About six years ago I began to meditate as part of a Zen practice community, or sangha. We met once a week in a yoga studio and sat on cushions in a circle for twenty-five minutes. Afterward, we would listen to our teacher read and extrapolate from a book on Buddhism. We would have conversations about how these themes related to our lives. We practiced deep listening. No interruptions. No cross talk. No advice giving. No direct address.
Those conversations, among people of all different ages and life situations, initiated a sense of belonging and groundedness that I’ve not felt before or since. At the height of my practice, I began the day with one hundred and eight prostrations. I chanted and lit incense twice a day. Many of my friends and I accepted the Buddhist precepts into our lives during ceremonies in the desert.
During a silent retreat at a ranch in Aravaipa canyon, not too long after Eric Garner was killed, I re-read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It struck me that one of the characters in Kundera’s Prague was critical of shouting crowds, regardless of their politics. At this time, protests were raging all around the country. That first blush of Buddhism had made me feel equipped to deal with things like discipline and mortality. But my promise to be a warrior of compassion in light of police violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, and social media comment wars was starting to feel quite a bit more complicated.
It didn’t help that my sangha was having troubles of its own. A small committee of members dedicated themselves to reading and discussing race and privilege at a coffee shop one summer, and before long, some folks decided to leave the sangha. I wasn’t part of this group but apparently a point had been made: the sangha was dominated by white men. We were unable to parse the emotions that this idea brought up for our community. It has been years and people on both sides of the debate still remember the whole thing with palpable frustration.
In the meantime, the sangha has dramatically changed. We’ve moved in and out of town, started families, taken jobs. Sangha members have grown sick or passed away or gotten divorced. I haven’t been in months. Most of the people who made that space feel especially queer, feminist, radical and of color have splintered off altogether. In all that time we didn’t seem able to explore the ways in which white supremacy and heteronormativity had played a role in the infrastructure of that space regardless of how many cis white men actually spoke on any given day. Our splintering was complicated by a number of factors. But our failure to sit with this one paradox as a community might have been the beginning of what broke us.
So it was with great relief that I encountered the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation a few months ago. And it may indeed be a great relief to any sangha that has encountered these kinds of issues whether or not you choose to navigate them together. There is nothing unique about this kind of impasse. This is a universally difficult conversation for any community to have.
First of all, this book champions the possibility that all sanghas might not be right for everyone. It should be okay for people to make this choice. But it also asserts that discomfort is an inherent consequence of engaging with questions of social justice in any practice community. Lama Rod Owen says it best: “We waste sangha and community when we choose not to engage in discomfort associated with liberatory practice.” And, “I absolutely believe that we can use the quiet or the sitting practice to avoid having that dialogue.”
Inside you’ll find personal accounts of dharma practitioners who had difficulty working with white teachers, with negotiating a queer black identity in distinct spiritual communities over time. There are stories of standing in protest at a state sanctioned execution, of facing the addictive powers of Netflix, Hulu and Facebook. We get to read transcripts of conversations that the authors held during a series of dialogues they initiated at the Atlanta Shambhala Meditation Center, the Brooklyn Zen Center, the Harvard Divinity School, and the Center for Transformative Change in Berkeley. There is a prayer of awakening in three languages. There is mention of the dharmic integrity of Rihanna’s, “Bitch, Better Have My Money.” For serious.
I get frustrated when people talk about meditating as though it’s a day at the spa. This path toward awakening asks us to reckon with every single ounce of our shit. This path prepares us to reckon with the even bigger shit that is the wider world. The authors of this book have a commitment to the kind of internal discipline that you’d practice at a Zendo. But they take all of this personal practice, this essential foundation for non-violent protest, with them to demonstrations in Ferguson. And then they take it back home again.
So much of what I’ve needed to think through in my own practice, my own blackness, my own privilege, and my own grief about the state of this country was covered in this book. I went through periods of resistance and annoyance and procrastination. I kept picking it up and thumbing through the pages. Reading a chapter, weeping. Reading a chapter, staring at the wall. Reading a chapter, calling a friend to vent. Based on what I’ve seen of the show In Treatment, it was like going to a good therapist for the first time.
Rather than speaking in terms of spirituality or theism as a central tenant for radical practitioners of Buddhism, Radical Dharma draws the reader to consider love as discussed by authors we all love like James Baldwin and bell hooks. And specifically in this context: institutionalized racism at its core is a pervasive absence of love. One of James Baldwin’s recurring messages is that white people are denying themselves the full scope of their humanity by denying themselves the capacity to love the people they oppress. In the words of Radical Dharma, an entire generation of white people “allowed their children to witness the sale and degradation of other human bodies. This most unnatural of arrangements, executed for nothing more aspirational than the privilege of financial gain, required the compulsion toward compassion for other beings to be systematically uprooted and replaced with widespread indifference.”
