Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Silence of White American Buddhists on Ferguson

"Not terribly long ago in a country that many people misremember, if they knew it at all, a black person was killed in public every four days for often the most mundane of infractions, or rather accusation of infractions – for taking a hog, making boastful remarks, for stealing 75 cents. For the most banal of missteps, the penalty could be an hours-long spectacle of torture and lynching. No trial, no jury, no judge, no appeal. Now, well into a new century, as a family in Ferguson, Missouri, buries yet another American teenager killed at the hands of authorities, the rate of police killings of black Americans is nearly the same as the rate of lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century."

Since this is a blog about Buddhism among other things, I'll start with this statement. The majority, perhaps the vast majority of covert Buddhists sanghas in the US will have nothing to public to say about Ferguson. They will not deliberately open their doors, as East Bay Meditation Center is doing today, as a place of respite for the outraged, weary, and sad. They will not issue any public statements about racial injustice, the suppression of peaceful protests, or anything of the like. They will not offer dharma talks on Ferguson, state sanctioned violence, or the militarization of our police departments. They will not show up, in any significant numbers, at protests or solidary events. They most likely won't, in any real tangible manner, demonstrate that the above, quoted reality is a total travesty, and that the only way to stand behind and support our black brothers and sisters is to reject the status quo, and work together to build a more just, and truly peaceful society.

I want to be wrong about all this, but I probably won't be. It's just far too easy for white dominant Buddhist sanghas to minimize, deny, or ignore all this. We don't want to "take sides." We don't want to upset anyone. Politics have no place in the dharma. We don't know the whole story. The list goes on and on.

Part of me has compassion for the fact that this is the karma of hundreds of years of settler colonialist propaganda. That spiritual bypassing, ignorance, and even flat out prejudice and hatred in some cases can drive the words and actions of so many of my fellow white Buddhist practitioners.

The other part of me says for fucks sake, wake up!

I watched the protests in Ferguson on livestream last night for a good hour and a half. Occasionally, I had flashbacks to protests I've been involved in over the past decade. But what they were dealing with was worse. More calculated and oppressive. Tear gas canisters flying everywhere. Military vehicles all over the place. Guns aimed in all directions. It looked like a total war zone.

Apparently, some mainstream media outlets made a huge deal out of a handful of fires. A couple of burning cop cars and buildings. There was plenty of noise made about protesters throwing rocks as well. It sounded way too much like Gaza. Looked way too damned much like Gaza!

We live in a nation built from the fruits of genocide, slavery, and widespread economic oppression. Our leaders support and wage wars across the globe. The United States is, for all intents and purposes, the embodiment of the three poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance).

Defending the "rule of law," means supporting greed, hatred, and ignorance. Choosing to hang out in the absolute realms, far too common for U.S. Buddhists, especially white ones, means being okay with the endless suffering around us, and within us.

We are a few days from Thanksgiving. A holiday that covers up a legacy of human genocide (that of our indigenous brothers and sisters), while committing one annually against an animal community (our turkey brothers and sisters). And lest this post get consumed by people defending meat eating, I'm not talking about the reverent taking of life to sustain one's own life. I'm talking about 45 million turkeys slaughtered annually, many of them raised in giant factory farms, all for a holiday that is sustained by a settler colonialist myth about the "beginnings" of the nation.
Forgive me for not feeling thankful for any of this.

A few days ago, a 12 year old black boy, Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by Cleveland police. That a boy that young is so readily seen as a "threat" so "dangerous" he must be shot speaks volumes about the state of our affairs. That Darren Wilson is free, but Marissa Alexander in prison and facing another possible 5 year sentence, demonstrates just how fucked up things are - and have been for a long, long time.

And yet, I'm guessing that the coming weeks will be similar to the previous few months when it comes to Ferguson and white majority Buddhist sanghas and practitioners. Mostly silence. And not the kind of silence that comes from meditation practice offering metta and prayers of support to the directly suffering, but more the kind of silence that comes from privilege and settler colonialist thinking.

