Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams is a jewel. Radical Dharma is the title of her latest book which I look forward to reading. Today I attended her workshop on Radical Dharma. Here are my (white) person thoughts:
Dharma is a Sanskrit word which can be roughly translated as “the teaching of Buddha” for a Buddhist, or more generically as “truth”, or perhaps “profound spiritual truth”, or “that which awakens and liberates”.
Buddhists learn about Dharma in the context of the Four Noble Truths taught by Shakyamuni Buddha – suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Implicit within that are teachings on karma (cause and effect), rebirth, the nature of mind, the nature of self, and a vast philosophical body of knowledge. These are the foundational teachings of Buddhism.
But Radical Dharma – what’s that? Radical Dharma is about confronting the pain and suffering that structural oppression and white supremacy creates within society in general, within spiritual communities and Buddhist communities in particular. As a student of Buddhism for the past 30 years, at first I did not see the essentialness of this conversation. After all, if the path to liberation or enlightenment is about transcending ego and identity, why not just spend all my time developing samadhi (single pointed concentration), vipassana (direct non-dualistic insight), so that I can cut the root of ignorance and achieve liberation? And why is everyone else so upset? Just use your suffering as an opportunity to let go of mistaken notions of self and be free. Or so the implicit logic of this argument seems to go.
I am not saying that traditional silent meditation retreats aren’t important. In my own life, I’ve been very privileged to have spent many months doing just that. There is no universal road map to spiritual freedom that works for every individual at all times. That is why it is always important to develop relationships with skilled, wise, and ethical teachers who can help guide us towards the next step on the long road of Dharma. But in the end, each one of us must take responsibility for life’s decisions. We need to cultivate a relationship with our inner guru, which for me means not waiting until I achieve full enlightenment before acting to relieve suffering. The world is in deep crisis now. Will long periods of meditation in solitude benefit the greater good? This is an important question deserving careful consideration in these times, when so much urgent work is before us. What can I do? I’m not always sure. But to the extent that I have freedom and agency to make decisions, radical Dharma means thinking about what is truly important, what aligns with my highest values, the most profound possibilities, and moving in that direction, one small step, one moment, at a time.
Radical Dharma means questioning why it is that I, a white person, was able to spend years of my life doing intensive Dharma practice, with exceptionally well qualified teachers, while very few people of color have that opportunity? And access to Buddhist teachings is far more than just an issue of money and economics. It’s also about people of color or people from other marginalized identities (non-dominant sexual-gender identities, differently abled individuals, etc.) having access to community spaces free of white dominant thinking that does not simultaneously oppress them while preaching about liberation. The many and often subtle ways in which white dominant thinking has shaped our thinking is not initially obvious to white people.
When considering why the Dharma is less accessible to people of color, it would be easy to respond from the intellect, in a very pedantic, Buddhist doctrinal way – it’s all just karma, right? Well, yes, it’s true, every life situation is karma, including my response to structural oppression right this very moment. That is, what karma do I intentionally create right now in response to the system of white supremacy and oppression which kills and oppresses people of color, literally, and in ten thousand different ways big and small, every day? What karma do I wish to create in response to white supremacy which poisons our way of living, our economic system, and the Earth itself?
I could choose to remain oblivious to the suffering of others and stay inside my bubble of white privilege. Over time, through diligent spiritual practice, it’s possible to spiritual liberation. But how can I achieve complete happiness when my black and brown mothers and our children from our infinite previous lives are in the claws of this monstrous system which devours them whole each and every minute? (In Buddhism, the mind is understood as having no beginning, therefore we have all had infinite previous lives, and therefore, all sentient beings have been our mother at one point in time, even cows, ducks, fish, ants, scorpions, Donald Trump, etc.) Radical Dharma is really none other than the path of a bodhisattva warrior. A bodhisattva (literally “mind of awakening”) is a person dedicated to full awakening in order to be of highest benefit to other beings. The radical bodhisattva strives for full awakening, informed both by the timeless wisdom of Buddhist teachings (the Dharma), and by voices from the front lines of struggle for racial equity.
Reverend Angel skillfully opened by creating the container of love, respect, and safety, allowing time for each person to be seen and welcomed by the group – name, preferred gender pronoun, place origin, and motivation. In a group of almost 100 people this took perhaps an hour. There was a palpable shift in the energy of the room.
After lunch, we broke into caucuses to discuss either the limitations of racial identity (experienced by people of color), or what experience awakened an understanding that race matters (experienced by white people). For white people, the question boils down to this: “When did race become real for your?”
I began to feel an emotional pain in my heart, wanting to connect more with the people of color in the room, but accepting that the day was not designed to be a social gathering but a spiritual-race workshop – with the emphasis on work! It is extremely difficult for white people to understand the depth of pain and inter-generational suffering that people of color feel within a white supremacist society. As such, doing this work involves intense vulnerability for people of color. As a white person, I need to respect that, make space for it, and focus on my own work with my white brothers and sisters, guarding against any desire to be a voyeur into the pain of people of color.
My story to the three other white people in my group: New Orleans, October 2005. I arrived a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina and Rita as a member of the newly formed group, Acupuncturists Without Borders, intending to offer trauma services with acupuncture. I was appalled by the police state response towards human lives. Just one example: in a so-called natural disaster (it’s never completely natural, but compounded by racism, colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism), when people run out of food, black people are shot or arrested for looting, whereas white people doing the same exact thing are portrayed in the media as “finding food.”
