Protests against the killings of Black Americans George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade and the police brutality and structural racism that are responsible for them have spread across the US and the world. Hundreds of thousands of people have gathered chanting for racial justice under the banner of “Black Lives Matter.” Holding signs such as “The Buddha Opposed Racism,” and “Buddhists for Black Lives Matter,” monastic and lay American Buddhists of all lineages have joined the protests. Organizations such as the Buddhist Churches of America, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, and Soka Gakkai International-USA have released public statements vowing to transform “deep-rooted,” and “structural” racism in the US. Teachers have shared Buddhist practices to support racial justice efforts: Theravada nuns conducted a ritual to honor Black Americans killed by the police; a Tibetan Buddhist teacher offered a Green Tara meditation for healing racism, a secular Buddhist explained how Buddhist right speech could be aligned with social justice. Showing that “waking up together in community is the deepest refuge we have,” Black Buddhists have gathered to heal through their stories of “strength and resilience.” On Twitter and Facebook, white practitioners have declared their commitment to renouncing the poison of white supremacy and ending the intense suffering caused by anti-blackness.
But historically, many white American Buddhist converts have been resistant to acknowledging race and racial justice in and outside of their communities because they have labeled it a “political” rather than a “Buddhist” issue. Some teachers reported that white practitioners have walked out of their sangha when racism was brought up in dharma talks; others shared that they have received angry notes from retreatants that they had come to meditate, not engage in political discussion.
I want to offer some wider context for responses coming from meditation-based convert communities in the Insight, Zen, and Tibetan lineages. These communities started in the 1960s and ‘70s, and have been predominantly populated by white, middle-class practitioners and characterized by a strong focus on individual meditation practice.
In my recent book American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, I traced how a small but deeply committed network of People of Color (PoC) and their white allies have made significant pragmatic and philosophical efforts to address white privilege and racism in meditation-based convert sanghas and the wider culture in which they are situated. Exploring some of their contributions gives a sense of what work has been done—and what work remains to be done—to create inclusive sanghas. In what ways have Buddhists confronted racism and white privilege in these communities? How have they interpreted racism and whiteness from a Buddhist perspective? How have majority white sanghas responded? What is needed for liberation from the dukkha [suffering] of racism?
From “the White Space” to “Multicultural Refuges”
In one of the first academic studies of Buddhist convert communities, scholar-practitioner Rick Fields identified how racism showed up among white Buddhists who unconsciously equated “American” with “white.”
In their recent study “Inclusion and Exclusion in the White Space: An Investigation of the Experiences of People of Color in a Primarily White American Meditation Community,” Buddhist teacher and psychologist Craig Hase, and psychologists James Meadows and Stephanie Budge, adopted sociologist Elijah Anderson’s concept of “the white space” to better understand how white experience and values become established as the norm.
Anderson’s idea refers to how a range of spaces—including neighborhoods, leisure space, schools, workplaces and churches—construct and reinforce a “taken for granted reality” in which white people and white norms dominate and Black people are “typically absent, not expected, or marginalized when present.” Hase, Meadows, and Budge identified a number of ways in which PoC experience and negotiate Buddhist convert sanghas as white spaces. Similarly, in June 2000, a group of Buddhist practitioners produced a booklet titled, Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities, which shared that for many years, majority-white American sanghas had been resistant to the efforts of people of color to raise awareness of the reproduction of harmful racial dynamics within them.
Over the course of his career as a meditation teacher, Asian American Insight teacher Larry Yang has collected numerous personal testimonies from PoC practitioners who have experienced racial marginalization, discrimination, and injury in Buddhist communities. In his book, Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community, reflecting on his own first retreat experience, he wrote,
All I could focus on was that I was the only person of color out of about a hundred people—and how awkward, lonely, and even unsafe I felt. Of course, my experience was partially due to my own psychological conditioning at the time (itself socially influenced), but it was also due to the external conditions of how the teachings, teachers, community, and organization had manifested.
