I have to say that the explosion over the post by Tassja over at Womanist Musings has jolted me. You'll have to forgive me for not moving on yet. Because I'm not moving on yet.
Given my life experience, race and racism are never far from my awareness. However, the genuine nastiness, callousness, and defensiveness that have come in response to this single article has been a reminder of just how screwed up people still are when it comes to race.
This morning, I read the following, a post by another young woman of color offering her own take, and standing with Tassja in the process.
I would like to tell you how Buddhism influences my father’s treatment of his patients, every one of whom are criminally insane. I would like to tell you how Buddhism plays a role in the way my mother lends the money she doesn’t have to spare. I would like to tell you of how Buddhism sustained my aunt through the famine and my uncle through the war—I would like to tell you how it gave some measure of peace to those who did not survive.
Because this is what we mean when we say that Buddhism flows in our blood.
I would like to tell you, but I am afraid. I am afraid of you Barbara O’Brien, Kyle Lovett, and Anonymous Commenter. I have a bone-deep fear of the things you will say about my father, my mother, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my grandparents, and my three-year-old brother. I am terrified because I can see my future in what you are presently doing to Tassja.
You might tell me that Buddhism belongs in the meditation center and not the hospital. You might tell me that the war is over so what does it matter. You might tell me famine is a state of mind or any number of other things equally indicative of never having helplessly watched a child starve to death. You could discount all my family’s blood, sweat, and tears and the way they flow into and out of the Buddhism I live everyday.
I don't personally know either of these women. Just as I am a disembodied person to them who writes a blog about Buddhism, they are disembodied Buddhist writers to me. We are, even with the most heartfelt, passionate of words, abstracted from each other. Which makes it that much easier to toss labels about, make casual dismissals, and generally ignore the living, breathing being behind the words trying to break through their suffering.
It's quite easy to note the demonstrated lack of compassion amongst some of the white Buddhist commentariat. One man, who claimed to have written two books on the Pali Canon and to have practiced 23 years, repeatedly referred to Tassja as a "silly cow." Another commenter suggested that she needs to find a teacher, so she can deal with her anger.
I won't go on with more examples. Some of you will, no doubt, be saying to yourself "Stop pointing fingers at others and look at yourself." And that's fine. I don't care. I have spent years facing the legacy of race, racism, whiteness, and oppression that I have inherited. And I imagine I will continue to have to face it until the day I die.
Actually, though, what's even more apparent to me, when surveying all of the responses to Tassja's post, is the deeply fragile appearance of white Buddhist practice. Notice I said "appearance" because this isn't to speak of all white convert practitioners, but to speak of how we might collectively appear to people looking in from the outside.
How we, for example, appear to fail at the most basic teachings of compassion and generosity of spirit. How we appear to be fighting a turf war, and demanding to be acknowledged as "legitimate dharma students." How we appear to spin around and around in old patterns of guilt, denial, and blame the moment someone speaks a few critical words about "our race." How we appear to be smug in our book knowledge of Buddhism. How we regularly appear to make appeals to diversity, but then flip out the moment that diversity threatens the vision we have of "Buddhist practice."
All intentions aside, this is how "we" - white American Buddhist converts - collectively appear in this conversation. And it's how "we" have collectively appeared in discussions about race, privilege, and oppression for decades. Twenty years ago, then Tricycle magazine editor Helen Tworkov made the following ludicrous statement, "so far…not figured prominently in the development of something called American Buddhism," which set off a firestorm that looks terribly similar to the smaller online version I am writing about today.
It's important to me to bear witness to the fear, sadness, anger, and suffering reflected in the voices of the Buddhists of color who either wrote blog posts like Tassja and Prajna (the author of the piece I quote above), or who left comments on these posts. Even if we have divergent views at times, we are all practicing under the umbrella of Buddha's teachings.
I offer this post as a tiny seed in the vast, seeded field of race in America. It is so much bigger than us Buddhists, but we are, like everyone else, embedded within it. It is our collective karma, to be faced or not.
May we choose to leap, again and again, into the dragon's mouth.