During this weekend retreat led by Mushim Ikeda, Lama Justin Von Budjoss, and Melissa Myozen Blacker, you’ll gain skills in meditation and contemplation, receive guidance, and be part of group discussions about working with emotions.Read More
Mushim is featured in a wonderful article on CNN.com discussing the spirituality of Star Wars. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, a Buddhist teacher and social justice activist, said Yoda reminds her of the monks she studied with in Korea: wise, cryptic and a little impish.
"I watched those movies and I thought, check, check, double-check," said Ikeda, the community coordinator at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California.
Read the rest of the article here.
Book now and get 15% off listed prices. Offer valid until Dec 31, 2017.
People of Color Silent Meditation Retreat
July 1 - 7, 2018
Taught by East Bay Meditation Center teachers Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Noliwe Alexander and Melvin Escobar at Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center
(an amazingly beautiful ranch and national forest inholding at 9,000 feet in the mountains outside of Taos, New Mexico)
In many traditions, people journey into the wilderness for contemplation and purification. How often do we have the opportunity to connect to our deepest intentions and to experience spiritual renewal? Taking place at 9,000 feet in beautiful meadowland in New Mexico, the Vallecitos People of Color Retreat is designed to offer and support a practical introduction to insight meditation (vipassana). Meditation embodies the essence and wisdom of the teachings of the Buddha and has been the foundation of Buddhist teachings for 2,500 years. It is a simple and direct practice. Meditation is extraordinary in its simplicity, its lack of dogma and, above all, its results. This path to self-awareness can be successfully applied by anyone to their everyday lives. The ancient and profound teachings of interconnectedness and compassion are the foundations of spiritual awareness.
The retreat is based on the intensive training retreats that are traditionally the heart of Buddhist practice. The daily schedule, conducted in silence, is comprised of group sitting meditation periods alternating with walking meditation outdoors. There are group interviews with the teachers and a daily discourse from the teachings of the Buddha. In addition, there will be opportunities for optional group hikes and mindful movement to allow practitioners to fully experience Vallecitos’s beautiful natural setting, and to support physical joy and ease. Gourmet vegetarian meals add to the special nature of this retreat. To cultivate the meditation process, please note that complete silence is maintained at all times throughout the retreat, except during meditation practice interviews and the talks by the teachers, which may be followed by a communal conversation.
This retreat continues the ground-breaking tradition established at Vallecitos over the past two decades. People of color come to the mountains, the forest and the river not to conference, network, analyze or plan, but to practice one of the world’s oldest and wisest contemplative traditions. For some, the retreat may be the first extended period of meditation practice and practicing silence. No previous meditation experience is required to participate and the retreat is suitable for individuals at all levels of practice.
*This is a retreat for people of color. If you do not identify as a person of color, we are happy to help you find another VMRC retreat.
Mushim Patricia Ikeda is a teacher, an artist and an activist. She's a published poet. She's worked tirelessly for the upliftment of the marginalized, whether that's in education through inspiration or otherwise. She's received an honorary doctorate in sacred theology. She's been the subject of multiple award-winning films on the topic of poetry in spirit-based activism. She’s been a single mother. She’s earned an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. She underwent monastic training in her spiritual lineage, Korean Zen Buddhism. And for the past eleven years, she's been one of the senior leaders of East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California. The center has a focus on inclusion, social justice and gift economics
I have just gotten so much joy and happiness out of helping to build a East Bay Meditation Center as a board member and now I'm part time on staff. I've always been a Buddhist teacher and a Dharma teacher with EBMC. My enjoyment has been that it has for me been the dream that I've had for many years of being part of a Dharma based activist community that is trying to create, embody and manifest the values that we are also trying to teach,” she said.
Ikeda is also the guiding teacher of a year-long program at the center called “Practice in Transformative Action” or PITA. The program teaches secular mindfulness for agents of change and social justice activists. While creating the program, she realized she did not want the practice to be “another thing on their list of things to do”.