In response to these experiences, PoC Buddhists have created their own affinity spaces of refuge and recognition. These PoC affinity retreats and sitting groups offer a safe holding that enables practitioners to drop more deeply into their practice and explore how the dharma relates to their everyday lives as people of color. In large part due to African American pioneer Dr. Marlene Jones, Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, held its first PoC retreats in 1999 and has run them annually since. In 2002, it hosted the first ever African American Dharma Retreat and Conference and last year was the site of the Gathering II, an assembly of over 300 Buddhist teachers and practitioners of Black African descent. Teacher Konda Mason identified two of its highlights as a celebration of community and an exploration of how to make the dharma relevant for Black communities given their particular social histories. One such pedagogy is Deep Time Liberation, a retreat program that explores the impact of ancestral legacy and intergenerational trauma on Black Americans and draws on multiple healing practices set within the wider context of mindfulness.
Some white practitioners have objected to PoC affinity programs because they consider them to be a cause of separation which is at odds with Buddhist teachings of interdependence. They support this claim by referencing the Buddha’s alleged rejection of caste with the charge that PoC sanghas create a quasi-caste system. In other cases, their opposition appears to be based on a political “reverse racism” logic. One practitioner complained to me, for instance, that PoC affinity groups were “segregational spaces” and that supporting them made me “a modern day George Wallace.” Reflecting such objections, at the 2013 International Vipassana Conference, a teacher asked the audience, “When can we attend the proliferation of special interest retreats like LGBTQI and POC and return to the unity of One Sangha?”
Yet as Larry Yang notes, the assumption behind this question is that white sanghas are spaces of “oneness”—safety, belonging, and unity—for People of Color. As numerous first-person accounts show, however, this is simply not the case.
One of the hallmarks in the Insight Meditation community is speaking from personal experience and making Buddhist teaching relevant to daily life. A limitation of this approach is that teachers often assume that their own white middle-class cultural experience is universal. In an article for Lion’s Roar, Insight teacher Tara Brach, shared a poignant example of realizing how such an assumption was rooted in white privilege:
I was talking about raising our children, mirroring their goodness and giving them a sense of confidence in themselves and in their capacity to be all they can be in the world. My friend raised her hand and said, “I’ll tell you, I want to give my son fear. I want him to be afraid, because I am scared to death that he’s going to either get arrested or killed every time he leaves the house.” She didn’t want her son being cocky or oblivious to the risks he faced as a young African American male—she’d rather he be scared and alive. I had assumed that doors would open for my son, that he’d have opportunities and that he could take advantage of those opportunities if he trusted himself.
Brach’s insight is reflected in multiple reports that demonstrate the harm that can be done when Buddhist teachers assume and reproduce white experience as the norm. One response is a booklet titled, On Understanding Race and Racism: Essential Information for White Dharma Teachers at IMS developed by Insight teacher Sebene Selassie, and former staffer Eric McCord for the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. Based on numerous interviews, it was distributed in 2017 with the acknowledgement that “as more people of color yogis attend IMS retreats, incidents of concern and undue suffering have arisen because of ignorance on behalf of white teachers. In many of these cases, our teachers have not been prepared or skillful enough in responding to our people of color yogis [students].”
In addition to training white teachers to be more multiculturally attuned in their dharma teaching, there have been efforts in Buddhist communities to create a more racially diverse teaching body. In 2017, Yang estimated that there were between 350 and 375 certified Western Insight teachers, with only 10 to 11 of these self-identifying as teachers of color. Now, largely due to the efforts of Yang, co-founder of East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC), and Gina Sharpe, co-founder of New York Insight, two communities that have been at the forefront of diversity, inclusivity and equity initiatives, there has been a major breakthrough at the level of teacher training in the Insight community. Beginning in 2017, teacher-training programs run by Spirit Rock and IMS will produce thirty-two teachers of color, which will mean an extraordinary increase of 330 percent of teachers of color in the Insight community.
While more diverse teacher representation is crucial, some Buddhists argue that a much deeper reconfiguration of the mainstream culture is necessary—rather than merely adding more people of color to pre-existing structures. Insight Community of Washington (IMCW) in Washington, D.C., began its diversity efforts in 2005 but soon experienced a painful breakdown between the white leadership body and PoC members. In an interview with me for my book American Dharma, senior teacher Hugh Byrne, looking back, reflected, “[O]ne of the main problems was that members of the board had not done enough of their own work on racial privilege and inner transformation.”
