Race Does Matter
I read with interest Tracy Cochran’s recent interview with Vipassana teacher Gina Sharpe: “Does Race Matter in the Meditation Hall?” [Fall 2004]. The questions Ms. Cochran poses are useful in that they address the fundamental Buddhist tenet of nonseparateness. They are, very likely, questions that many Caucasian people have. Yet the title of the piece (implicitly) and many of the questions (explicitly) invite Ms. Sharpe to “justify” the retreats for people of color. In doing so, they subtly move the focus, once again, to white people. Underlying most of the questions is some sense of what white people think and feel about this separation. I would like to remind all of us that healing racism is not about white people feeling comfortable. It would have been wonderful if the article had included more questions that focused on the experience of people of color on these retreats and its transformative power, as well as a deeper analysis of the racist context in which we live that causes people of color to feel unsafe in all-white retreats. I can’t imagine anyone questioning why victims of domestic violence would not want their batterers in their local support group. Why then should people of color, whose spirits have been battered by racism for centuries, be called upon to provide a rationale for seeking a safe space to heal?
Western psychotherapy wisely tells us that before we can dismantle the self, there has to be a healthy “self” to dismantle. In other words, psychological integration (healing on the relative level) must precede certain profound aspects of deep spiritual work. Therefore, as long as institutionalized racism is making its hideous mark on the psyches of people of color, these people will need a safe place to heal and to be—no justification necessary.
So, I believe that the answer to Ms. Cochran’s question is yes—as long as racism exists, race does matter in the meditation hall.
—Carrie Tamburo, Ph.D., Seattle, Washington
I was heartened to read about how the Buddhist community in the U.S. is reaching out to people of color. After reading the political pieces in that same issue, I’m pretty sure that U.S. Buddhists need to try reaching out to Republicans.
—Adam Long, London, England
Buddhists for Bush
I voted for George Bush in the last election and expect to do so again in November. I also think it is fair to say that I am a sincere seeker who sticks faithfully to his meditation practice and is willing to follow it wherever it may lead.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, disparaging, condescending, and sometimes angry comments about George Bush at dharma talks became a source of discomfort for me. Over the space of about a year, I painfully heard people whom I revere making blanket statements that seemed to me to be simplistic, biased, and perhaps even ignorant.
I think too close a tie between Buddhism and liberalism gets in the way of the wisdom that Buddhism has to offer. Today’s liberalism often includes an intolerance and self-righteousness that seem to be antithetical to the spirit of Buddhism.
—Paul Norris, San Francisco, California
I could easily relate to Wes Nisker’s “Confessions of a Bush-Bashing Buddhist” [Fall 2004], and I, too, will vote against George W. Bush in November. I would like to think that I will do so a little less self-righteously than I might have had my Tibetan Buddhist teacher not begun to wear a bright orange “W-2000” baseball cap on his closely shaven head and a “Bush-Cheney in 2004” campaign button on his maroon robes. These potent political statements—often (but not always) worn with a big smile and accompanied by strong arguments on behalf of Bush and his team—have stopped many of us who revere this precious teacher in our tracks. I don’t know for sure if our teacher actually supports the current occupant of the White House (I like to think he is kidding, but another monk insists he isn’t), but I do know that he fiercely supports his students’ efforts to stretch their ordinary minds—his efforts have begun to do just that among those of us who proudly label ourselves liberals and have strong concerns about this administration.
—Holly Stocking, Bloomington, Indiana
Buddha vs. Buddhism
I read with interest the interview of sociologist Robert Bellah [“The Future of Religion,” Fall 2004]. He suggests that our current belief in religion as a “private journey” is simply a discouraging expression of “the ideology of free-market economics” and our current “radical…individualism that idolizes the choice-making individual.” However, if one surveys history, is it not clear that religion has always been ultimately personal, and that the insights of many religious saints and mystics (the Buddha, Jesus, Milarepa, and Meister Eckhart, to name a few) have typically been in conflict with the stifling institutional religious forms of their day?
For a more accurate reading of religion, I prefer the views of another sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, who argues that religion has two paradoxical functions. On the one hand, he claims, religion creates consoling sociological structures and meaning systems that are relatively useful (yet ultimately illusory) defenses against “the void.” But on the other hand, Berger argues, religion is also a personal matter, and religions produce mystics who transcend sociological structures and embrace the void, or emptiness. We can see this paradox at play in the history of Buddhism too, where the insights of the Buddha have been both stifled and actualized by the Buddhist religion.
—Robert Bowden, Yorkshire, England
Paying the Rent
I won’t presume to know whether practice for material gain is, as Jamie Liptan puts it in “Chanting for Stuff” [Fall 2004], “a good thing. Really.” But since Liptan is convinced of the value of a specific type of Buddhist practice for people who “can’t pay the rent this month or put food on the table,” it would have helped if he had looked outside of his own experience to tell us how this works. Reading about Liptan’s attempts to leave the financial-services industry and get a more fulfilling career did not call to mind the experiences of people I’ve known who “can’t pay the rent.”