Ikeda realized that the major danger for activists is burnout. “We need tools to address and prevent burnout and we need to go to the root of it,” she said. It was in her earlier years during activist work that she recognized an acceptance, if not cultivation, of a mindset that understood being an activist meant martyring oneself to whatever cause they chose to work for.
Burnout was expected. Everyone was expected to work themselves into the ground and always be unable to make rent.” she said.
The underlying cause of burnout, Ikeda discovered, is greed. Whether from a Buddhist standpoint or a social justice activate standpoint it can still be described as greed.
Greed itself can take many forms,” she said. “We can be greedy from the Buddhist point of view for good things. We can be greedy to help others, we can be greedy to get enlightened and to be of benefit to all things.”
It is this form of greed-more must be better- that entices activists and other agents of change to ‘do more’. The form of greed that motivates one to sign up for yet another cause without any idea of the impact of doing even more. “The greed to do more and says I think I will sign up for another three causes and then suddenly you find yourself still up at three in the morning, angry at your family, unable to find time to get your car maintained which can cause problems and then your life starts to fall apart and you get get angrier and more irritable,” she said.
Ikeda says that the question for all of us on Planet Earth right now is “how much is enough?” and asked out of the context of materialism. “The question of enoughness- how much is enough for me to be happy, to be of help to the world, to meditate, to be watching netflix, that question of balance and sustainability and of well-being - that is to use a great Zen word, the “koan” of the work we are doing.”
Supporting that “koan” in a sense, led Ikeda to create what she calls ‘The Great Vow for Mindful Activists”. It was published in Buddhadharma Magazine in the Fall of 2006 in an article called “I Vow Not to Burn Out”.
Aware of suffering and injustice, I, _________, am working to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. I promise, for the benefit of all, to practice self-care, mindfulness, healing, and joy. I vow to not burn out.
Ikdea says that for people who are passionately committed to social justice there needs to be a strong intention not to burnout, and a dedication to asking the following questions, "How can you make your life sustainable—physically, emotionally, financially, intellectually, spiritually? Are you helping create communities rooted in values of sustainability, including environmental and cultural sustainability? Do you feel that you have enough time and space to take in thoughts and images and experiences of things that are joyful and nourishing? What are your resources when you feel isolated or powerless?
She said, “We can do our own mindfulness intervention and say, ‘ I have vowed to not burn out’. To ask on a daily basis, ‘what's my personal plan for today to both achieve my goal that's helping to build a more just, loving and caring society and sustainable world, and not burn out all of that together?’ ”
Mushim is a part of a webcast on Mindful Resistance on 9/21/17.
Watch the video recording here or on the media page.
"Mindful Resistance: How to Resist without Burning Out"!
Parallax Press Webcast, 9/21/2017
Mushim Patricia Ikeda shares a small piece of Buddhist history that she’s never forgotten, and that she hopes, in this age of ICE raids and the repeal of DACA, we’ll always remember too.
Here’s a true story that, I think, all U.S. Buddhists should know.
Back in 2000, I was guest editor of the “Buddhists of Asian Descent in the USA” issue of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s journal, Turning Wheel. In it was an article titled “Internment Camp Buddhism: Memoirs of Rev. Koetsu Morita,” translated by Rev. Ryuji Tamiya and my cousin, Rev. Mary Jiko Oshima Nakade.
One of the stories in that article goes like this:
Rev. Morita, a Soto Zen priest from Japan, was arrested in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. He was relocated to numerous concentration camps—it’s good to remember that these were concentration camps, not just “internment camps”—starting out in Sand Island, Oahu, Hawaii. In that camp, there were thirty Buddhist ministers of various Buddhist sects from all over the island of Oahu.
When Buddha’s Birthday came around on April 8, Rev. Morita recalled, the ministers wanted to celebrate the traditional Hana Matsuri. Like the other ministers, he had only the clothes he was arrested in, and they were filthy. He had only one pair of pants, so he couldn’t wash them; what would he wear in the meantime? (Evidently, Rev. Morita wouldn’t get a change of clothing until his family was able to send him more pants, months after his arrest.) He had no belt, either, so he used a piece of rope from a tent on Sand Island.
