Nov. 2, 2011, the day of the General Strike in Oakland. Mushim leading a meditation at the Occupy Oakland encampment at Frank Ogawa-Oscar Grant Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall, at the Interfaith Coalition tent. | Photo by Debra St. John.

The current issue of Tricycle features three essays by members of the Tricycle Community who, in different ways, don’t fit the stereotypical image of what a Western Buddhist looks like (“Lifting a Corner“). One of the three contributors is Patricia Mushim Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher, author, mentor, and community activist. In her essay, “Not What I Thought,” Mushim describes an incident at a Thai Buddhist temple in Chicago in the mid-eighties where the bhikkhus declined to invite her to meditate because she was a woman. From there she goes on to reflect on the diversity of North American Buddhism, as well as her place in it.

Mushim’s essay is so enjoyable and thought-provoking that I decided to reach out to see if she might talk about some of the ideas she raises a little more in depth. What follows are pieces of our recent email exchange, which explored diversity in a Buddhist context, Occupy Wall Street, and more.   

In your recent Tricycle essay you say that “this whole Buddhist thing” wasn’t what you had initially thought it would be—that it isn’t all wisdom and compassion. Now you tell students that it’s “a big, bad Buddhist world out there.” If you’ve found this to be the case—that the Buddhist world isn’t necessarily more enlightened than the rest of society—then why bother with Buddhism at all? To put it bluntly: does Buddhism work? Sometimes Buddhism works, for some people. Sometimes it works partially, or not at all, especially if it’s used as a spiritual bypass. Do Islam, Judaism, Christianity work? Sometimes, for some people—and there are abuses and corruption in all faith traditions. When I tell students that it’s a big bad Buddhist world out there, I’m trying to shrink their idealism in order to keep them safe and watchful enough to continue their practice. The Dalai Lama has written that, traditionally, a student should not choose a Buddhist teacher until the student has spent several years closely observing the teacher’s everyday actions. It’s a lot easier to talk beautifully about kindness and patience than to actually become those qualities, consistently, under stressful conditions.

In the U.S., many people who are attracted to Buddhism are, at the outset, entranced by their fantasies of tranquil monasteries and pure, unworldly Buddhist monks and nuns meditating and silently sipping tea, far removed from screaming toddlers with their hands and faces covered with mashed food advancing rapidly, arms outstretched, wanting to be picked up and comforted. Real life can be a total mess. When I say “big bad Buddhist world” I don’t mean that everything in it is morally bad. I mean that it is expansive, unhygienic, and totally not tailored to our individual desires and needs for what we think is “peaceful” and what we think is “good.”

Tell me about your diversity work. I’ve done diversity and inclusion trainings for Buddhist and other organizations. I often work with another trainer, usually a white person, or on multiracial teams. My client list includes Naropa University, San Francisco Zen Center, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, the Wright Institute, and the American Automobile Association in Northern California. What is called “diversity work” isn’t just about pointing out all the ways in which individuals may be different. You may choose a red T-shirt from a bin; I may choose a green T-shirt or say that I hate T-shirts. There are all kinds of ways in which people are diverse. Diversity work is actually about pointing to painful and startling issues related to the unequal distribution of power in our homes, workplaces, schools and public places; the role of unearned and often unconscious privilege in perpetuating oppression; and unfair differences in people’s ability to access basic resources in our society. Once again, U.S. convert Buddhists may enter into Buddhist groups with the idealistic notion that both conscious and unconscious oppression will be absent if people meditate for many years, or study sutras assiduously, or are recognized as having attained a certain spiritual status. It’s usually very sobering when a Buddhist community that feels they are open to everyone begins to see ways in which they behave very much like any other non-spiritual community to perpetuate institutionalized oppression. And it’s encouraging to me when some of these communities decide to commit to a diversity initiative and do the hard and messy work of creating sangha cultures that are more culturally competent and diversity mature.

For the past five years, I’ve directed my primary energies into helping to build the East Bay Meditation Center in downtown Oakland, California. As a board member and core dharma teacher of EBMC, I’m happy to be part of a Buddhist group that is dedicated to diversity and social justice. Jack Kornfield has called the EBMC community “the most diverse sangha on the planet.” Imagine that!

You lead retreats dedicated specifically to practice in the context of diversity. What does that mean, exactly? How is a diversity retreat different from a “normal” retreat? Prior to the women’s movement, many men might have walked into a roomful of people sharing the same profession, and might not have given a thought to the fact that no women were present because the status quo, by definition, looked and felt normal. In the 1960s my mother became one of the first women pharmacists in Ohio, where I grew up. She said that customers liked her because she treated them well; the customers would come to the counter and say, “I want to see the lady pharmacist.” Now, in 2011, there are pharmacists of all genders. They’re just called pharmacists.