I spent significant time at my zen center over the past 3 days. I love my sangha, and often feel proud of how far we have come over the years, even on such difficult issues as systemic racism and oppression. And yet, even so, I'm honestly not sure I can go for refuge there on a day like today. I'm just not sure there's space for the mixture of outrage, sadness, and a desire to do more than just sit, although I need - so many of us really - need that too.

This afternoon, I will head to one of our local solidarity demonstrations. It isn't nearly enough, and at every one of these someone speaks to how it's just that: not enough. But until more answers forward arise, we have to do something, say something.

I pray for more awakening, more liberation, to penetrate the hearts and minds of this nation. May the wood of the empire rot, and a new house be built that lets all of us, all beings, thrive.


Ji Hyang said...

In Buddhism After Patriarchy, Rita Gross points out that within many Asian Buddhisms, social activism within the sangha is discouraged, in favor of ultimate liberation. In my experience with Korean and Chinese monastic teachers they often have understood Buddhism in this way. Of course, in the US this coincides with our own collective energies of denial. Just adding one more facet. Also, here is my contribution....


Robyn said...

Thought you might be interested in this program that has been going on at ZCNYC since 2004. http://zmm.mro.org/retreats/beyond-fear-of-differences/

Initially, it was a series of conversations led by the Abbott. Then, a diverse group met regularly to discuss how it might be more in-depth and effective. We just completed the first nine-month series - meetings once/month complimented by reading. The Temple also hosts a monthly gathering for people of color in the sangha so they can discuss issues related to their experiences. Since I am white, I don't know how it is going except to say that there seems to be a good group that attends each month.

No, it is not enough and no, it is not a direct response to Ferguson, but it is looking at the roots of these issues and looking at long term solutions using the Dharma as the basis of discussion and change. I am fairly sure that Shugen Sensei would share what he has learned through this process - including the curriculum - with any other sangha that is interested in starting their own series.

Nathan said...

JiHyang - It seems to me that there's been a tension between "social engagement" and "ultimate liberation" in Buddhist circles, probably since the beginning. Shakyamuni himself intervened in conflicts, and offered direct teachings to leaders about how to lead societies. And yet, he left his family, and the sangha was separate from society. I sometimes wonder what it was actually like in the first sangha. I think about the challenges to Buddha's leadership that came during his last decades of life, as well as the challenges that came earlier to include women, to counsel kings, and to broker deals to have land to practice on.

Coming down through history, somehow Buddhism became a state religion in multiple nations, a practice of hermits completely isolated from society, and everything in between.

I think it's fair to say that amongst Asian monastics, the ultimate liberation teachers are, and have been, the focus. But the overall story is more complicated, and difficult to pin down.

Nathan said...

Robyn, I like that ZCNYC is directly working with these issues, and doing so on a regular basis. That's a big plus in my book.

Unknown said...

The First Noble Truth taught to us by the Buddha is that life is suffering, not that one group of people suffers more than another. It makes sense then that one of the vows we take as Buddhists is to liberate all sentient beings, not just the ones who agree with our politics or are deemed worthy of our sympathy. This, to me, means not taking sides. At its core, Buddhism is not a religion or a political system, but a method for perceiving the true nature of reality; taking sides in the name of any political agenda has nothing to do with that.

What makes me uneasy about this post is that you seem to be calling for a brand of Buddhadharma that’s informed by political ideology and activism, as opposed to the other way around. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Buddhists taking action within their communities that prevents or alleviates suffering, but these actions have to be guided by the Dharma and aimed at everyone. Picking and choosing sides and taking action in accordance with activist rhetoric is not Buddhism, it’s pure politics, and politics is nothing more than getting what you want.

Domyo said...

Thanks for your conscience-pricking post! Here's post on what we did at my Zen Center last night: http://journeyofconscience.net/2014/11/26/bringing-racism-violence-meditation-hall/

Nathan said...

" I’m all for Buddhists taking action within their communities that prevents or alleviates suffering, but these actions have to be guided by the Dharma and aimed at everyone. Picking and choosing sides and taking action in accordance with activist rhetoric is not Buddhism, it’s pure politics, and politics is nothing more than getting what you want."

