I need to find a way to deal with my anger at racism before it overwhelms me. Although I behave in a civilized manner—I don’t scream at or beat or kill anyone—anger festers within me, keeping me from being aware of my own power and potential.
Buddhism provides concrete methods to deal with anger; however, it is difficult to practice the precepts while under constant attack. I think of the Zen Buddhist story about the traveling monks who were suddenly confronted by assailants. One monk chose to sit and meditate while the others ran off. His screams as he was murdered were heard a great distance away. This is my dilemma, too. The monks’ situation is relevant to me: In moments of personal instability and crisis, how is Buddhism practiced?
I am an African-American female, raised in a two-parent home by college-educated parents. I was always taught that education was primary and that my potential would be unlimited if I achieved academic success. I went to the best schools, graduating from Mills College and Georgetown University Law Center. I worked as a congressional aide in Washington, DC, and as an attorney at a San Francisco law firm. I am presently a student at one of the top-rated theological schools in the nation.
I would say that at each successive level of my advancement, the racism that I experienced became more intense. It started in high school when I left my all-Black junior high school and went into a majority-white environment. It became worse at my undergraduate university, Mills College. Subsequently, I was shocked to find racism among the progressive liberal whites in my radical African-American congressman’s office. Yet all of my previous experience did not compare with the degradation and demoralization that I went through every single day at my law firm. I was the only African-American out of approximately 200 attorneys. Despite the fact that I made an extra effort to dress in a professional manner, always wearing quality suits, silk blouses, and gold jewelry, I was constantly mistaken for a secretary and treated rudely and with little respect. When I walked into a partner’s office I was often asked with a scowl, “What do you want?” When I identified myself and the legal rationale for my entering the office, an apology soon followed.
While I recognize that general statements don’t apply to every white person, I make such assertions consciously to enable the white reader to feel what Black people always feel. We are judged as a whole by the actions of the worst of us, while the best of us are seen as exceptions.
After I left the law firm, I took time to heal myself. I exercised and meditated, read enjoyable books, and spent time with my family and friends. In the fall of 1995, I entered my school of theology in good spirits. I was friendly, positive, and eager to start anew in what I thought would be an environment of spiritually-minded people living in harmony with themselves, others, and the universe. But even here, racist comments were common from people who considered themselves to be non-racist. For example, a white woman in class talked about her relationship with a Black man and called him all kinds of names. After class, she came up to me and wanted to know if I had had any problem with what she had said. I felt like telling her that she should ask the other white people in the class if they had any problems with it. What I actually said to her was that she might look inside herself to find the answer to her question. She got very upset with me and never spoke to me again. When white people believe they are themselves free of racism, it becomes impossible even to dialogue with them about racism because of their denial. Just to hint at the existence of racism brings anger directed toward the one making the assertion.
As a result, during my second semester I became increasingly withdrawn. I ceased to be as outgoing as I was when I first arrived on campus. I grew tired of explaining, educating, compromising, accommodating, being silent in the face of ignorance, smiling in public and crying in private. There arose within me a feeling of hopelessness.
Yet, I know within the depths of my consciousness that I am limitless in my ability to create all of that which I need and desire. I know that I could not survive, and my people could not have survived, the horrors inflicted upon us, but for some invincible power within each and every one of us that enables us to persevere. I have spent much energy trying to change others or get others to change themselves so that my life will be better. Always, the emphasis is on the external. I have allowed myself to believe that all of my power emanates from without. That is the source of my anger: they won’t give me; they won’t let me; they deny me opportunities; they are in control; I control nothing.
In Buddhism, anger is referred to as one of the Three Fires, also called the Three Poisons: desire, anger, and delusion. As long as I feel anger, I cannot know and experience anatta, or No-self. It is not possible for me to immediately eradicate my anger, but I can work to loosen its hold on me. It’s important for me to realize that I do not have anger. Anger has me if it is affecting my life such that I cannot think clearly, my behavior changes, and my aspirations are diminished.
The state of samsara—life—is likened to a wheel that is powered by the energy of the other Fires. The wheel represents the routine way we go from state to state throughout the day and throughout our lives. I wake up in the morning refreshed from a good night’s sleep. On the way to class I become annoyed because I smile and say “Good morning!” to someone who looks directly at me and walks past without speaking. At the library, I am happy to find the book that is perfect for my research. In the afternoon, I simmer with anger because I walked into a store and was stopped for setting off the alarm, while the two white people simultaneously going out of the store were ignored. This is the wheel upon which we go around and around every minute, every hour, every day, year after year.
The cause of our suffering is desire. We strive for and attain that which we think will make us happy or rich or free. Many African-Americans believe that achieving a certain economic status will make us immune to racism. We work hard and do the best we can to assimilate into the dominant culture. Wanting to feel equal, we accumulate beautiful clothes, cars, and houses. We travel and interact with various people and cultures, always seeking to go beyond the limitations imposed by a society that refuses to acknowledge our worth and ignores our achievements. When, after all of this, we still do not attain the respect that we deserve, we become angry and resentful. This anger is only another aspect of desire. But for the thirst to be equal, to be free, to be respected, there would be no anger.
