Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"White Space" - Considering Race and Racism in American Zen Sanghas

This post about the 50th Anniversary celebration of San Francisco Zen Center has haunted me since I first read it. The whole thing is worth reading, more than once. For most white practitioners, it probably will take several reads and plenty of contemplation to truly get a sense of all the layers being expressed. Forgive me if that sounds nasty; I'm just keenly aware these days how slow the process of decolonization seems to be. Over and over again, I'm running into well meaning, intelligent white folks - people who look exactly like me - that turn away, act defensive, or posture that we live in a post racial world the moment race is brought into a discussion.

Anyway, back to Sistah Vegan's post.

Yes, overall I really enjoyed the event last night. Great celebration and memories of the Zen center’s past 50 years. Green Gulch Zen Center is beautiful and I have developed amazing relationships there, so I thank the co-founders for making these sites possible. I deeply appreciate what I have learned from Zen Buddhism and the practice’s impact on how I constantly try to be mindful and compassionate– including how I try to teach largely white racialized subjects about systemic whiteness and structural racism. But I have to admit that I am quite disappointed in the mistake of seeing Simone as Angela Davis because that ‘mistake’ potentially represents an overall problem of recognizing the impact of a homogenous Zen fellowship: what does racial homogeneity do to the collective white racialized subject’s consciousness if they participate in a mostly white (and quite financially stable) Buddhist fellowship in a nation in which whiteness is privileged? I actually wish that white dominated Buddhist fellowships would add a rule that everyone has to participate in ‘mindfulness whiteness ‘ sesshins. It would be great if an added tenet to Buddhism, for such congregations, could be, “We shall learn about how structural racism and whiteness impact our Zen practice. We shall be open and loving to transforming ourselves and not become angry as we learn about how white racial formation has deeply affected our Zen hearts.”

First off, mindfulness whiteness sesshins would be a great practice. I fully endorse that idea.

Beyond this, though, there are so many aspects of convert American Zen practice communities that are taken as basic forms and approaches, but actually are rather white in conception. The commonplace blending of psychotherapy with Zen teachings. The curious relationship with the Asian ancestry, which is often either demonstrated through an attempt to strictly adhere to "Asian" forms or a nearly complete rejection of those same forms as "unnecessary," and/or "cultural baggage." In fact, the very manner in which Zen centers are laid out - the use of space - is often "white" in ways that are completely invisible to most of us white folks. Professor John Powell has written a fair amount about "white space." Here's one of his articles, which points out how "public" and "private" space in the U.S. was historically - and continues to some extent to be - divided along racially determined lines and understandings of space.

Speaking of space, over the past year, our sangha has been considering whether to move from our current location or not. As the head of the board, I have been at the center of all of these conversations, a placement that - as a white male - hasn't been lost upon me. I'm finding myself struggling with the tone and tenor of many of our conversations. Over and over again, the issues of "noise" and "disappearing parking" seem to dominate the day. Over the winter, during the board's annual retreat, an initial vision of sangha was produced by a subsection of the board that felt to me, and a few others, like a privileged image. It was essentially a cute, little building on top of a hill with a rolling stream cutting through the front of the location. Although that image was rejected, given that we intend to stay in the city, there still seems to be a strong sense of "needing" to be in a "quiet" neighborhood with lots of available parking and other amenities. The strongest voices advocating for this are long term members who are regular meditation retreat practitioners - nearly all of them white and solidly middle or upper middle class.

As one of the financially poorest members of the community, it's difficult not to think about how class comes into the picture. And when I think about the kinds of images being brought up around space, they correspond directly with predominantly white, middle and upper middle class neighborhoods. Consistent quietness in the city is intimately connected with how white folks with means use space. It's not what you find in poorer neighborhoods, and it's not what you find in mixed race, mixed income neighborhoods. At least here in the Twin Cities. In those neighborhoods, more people are regularly outside. Doing things in groups. Making noise. Having fun. Some are causing trouble too. But the main thing is that the space of the neighborhood is more actively used as public. Shared. Church parking lots double as farmer's markets and playgrounds. People more regularly gather on front lawns or porches. Even the front ends of privately owned shops often serve as gathering spots for those that frequent them.