There is no escape from politics. This seems to be a bug for a lot of Buddhists - the desire to act in an apolitical manner. As I see it, the numerous convert Buddhist dharma communities I point to in part of the post are making a political act when choosing to NOT focus on issues like systemic racism. It's an "invisible," default action, but no less political than my own words here. The same goes for dharma centers that choose to run primarily on a capitalist model of financing. It's a political choice, regardless of how invisible or default it is.

I'll readily admit being biased, and frankly, a bit "loud" in this post. Just as I and my fellow protestors have been on the streets the past few days. It's not a "perfect" post, nor the only manner in which I engage these issues - especially when speaking with my fellow white Buddhist practitioners.

In my opinion, however, sometimes Right Speech and Right Action are not calm looking, equanimous, etc.
Furthermore, even if you do everything in your power to not take sides, it's likely you'll be seen as taking sides, especially under highly difficult social conditions.

I wrote this in response to a similar comment on Facebook:

"In the particular case of Ferguson, equanimity can come in the form of seeing the humanity in every individual involved in the situation. Regardless of their deeds. To not dehumanize anyone, or create monsters out of anyone. And furthermore, to try and understand why different folks have or are thinking/acting as they are.

I can do my best to embody that, and also fully reject the systems of oppression at play that give certain people much more power, influence, and safety than others. Thich Nhat Hanh and the early members of the Order of Interbeing - to give a well known example - did their best to not "take sides" during the various conflicts happening in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. They gave help wherever they could, while at the same time speaking out against oppression, warfare, political corruption, and other forms of violence. Every day, they sat with it all, refined their messages, etc. However, they also acted, and spoke out, and in the end, many of the power elite saw them as "taking sides" anyway."

Unknown said...

I'm Latino and I'm from the Bronx, so loudness doesn't bother me. Lol!

I'm also a boxer, so I know all about Right Speech and Right Action not always looking calm or equanimous- believe me.

I agree that we can't really escape from politics, and I'm not saying that we should necessarily even try to. My issue with the sangha in America is that so many of us claim to be practicing Buddhadharma, when in reality we're playing politics, which I think is going to hurt us in the long run because we're not really staying to true to our vow to liberate all sentient beings.

When I speak to American Buddhists of all races, what I find is that they are more concerned with ideology than realization, with changing the world around them, but not doing much in the way of examining themselves. I think that our society would benefit more if the sangha in America would focus more on practice and acting in accordance with that practice, and less on mixing and matching ideologies and using Buddhist terminology to advance political agendas.

In my view, the framework laid down by the Buddha is perfect; the Truths are Noble because they are universal, which means they are the cure for all ills. When Buddhists take up political ideologies and activism, I feel that they are forgetting that fact.

Be well.

n. yeti said...

I think one diligent person who attains unsurpassed awakening will do far more toward ending the suffering of all beings than ten million Buddhists marching on Ferguson.

Anonymous said...

"While many people wish to paint over the blight of racism that permeates the Buddhist community by casting it under the rug of a misguided fixation on identity, it was the Buddha himself who expressed an awareness of the need to address race, caste, gender, and class oppression by modeling the path to liberation.”


Nathan said...

"When I speak to American Buddhists of all races, what I find is that they are more concerned with ideology than realization, with changing the world around them, but not doing much in the way of examining themselves."

Peter, this is interesting because I often see almost the opposite amongst American Buddhists. A lot of focus on self, and a lot of desire to keep the world around them out of the conversation. Or to only mention it in vague terms.

I do agree though that focus on realization is lacking all around.

noah said...

"I think one diligent person who attains unsurpassed awakening will do far more toward ending the suffering of all beings than ten million Buddhists marching on Ferguson."

Why does it have to be one or the other?

Inge said...

I usually agree with most of your posts but this one I do not. This sounds like politics to me. I agree America has a terrible history when it comes to treating Blacks and don't get me started with the slavery problem. There are too many black men dying at the hands of police and there is video proving that. As for the Brown case, there is not video that I am aware of, except the one in the convenience store.

I think there is more to the story than we know and unanswered questions, like why did Brown think its ok to bully the store clerk? Why was he walking in the street? He had a scholarship to college. What was he thinking? We will never know.