A turning point came when the white teachers and leadership realized that they needed to explore their own unconscious conditioning around race and whiteness. In 2013, the organization began a series of intensive workshops followed by a one-year training in 2014 called White Awake. At the time, IMCW founder, Tara Brach, said that the training was the “number one thing” the organization needed to move forward with inclusion and equity work. Put simply by La Sarmiento, an IMCW teacher who founded its PoC Affinity sangha, “Trying to have conversations with white people is pretty painful and exhausting. That’s why white folks need to start doing their own work and not rely on people of color to educate them.”
IMCW’s training was led by White Awake director Eleanor Hancock, who explained that at the heart of White Awake is the understanding that “transformation around our privilege and racial conditioning is a necessary part of our liberation. Doing racial justice work is part of reclaiming our full humanity as white people.” The same point was made in a 2011 Buddhadharma forum by Zen teacher Rev. angel Kyodo williams, who shared, “We have to get clear that an essential part of our practice is to shift these things internally for ourselves. Because our personal liberation, the very thing we come to the dharma for, is completely bound up in making these changes.”
From The Dukkha of Racism to Awakening Together
Many American Buddhists see overcoming racism as a deep expression of their practice. All understand racism as a form of individual and collective dukkha. This is absolutely central to PoC Buddhist racial justice work. In the Statement on Racism from Buddhist Teachers and Leaders in the United States, presented at the First White House Buddhist Leadership Conference in 2015, a group of Buddhist teachers wrote, “The historic and continued suffering of people of color in this country—of African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and others—is our collective suffering.” As IMS’s public response to the murder of George Floyd noted, white Buddhists must not turn away from the magnitude of this suffering.
When racism is established as a form of dukkha, for many Buddhists the next step is the Four Noble Truths—that is, looking into the causes and conditions of that suffering. On an internal level, racism is found to be rooted in a delusion of a false sense of self that is separate from an unreal other that is related to through the poisons of ignorance and aversion. Structural racism, ethnocentricism, and colonialism are external manifestations of this existential condition. Thus, for these Buddhists, both internal and external manifestations must be uprooted. In this way, practitioners accept responsibility for transforming their collective karma of racism and colonialism. The Third Noble Truth, freedom from the dukkha of racism, comes through realization of the delusion of separateness and truth of interdependence. As Gina Sharpe noted in an interview after the first ever gathering of Buddhist teachers of Black African descent, “Liberation is impossible if we’re disconnected from others.”
Insight teachers such as Ruth King have shown that combined with racial awareness, mindfulness can help pierce through internal racial conditioning and build the emotional resilience needed to tackle structural racism. One textual source of legitimation for this comes from Theravada monk Bhikkhu Analayo’s 2004 commentary on the Satipatthana sutta, Satipatthana: A Direct Path to Realization. Here Analayo discusses the refrain on internal and external mindfulness within the sutta, noting that the presence of the latter has been put aside in modern translations. After considering different interpretations, he concluded that external mindfulness means being mindful of other people, and discusses several ways to practice this. Following Analayo, Larry Yang argued that the Insight community has historically focused exclusively on mindfulness in the internal, individual realm of the meditator, whereas diversity, equity, and inclusion awareness is the application of mindfulness to the external, collective realm.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, the first African American to receive dharma transmission in Shunryu Suzuki’s Soto Zen lineage, sees understanding racial identity as an essential part of awakening. In her book The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality and Gender, Zenju placed her embodied experience into dialogue with the Mahayana two truths doctrine, which differentiates between absolute truth (paramartha-satya), the ontological ultimate nature of reality, and relative truth (samvrtti-satya), conventional daily existence. She shared that she experienced an immediate sense of liberation on hearing this doctrine, but soon realized that in majority white sanghas teachings on the absolute are often used to spiritually bypass the relative realities of racial identity. When she shared her experiences of racism, she was dismissed and told to drop “the labels” and her “attachment” to identity by her fellow white practitioners. As well as causing significant emotional harm, such a dismissal is also spiritually harmful because it is only through the relative that one can awaken to the absolute. A one-sided emphasis on the absolute produces a “disembodied” form of awakening that is removed from the particularities of the world. Rather than attempt such a misguided, and impossible, transcendence, the point of practice is to realize the inseparability of the relative and absolute, form and emptiness.
