Last fall, Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, launched a four-year teacher-training program that looked very different from previous classes held at the center over the last 40 years.
The training, which kicked off in August 2017 and will continue through 2021, is part of IMS’s ongoing commitment to increasing diversity within Buddhist communities and making the teachings available to all. With 75 percent of the trainees identifying as persons of color, the cohort is also diverse in age, country of origin, ethnicity, economic background, and gender.
Below, Tricycle talks with Insight Meditation Society co-founder Joseph Goldstein and guiding teacher DaRa Williams, both of whom are faculty members for the teacher-training program, about the new class and how diversity is transforming dharma transmission in the West.
Can you give me some background on the program?
DaRa Williams: We started the second week of August 2017, and there was quite a celebratory energy, because this is something that has been coming into existence for quite some time. I would actually use the words “profound” and “heart-opening.” There was a lot of readiness, openness, and willingness among the students, and for the teachers, it was a manifestation of two years of work.
Joseph Goldstein: Just to reiterate, the feeling of the first training session was remarkable. Part of this first training was structured so that everybody got to know each other, and part of that process was people sharing some of their life stories. And it was incredibly inspiring to hear the depth of people’s life experience and how the dharma affected them and helped transform their own lives.
Williams: Just one other thing I would add: One of the things that was so affirming was to be sitting in this community of people who are training to become teachers, and it looking like it’s never looked before. There was an awareness that we were beginning the action of correcting or righting something that had been missing.
When you’re putting together a teacher-training program, IMS invites teachers to apply. How does this help support a diverse pool of qualified teacher trainees?
Goldstein: Yes, basically we get a lot of recommendations from different senior teachers. So it’s not only the people we know but also people who may have been recommended to us by other teachers.
Williams: The fact that the class is so diverse is reflective of the growing wave of change within the dharma community. Those of us who are persons of color, or who are in other ways outside the boundary of normative or dominant culture, have now matured into the dharma. We’ve been around for a while, both as leaders and/or community teachers, as well as practitioners. So the teachers who have been teaching for years have come to know us.
There’s a lot of geographical diversity as well—you aren’t just getting teachers from New York, San Francisco, and other major U.S. cities.
Goldstein: Yes, and we accepted some people who are in the program knowing that they may not be teaching much in this country. But we want them to support dharma activities in places like South Africa or Canada.
In terms of curriculum, what are the teachers going to learn over the years?
Williams: We want to cultivate, develop, and support holism in people. The curriculum is absolutely important, but I don’t want to reinforce or perpetuate the notion that that’s all it takes to teach the dharma. It’s also about how people are living and engaging with others, perceiving the role of teacher in relationship to sangha, and going into places where the dharma has not necessarily gone before.
Goldstein: We had laid out four main areas we wanted to cover. One was the study aspect: really studying the teachings. One was the diversity aspect. One was a teaching practicum: how to do interviews, and so on. And the last was community connection. So in each of the training sessions, we’ll try to touch on each of those.
IMS has been offering People of Color (POC) retreats since 2003 as a way to work toward inclusivity. But there’s also been the goal of eventually not having a “separate” retreat. This year’s POC retreat is already full. Can you speak about how the teacher training is another step toward making the dharma more inclusive?
Williams: I think that the purpose the POC retreat served then continues to be relevant. I’m a guiding teacher now, and for the first eight or nine years of my practice, I sat only the POC retreat, with the exception of one year when I did the women’s retreat. For me, having access to the POC retreats meant that I could go and just do dharma. That retreat was the wellspring, the ground from which my practice germinated and was cultivated. I didn’t have to engage with many of the silent microaggressions, tensions, and stress that can be experienced as a person of color in a predominantly white environment. I could really focus, relax, learn, and just do my practice.
As long as our culture and society continues in the way it is right now, I don’t see that we’ll be able to do away with the POC, LGBTQI, or any of the affiliate retreats in the near future, because it’s a refuge from the world and what’s going on in it.
Goldstein: I think there is still an ongoing need and purpose for the POC retreat, especially for people who are newer to the practice. There’s just a feeling of greater safety and welcoming. It’s a way in for people, just as it was for DaRa all those years ago.
One of the things that’s really beautiful to see is a fruition of all the work that’s been done, both at the many POC Retreats and also the organizational work we’ve done [at IMS to make the dharma accessible to all]. In the last year or two, there’s been a great increase in the numbers of POC attending non-POC retreats. In our retreat that finished up in late December, there was about 20 POC on the retreat out of about 100. Five or six years ago, there may have been two POC. That is great. It really changes the feeling of the retreat.
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Any thoughts on what you’d hope to see in about four years when these teachers finish up their training?
Williams: I don’t know what I hope to see other than a community of fully developed people who are ready to take the teacher’s seat and bring the dharma not only to the traditional places like IMS, Spirit Rock, and other retreat centers, but also to places where it would have been unheard of before, such as the criminal justice system and communities where [the dharma] is not even a notion.
But the one thing I do know is that anytime you have a community of five white people who were trained with fifteen people of color moving into the system, it’s going to have an immediate impact. And so I look forward to seeing what that’s going to look like and what that’s going to bring.
Goldstein: Also, one of the pieces of feedback we’ve gotten is that it makes a huge difference when people of color who are on retreats see people who look like them teaching on stage. That’s a really important outcome of this training, because there will be that many more teachers of color, which has a big impact for people on retreat.
Williams: Mm-hm. And that’s for all people. It’s a new experience for the white sangha to experience so many people of color up in front of the room, bringing forth the dharma through their lens and their lived experience in the world, and it only lends itself to enriching the practice and the dharma.
Goldstein: I see this whole move as a hugely important transformative process for dharma. This is really a big thing. This whole growing awareness has, for me, been completely transforming and eye-opening. When the dharma went to different countries, it took on different forms based on the specific cultures. And diversity is part of the American culture, even if it’s been very problematic at times. So, coming together in this way and honoring diversity in the dharma and the teaching of it is, I think, a huge movement in the transmission of the dharma. It’s a very significant and seminal undertaking.
Williams: The goal in and of itself is not diversity, but to have a whole shift in perception, understanding, and awareness around access, power, and the various dynamics of a society and even the world. There is a need for all of us to come to the realization that our differences are what make us strong, not something that need to separate us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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