Warrior Exam: The whiteness of Buddhism in the West
This entry is an unedited reflection written following the attendance of two online Dharma teachings: The Way of Tenderness with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and Radical Dharma with angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens & Dr. Jasmine Syedullah. This post is part of series of ‘Warrior Exam’ blog posts — inspired by a practice done at Naropa University in Boulder, CO.
After reading The Way of Tenderness and listening to teachings by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, I’ve been reflecting on my experience as a Buddhist practitioner who is white. I’ve done this by coming up with and holding multiple questions: Why are there so many white people in Buddhist groups and communities? What does it mean to be in such a white dominated space? What do I notice about the teachings that appeal so much to white audiences? How do the communities I have connected with perpetuate white dominance of Buddhism in the West?
Buddhist communities tend to be very insular. There is a cliquiness about them which, when I was a new practitioner, made it difficult for me to connect with a sangha. The first time I went to a Buddhist centre in London, for example, I received a dismissive welcome. The door was locked, so I had to ring a bell to be let in. The individual who opened the door asked, unsmilingly: “What do you want?”
I was there for a drop-in meditation evening. This greeting made me feel like I was imposing on a space I was under the impression was open for anyone. I stayed that time, but I didn’t go back for nearly a year because I’d been greeted so rudely.
I’m white, and the individual who answered the door was white. And so were most of the people there for meditating that evening. In fact, the entire time I was involved with that particular centre, I can think of only one person of colour who was part of that sangha.
Imagine if I’d not been white. Imagine the effect such an abrasive greeting would have on a person of colour. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for me to start wondering if the reception might have something to do with the colour of my skin. As a queer woman, I know what it’s like to have that niggling doubt, that question about whether or not the treatment I’m experiencing is because that person is in a bad mood, or because of their discomfort with my gender or my sexual orientation. I could be way off, but it doesn’t stop the seed from being planted. In a world where micro-aggressions are a daily experience, it’s nearly impossible to know the difference between someone with poor social skills versus someone displaying their implicit bias — and let’s not fool ourselves that these are not often one and the same.
This is just one example, but there have been many times when I’ve been to centres where there is little guidance or welcome. It’s not always that I’m greeted harshly, but that if I knew nothing about meditation or I was new to it — and I was entering these spaces during advertised drop-in times — I would not be explicitly welcomed. There might be smiles and head nods, but no hand shaking and “Welcome to the centre, have you been here before?”
My questions have also led me to reflect on how white dominated religions have harmed various communities in the past, and that as a PoC, any religion with a lot of white faces representing it would probably raise red flags. Remember, colonialism was carried out in the name of ‘God-given’ monarchies who imposed their religion on Indigenous people. Not to mention the hypocrisy of white so-called-Christians who chose to enslave other human beings. Years of racial persecution in the name of religion are hard to live down, especially given how rampant a problem this remains today.
Again, as someone who is queer and a woman, I am sceptical of most organised religion. Only with years of study and practice have I been able to open up to different aspects of Christianity and engage in inter-religious dialogue without putting up walls or preparing myself for the worst. So it’s no surprise to think that a person of colour will be unlikely to seek out community in a Buddhist centre dominated by white faces.
And then we come to the language so many white Buddhist teachers use.
Recently, a teacher I greatly admire tried using emptiness teachings to explain how ‘skin colour is relative’ — completely missing that race, and racial constructs, are about a lot more than the colour of a person’s skin. I’ve been grappling with this ever since as I had a visceral reaction to her choice of words and approach. I found it very upsetting, and I’m white. I can’t even imagine how uncomfortable or upsetting it would be to hear something like that as a person of colour.
As for how this whiteness of Buddhism perpetuates itself, I’ve been considering the history of Buddhism in the West, which developed during the hippie era. A lot of ‘spiritual seekers’ of the time were white — most of them, in fact. Think of the group that created Insight Meditation or the many first students of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. These were privileged middle-class white people, often college educated, chasing spiritual enlightenment like some kind of ‘high’.
Also, during the seventies, there was less talk of intersectionality. In many movements, acknowledging the multiplicity of experiences and identities in a single group was seen as threatening*. White feminists were ignoring the voices of Black, Latina and Asian women, for example, and often feminist groups had clashes with lesbian and queer identified women. The classic and damaging refrain ‘It’s hard enough fighting for women’s rights, you can’t come in here with your gay/Black/transgender agenda and complicate it further’ was pervasive.
*A note here, I do not deny that this isn’t still a problem, but these days it is a growing norm to approach inequality with an eye open to intersectionality.
So you’ve got a lot of social action happening but in silos. Not to mention the erasure of Black influence on a lot of the social action of the 70s. The training of the Civil Rights movement supported—if not outright galvanised— Stonewall and therefore the movement toward social equality regardless of sexual orientation (and to a great degree, gender orientation). But even today, Black communities and the role of Black activists are denied by white LGBQT+ people.
