In late spring, Tricycle contributing editor Tracy Cochran met with Vipassana teacher Gina Sharpe for a frank discussion on race and the dharma. Sharpe is co-leader of the People of Color retreat, a semi-annual gathering that has drawn plenty of attention—and some criticism—since it first appeared in retreat catalogs in 2003. Sharpe, who serves on the boards of Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts, and New York Insight, in New York City, was interviewed at her home in northern Westchester County, New York.

What gave rise to the People of Color Retreat? It arose out of a board meeting at Insight Meditation Society [IMS] at which we were setting priorities. Joseph Goldstein [cofounder of IMS] and I suggested the idea in response to the Board’s desire to pursue diversity in the sangha more actively. It’s not a secret that people of color don’t come to our retreats in great numbers. The work Jack Kornfield [cofounder of IMS and Spirit Rock Retreat Center, in Woodacre, California] has done to foster diversity at Spirit Rock was also a great inspiration.

Isn’t Buddhist practice based on the truth that there is no separation, that we are all one? Why separate one group from another in a retreat? Yes, separateness is an illusion, and grasping a separate identity is a source of suffering. But many people of color say that they have not been comfortable in the nearly all-white retreats, so we’re creating a safe space where they are able to practice—to open their minds and their hearts, including to the sorrow and grief of racism.

You describe the way you make this particular suffering a source of connection rather than separation at the retreat. Isn’t there a risk, though, of fostering further separation? Using separation to heal separation has its obvious dangers. We’re mindful of that. But how long can we ignore the reality and pain of the culture’s history of race relations? The idea is that people feel safe and comfortable so they can practice.

Most white people tend to assume that they aren’t invited to these retreats. It’s not that we want to exclude them. Last year, two came and they were welcomed. We don’t encourage it, however. [laughs]

I’ll tell you what really confirmed my feelings about the need for separation. I was at a two-month retreat at Spirit Rock last year. There were two African Americans, one Hispanic man, two Native Americans, and me—out of about a hundred people. In the middle of the retreat, an African American woman approached me and said, “I really hate to disturb your retreat, but I just have to ask your name.” I felt her loneliness, and it touched me deeply. We became good friends.

In the closing session, as we formed discussion groups, Jack Kornfield asked that a group of people of color be formed. We had a wonderful time. It wasn’t as if we sat there talking about issues of race or color, but there was a certain relaxation that I hadn’t even noticed missing before. It was palpable. And after our first retreat, people told me how wonderful it was to look up at the dais and see teachers who looked like them.

But what is Joseph Goldstein doing up there? Joseph is there because he is one of the finest Theravada teachers that we have in the West, and if he’s willing to teach, I don’t care what color his skin is. We’re very happy to have him. And besides, we don’t yet have senior teachers of color.

Aren’t there? The Dalai Lama has identified himself as a person of color. Yes, and there are many other Asian teachers, but so far, all our senior teachers at IMS are white.

Imagine if you saw a retreat for white people listed in the catalog. That’s been implicitly the case for a long time! I think it would be very difficult. As they say in the Tibetan tradition, “Everything rests on the tip of motivation.” I would wonder what the motivation for such a retreat would be—it would seem exclusionary, not inclusive. But of course, I see the paradox that you’re getting at. And letting go of the “us and them” mentality and all of the ways we hold ourselves separate is ultimately the goal.

Might not Buddhism be considered a religion of color, in a sense? The Buddha was not Caucasian, as everybody knows. But Buddhism in the West has taken on the cultural trappings of the West, including racism. We all wish or hope that we’re not bigoted, but it’s culturally a part of us, so we need to look at it in all of its gross and subtle manifestations. In the absolute sense there is no separateness, no color, no race, but in the relative sense there are differences that are very real and very deep and sometimes determinative of our fate.

The paradox is that during those moments when we are most awake and aware, we feel transparent. We feel like human beings rather than little islands of difference. So why is it important to honor these differences? The differences do all fall away in those rare and precious moments when there is no separation between inside and outside, you or me. Awareness has no race or gender or IQ. It is only when we fall out of awareness that we grasp onto these characteristics. Still, these particularities are part of the vehicle through which we experience our lives, and we have to use the vehicle. Practice is facing the truth of suffering, seeing its cause, and abandoning that cause so the heart can be released. Racism is one type of suffering. In practice there is always the dance between feeling the truth of our suffering and letting go of it, not in a dismissive way but in a way that honors it.

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