Sunday, February 14, 2010
I had a few misgivings for awhile about the post I made yesterday, but then realized that even a somewhat flawed, incomplete commentary about race that gets people talking is better than nothing. And really, like anyone else, anything I can offer will be incomplete.
One of the commenters, Flying Pig (gotta love that name), brought up some issues I would like to address further.
First off, I'm not at all interested in spearheading a diversity campaign or acting as if I have all the answers. Because I don't. One thing I am interested in is getting more white practitioners to talk about issues of race, and/or reflect on how race does, indeed, impact their lives, even if they don't desire to see it. I am also interested in sharing perspectives of practitioners of color, out of the belief that in doing so, other practitioners of color might find themselves feeling less alone or have some new way to speak about their experiences, and so that white practitioners might have something new to consider. Maybe these intentions are flawed, or misguided - I don't honestly know. I only know that they keep coming up for me, as a sangha leader, dharma practitioner, ESL teacher, and member of a society filled with racialized institutions.
Flying Pig brings up class, and says that the dharma is open to everyone. Yes, I agree, And yet, think about the cost of classes, retreats, etc. at any North American dharma center with a decent sized membership. It's out of reach for many people, including that single mother barely able to feed her children Kyle speaks of in his comment. Sure, almost all centers offer some free services, but there often ends up being a "price" to access working deeper with the dharma in North America. It's one of the reasons, I suspect, that there are more people doing online practice. As the board president of my sangha, I continue to reflect on how best to balance the financial needs of running an institution with making what's offered financially accessible to as many people as possible. There aren't any easy answers, but if we never ask how what we are doing is effecting people, including ways in which we are possibly excluding people, then we're failing to handle the grains of rice as if they are our eye balls, to paraphrase a line from Dogen's "Instructions for the Zen Cook."
Flying Pig asks: "Are we just creating an issue and is our drive to integrate Buddhism evidence of some racist assumption that everyone's practice should look the same?"
A fair question. I think there is some truth to this, especially when narratives about race are solely about "inclusion." I'm trying my best to come at this from a different angle, to not just say we need more people of color in our sanghas. What does that prove anyway? Even if our sanghas remain segregated, our everyday lives are not always so. Many of us walk into work, into the grocery store, into schools, and struggle to relate to each other, in great part because of race. This is increasingly true in suburbs and even in some small towns with factories employing recent immigrants - racial diversity is not just a city thing anymore.
Buddhism, it seems to me, keeps pointing us back to relationships, to how we interact with each other on a moment by moment basis. If you can't communicate effectively with your child's teacher because he or she is of another race, that's kind of a problem don't you think? If you struggle to relate to your boss or your co-workers because of their racial backgrounds, it's hard to get the job done well, don't you think?
Race is political. Race is personal. Race is relational. Even as race is an empty social construct, it still impacts almost everything, from bank lending practices to elementary school test scores. It seems like the perfect dharma topic, because it demonstrates so clearly both the emptiness of forms, as well as the power of forms in everyday life.
As for "creating an issue" from the question above, I've had sangha members of color speak very personally and honestly, both in public and in private about their frustrations with the unexamined assumptions of the white majority in our sangha. And our sangha has made efforts to be more upfront about race, which maybe is why these folks felt ok enough to speak about their experiences. So, this isn't an issue I made up. In fact, our sangha, like some others, have supported people of color practice groups that specifically focus on the intersections of race and dharma - so I don't think this has to be about making everyone's practice the same.
Flying Pig writes: "the women of S.F.Z.C worked hard to make their presence known. No one else could have done it for them." Yes, it's very true that the women of SFZC had to do the work to become leaders. The men of SFZC could not have led the charge to develop and institute female leadership.
But the men there, certainly, didn't remain static in their views. How could they have? My guess is that those men who wanted to maintain a male-dominant practice either left, or have ceased to be in the majority. It was probably a gradual shift, one that's still going on, but there had to be a shift of some sort for conditions to be right enough for women leaders to actually succeed.
As for the correlation between women and practitioners of color Flying Pig made, it remains to be seen. There are far more white women in North American "convert" sanghas than people of color of any gender. And there aren't all that many white people, or non-Asian people for that matter, landing in sanghas that were started by Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans in the U.S. and Canada. Spiritual segregation remains the name of the game for the most part.
Posted by Nathan at 9:36 AM