saccaka and the Maha-sihanada Suttas there is vivid description of the excesses undertaken. Taken together, the two suttas cover the complete range of contemporary Indian practices, which included nakedness or the wearing of rags, tree-bark fiber, kusa grass, wood shavings or human hair; deprivation of food to the extent of existing on a single fruit or rice grain; self-mortification through lying on thorns or exposing the body to extremes of heat and cold; copying the habits of animals such as walking on all fours or eating similar food. It was the Buddha's view that such practices were a form of violence, although undertaken in the name of religion and truth-seeking.”

And a key element of violent practices among aesthetics included debate.

“In the Kassapa Sihanada Sutta, the Buddha speaks out: ‘Now there are, Kassapa, certain recluses and brahmans who are clever, subtle, experienced in controversy, hair splitters, who go about, one would think, breaking into pieces by their wisdom the speculations of their adversaries.’”

Violence and racism has no place in the practicing Buddhist’s mind set, but because racism is based in delusion, it is often difficult to see it within ourselves. Yet, it must be eliminated if we ever wish to achieve the ultimate goal, or even just get close to it.

“Nibbana is the ultimate eradication of dukkha. It is a possible goal within this life and, among other things, involves a complete de-toxification of the mind from greed, hatred and delusion, a revolution in the way the world is perceived, freedom from craving and liberation from the delusion of ego.”

“Not all beings rally to the call for compassion on the grounds that others have like feelings to themselves or that harmony in society is necessary.”

So what did the Buddha say about race and racism? Read this post to find out.


  1. Just chiming is to say that I am loving these posts. Very thought provoking. I second the fact that "Makin the Invisible Visible" needs to be required reading. It is a very valuable and insightful text.


  2. Thanks John! This frees me to be silly and irreverent again, hehe.