Despite my good intentions, no doubt my mind carried a unhealthy infection called “white savior industrial complex” – doing the work to be seen, thanked, acknowledged, unintentionally tokenizing people of color, instead of doing it simply because it was the right thing to do, from a place of pure love devoid of inner poverty needing anything in return.
As white people engaged in this work though, its important to give credit where it is due and not beat ourselves up over getting it wrong. I’ve made many mistakes. I will keep making mistakes. Mistakes are just opportunities for learning. It’s never personal in the end, unless we make it so. Breathe out, let it go, move on. Keep working on eradicating ignorance, internal colonization of the mind.
So there I was in the French quarter between clinic shifts one day and suddenly I needed to pee, desperately. I remember quite vividly walking into a restaurant with an air of white self-importance, wearing a wide brimmed white hat, and half demanding (with all the thinly veiled politeness I could muster) where the bathroom was located. I did not ask, but made clear with an authoritative presence that I needed the bathroom, and I expected to be shown the bathroom. I made no pretense even of being a customer of the business I had entered. And as I expected, I was immediately shown the bathroom. As I answered nature’s call, I suddenly had an epiphany. I asked myself – would I have been ushered to the bathroom if I had been black? I suddenly felt the long dark shadow of Jim Crow laws cross my heart, still lingering in the memory of the land.
Prison Industrial Complex and Reagan’s War on Drugs. Later, on a return trip to NOLA, I met a black man named V. He survived the flood, evacuating to Houston, but returned to NOLA because it was his home. I don’t know what our connection was, or why he opened up to me (and don’t ever expect or ask for such sharings because to request access to those very private places of grief is itself a form of racial oppression and retraumatization). In response to a very general question that I asked him about his life, he stunned me with his response: “I went to federal prison for 20 years for 3 joints. They took away 20 years of my life for 3 marijuana cigarettes.” And then he openly wept in front of me. I put my arm around him and let my heart open wide. There was nothing for me to say, nothing I could fix in that moment. Too often the desire to fix is simply a defensive shield that prevents us from bearing witness to the pain – the pain of another human being, and our own pain of being in relation with all life that suffers. Attuning to our pain of being in the world is always the first order of business, where the real healing begins.
In my late twenties, probably around the same time V had just started serving his 20 year sentence, I was caught entering the U.S. border from Canada with three white friends. We each had small quantities of marijuana in our possession. Our punishment? A mere seventy five dollar fine, with no criminal record. No written warning filed, no parole, no consequences at my place of employment, just a gentle pat on the wrist. (White) boys will be boys. See the difference?
For the final afternoon session, we lined up across the complex, often invisible divide of race – white people on one side of the room, people of color on the other. We asked questions and made requests in both directions across the divide, sharing vulnerably and authentically, with thoughtfulness, but without fixation on being free of mistakes.
This article is unfinished, like the work. The day after the retreat, I had these thoughts while walking in the forest: White supremacy is about more than just race, it’s about a system of conformity and oppression which affects us all. We are trained to fall in line, not question the dominant status quo, to obey authority, consume often and more. (Remember President Bush urging us all to go shopping after 9-11). Nobody alive today invented this system. It has been going for centuries and runs by itself, though certain people appear to benefit in the short term. This system runs with such brutal efficiency that it doesn’t even require any individuals who we might call “racists”, and that points to a critically misleading step to eliminating the scourge of institutional racism – when we characterize the problem as one of race relations between individuals. Of course, there are bigots and hate crimes, but the systematic oppression is the root that poisons with hate, or makes us unconsciously complicit with the system.
Another personal story about tokenizing people of color. In 2010, I traveled to Haiti to help with the medical relief effort there after the devastating earthquake which killed 300,000 or more people. While giving an acupuncture treatment to a young mother, I offered to hold her toddler for a few minutes so that she could relax. Another aid worker took a photo of me with his tiny hand touching my heart. It’s a touching image that helps me remember the gift of service. There was no thought of self-image, reputation, or personal gain at that moment, though of course, these thoughts still occur on a daily basis in my mental prison cell. Later, when I used the photo on my blog, was my motivation still selfless? It’s not so relevant how I answer this personal question – that’s for my conscience to look at. But to my white brothers and sisters, do you see how this can be problematic? How easy it is to allow the ego to take credit “doing the work”, when there’s still a lot of work to be done? This is colonizing and tokenizing mentality.
In an interesting twist to the tale of this image, some time later, my daughter’s private school did a story on my relief work in Haiti and featured this same photo on the front page of their e-newsletter, as if to say, “look at the charitable things that (white) parents in our community are involved in, taking care of black people way over there in Haiti.” But when, several months after the story was published, I read a 15 minute statement to the faculty and administration all gathered in a conference room, outlining what I saw as the areas where the school needed to do serious work on addressing institutional racism, the push back was stern and swift.
Take the lessons, but leave the stories to respect confidentiality. May all beings be liberated from structural oppression, internal oppression, and the delusions which are at the root of all suffering. May white supremacy become a sad but cogent lesson in history, replaced by an era where the uniqueness and diversity of all beings are respected and honored.
Radical Dharma, Reverend Angel Kyodo William’s website.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
What Does it Mean to Be White, and other books by Robin Diangelo
Why are all the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria, by Beverly Tatum.