Liptan says his own biggest challenge is “supreme laziness.” But his claims for practice go beyond his own challenges. His point is that the Buddhism he practices offers “answers, good ones,” not only to those in his situation, but also to people struggling with material deprivation. Obstacles, he claims, including those as “mundane” as “obtaining a reliable car to go to work” can be overcome if we challenge ourselves spiritually with practice. By contrast, he asserts, “religion” typically “preaches” only “coping mechanisms.
Before dismissing the “coping mechanisms” of religion in general, I wish Liptan had addressed the issue of whether laziness as a supreme challenge is different in any important way from “mundane” problems like paying the rent or obtaining a reliable car. While he may agree with HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson’s recent and controversial formulation that “being poor is a state of mind,” Liptan might allow for some distinction between overcoming psychological blocks and not having a roof over one’s head.
—Pat Redmond, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jamie Liptan Responds
I could agree to a superficial distinction between “overcoming psychological blocks and not having a roof over one’s head.” But doesn’t Buddhism teach that, fundamentally, all suffering stems from the same place?
In any event, I and many other SGI members have used Buddhist practice to overcome “material deprivation.” As Clark Strand discovered [Tricycle, Winter 2003], SGI practice has helped millions of diverse people in every part of the world connect with the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings and transform their lives spiritually, psychologically, and materially. In Strand’s piece, scholar David Chappell is quoted: “The secret at the heart of Soka Gakkai is the discovery that, through practice, individuals participate in a universal reality that unleashes their personal creativity to transform life’s problems into blessings.
“Healing Trauma with Meditation” by Dr. John Miller and Amy Schmidt [Fall 2004] offered an extremely insightful and detailed approach to the dilemma of practitioners impacted by trauma. Even though mercy and wisdom emanated from nearly every paragraph, an early statement confused the overall message of the article. The authors suggest that, when traumatic flashbacks intrude into a practitioner’s meditation, s/he “[often] needs to stop practice and address the trauma through psychotherapy; a teacher is usually the best person to make this determination.” I disagree on two points.
First, it is usually a false dichotomy to make therapy and meditation an either-or choice, even in such difficult situations. More dangerous, however, is the notion that “a teacher” is best able to make the decision to include therapy as a primary method of healing psychological trauma. Unfortunately, many teachers are not sufficiently educated about traumatic process to make an informed decision in this area. Moreover, such externalization of authority is often both a cause of trauma and an enduring component of the traumatic wound. Truly wise teachers (and therapists) seek to bring the individual back to his or her own sense of self-contact and authority. Still, this article contained truly valuable suggestions for the traumatized practitioner, and I will offer it to many of my traumatized clients.
—Bill Larsen, Nevada City, California
Miller and Schmidt Respond
We appreciate Mr. Larsen’s feedback. We agree that meditation and psychotherapy do not exist in an “either/or” dichotomy. Our intent was to explore options that a trauma survivor has to work with in a meditation practice – in the presence or absence of psychotherapy. However, when traumatic flashbacks cause significant psychological distress, which can include severe dissociation and frank psychosis, it is our experience that continued meditation is highly counterproductive. In this situation it is the compassionate responsibility of the teacher to recommend that the meditator postpone practice until an adequate evaluation can be performed by a mental health specialist who can then make informed professional recommendations. As an analogy, if a meditator on retreat presents to a teacher complaining of a high fever, shortness of breath and severe chest pain, it would be irresponsible of the teacher not to intervene and strongly recommend a visit to a local emergency room.
We do not believe, nor did we mean to imply, that “a teacher is best able to make the decision to include therapy as a primary method of healing psychological trauma.” Rather, we believe that intervention by the teacher in a setting of severe distress and a referral to an appropriate professional is an essential and compassionate action.
In Dan Zigmond’s review of Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Failure [Fall 2004], he begins by acknowledging the author’s “deep disappointment with the two most important men in her life: her father and her teacher, the Zen Buddhist master Dainin Katagiri Roshi.” He goes on to evaluate this book as a “well-intentioned [but] somewhat unfocused” investigation into these two men and their betrayals, “a necessary and healing book [for Goldberg] to write, but not, alas, to read.”
The Great Failure tells the story of the author’s 0search for the insight and a framework to sustain her sincere love for both her teacher and her father, while putting herself back in the equation.
When we begin spiritual practice under the guidance of a teacher, the “gold” we are seeking is already within us. But our self-concept is too limited to accept it for now, so we project it onto the teacher. According to Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, this is a natural and healthy process as long as the teacher knows that the gold is the student’s and not his own, and that he is holding it only temporarily. Performed consciously, with trust and discernment, this projection serves both parties. In the Western Buddhist communities, fortunately, these dynamics are often not conscious. The Great Failure models an alternative. In Goldberg’s own words, it is her “humble effort to illuminate the path of honesty.”
And she does. As the memoir of a practitioner’s unrelenting efforts to get to the bottom of the dilemma confronting her and to reclaim her gold, her authentic self, The Great Failure sets a new standard for Western dharma literature.
—Arnie Kotler, Paia, Hawaii
The map the editors used to illustrate “Vaisali: First Stop to Enlightenment” [Practical Pilgrim, Fall 2004] is incorrect. The map depicts the Vaisali River in the state of Bhind rather than the town of Vaisali, which is in the state of Bihar.
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