In 1977, in his memoirs, Rev. Morita wrote,
But no minister had a robe with him except for Bishop Kubokawa [of the Jodo sect], who was asked to officiate because he had been arrested in his robes…. We chanted the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra) and Bishop Kubokawa delivered a Dharma talk. He said, “…Your participation in those filthy clothes can be likened to the Buddha’s teaching of the lotus blooming in the mud. Let us hold on together, praying that peace arrives as soon as possible, and may we be guided by the Buddha’s teachings and life of peace.” To this day I can still hear the voice of that nearly eighty-year-old priest.
So the U.S. government arrested and put into concentration camps Japanese immigrants and U.S. citizens (the children of the immigrants) alike in World War II, including many Buddhists—and Buddhist priests were among the first to be arrested in Hawaii. They’d even arrested a priest in his robes!
As Buddhists in the U.S., I think that if we knew our own history better—that is, the history of Buddhism in the U.S.—we would understand that the ICE raids (which were going on in full force during the Obama-era) and the repeal of DACA have very, very much to do with our own dharma practice. And, because of that knowledge, we would resist—employing all of the determination and concentration we have developed through our various Buddhist practices.
And then there’s the equally valuable community-building skills that Buddhists in this country have carefully nurtured in order to provide safe and happy and welcoming places for ourselves, our families, and our dharma friends. When we foster and share these skills, we increase our resilience.
We’ll need our determination, concentration, and resilience. Because this trying era we’re in will end someday, but it’s not likely to get better very soon. We’ve got to be in this for the long haul.
Buddhist teacher Mushim Patricia Ikeda has what she thinks is a great new way for Buddhists to be of service — by getting their various communities to offer a simple item that helps them assert their rights and feel less vulnerable. She explains:
I live and teach in California, which is home to more than 25% of the 800,000 young DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients. As a Buddhist teacher and a resident of Oakland, one of the most diverse urban areas in the U.S., I keep front-and-center in my practice that making refuge as well as offering practices of non-fear are always of vital importance, and now more than ever.
If you are a Buddhist teacher or leader, you are important and you can help the immigrant communities in your area and their non-immigrant allies.
Something you can do quickly right now is order a bunch of these wallet-sized Know Your Rights red cards from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and give them out for free at your Buddhist temple or center. [The red cards are free to nonprofits in California’s Bay Area only. Otherwise they can be ordered from a union printer. I’ll bet the price is reasonable.] ILRC says that all people in the United States, regardless of immigration status, have certain rights and protections under the U.S. Constitution. These bilingual cards (Spanish/Hmong/Chinese and English) help people assert their rights and defend themselves in many situations, such as when ICE agents go to a home.
For information about ordering (or printing your own) cards, visit: https://www.ilrc.org/red-cards
Buddhafest LA talk by Mushim on June 4, 2017
Healing the Divide: Diversity, Compassion, Interconnection
The deep political and spiritual divisions many people are experiencing in the U.S. during these uncertain times cause suffering and fear. And, is there an opportunity here for us to come closer to one another, to compassionately and skillfully bridge grievous divides in our communities and families? Can the 2,600-year-old teachings and practices of the Buddha help us to illuminate and understand our differences along with the compassionate acknowledgment and deep realization of our fundamental interconnectedness? Let's explore how not turning away from issues of inequity, social engagement, and the liberation movements of our times creates the potential for greater awakening, both individual and collective.
For more Info on Buddhafest LA schedule and to purchase tickets: https://www.buddhafest.org/tickets
Stand Against Suffering: An Unprecedented Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers.
Thirteen leading Buddhist teachers, joined by more than 100 additional signatories, call on Buddhists and all people of faith to take a stand against policies of the new administration that will create suffering for the most vulnerable in society.