As Buddhist traditions have grown and developed in the US, many Buddhists of color have reported that white practitioners have shut down conversations about racism on the charges that they produce anger, one of the three Buddhist poisons. Some Buddhists of color have turned to Vajrayana understandings of liberating the wisdom energy in anger in service of racial justice. After a police officer was acquitted of the death of Eric Garner in 2014, Tibetan Buddhist teacher Rev. M. Jamil Scott called on fellow Buddhists “to really feel every aspect of it [anger]. Do not let it slip into dullness, marigpa [ignorance]. I suggest that there is a brilliance in it that can be revolutionary for our own spirits and for the world.” In his new book Love and Rage: Unpacking the Path of Liberation Through Anger, Tibetan Buddhist teacher and writer Lama Rod Owens fully unpacks the tantric approach to anger and how it can be utilized for both spiritual liberation and social change.
Tantric practices have also been a resource for deconstructing the racial identity of whiteness. Whiteness refers not to a biological category but a form of social and cultural conditioning, which has been constructed historically and legally as a way to establish and maintain certain forms of colonial power and dominance. Buddhists look at the ways in which this sociocultural conditioning is internalized and becomes part of the afflictive energies generated by self-grasping. Vajrayanateacher and Modern Tantric Buddhism author Justin von Bujdoss sees whiteness as one expression of the demons of self-cherishing as found in the chöd practices of the 11th century female teacher Machig Labdron. He has suggested harnessing chöd’s power to “sever” self-grasping and become free of the conditioning of whiteness. Lama Tsultrim Allione, another teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, developed a modernized version of chöd called “Feeding Your Demons Practice.” In 2015, after the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brow, her students Karla Jackson-Brewer, Jamil Scott, and Chandra Easton adapted the practice to include the cultural demons of whiteness, racism and privilege.
A similar commitment to liberating oneself from the cultural conditioning of whiteness can be seen in the recent emergence of groups for white practitioners to explore the construction of white identity and racism in the context of Buddhism. The Minnesota Zen Center, for instance, runs a monthly group called Unpacking Whiteness, which focuses on “racial justice, interconnection and liberation.”
Across lineages, Buddhists of color embrace the recovery of the third jewel of the sangha as absolutely central to practice and liberation. As Ruth King noted, “Our spiritual community becomes fertile ground for our awakening…belonging is the soil of our awakening.”
PoC Buddhists have revisioned the Buddhist fourfold sangha through the lens of Josiah Royce and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community” to create more diverse and inclusive sanghas. Larry Yang has suggested that the community building that is so foundational to Buddhists of Color is an antidote to the emphasis on meditation practice and individualism that has historically marked meditation-based convert Buddhism. The emphasis on the community extends to the Buddhist goal of liberation with an aspiration for collective rather than just individual awakening being embraced. At the heart of Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah’s work Radical Dharma, for instance, is a vision of collective awakening that includes both personal and social transformation.
Buddhist scholars see the work to become liberated from the dukkha of racism as an extension of the lineage of engaged Buddhism, which began in Asia, in the early-to-mid 20th century, when Buddhist leaders such as the Chinese monastic Taixu (1890-1947) and the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh initiated Buddhist responses to the profound challenges and opportunities of modernity. At the forefront of engaged Buddhism and many Buddhist racial justice initiatives in the U.S is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
One of the defining characteristics of engaged Buddhism is its shift in focus from individual suffering and individual liberation to structural forms of suffering and collective liberation. Another is an embrace of the mundane everyday world as a site of awakening and an investigation of how internal Buddhist principles, poisons, and practices manifest on an external and institutional level.
Common to engaged Buddhism is the belief that the full liberatory potential of Buddhism has been limited by the gender bias and social class privilege of the monastic elites who have shaped Buddhist institutions and teachings. By centering marginalized and vulnerable Black and brown bodies as living vehicles of the dharma, American Buddhists of Color are birthing new expressions of the tradition—“a dharma of justice, equity, inclusion and freedom”—and bringing engaged Buddhist sensibilities and aspirations from the margins to the center.