Is it enough to tell us to meditate, to focus on our breath? The Dalai Lama is no longer in Tibet. Thich Nhat Hanh is no longer in Vietnam. They have escaped from their persecutors. It is one thing to meditate in a peaceful monastery somewhere, preaching love and compassion. It is quite another matter to talk the Buddhist talk while getting beaten over the head. Where can Black people go to get away from the madness that engulfs us?
On an intellectual level, I tell myself that white people are suffering. If people are truly happy and at peace, they do not have the inclination to cause pain to others. I know that some people are responding to their own insecurities when they put me down; they must assert a false superiority over me. At times, I can have the compassion that is the ideal of Buddhist practice, but never-ending rain will wear down even a stone.
I am tired of living in pain. White people are on the Wheel, too. We are all feeding the energy that is propelling it. It does not matter why we are on it. We are on it, going around and around to nowhere.
Buddhism teaches that one should neither give in to the anger nor deny it. Buddhist practice is to be aware of the anger itself. This is a very difficult concept. Most African-Americans feel at ease and happy when they are not in a racist environment. However, change is inevitable. Until we get rid of that “I”, that “self” who desires and dislikes, we will keep experiencing the up-and-down states of the wheel of change. If racism did not exist, anger would still exist. It would simply emerge as a result of another perceived wrong. And learning to work with our anger is constructive.
Viewing racism from this perspective allows African-Americans to experience our struggles as mental and spiritual conditioning similar to the constructive pain that an Olympic athlete goes through to develop the kind of muscular, strong, efficient body capable of bringing home the gold. It is with the strength developed by practicing in adverse conditions and with scarce resources that Black athletes are able to excel in sports. We have a history of changing the energy of adversity and anger into aspiration.
In Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
When we are angry, we are not usually inclined to return to ourselves. We want to think about the person who is making us angry, to think about his hateful aspects—his rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on. The more we think about him, listen to him, or look at him, the more our anger flares. His dishonesty and hatefulness may be real, imaginary, or exaggerated, but, in fact, the root of the problem is the anger itself, and we have to come back and look first of all inside ourselves. It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger. Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire.
We must transform the energy of anger into an energy of empowerment and love.
Insight meditation is practiced to develop the ability to see without reacting to the whole process of our life experience. When one is able to see with balanced, clear observation, one develops insight and wisdom and is able to see things as they really are. Maybe we see that the persons persecuting us have serious emotional problems or that their status in life is not as secure as we first thought. From a victim’s viewpoint, sometimes we get so used to living in a cage that when the cage is removed we are still bound by the bars of our minds. Insight meditation helps us to see this.
For a long while I felt that I was not getting anything from meditation. Nothing was changing in my life. My mind was constantly wandering; I could rarely focus it on one object. One day while walking around Lake Merritt in Oakland, I noticed that I kept clenching my hand. Repeatedly, a fist would form unconsciously. I believe that I became aware of this movement because, through meditation, I had continuously focused on being aware of my body and, finally, the training took effect in this one small instance.
It took many months just to form this one awareness. This is why mindfulness is to be cultivated. There is no quick result. The harvest does not occur immediately after the seeds are planted. Awareness of the body leads to awareness of sensations, then awareness of thoughts, and finally, one can know the nature of things. When one reaches this state, anatta is achieved—complete selflessness. When there is no self, one cannot harm or be harmed. I don’t know anyone who appears to have achieved this state. On the other hand, the stages leading up to anatta seem to be within reach.In a process I call “tracing back” I notice my anger in a particular situation and keep asking myself, “Why did that upset you?” I answer myself, “Because she thinks I took the book.” “Did you take the book?” “No.” “Then why are you upset? Do you think she thinks you took it because you’re Black?” “Probably.” “Are you sure that’s the reason?” “No.” “Even if it is, is that your problem or hers? How does her thought affect your life at this moment?” My self-conversation usually results in my feeling that the issue is not worth my time, and my anger subsides. For instance, I ponder whether it is more productive to take a few minutes to respond calmly to a false accusation than it is to enter into a major argument about how wrong and incorrect the person is and then to be upset the rest of the day. By not reacting, sometimes I discover that the situation causing the anger, in many cases, is not about me at all. This is not to discount the people and the situations that indeed cause pain and oppression, but if I continue to match their energy, I remain on the Wheel of Change. I seek to grow beyond these conditions.
My anger many times has its roots in the past. If I had no memory of the history of my people or of white people, or of the oppression throughout the world, I probably would not have half of the perceptions that make me angry. This leads to another very important aspect of mindfulness: being in the present. Venerable Ajahn Sumedho writes:
Yesterday is a memory.
Tomorrow is the unknown.
Now is the knowing.
If I did not seek to be free, I would not be angry at those who put obstacles in my way. I would say, “This moment, I am free to walk and to see. I have a mind to think. Today, I have a roof over my head and enough food to eat.”
I believe that because of racism, my development at my law firm required more self-direction and study than my white associates required; but ten years from now I may say that because of racism I became the writer that I never thought I would be. Who knows? If it is the latter, then I have wasted a lot of time being angry. Meditation enables me to see the bigger picture. Right now, this minute, I am doing what I want to do.
I can observe my anger at a safe distance from my “assailants.” I may interact more closely with them when my strength develops to the point where I can be among them without pain. Right now, I see the worth of Buddhist practice, of being aware of my body, my breath, and my pain. This is where I start.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.