BY BHIKKHU BODHI, NORMAN FISCHER, JOAN HALIFAX, MUSHIM PATRICIA IKEDA, JACK KORNFIELD, ETHAN NICHTERN, ROSHI PAT ENKYO O'HARA, LAMA ROD OWENS, GREG SNYDER, GINA SHARPE, REV. ANGEL KYODO WILLIAMS, JAN WILLIS AND MYOKEI CAINE-BARRETT| APRIL 3, 2017
Read the article here. https://www.lionsroar.com/stand-against-suffering/
Mushim has been invited to be one of six major speakers at Buddhafest LA June 2-4, 2017. She is in esteemed company as Sharon Salzberg, Noah Levine, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Dawa Tarchin Phillips, and Christiane Wolf are also slated to speak at the conference.
You can purchase your tickets here to attend!
Please click on the link above to learn how to join Mushim on this call on January 14th, 2017!
Taking the Great Vow Not to Burn Out
[Mushim] is a committed social activist who has noted that "this gritty world is full of suffering and stress, and in order to meet this we need to be curious, resilient, grounded, insightful, compassionate, spiritually skillful, bold and courageous." What tools help you to live joyfully, contribute passionately, and not burn out?
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Calls are a weekly conference call that anyone from around the world can dial into. It is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Each call features a unique theme and an inspiring guest speaker, with the simple hope of spreading positive ideas and connecting kindred spirits. Our guests have ranged from the former head of Amnesty International, Wharton's youngest full professor, and a path-breaking neurosurgeon, to the soccer-playing celebrity champion of Survivor, a prize-winning journalist, and a socially conscious hip-hop rapper.
What is the call format?
Every Saturday at 9AM PST, we hold a global conference call with an inspiring individual, such as yourself. :) We open with a moderated interview with the speaker, and then open it up for an open-mic circle of sharing and Q&A.
How can I join as a guest?
To join as a guest, simply find an upcoming call and RSVP. You will be emailed details to dial-in and voila. We think of all call participants -- both speakers and listeners -- as active co-creators in the dialogue process, so we look forward to your participation. On average, about 60 people RSVP for each of calls, and we aim to keep the conversation intimate and also encourage post-call interactions.
Mushim Ikeda says it’s not enough to help others. You have to take care of yourself too.
(As seen in the Fall 2016 issue of Buddha Dharma.)
At the end of January, one of my close spiritual friends died. A queer Black man, a Sufi imam “scholartivist” (scholar–artist–activist) and professor of ministry students, Baba Ibrahim Farajajé died of a massive heart attack. He was sixty-three, and I’m guessing he had been carrying too much. It was only six months earlier that Baba and I had sat together on a stage in downtown Oakland, California, under a large hand-painted banner that read #BlackLivesMatter. A brilliant, transgressive bodhisattva, Baba had been targeted for multiple forms of oppression throughout his life and had not been silent about it. When he died, I was sad and angry. I took to staying up all night, chanting and meditating; during my daytime work, I was exhausted.
How many of us who have taken the bodhisattva vow are on a similar path toward burnout? Is it possible for us, as disciples of the Buddha, to engage with systemic change, grow and deepen our spiritual practice, and, if we’re laypeople, also care for our families? How can we do all of this without collapsing? In my world, there always seems to be way too much to do, along with too much suffering and societal corruption and not enough spaces of deep rest and regeneration.
When I get desperate, which is pretty often, I ask myself how to not be overwhelmed by despair or cynicism. For my own sake, for my family, and for my sangha, I need to vow to not burn out. And I ask others to vow similarly so they’ll be around when I need them for support. In fact, I’ve formulated a “Great Vow for Mindful Activists."
Click here to read the vow along with the rest of the article.
A fun session on mindfulness as a tool for personal and career development that I led at the recent UC Berkeley NOW conference for staff career development.
Feeling stressed? Confused?
Turn palms of both hands upward, raise arms slowly overhead and stretch up up up as you breathe in deeply.
Turn palms of hands outward as though you're pushing against two walls that are on your left and right sides and lower arms slowly as you breathe out, out, out.
Repeat. Notice how you feel. (Important point: With mindfulness, you aren't being told to feel better or worse. If this little exercise makes you feel more relaxed and alert, notice it. If you feel even more stressed after you do it, notice that. If you don't give a hoot and you feel no different, notice that.)