Furthermore, the emphasis on cars, and parking, feels classed and somewhat raced as well. We have a new light rail train going in that ends right at the doorstep of our current location. The conversation around it has mostly been about the potential noise factor. The few conversations we've had where the train might be a vehicle for bringing in new members, or easing the commute for some current members, quickly sputtered. It's not that people can't see the possible value of a train or public transit; it's mostly that few of them will really consider using it regularly, and aren't really thinking much about folks who do use public transit (like myself) as a significant portion of membership. We, as a group, are off the radar. And the handful of folks like myself that self identify as bikers and public transit riders are mostly considered an anomaly.

I'm not questioning my fellow sangha member's sense that meditation retreats are difficult when there is nightly music right behind one of the walls, and when there is construction going on during the day outside our windows. What I am questioning is the movement from the extremes of our current location - which may require us to relocate - to a set of visions that are essentially devoid of many of the elements that make up urban living.

Oh, and then there's the desire for a better kitchen. Why? Primarily so that the cooking being done for meditation retreats goes smoother, is easier. I've heard next to no talk about, for example, wanting a better kitchen so we could cook more community meals, or to perhaps have a soup kitchen for homeless folks, and any other shared eating activity beyond retreats. Wanting a better kitchen for activity that takes up approximately 3-7 days a month, and involves between 7-20 members of the community, feels like a really limited vision for a kitchen. And an expensive need as well.

All of which makes me wonder who it is that our community really desires to serve. Are we yet another white, middle class organization with a great inclusiveness policy, but which is still driven by the desires of it's white, middle and upper middle class members? What does it mean to want to be located "in the city," and yet also want to avoid at least some of what makes up what I would call a vibrant city? There are great Buddhist sanghas located in cities all over Asia. Some of them also have sister temples located in rural areas, in the manner that San Francisco Zen Center has emulated.

I don't have any definitive answers or conclusions at this point. We are really in the middle of the process. A part of me wonders if I should post this, and that's exactly why I am going to post it. I am deeply grateful to my Zen sangha as it is and, as Suzuki Roshi said, "it could use a little improvement." May we find a more enlightened way forward.


Bill said...

About noise in urban practice centers:

I practice Ch'an, in the Dharma Drum lineage, i.e., Master Sheng Yen. My teacher, one of Sheng Yen's heirs, told us a story about a retreat he and his wife were on in Queens, which is where Sheng Yen first set up shop in the States. Space was limited, and it was Queens.

"How did you sleep?" Sheng Yen asked my teacher's wife.

"Oh, it was terrible! It was so noisy! People were snoring and there were sirens all night!"

Sheng Yen--this amazing Ch'an master, etc.--then crouched down and spoke to her as if he were talking to an infant: "Ohhh, was it too noisy for you? Ohhh, so terrrrrible. Soooooo much noise! Things are sooooooo terrible!"

My teacher's wife said, "OK, I understand."

True story.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to why people would think it is a Zen center's job to be a soup kitchen or similar activities. Isn't the point of a Zen center to be a vehicle for Zen teachings and, more importantly, meditative practice?

I'd personally rather have less politics in my sangha. If I want to be in a local, political, community organization, I'll go join one dedicated to that purpose (and, yes, I live in an urban, very mixed race and income area so I understand the nature of the communities in such places pretty well).

Nathan said...

Ah yes - Sheng Yen. I have a few of his books. Great response.

Anon. - the soup kitchen idea was really about ways to use the kitchen. I don't assume that my sangha should start up a homeless feed, for example. But we certainly could be, in my opinion, more involved in some cacacity in the neighboring community.

Your choice of the phrase "politics" is interesting. If you are speaking about race and racism, I would argue that the very idea that one can separate race questions from practice is a privileged, white construct. The only "less politics" when it comes to race in our sanghas is the politics of denial and burying our heads in the Zen flavored sand. I happen to think that liberation is tied to examining identity(s) and breaking through various forms of oppression. This happens in zazen and in our actions on through streets, in our homes, and in our sanghas.

Ji Hyang said...

Agree with you, Nathan-- on the ways in which community conversations about amenities/ expansion are often unconsciously informed by expectations related to socioeconomic status/ race-- and this aspect of self-insight-- though it can be well supported by mindfulness-- is too rarely brought to the surface. See Making the Invisible Visible ...

LuLu3156 said...

It is so great to see how far Sistah Vegan's blogpost is reaching. It is causing quite a stir in the SF Zen Center world! And thank you for your thoughtful post.