These were supposedly very ‘awake’ or social aware communities of their day, and yet there was the denial of the involvement of PoC and erasure of their experience and contribution. This was the climate in which Shambhala, Insight, SF Zen and Triatna were created. They were always white spaces, created by white people.
The short-sighted view dismissive of the fact that human beings come in many embodiments and are interconnected and multi-dimensional is still an issue today. As white people we are convinced that we are living in a ‘post-racial’ society. It is a poisonous case of mass-delusion and self-deception. Very few white people, whether Buddhists or not, are willing to look at their internalised racism and own up to the wound of colonialism we all bear. Which is to say, we too often see how others cause suffering in us, but refuse to take the further, essential step to see the role we play in causing suffering for others.
I get it. It’s been hard for me to look at my own, and even harder to say: I am racist.
But I am racist.
I am a white woman raised in a white dominated colonial society. To deny that I have implicit biases is naive, not to mention unhelpful. I cannot change what I am unable to name and examine.
An unwillingness to examine, own and address our implicit biases is a failure amongst most white folk, regardless of our system of belief. Because we’re not wearing a swastika, burning crosses or donning pointy white hoods, we think we’re not part of the problem. It’s other white people, the extremist ones, the ones over there spewing overtly racist slurs, that we say need to change. But as white westerners, regardless of how overt our racism, we live in a white dominated society and therefore we benefit from white supremacy.
This view of racism and racists as being overt is in the minds of many white folk. It’s further perpetuated by the ego-clinging notion of being a ‘good’ person. Because so many white Buddhist practitioners think of themselves as ‘good’ people because of their commitment to Buddhism, they fall into the trap of denying their implicit bias. Instead of examining how the language a teacher uses might be alienating people of colour, or asking themselves why their sangha only has two or three people of colour out of dozens or even hundreds of members, we white Buddhists turn to the teachings as a way to be dismissive of internalised racism.
With this in mind, I’ve also been thinking of the reasons white folk come to Buddhism. We come for our personal suffering, so often. We come because of heartbreak, lost jobs, divorce. Not to belittle suffering, as all forms of suffering are worthy of being addressed, but ultimately the reasons so many of us white folk seek out a Buddhist path is to address what Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche calls ‘bourgeois suffering’.
I have encountered this short-sighted view of suffering often, in myself and fellow white practitioners. We bring the patriarchal individualism of our society into our practice and pervert what it means to take personal responsibility. On the one hand, we often use it against ourselves, to beat ourselves up. This leads to spirals of shame, which are firmly grounded in ego-clinging, as we heap suffering on suffering from a ‘woe is me’ mentality. On the other hand, we also use it to be dismissive of the concerns of others. I’ve seen this as a woman confronting the patriarchal influence so many cultures have had on Buddhism. I am told that the patriarchy is not the problem, the problem is that I am hung up on it.
This is the same as telling a person of colour that they need to understand emptiness better or ‘let go’ should they point to racism in a Buddhist community. Should a person of colour come to Buddhism wanting to address their deep, generational suffering, the platitudes of a white dominated Buddhist group where most of the practitioners are there because of frustrations with their kids, spouse or boss, just aren’t going to cut it. As Ani Pema Chödrön says, we need to move beyond ‘I am suffering’ to ‘There is suffering’.
As white practitioners, we must not forget the importance of compassion and interconnectedness in combination with personal responsibility. Suffering is all-pervasive, which means it goes all ways. Cause and effect is not linear. There is not one cause with one result. We cannot simply address our own suffering; we must also address the suffering for which we are responsible as complicit members of a white dominated society. To do this we can’t get hung up on ‘me’ and ‘I’ and whether or not we are ‘bad’ people or ‘good’ people. To have compassion is to be able to ‘relate with’ on an incredibly deep level. It goes beyond empathy, where we relate through an understanding of shared experience, to relating with by hearing and trusting in what others tell us about their experience. It truly is a practice of standing in another person’s shoes and seeing how their embodiment is equally human to our own.
I appreciate that not all Buddhist communities are white dominated, and that many teachers came to the west from Tibet, Bhutan, India or Japan. And obviously, there are teachers here in the west like Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, angel Kyodo williams, and Lama Rod Owens. So this isn’t to say that western Buddhism is some white-only club.
But I am saying, as white members of these practice communities, we need to take personal responsibility for the ways we keep these communities from opening up to people of different embodiments. We need to really understand that ‘oneness’ is not ‘sameness’. As Zenju Earthlyn says, there is multiplicity in oneness. Which is to say, our various embodiments and identities are equally human and therefore we are equally deserving of dignity, respect, justice and happiness.
Originally published on Medium.
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