The important thing is: you tried something that might help you feel less anxious and stressed. If it helped, make a mental note for the future. If it didn't help, notice that and then TRY SOMETHING ELSE that supports your sense of well-being.
Because you can do this, even in "little ways." You've got it!
As posted on whiteawake.org.
Itroduction by Eleanor Hancock, cofounder of the White Awake website, May 2016:
"White people on an anti-racist path need allies of color who can support our journey – people who will talk to us honestly, tell us like it is, while also encouraging us and believing in us. Mushim Ikeda is one of these people. As an American of Japanese descent growing up in rural Ohio, the threads of oppression, assimilation, and resistance are intertwined in Mushim’s life history. A Buddhist teacher, writer, and multicultural community activist, Mushim is widely known for her down-to-earth, humorous, and penetrating approach to Dharma and social transformation.
In this piece, created explicitly for White Awake, Mushim points out that while our anti-racist intentions might feel good, how we relate to our privileged status is where the rubber meets the road. It’s risky, yet rewarding, this commitment to true racial equity, and collective liberation."
Speaking as a person of color, I want to thank you for your intention to become a white ally to people of color.*
And, if you’re at the beginning of your ally journey, there’s something you need to know, right off the bat, if you haven’t already given it a lot of thought. Beyond feeling good about being anti-racist, you’re going to need to face your fear of losing your protected status as a white person.
In other words, it’s unlikely that you can have your cake and eat it too. Unexamined white privilege, institutionalized racism, and white supremacy are in the air that we breathe in the U.S., in the soil beneath us. Once you begin to side with the causes of people of color, it is possible that you may find yourself, at times, feeling alone. Other white people may regard you with suspicion because you side with people of color. People of color may regard you with suspicion because you are white.
And that’s one of many reasons why you’re going to need other white allies, so that you feel supported.
Many white people of good intentions feel personally attacked and deeply injured when terms such as “white supremacy” and “racism” are used by people of color and their white allies. They might prefer that softer words such as “discrimination” or “prejudice” are used, referring to the individual acts of individual persons. This is sometimes called the “Kumbaya” form of white allyship. In this approach to anti-racism work, it is thought that to combat personal ignorance and prejudice, people of different races and ethnicities can get to know one another better. We can share some meals, perhaps potlucks with foods from our varied ethnic backgrounds, gather in sharing circles, and sing spiritual songs of humanity’s unity. We might celebrate holidays from around the world together. These activities, if not accompanied by rigorous structural analysis and discussions of the inequitable distribution of power and wealth, are sometimes called the “Food & Festivals approach” to diversity work.
As a white ally, it’s also possible that you may feel unseen, at times, in the ways that you have suffered from oppression. It seems as though many white people don’t understand the term “white privilege” because they don’t yet understand that it refers to the unearned access and privilege that comes with their whiteness, and doesn’t mean that they haven’t struggled or experienced lack of unearned privilege in other dimensions of their lives and being. A white person may have struggled very hard in their life because of childhood abuse or because their parents were poor and couldn’t afford dental care for the kids. Everyone, without exception, has their own suffering. A mature white ally knows where to go for support, so that they don’t burden people of color with either their guilt that they benefit from white privilege, or their hurt feelings resulting from being rejected by people of color or from feeling not seen in their wholeness.
I treasure the mature white allies I have, because I know they have my back. And to do that, they have to be ready to speak up, to act, and to give up their protected status as white people. Allan G. Johnson, writing about “the great collective [white] silence” and how systems of privilege work in the book Privilege, Power, and Difference, says:
“Human beings are highly dependent on one another for standards of what – and who —is okay and who isn’t…. What counts isn’t just what they do, but even more what they don’t do.”
Johnson says he imagines “a scene in which a gang of white men are beating a person of color in broad daylight on a city street.” His book was published in 2006, and, ten years later, in 2016, we see how little has changed in the U.S. In the scenario, the white onlookers feel no ill will to the person of color being beaten, and they aren’t cheering on the attackers. They’re “minding their own business.” And then, he writes, “one of the men [attackers] stops, looks up, and says, his eyes panning across our faces, ‘We appreciate your support. We couldn’t do this without you.’”