Did any of that behavior justify his death? No. But we don't know what happened. I don't know what happened. I wasn't there. Supposedly the grand jury decided the shooting was justified. That's our justice system , if we don't like the rules we can work to change them...but since I don't know what happened how can I judge their decision?

I can come to my own conclusions based on what I saw on the store video but I won't get in to that.

What really bothered me about your post is, you didn't think burning building is a big deal. People lost businesses they worked hard to build. People are out of work. Do you know how hard it is to find work? What about those people? Is it ok to loot and destroy property because you're pissed off? How about those people destroy their mother's homes. How destroying their father's workplace?

I left the Occupy movement because the "non-leaders" (who constantly struggled for power) decided its ok to scream and throw things at the police... I guess it was their interpretation of a non-violent peaceful protest.

I've been to protests since the early 90s and they started out peaceful and soon the criminals came in to destroy what they could. They were looking for a fight. They didn't care about the intent of the original protest, they took advantage to cause chaos and destruction.

In my opinion there is no excuse for violence, especially when reacting to violence. I saw signs that said "Black lives matter." What about the black business owners? They don't matter?

If we ever expect to have real change, we need to stop the violence against each other. It doesn't matter what we call ourselves, black, white, Jew, Buddhist, Atheist...we are all human and what we have are humans hating and killing humans.

I practice Buddhism and my biggest lesson is to not be an asshole. I was raised in a violent environment. I can easily smack someone but I learned there is a better way. Its easy to act out but its harder to protest and remain calm. You won't win many converts acting like an asshole.

This person is the only one who, I think can see through the illusion we are taught by our society. http://youtu.be/BQgNrnWZVSI

Nathan said...


First off, even if we can pick apart and question what happened in Ferguson that day, it doesn't erase the fact that systemic racism rules the day in our "justice" system. Michael Brown's death was a spark, unearthing decades of grievances and injustice.

Second, the store owner in Ferguson repeatedly has said that there was no robbery reported. And the chief of police said that Officer Wilson originally approached Brown because of jaywalking and blocking traffic. Frankly, it's been sickening (although not surprising) to me how much effort has been put in to creating a criminal image around this kid.

Thirdly, Let's talk scales of violence. The US government spends trillions of dollars on war (state sanctioned terrorism and murder) across the globe annually. A black person is killed by an American police officer every 28 hours in this nation. Billions of dollars in military equipment have been given to police departments to use on its citizens. It's legal for corporations to poison our waters in order to extract some oil from the ground to profit off of...

I don't view property damage as equivalent to violence against people or other living things. I'm well aware of how difficult it is to get a job these days, and feel bad for those who lost their jobs down there. And also for those who lost their businesses. Burning down local businesses isn't how I would handle things, but I find myself far more critical of a system built on violence and oppression, than a handful of folks who burned down some buildings and/or took some stuff.

Nathan said...

In addition, it's important to question who it is that is burning these buildings and cars. During the RNC convention here in St. Paul, a police car was overturned and smashed, and then became the focus of mainstream media reports. Didn't matter that 10,000+ protesters were peacefully offering their messages across the area, or that the vast majority of organized groups were not invested in property damage actions. All that got erased, and we all got smeared as troublemakers. A year later, a report was quietly released pointing to hired goons as the culprits behind the overturned police car. They'd been hired by the County Sheriff's Dept to infiltrate the protests. This shit goes on all the time!

Furthermore, when it comes to Ferguson, there's also the KKK and white supremacists movements. Already, reports suggest these folks burned down that church where Michael Brown's family attended. And they may have murdered one of the witnesses to Michael Brown's death as well.

We don't know who burned those businesses, and it's far too easy to smear the largely non-violent resident protestors down there. But even if they did it all, consider the levels of oppression and suffering these folks have gone through. Expecting them to be perfectly organized and non-violent - especially in the face of a repeated military style response from the police and National Guard - is lacking compassion. I've watched numerous white people invoke MLK and the Civil Rights era protests, forgetting (or probably never knowing) that it took well over a decade of focused effort, organizing, and training to develop large groups of folks able to withstand the onslaught of sustained police violence and hatred coming from white citizens.

