The existence—and persistence—of racism can be baffling. Our society sees the suffering of historically disadvantaged people and treats them with scorn rather than compassion. Buddhism would explain that our current situation is the result of karma. But what does that mean? Contrary to popular depictions, the Buddhist notion of karma is not a tit-for-tat system of crime and punishment where people suffer for their past sins. Karma is a theory of action and consequence that describes how good deeds generate good results and more good deeds in a positive feedback loop, while bad deeds do the opposite. Through the lens of Buddhist karma, we may be able to understand how racism and the pain it causes are perpetuated. 

For years, Zen Buddhist teacher Dr. Larry Ward has been working to use this Buddhist framework to shed light on racism in America—culminating in his new book America’s Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal (Parallax Press; September 15, 2020), which tries to unearth the roots of our “racialized consciousness.” Trained in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition, Ward is the co-director of the Lotus Institute, where he offers teachings on “Deep Buddhism,” an approach to social engagement that draws from Buddhist and indigenous wisdom as well as trauma and resiliency work.

Ward sat down with Tricycle via videoconference to discuss America’s Racial Karma,  how these harmful cycles are perpetuated, and how we can begin to move toward both individual reckonings with racism and collective healing. 

What do you mean by the phrase “racial karma?” Classically, karma is translated as action, and thought is considered a kind of action which drives and sustains karma. How we think creates karmic patterns that affect how we speak to and interact with one another. I believe that we’re still caught in patterns of speech we’ve inherited from a colonial past, as well as binary perceptions of the world that create opposition between people. Binaries close down possibilities through strict definition and set theoretical opposites off against one another—subject/object, tall/short, male/female, black/white, self/other. These binaries affect our perceptions of others. 

Scientifically speaking, our skin tone is a very tiny aspect of our genetic code. It’s a spiritual and social tragedy to have something so tiny blown into the entire definition of what it means to be human. This ability to distinguish became racialized as a result of thinking, language, and behaviors that nurtured racist views. 

Part of the reason I use the word karma to describe racialized consciousness is that it’s completely predictable. It’s just a cycle of action, a pattern that lives inside of us. It’s wired into us neurologically, but also economically, politically, and culturally. Racism was neurologically wired into the consciousness of our culture over the last five hundred years of Western colonial history. It became our human nature. Using the lens of karma to inform our inquiry, we can look back at this history and trace the ways in which our consciousness shifted and became racialized. We were once just people living on different continents who looked different. 

You write about the experience returning home to the US after traveling abroad and being retraumatized by the racial dynamics here. We’re all traumatized by the karma of racism. Colonialism, and the structures that shape our present day, has victims, perpetrators, and witnesses—all of whom have been traumatized. We must understand this. When the “conquerors” of the Americas arrived here, they arrived with their own trauma, which shaped how they set up their societies and interacted with the indigenous and African people around them.

Today’s police brutality is inevitable, given our legacy of slavery, oppression, and institutionalized racism. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, a great deal of Europe’s long-distance trade, cross-cultural contact, and colonial enterprise was designed, engineered, and managed not by monarchies or the state, but by companies who were interested almost exclusively in profit above human life. We’re still dealing with the effects of this system. Unless we truly change, we’ll just keep replaying the record. And the more we replay the record, the more damage we do. 

Is there a way for us to escape this cycle? We have to start with how this racialized consciousness manifests itself in and around the body. A lot of the ideas we have about bodies in the modern world—how we understand them, how we describe them, and most importantly, how we value them—comes from centuries of colonial-era power dynamics. Understanding the impact of this—and healing from it—must begin with body-centered spiritual practices. If our work is all intellectual and not embodied, it’s an emotional bypass. 

First, we need to develop the skills for self-regulation. The work of rewiring our nervous system must involve developing the skills to handle our natural reactivity to life. Next, we must learn to develop the skills of self-cultivation to aid in healing and transforming our racialized consciousness. 

We’re built for the sublime. But we’ve organized our lives up to this point as fools. We’ve survived this far, which is wonderful. I appreciate being here. But I’m thinking about the next seven generations, to use an Indigenous thought pattern. Oren Lyons, a Seneca Faith keeper of the Onondaga Nation, said that when you sit in council for the welfare of the people, you must not think of yourself or of your family, not even of your generation. He said we should make your decisions on behalf of the seven generations in the future, so that they may enjoy what we have today. Thus I ask myself: How will our current way of living affect the generations that come after us? 

We could think of it from a Buddhist perspective, too: someone will be us. What are we setting ourselves up for? Right. Until we recognize and meet our own resistance to change with compassion, we won’t do it. Even if it’s wrong, stupid, or painful. We’ll continue because it’s easier. We have to do the internal work so we can meet the resistance around us and within us with grace.

Grace comes as energy you didn’t know you had. Perception you didn’t know you had. Beauty you didn’t know you had. The stress we are living under robs us of the sheer authenticity of the miracle of our life. That’s the tragedy, whether you are the victim, perpetrator, or witness. 

Do you believe our country has the capacity to transform? It’s happening now. This is the thing about karma. It’s a living energy. Our decisions about how we think, speak, and show up can redirect energy. 

That’s not to say I haven’t been hurt by this. Every time I hear about another police shooting or unjust racial incident, I’m re-wounded. I’m reminded of how hurt I am. I can say from a personal perspective that I’ve survived, but I can’t say from a social perspective that society was worthy of my survival and my contribution. To me, that is very sad. We’re carrying great sadness in America. 

This grief is worthy of recognition, but it’s something we’re taught to hide. We lack rituals for grieving. While my grief is a personal experience, it’s also collective and intergenerational in terms of history and epigenetics. It’s an ocean of grief that requires spiritual practice and ritual, otherwise we’ll drown.

Self-love is central to so many empowerment movements because oppressive systems attempt to make us feel worthless. How does that self-love relate to the Buddhist notion of manas, which you discuss in your book as self-love or self-cherishing gone awry. I’m not critiquing the genuine, precious energy of self-love. Manas is the part of human consciousness that leads you to believe that everything is about you. It’s all about my wants, my desire, my upset, my goals. Manas is the addiction created by loving ourselves as if we were only ourselves. 

In Buddhism, the term is conceit, which is the illusion of a separate self. You exist only by your own will, your own talent, your own drive, your own whatever. The work of training our nervous systems to receive, recognize, and respect our own vulnerability and interdependence—that’s the ground of empathy. The colonial model deprives empathy. We suppress it. We cut it down. We get blamed if we have it. 

The issues we have in the world today are about hearts and minds trapped in patterns that are no longer adequate. Our systems come out of these patterns. So we have to do the inner work at the same time as outer work. Otherwise we’re just rearranging furniture on the deck of the Titanic.

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