“This is how racism and other forms of privilege really work day in and day out,” Johnson says, in conclusion. “It results from what is called ‘passive oppression,’ which can be defined as making it possible for oppression to happen simply by doing nothing to stop it.”
Anyone in a dominant culture risks a lot when they stop being part of passive oppression. Beyond their feelings being hurt by possible rejection, a white person who is part of an invited group of all-white presenters at a conference risks losing income and networking opportunities if they say, “There’s something really wrong here and I demand that we address it.” And that’s only one example, out of thousands and maybe millions of possible scenarios.
We need white allies who are well trained and mature, in my opinion. We need as many as possible. People of color and folks of mixed heritage in the U.S. have lots of our own work to do in the service of liberation. I’m writing this in May of 2016, subsequent to the Occupy movement, and during the current era of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the Movement for Black Lives. These are ongoing life-and-death struggles. And all of this raises the questions: What are you willing to do and say? What are you willing to give up?
These are meant to be open questions, and they deserve to be asked with deep compassion. They point toward a journey that requires courage, conviction, support, and an unwavering commitment to learning. And my hope is that it is also a joyful journey, a journey of spiritual deepening and opening and renewal. Because when we move from spiritual contemplation into the wisest action accessible to us in the moment, we can know for a fact that our lives are happier when we stop making it possible for oppression to happen, and if we mess up, which is inevitable at times, that this gives us the opportunity to learn and to grow. I have heard many white people who self-identify as liberal and progressive in their political views say they discover in anti-racism work that they need to give up their protective self-image as “the good, non-racist white person” who is down with the cause, and who considers themself to be completely separated from “racist white people.”
As Eleanor Hancock (co-founder and director of White Awake) says, “We can shift from feeling the fear of losing our protected and privileged status to the knowledge that this potential loss is inseparable from the potential for collective liberation – a much, much greater gain.”
*Note: I understand that the term “white ally to people of color” is a contested term. Some people like it and find it useful; others do not. In discussions of race and dismantling racism and white supremacy in the United States, there is a constant evolution of preferred terms. My understanding and use of the term “white ally” in this context is that a white ally is a person with white-skin or white-person-identified unearned privilege who engages in anti-racism work while practicing principles of cultural humility. (Regarding the term “cultural humility” as defined by Drs. Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia, search for “cultural humility Vivian Chávez” on YouTube.)
"There are people who freely cross the divides in U.S. Buddhism, feeling welcomed and at home everywhere they go; these folks, however, aren’t usually the voices that are heard in convert U.S. Buddhist media. We can become these folks if we make the effort. Start small and identify a Buddhist group that’s quite unlike your own; ask if you can visit and go with a friend. Take a donation of food or flowers or money. Ask lots of questions and make it clear you’re interested in their culture and what they’ve achieved in building their temple, undoubtedly persevering through many difficulties. Then, although of course nothing is ever 100% guaranteed, be prepared to be the recipient of warm hospitality, and gain transformative insights into new worlds, and to make new spiritual friends. It probably won’t feel 100% comfortable to you to be there, but learning new things doesn’t mean you have to agree with them."
From Justin Whitaker at Patheos.com:
Today I am again very honored to share a guest post in our ongoing series of expanding perspectives on race and diversity in American Buddhism. Recent posts include yesterday’s (forthcoming) book excerpt from Lama Choyin Rangdrol, “African American Buddhism…” an interview discussing an emerging and wonderful voice -several voices, in fact- in the Western Buddhist world, the Tibetan Feminist Collective, and two excellent academic pieces that started things off: “Race Matters…” and “The Dukkha of Racism…”.