Finally, I'll say this. Decades of staying calm, and trying to work within the system, haven't transformed the system. Already, in the wake of these protests (since August), a state level commission in Missouri has been appointed to get at the underlying causes of unrest in St. Louis County, piles of money have been donated to the long underfunded Ferguson Public Library, the Federal Dept of Justice is investigating long standing discrimination issues in Ferguson, police policies/procedures are being scrutinized by large numbers of people across the nation, and the list goes on. Several weeks of protests have accomplished what decades of voting, petitioning elected officials, writing letters, etc. didn't. This article is compelling on that very issue.


Nathan said...

"Why does it have to be one or the other?"

I totally agree. The separation people employ on social issues is really problematic in my opinion. There's a contingent of activists reject any form of spiritual work or personal practice. And then there are the "keep politics out of spiritual/religious life" folks. Neither of these makes sense according to Buddhist teachings.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciated this post - thank you. As a Buddhist, I find most of the comments hard to understand. I don't see sides. We have an unarmed child shot and killed - this is generating suffering for a family and community. We have the policeman who did the shooting and killed a child - taking a life generates suffering for him. I don't get how acknowledging these things is political or picking a side. Don't we learn that suffering is universal - so sitting with protestors who are suffering and a letter acknowledging Darren Wilson's suffering, even talking about it within the sangha, I just don't see a side. Silence seems like willful ignorance and choosing sleep over staying awake.

n. yeti said...

"Why does it have to be one or the other?"

Nothing in my statement implied that it does. That is how holy wars get started.

n. yeti said...

So, if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem? I wonder where that habit of mental discrimination will lead except to more suffering.

n. yeti said...

'"Good man, you should understand these principles in this way: When the mind is impartial towards all living beings, one can accomplish full and perfect great compassion. By using the mind of great compassion to accord with living beings, one perfects the offering of the Dharma to the Buddhas. In
this way the Bodhisattva constantly accords with living beings.
"Even when the realms of empty space are exhausted, the realms of living beings are exhausted, the karma’s of living beings are exhausted, I will still accord endlessly, continuously, in thought after thought, without cease. My
body, speech and mind never weary of these deeds." '

Avatamsaka sutra

Nathan said...

I think these battles about scripture are old, very old. The "individual enlightenment" camp tends to see activity in the world as problematic or limited at best. The "bodhisattva" camp tends to view individual enlightenment as limited, or opting out in some sense.

Honestly, that's what I see over and over in these kinds of discussions. Battles over this turf, with various forms of clothing on top.

I don't think anyone knows what will spark awakening, or where it will happen, or under what conditions exactly. A practitioner on a mountaintop may be stuck for decades, while another in the middle of a conflict zone might burn through their afflictions quickly. Of course, the opposite might also happen.

Nathan said...

On another note, one of our teachers gave a dharma talk on
Sunday on a Dogen fascicle and devoted a large chunk of the talk to Ferguson. Which surprised me, but also made me happy.

She acknowledged the suffering present all around. Acknowledged that we don't know for sure what happened between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown. And she also spoke about the pattern of systemic racism in our justice system, and about "showing up" to face these things, while letting go of attachments to any desired outcomes of showing up.

There is no one form of showing up. I saw this talk as a form of showing up, since it addressed the silence I spoke of in this post.

Inge said...

I am disappointed by your justification for looting and destroying. There is a lot of "he said, he said" when it comes to reporting via the news media. The video of Brown"s behavior in the convenience store tells a different story, but I'm not going to rehash that. I think many of us like to side with the stories that we want to be true.

Violence only causes more violence. Lets face it, our culture is violent. Just look at the best selling video games. Our society loves drama. Just look at all those reality shows. We are lead to believe that only violence will solve our problems and bring about peace. Our leaders bring violence to other countries under the pretense of wanting to free them from the violence and oppression they live under from a dictator.

Lets be honest no one cares about bringing about peace who uses violence to achieve it. Especially our government. If you think those leaders care about you and me you're mistaken. Its all about money and staying in power. But greed isn't limited to the rich. I've witnessed greedy, selfish behavior from those I work with. Their justification is "well, the other guy's doing it." Its disappointing.

