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How To Be An Anti-Racist Buddhist
You are a Buddhist and one of the greatest tenets of this path is that you will not cause harm.
But it’s not as easy as that, is it? You realise this after taking the Bodhisattva vow, when a mosquito lands upon your arm. It takes a moment to swat it flat, a spot of blood squished and drying on your white skin. In the next moment you realise you have just taken a life.
You have done this countless time before, of course. Who hasn’t?
But this time is different because this time you have vowed—not just thought about or considered or aligned yourself to—but vowed to never cause harm.
You were told this vow was impossible to keep, and on an intellectual level you got that, but all of a sudden here you are with a dead bug smeared on your palm and the realization that the thing you never thought of before is much, much harder to live by now that it’s dropped from your head into your heart.
So you vow again, to pause next time, to consider, to not act so swiftly so your impact will be considered before it has been delivered.
Perhaps you have heard the guidance to attend to impact, rather than intent.
Perhaps someone has pointed out that something you said, however well-meaning, was harmful.
Perhaps you have doubled-down on how you were coming from a well-meaning place because you have an attachment to being a good person. Good people, you have been told your whole life through the media and your family and the society that pumped out the air you breathe, do not do bad things.
Of course you have learned from your Buddhist practice that dualism is unhelpful but the habit is so deep, so engrained, you just keep doubling down.
“That’s not how I meant it when I said there is only one race, the human race.”
“But I thought Martin Luther King wanted us to not see colour—that’s the lesson, isn’t it?”
“I’m a Buddhist, of course I believe that All Lives Matter.”
When you squished that mosquito you got a sense of how much more complicated it all is. Or maybe you already understood the complexity, but you didn’t understand how the vows would invite you to confront the complexity in a different way. The complexity was part of why you enthusiastically joined the ceremony and took the vows, after all. No one and nothing is just one way. There is no possibility of static perfection in an interconnected reality.
There was something liberating for you in being told that you could aspire to something unattainable and that in itself was enough. That you did not have to strive for perfection that had been hammered into you as necessary by Capitalism, by Whiteness, by Patriarchy.
For years you felt like, in these spaces, sitting in silence, following the breath and following the instructions you’d been given, you had managed to escape samsara.
But you do not get to escape samsara. That is not how this works and you are being told that regardless of your intent, you are one of many contributors to the cyclical suffering you vowed to end. One of the wisest people you know will put words to it one day: “There is no world view in which we can be absolved of our complicity.”
Your whiteness is not absolved because you follow the guidance of a brown man dead for thousands of years. Your whiteness is no less harmful because you have memorized forms or sutras or teachings from India, from Tibet, from Japan. Your whiteness still has an impact even though you “cannot find it” when you sit on the cushion looking, looking, looking to see this form of ego.
But you have been given the tools to sit with discomfort and you truly believe in your capacity to wake up and so you sit and you noticeand you shut up and you listen and you integrate. You seek out teachers who speak from their Blackness, their queerness, their transness, their immigrant experience, their disabled experience.
You start to glimpse the Ultimate—not free of the Relative but encompassing of it.
And that’s the first time you see it, the first time you see how white supremacy has been baked into this path you have been walking for years now. How it’s very white to claim that race is unimportant, that it should not matter, that if Black and brown and Asian people could just let go their attachment to it…
The next thing you notice comes while reading a book about a Japanese teacher who has always been presented as one of the first to ‘bring Buddhism to the West’.
Only, he didn’t bring it to the West.
It was already here, brought by various immigrant populations enticed over with lies or out of desperation to be used as cheap, expendable labour by the ruling white colonialists who claimed to build this country (And the reader may think that means the United States or may think that means Canada, and they’d be right either way).
The teacher came ‘to the West’ to lead a well-established community of Buddhists. He came to lead a Japanese congregation that had been established for decades before the white author of the book and other white people “discovered” Zen just like the colonizers “discovered” this land that was full occupied by many nations long before their “discovery.”
And then it comes faster to you.
You wince when a white teacher talks about how the influence of Western culture on Buddhism means patriarchy in Buddhism is becoming a thing of the past. As if patriarchy is an Asian concept. As if patriarchy does not exist in countries “founded” by white cismen who enslaved people, committed genocide, and withheld access to democracy from anyone who didn’t also enslave people, commit genocide, and withhold access to democracy as a means of maintaining their control over the land they approached as something to be possessed. As if white-dominated Buddhist communities of today are not reeling from their cismale leaders abuses of power because of the lineage of the white cismen of the past.
Now you can’t unsee it.
A teacher you have long admired, a white ciswoman, talks about skin tone as “relative,” entirely missing the fact that however tan she gets, she will never experience anti-Blackness or any aspects of racial oppression. You and five others, four ciswomen and one cisman, explore ways to have more representative leadership for the community you are all connected to, and the fact that you are all white is not lost on you. Other white members of the same community regularly question whether or not the BIPoC practice group that meets once a month is “really part of the community” and you hear, from a few of your friends who attend the group, about white people entering the BIPoC space unannounced to get cushions or reclaim a water bottle they left behind.
You let your curiosity guide you, let the practice aid you in noticing your own complicity.
You learn to say “I am racist” and feel how it feels in your body and accept that this is the current reality as long as you have this embodiment and as long as the system of white supremacy is in place. You express gratitude for being trained in how to be present with discomfort, and to see waking as a process and not some place you are trying to get to. You dig deep and pull back the veils of ignorance, whether wilful or unintended, so you can bear witness to the micro-aggressions you have committed, the party-lines of whiteness you have repeated, the so-called reality you previously never questioned.
The way you used to use people in your social network as proof of your lack of prejudice. The way you assumed being “not-racist” was enough. The way you bought into the idea that racism was a matter of a few bad apples without considering what one bad apple is said to do to the entire bunch.
You find others doing this work and you learn and grow together, sharing resources and going deeper all the time. You bear witness to one another. You share how practices like Tonglen, like Metta, like chanting the Heart Sutra again and again serve you in this path of waking up to all the ways white supremacy functions.
You move from “I am suffering” to “There is suffering.”
You witness the connections between all systems of oppression and how dualism and separateness serve them.
You commit to no longer prioritise your individual comfort over collective liberation.
This is how you become an anti-racist Buddhist.
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