Profession: Zen priest / art therapist / artist
Location: New York, NY
How has being deaf shaped your experience of receiving and transmitting the dharma? I have to say first that it was an obstacle. Zen is very intimate—the transmission of the dharma hinges on discipleship. We gain access to our teacher’s mind through one-on-one transmission and exposure. I have had to rely on other forms of communication, and that affects the psychological dynamics of the teacher-disciple relationship. And being the only deaf person in the zendo has often been a very “othering” feeling. About a year and a half ago, I started the No Barriers Zen Temple in Washington, D.C., with the intention to work more intelligently with communities of differently abled people. It’s not a deaf-only space, but many members of the D.C. Deaf community join us, and we organize our services to accommodate them. What I’m aiming for with the center is a paradigm shift: when people from the general D.C. community come, I have to tell them that I need to get them a sign language interpreter. And they say, “Oh, no, no, I can hear.” And I say, “Right, but you can’t sign, so we’re going to need to get you a sign language interpreter.” They don’t get it! It takes a while for them to make the shift of “Oh, I need an interpreter because I’m functioning in a different space.” I’m not immune to those kinds of assumptions as a deaf person, by the way. I have a blind student who was talking to me once about all the accommodations that sighted people need. I said, “I don’t need accommodations. I’m not blind.” And they said, “Oh? What’s with all these lightbulbs? Lightbulbs are a sighted person’s accommodations.”
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