Today’s article comes with a home-work assignment of sorts for me and for interested readers: to get a hold of Diana Eck’s book A New Religious America... mentioned below and read the chapter on Buddhism and come back here in about 10 or so days to discuss that chapter (I’ll provide a summarizing blog post to start things off). Along with that, check out Eck’s Harvard-based Pluralism Project: http://pluralism.org/. As Mushim mentions Rick Fields, I’ll also note another pioneer in the study of American Buddhism who has been a great influence on me:Charles Prebish, whose 30+ year career (1979, American Buddhism - 2011, Looking West…) studying American Buddhism includes texts co-edited by greats like Martin Baumann and Kenneth Tanaka. More on him and Fields and other figures perhaps in the upcoming post on Eck’s work; for now, please enjoy today’s excellent work by Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda.
The recent cover image of the first issue of Lion’s Roar magazine, showing 14 U.S. Buddhist teachers who are beautifully diverse in some ways, provocatively and boldly titled “The New Face of Buddhism,” has excited both praise as well as substantial deconstructive critique. Lion’s Roar is a rebranding of the former Shambhala Sun,and not a new publication.
The praise comes from people, myself included, who appreciate the inclusion of people of different races and ethnicities, ages, gender identities, and body shapes and sizes among the teachers chosen to be photographed, many of whom I know well and love, or know slightly and respect.
I also sympathize with the thoughtful critiques, such as those published recently byfive Buddhist Peace Fellowship authors, which once again shine light on the stunningly great divides among U.S. Buddhist communities and individuals. These persist despite information being readily available for Buddhists in the U.S. to educate ourselves on “The Old Face of Buddhism” in this country, to the extent that a newish sort of religion can have an old face. But you get my drift – Buddhism has been in the U.S. and in North America for awhile, certainly over a hundred years, and books like Rick Fields’s classic How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America have been out since 1981, joined by newer and excellent accounts such as the long and research-based chapter on U.S. Buddhism in Dr. Diana Eck’s A New Religious America: How a “Christian” Country Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.
It has been said that there is no American Buddhism, only American Buddhisms, and this is a useful truth to keep in mind, I think.
It was only a few years ago that I was seated at dinner with a diversity and inclusion professional, who appeared to be a white person, a person who was new to me. They asked about the work I had done in the D&I (Diversity and Inclusion) field. I replied that I am Buddhist and most of my diversity work has been done in Buddhist communities in the U.S., particularly focusing on racism.
They seemed very interested, smiled, and said, “I practice meditation with a Buddhist group!” Then they furrowed their brow slightly and said, in a thoughtful voice, “But there aren’t many people of color who are Buddhists.”
This was one of those moments of truth where one can choose to be mindful or not. I took a deep breath, then said as warmly and kindly as I could, “I disagree. Buddhism comes from Asia, and most Buddhists, globally speaking, are people of color.”
The person thought about this, then said, “I guess I mean Black people.”
I replied, “Actually, there are large Buddhist groups such as SGI-USA who have significant membership of people of color who are not Asian-descended, including large numbers of African Americans.”
I could tell that all of this was new and confusing information to this person, who seemed like a well-educated white professional. And they are not alone. If you go into a sampling of U.S. Buddhist groups that are predominantly white converts and ask, “If I ask you to think of three to five images of ‘a typical American Buddhist,’ who do you see in your mind?” the answer is likely to be almost completely different than if you go into a sampling of U.S. Buddhist groups that were founded by Asian Buddhist immigrants, anywhere from over 100 years ago up to fairly recently, and ask the same question.
Both broad categories are likely to contain a large number of people who self-identify as “Americans,” meaning U.S. citizens, but between these groups is what seems to me like an almost impenetrable wall, often, or an abyss in which phone and Internet signals mysteriously disappear.