What does it mean to live in a society that still relies on widespread indifference in order to function? There is an entire chapter in this book about the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery “except as punishment for a crime.” (The book would be well complimented by watching Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary, 13th.) When a mostly white sangha struggles to accept the way that this legacy of indifference manifests in the “refuge” space of their own practice community (through micro-aggressions, assumptions of inferiority, distrust and projected fears) they may not realize the extent to which they are making the sangha hall subtly, invisibly unsafe for people of color. Especially in an environment where politeness and kindness are thought of as interchangeable. Especially in environments that operate unwittingly “within the Puritan values of whiteness foisted upon the country at large.” I’m especially in love with the conversation in this book about the “obsession with authenticity” in many majority white Buddhist practice spaces.
But don’t worry, POC. We have work to do, too.
One of the most significant things that this book does, elegantly, is to explain the ways in which concepts like self-care and empathy have been dramatically mischaracterized in radical activist communities. “I could see,” writes Rev. angel Kyodo williams, “that many activist elders and now my younger counterparts had fallen into that vortex, and it seemed difficult to get out once you were caught there.” How can radical traditions embrace the very real motivating force of anger while also mitigating the inevitability of burn out?
Anger and forgiveness have a complicated history in any country where things like marginalization and state sanctioned violence and mass imprisonment and deportation and capitalism are involved. There is an inherent politics at play in the emotional lives of marginalized people. I remember feeling overwhelmed and confused after reading the New York Times op-ed piece, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylan Roof,” which Roxane Gay wrote in the aftermath of the Charleston church massacre. She explains with bold precision how dehumanizing it is to expect African Americans to forgive the people who keep killing them. Requiring forgiveness of the oppressed is basically forcing us to nod graciously in the face a murderous status quo. She writes, “Over the weekend, newspapers across the country shared headlines of forgiveness from the families of the nine slain. The dominant media narrative vigorously embraced that notion of forgiveness, seeming to believe that if we forgive we have somehow found a way to make sense of the incomprehensible.” She goes on, “We are reminded of the power of whiteness.”
I respect Roxane Gay’s right refuse forgiveness, to be “done with forgiving.” But I also believe in the power of this gesture beyond what it offers to a white supremacist status quo. I am constantly irritated with how eagerly white people hear these kinds of proclamations, though, which makes me want to take back that forgiveness, whip it around like a matador’s cape. But my Buddhist practice has asked me to at least move in the direction of compassion even if the journey is nauseating. Even if the precept of “non harm” means about twenty different things at once.
As far as I’ve seen, dharma teachers recommend caution when engaging with hatred, even though Buddhists are known for things like sending good will or metta to someone you feel disdain toward, or practicing tonglen— breathing the suffering of other beings into your own body. These kinds of practices can be draining and for good reason they take some people much guidance and many years to do properly. But even if it takes awhile to get there, the dharma tradition is rooted in nuanced thinking. Rev angel Kyodo williams writes, “Spiritual tradition is comfortable with paradox, whereas many political movements are not.” Buddhist philosophy only ever asks us to wonder things that have no easy answer. Like: is there enough room to practice compassion at the same time that we notice we’re being manipulated and dehumanized? How much of our own humanity is taken away from us when we don’t allow ourselves the emotional space to practice love in any circumstance?
Recently, someone I deeply admire made fun of Congressman John Lewis for saying that he forgave the policeman who broke his skull in Selma. This reminded me of a passage I’d read by Thich Nhat Hanh, who chose to feel love toward a soldier who pointed a gun at his head in Vietnam. I feel actual physical pain at the notion that these actions were somehow cowardly. Surely the overemphasis of moments like this on the part of white folks who have no interest in letting go of privilege is cowardly. But when utilized in spaces that lean heavily in the direction of violence and hatred, compassion and a commitment to nonviolence are an excruciating discipline that requires we disregard our most basic impulses. Avoiding difficult conversations, unfriending people we disagree with, and other modes of Facebook whateverthatis are not the beginning or the end of “the work.” Rev. angel Kyodo williams asks, “How do you go back to places like rural Georgia and have these conversations? You start with the people closest to you, which is hard. That’s the hardest work I think.”
This book isn’t easy. Which is part of why it’s so good. There are chapters that take forever to move through because they hit upon so much. If you are new to this practice, this book is not a primer. It can be read alongside other books that can walk you through the basics of Buddhist practice and race relations more generally. Many of the authors you might engage with beyond this text are mentioned in the book—Jan Wallace, WEB Dubois, Cornel West, bell hooks. Pick up some Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Pema Chodron, Joseph Goldstein, Alice Walker and Sharon Salzberg while you’re at it. Regardless, I hope that this book comes as an emphatic relief to folks who have felt at a loss as to how to bring social justice into their practice communities. Even if you’ve tried another book already, try this one. Try more. Keep going!
The way Rev. angel’s name is capitalized is intentional.