You certainly can believe what you want but as for me, I chose non violence... I am willing to do civil disobedience and face possible arrest, but not if it hurts another sentient being.

Nathan said...


You choose to view my comments as justifying violence. And you choose to fixate on the specifics of Michael Brown's case, instead of look at the bigger picture as to why so many people across the nation are compelled to keep filling the streets. Yes, we don't know for sure if Michael Brown was "innocent" or not, but it is so, so far beyond that.

Frankly, I feel profoundly saddened that our police forces are being trained in such a manner that they open fire on black and brown folks so readily, and seem compelled to escalate the scale of force so quickly these days in general. I am afraid of the hells police forces are creating on a daily basis, and how that impacts the psyches of individual officers. Especially those who entered the force with altruistic motives. And I'm outraged that so many choose to justify police violence and repression, and think that in doing so, they're somehow "caring for" and being "compassionate to" the officers (and departments) involved.

Along those lines, here's another article worth considering, something I have personally experienced, being shoved into a crowd by a police officer once because I was standing somewhere he didn't want me to be standing. I have never once in all my days of attending rallies, demonstrations and social actions engaged in violence against other people or living beings. But I have seen the kind of police provoking spoken about in the article on a regular basis, and know that it takes a lot for people to hold their shit together. Especially when they're already angry and upset about prevailing social conditions.


Furthermore, since you're stuck on the "violence" of protestors, it's such a small percentage of people who have chosen to burn buildings and steal stuff, but you (and so many others) focus on them alone, and seem to have no interest in looking beyond that. The centuries (and it truly is that) of injustice and oppression behind all this are lost in debates about violence and non-violence, and how to be a "proper" protestor or whatever.

I totally agree that our society of violent. In my view, the bulk of the violence comes from the top down, not the other way around. Where's your outrage about the endless forms of police brutality around the nation? Or about systemic racism in the justice system? Or about the militarization of police forces? Or about the endless wars that fuel our economy, and drive this militarization? Or the prison industrial complex, that drives the largest incarceration of people per capita on the planet?

As much as it's not good that some businesses have been destroyed in Ferguson, that ain't squat in the big picture of violence in America. It just isn't.

Is it going to be the same kind of response when things flair up around the case of 12 year old Tamir Rice? What will it take to move beyond the obsession with the imperfect actions of the marginalized and oppressed?

n. yeti said...

Did you ever expect samsara to be different than this?

Anonymous said...

Hello Nathan and other commenters. I really appreciate your words. As a person of color (i mostly feel my native roots, but to most white people i'm Mexican, since I live in Colorado) and a spiritual being who works in the social change movement i'm astounded by the silence from the spiritual community. Not just in the recent obvious police brutality moments caught on film, but in acceptance of a systematic oppression of black, brown, and red people in this country. Take their lands, enslave them, keep them in illegal status, and say nothing to change their oppressed condition. Even the Dalai Lama does not stay silent in protest against Chinese oppression of Tibetans. That many choose to pick at what you have said and to support their arguments with the Dharma is silly thought. The only way that any of this bullshit will end is if more white people take a stand. And not just you my friend, but the masses. Unfortunately, the trend is not looking good. So I can't expect that things will change until as my black brothe and I said over dinner the other night, until the baby boomer and millenials over 30 are dead and gone. The generation of whites under 30 don't buy the racist ideology. Thank GOD, Buddha, and Creator. Let the white spiritual folks worry about their own crap and cotinue to live in their white priviledge. Time is on our side. Change will come. Sadly though not due to white spiritual folks taking a stand, saying something, and doing something. I experience more racism in the spiritual community than on the street of Denver. Its sad, its silly. But true. Blessing brothers and sisters. May your time come soon.

Nathan said...

Hi Anonymous,

I haven't been feeling very hopeful about the near term, for precisely the reasons you point to. The oppositional resistance from older white folks is fierce. However, that can't last. And I think you're right on that younger white folks, on the whole, don't buy into the old system, and it's thought processes.

Thank you for stopping by and commenting!