The reasons for this divide, it has been noted, include, although they are not solely reduced to, racism. And, because issues of socioeconomic class usually co-arise with issues of race and ethnicity, there is classism as well. Asian American Buddhists, like Asian Americans in general, commonly encounter racism in the forms of being regarded as perpetual foreigners, sometimes exoticized, sometimes feared, and most often completely ignored or what is called “invisibilized” in addition to what is sometimes called “Otherized” these days. Last year, for instance, I was talking to a white American woman in a Buddhist center in Berkeley and we had been chatting for quite awhile. English is my first and primary language, except for a little French, and I speak with a flat Midwestern accent, having grown up near Akron, Ohio; I am a sansei, or third generation Japanese American who has never been to Japan. After we’d been talking pleasantly for at least fifteen minutes, the woman said, “Are you from Hong Kong?” I replied that I am originally from Ohio and asked why she thought I was from Hong Kong. She said, “There were some other people from Hong Kong here earlier today.” I hope it is obvious that it is exactly this sort of conflation of identity and nationality, based on physical appearance, that was at the root of the reason that American citizens of Japanese descent were placed in concentration camps in World War II. That these implicit associations and biases exist so strongly today among people of undoubted good will is something to be strongly taken into account when white convert Buddhist groups consider or are challenged to consider diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Meanwhile, the so-called Asian American and the Asian immigrant U.S. Buddhist organizations and groups are doing what they’ve done, in some cases for over a century in this country: serving their communities. I always knew better than to try to reach my late friend, Ven. Thich An Duc, an African American senior Buddhist monk who resided in Chua Dieu Phap, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in San Gabriel, California anytime around Buddha’s birthday or other major Buddhist holidays. The venerable, who also went by the name Bhante Suhita Dharma, told me that Chua Dieu Phap would easily draw 2,000 people for Buddha’s birthday, and that the temple had a system in place so that services were held, everyone got fed, bathroom facilities were provided, and people of all ages, from babies in arms up to elderly folks in wheelchairs, were well cared for. Similar thriving, multigenerational scenes that fluidly include laypersons, monastics, married clergy, and visiting Buddhist dignitaries, albeit perhaps with smaller numbers, can be found – should one have the consciousness to look – at hundreds and probably thousands of Asian-descended American Buddhist centers and communities that have impressive infrastructure, including Dharma schools for young children and teenagers, in the U.S.
Although it’s a bit of a collector’s item, Taking Refuge in L.A.: Life in a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, a book of lyrical photos by Don Farber and text by Rick Fields, can still be found, and, were I calling the shots, would be viewed avidly by every person in a predominantly white, U.S. convert Buddhist community as a foundation of their Dharma study. In my experience, U.S. people of color who are converts to Buddhism usually have a fairly strong awareness that Dharma in the U.S. includes both Buddhists of Asian as well as non-Asian descent, and includes African Americans, Latin@s and Hispanics, U.S. indigenous peoples, and people of mixed heritage as well as people from other countries, including often invisibilized Canadians. “Minority awareness” seems to fairly easily translate to an openness to consider that “American Buddhists” might be diverse also, regarding sexual orientation, gender-identity, ability and disability, and other dimensions of diversity.
How to cross this great divide? It’s probably evident that some additional factors that keep it so firmly in place are cultural differences and needs, as well as negative perceptions and judgments on both sides. There are people who freely cross the divides in U.S. Buddhism, feeling welcomed and at home everywhere they go; these folks, however, aren’t usually the voices that are heard in convert U.S. Buddhist media. We can become these folks if we make the effort. Start small and identify a Buddhist group that’s quite unlike your own; ask if you can visit and go with a friend. Take a donation of food or flowers or money. Ask lots of questions and make it clear you’re interested in their culture and what they’ve achieved in building their temple, undoubtedly persevering through many difficulties. Then, although of course nothing is ever 100% guaranteed, be prepared to be the recipient of warm hospitality, and gain transformative insights into new worlds, and to make new spiritual friends. It probably won’t feel 100% comfortable to you to be there, but learning new things doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.
As you may have heard, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s 2013 series of dialogues, “The System Stinks” is available! We’re going to be talking about true systemic issues, like greed enshrined in capitalism, colonialism in our mind and world, and what we can do about it. At this point, you might be wondering who exactly you’ll be talking to about all this stuff. To give a glimpse into the year ahead, BPF will be posting some interviews with prominent BPF members giving their take on social engagement, Buddhism, and the intersection of the two. Our first interview is with Dharma leader Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda.