Skin color can be variable: blackish, brownish, yellowish, reddish, whitish. It’s like a big bag of grain that takes the shape of what’s inside. The largest human organ is the skin, with a surface area of about 25 feet. The direction is found both above and below the waist; it’s located all over the body from face to feet to fingers, bordered by head hair, body hair, nails, and teeth.
—32 Parts of the Body: Guided Meditation 1 (Spirit Rock Retreat with Bob Stahl)
The meditation, the first of a series on the 32 parts of the body, was assigned as homework in a two-year course on the teachings of the Buddha in relation to diversity issues. We were studying mindfulness of the body—the first of four foundations of mindfulness described in the Satipatthana Sutta, an essential Buddhist scripture that lays out a roadmap to attain freedom from suffering by explaining how to establish mindfulness, or sati.
To develop mindfulness of the body, one needs to contemplate one’s breath, bodily postures, activities, and anatomical parts, as well as one’s imagined corpse—the body after death. The recorded meditation I was listening to at home asked us to contemplate the head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, and skin. Heeding the instructions, I felt myself attuning to sensations I had never noticed before: individual shafts of hair along my scalp, the cold of my nails against their beds, the way my lips rest gently against my teeth. I passed through all of these reflections with little disturbance; then I came to my skin.
Related: The Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness
It was nothing short of a confrontation. Suddenly, contemplating my skin as a separate entity for the first time, I was struck by intense pain and aversion. I was livid, like a wronged child, and overcome by a wave of emotions—shame and rage, but mostly pain—along with a barrage of recollections:
Vandalized college election posters, the brown faces of my sister and me crossed out while those of our white friends who were also running for student government remained untouched.
A conversation with a young girl on an airplane post–9/11 that began with the query “What race are you?” and ended with “No offense to you, but I hope all Pakistani people die.”
Questions from college-age students asking if I had ever met Osama bin Laden.
And most recently, the thick air of discomfort filling rooms of white, liberal, educated “allies”—at my workplace and in Buddhist practice spaces—when I articulate the pervasive suffering surrounding race.
I was straining to grasp and contain this influx of emotion. Meanwhile, the meditation moved on.
In my journey to be mindful and to clearly know my bodily experience, I am continuously confronted with my racialization, and the Buddhist teachings have left me thoroughly confused about how to deal with that. In my course of study, I have learned that the ultimate goal of mindfulness of the body is to cultivate a sense of erasure of physical distinctions and consequently the identities and hierarchies we assign to them. As Venerable Analayo writes in his seminal text Satipatthana The Direct Path to Realization, “A detached observation of the various parts of the body leads to the understanding that they are all of equal nature. Once one clearly apprehends their true nature, it becomes evident that there is nothing inherently beautiful in any particular aspect of the body. . . . The same contemplation is then to be applied ‘externally’ to the bodies of others.” Joseph Goldstein, in his series of dharma talks on the Satipatthana Sutta, says, “These are powerful meditations that begin to decondition our strong identification with the body and the suffering that results from that identification.”
But I find no guidance concerning how to navigate the challenges that arise in the process of discovering the racialized body and the painful secrets it unveils, of which there are so many. Here are some of mine: my conscious renunciation of Pakistani culture and religion as a means of coping with the events of September 11, which took place barely two months after I immigrated with my family to the United States at the age of 17. The violent jettison of my accent so that I could convince others, as quickly as possible, that I had assimilated into American culture—that I was no threat to them. My obstinate avoidance, for many years, of other South Asian persons as friends, let alone romantic interests. My nonchalant and cheerful observation to my closest (white) friend in graduate school that “sometimes I forget I’m not white.”
Nowhere does race blindness feel more hurtful than in well-intentioned white sanghas presently striving for diversity and inclusion.
Nor is my Buddhist practice exempt from this kind of internalized racism. I find myself questioning whether my progress toward enlightenment is being crippled by my inability to “decondition [my] strong identification with the body and the suffering that results.” I find myself hoping that one day, I will finally be “over” the color of my skin—that being brown will no longer get in my way.
That day, as I sat listening to the guided meditation on the 32 parts of the body, my anguish was compounded still further by the fact that after the directive to contemplate the skin, the recording had nothing more to offer on the subject of skin color. How could that be all there was to say about such a complex issue? And why had I not been prepared for the upheaval it could and did cause? It was clear to me that any consideration of the weight of racial experience as it pertains to skin color had been totally overlooked—and in a class meant to deepen our understanding of diversity through the dharma, at that! In that moment, I was doubly wounded—but perhaps not surprised.
In my dealings with American Buddhist centers, unfortunately I have yet to feel interrelationship in a mixed-race group of fellow practitioners. Instead, I’ve continued to encounter people’s preference for “race blindness.” And nowhere does it feel more hurtful than in well-intentioned white sanghas presently striving for diversity and inclusion.
For instance, when I am told my presence is gladdening in a predominantly white sangha, I feel a weight placed on my shoulders. My being in the room cannot and does not simply signify my desire to learn and hold space together. Instead, I am perceived as a representative and ambassador for people of color, with my words serving as lessons on how people of color think and feel. In these moments, I easily fall into my professional role as a university educator, wanting to ease the sangha into an understanding of racial suffering. And I do so always at the expense of myself, revealing past wounds that I must then attend to later and on my own. Almost always, the latter unearths more anger—certainly at myself, for minimizing my own suffering in my readiness to assuage the suffering of those who have “never thought about race before.” But I also feel anger at my teachers, regardless of their race, for failing yet again to adapt their mechanisms of instruction to make room for more divergent experiences of embodiment.
I have sat through several discussions on race, even in courses meant to take up such inquiries, where it seems the teachers’ only goals are to provoke “thought” about racial issues. It does not take long to realize that such a mode of teaching aims to instruct white students only. As a person of color who does not need an organized discussion to think about the impact of racial identity politics—because I live it every day—my multidimensional embodied presence is flattened into that of an object meant only to provoke thought.
If the members of a mixed-race group are to openly discuss their experiences with issues of diversity—shame, guilt, pain, anger, delusion—shouldn’t there be some attempt to ensure that they feel they are in a safe space to begin with, and then to skillfully weave their narratives together, provide insight, and offer a path forward? When I have informed teachers about my discomfort in these settings, I have occasionally been asked how to solve the underlying problem. Unfortunately, my racialized experiences do not in themselves amount to expert knowledge and training ability in practices of inclusivity and transformative action. Thus, by both the teachings and the communities who impart those teachings, I am left unmoored.
Related: Does Race Matter in the Meditation Hall?
Distressing as it is, my personal racial awakening appears to be well-timed. Over the last several years, numerous writings have been published on the place of race in the Western dharma, particularly in the fraught historical, political, and cultural context of the United States. Writers such as Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Larry Yang, and Ruth King are giving voice to the unseen violence of racial suffering and the raw, anguished process of responding to it. The words of these teachers give solace that I am not alone, that what I am encountering is equally a part of the path, and that the teachings of the Buddha can both hold and heal racial suffering. They provide me with a vocabulary to articulate and grasp what is arising.
In Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, coauthor Jasmine Syedullah writes about how she unearthed and accepted her authentic, unapologetic, racialized self: “I did not realize that before I could decenter myself, there had to be a self to decenter. I would have to discover who I was beneath all that self-hatred. It did not feel like transcendence. It felt more like heartbreak.” And as I read Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s The Way of Tenderness, I realized that the negation of embodied identities in Buddhist circles inflicts harm as it denies even the powerful positive communal impacts these identities can have for people of color. “For many, spiritual paths should tend toward the invisible, the unseen,” she writes. “With this view it is easy to mistake a favorable blindness— not seeing skin color, gender, etc.—for seeing an invisible truth of life. . . . But the wisdom in my bones says that we need this particular body, with its unique color, shape, and sex, for liberation to unfold. There is no experience of emptiness without interrelationship.”
Recently, I have found a Buddhist community and a teacher of color who offer a refuge in which I can experience and process the discovery of these truths. Sitting with this sangha, surrounded by other people of color, I have finally experienced this interrelationship—a sense of lightness and kinship. Though brown embodiment has often manifested as a site of racialized suffering, it also paradoxically creates a sense of communal identity and camaraderie with other people of color, which I have grown to value. My racialized identity does not stand out; rather, it is embraced as part of the rich multiplicity of cultural and familial heritages present in the room. And we do not even have to talk about race to get there. Instead, I am simply able to relax without judging myself or assuming and experiencing the judgment of others. I now understand what it means to hold space together while being held. I sense in my bones the true meaning and value of sangha. Feeling safe and held, I have finally been able to ask myself what my authentic voice could even be.
The fact that the path to freedom from suffering begins with the body is not an insignificant matter. Even as one’s mindfulness develops to incorporate and comprehend other key facets of human experience—feelings, the mind, and mental objects—the body remains the locus of self-realization. Yet as Zenju Earthlyn Manuel so aptly notes in The Way of Tenderness, the question remains: “What does liberation mean when I have incarnated in a particular body, with a particular shape, color, and sex, which can be superficially viewed as an undesirable, unacceptable, or ugly image of human life?” Sitting in this body now, I wonder how much more pain there is to unbury. I have so much to learn—about the dharma, and about myself.