The phrase “diversity retreat” exists only if the, usually unconscious and unexamined, concept of a “normal retreat” is that it only attracts white people, or only attracts people with college educations, or only attracts people who self-identify as heterosexual and either as a man or a woman; or only attracts people who don’t have to worry about having a way to get to the retreat center, or only includes people who don’t have to ask for disability accommodations. The goal of diversity work is to make itself obsolete. “Practice in the context of diversity” will, hopefully, eventually become a meaningless phrase. Dharma practice by its very nature should acknowledge diversity and should aim for inclusion. How else can we hope to create a more enlightened society that consists of more awake individuals?

In “Not What I Thought” you quote an article that you wrote for Inquiring Mind: “In the past few years I have noticed that dharma teachings that often go over fairly well in a white middle-class audience are met with dissatisfaction and distrust, or even active resistance, by people of color.” Why do you think that is? Or rather, I think my question is: Do you think that dharma teachings always need to be tailored to a student’s particular, unique background? Yes. More accurately, to be effective, dharma teachings need to be culturally sensitive and culturally resonant, because all individuals are conditioned by various cultures, and all organizations and groups of people have their own organizational and group cultures.

Would it even be possible then to have a dharma teaching that could speak to very diverse groups in a way that is authentic and meaningful? A dharma teaching always comes from a source, usually a person who is regarded as having had some sort of religious training plus personal life experience plus spiritual insight, that gives that person’s words credibility. The more gravitas the teacher has—which is a matter of perception—the more potential their teachings contain to be regarded as “authentic and meaningful.” And, of course, different teachers are regarded with more or less respect and awe in different circles. In my experience and point of view, a dharma teacher needs to have street cred, so to speak, with their listeners, or whatever they say may be regarded with some justifiable suspicion.

I’m getting the feeling that you’re asking if there is a sort of “one size fits all” dharma teaching. Unlikely, but it’s definitely true that some dharma teachers have had the life experience, and are able to teach in such a way that their teachings appeal to a very broad spectrum of people. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have touched millions of people with their dharma teachings in different media. A member of HarperCollins’s publishing staff once wrote me that “Pema Chödrön’s books just fly off the shelves of bookstores.” There’s obviously an appeal tending towards the universal in teachings of Buddhist teachers who draw thousands of people to their events, and who write bestselling dharma books.

However, in order to hear the dharma from a teacher, one must place one’s trust and faith in that teacher and that trust and faith must be confirmed. So, whereas a sort of general dharma talk that vaguely yet glowingly discusses things like love, wisdom, compassion, kindness, etc. might fly to some extent with a diverse audience, things might rapidly break down if there’s a Q&A session and the teacher’s lack of experience in, and lack of respect for, cultural differences quickly emerges. One African American Buddhist described a white teacher’s probably heartfelt declaration that “race does not matter; we are all one” as evidence that the teacher was “hanging out in the Emptiness Zone.” This was not intended as a compliment. A white teacher who has established themself, through many years of actions and behaviors, as an ally to people of color, identifying closely with their suffering, has a better chance with the “We are all one” talk. The bottom line is that the dharma is transmitted through the actions of human beings, either present or not present, and it’s our real or imagined relationship with that human being that matters most to us, and that is proven to be more or less helpful over time, through different life situations.

One dharma teacher told me that one of her most significant experiences had been going to the dump with her teacher, and throwing stuff out the back of a pickup truck with him, surrounded by screeching, ravenous seagulls. Buddhist teachers help us to dump our extra stuff, and to do that they’ve got to dump their own extra stuff.

You wrote an article in Turning Wheel on Occupy Oakland. Why do you support the Occupy movement? Because I’m part of the 99% and so is everyone else I know, if we want to use the OWS language about the 99%. The Occupy movement, sometimes called the Decolonize movement by those who dislike the word “occupy” because of its historically negative meaning, is big, decentralized, creative and very diverse in manifesting the fact—not the feeling, but the fact—that in the United States, our systems of employment, education, health services, law enforcement, retirement pension accounts, and just about everything else are no longer working to serve the needs of the majority of people. As a volunteer and mother, I worked for 11 years in the Oakland public schools, assisting teachers, tutoring children, and teaching literature and writing, all for no payment whatsoever. I served on numerous school committees. If a person seriously questions why the Occupy movement is needed, I’d respectfully request that they spend a year showing up every school day in an Oakland public school, attending classes with the kids, using the same lunchroom facilities and bathroom facilities as the children, and sitting in on meetings between teachers and administrators, and attending school board meetings as well. Most public schools in an urban area as diverse as Oakland, California will bring together a community of youth and adults who form a microcosm of the majority of the broader society. The Occupy movement has a “think globally, act locally” kind of energy that, for me, makes sense in offering hope that large numbers of people can be mobilized to gain greater understanding of why our economy has crashed, and to form focused, local initiatives that make a positive difference in the everyday lives of people and their families.

Read Mushim’s essay from the Winter 2011 Tricycle, Not What I Thought.”

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