Friday, 26 February 2010

Race, Diversity and Buddhism: Thoughts and a Proposal

crossposted from:

Although I have been an activist for a long time and during my college years helped lead a student protest movement for diversity, to this day I dread discussions about race, the feelings they bring up in myself and others, the conflict that arises, and the ultimate and inescapable dissatisfaction with the ways things end. But recently I've been stirred and inspired by Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist, and even more recently by posts and comments by Nathan at Dangerous Harvests, and Katie at Kloncke.

At the same time I am concerned by the generally unsatisfactory discussion about race and diversity on many Buddhist blogs. These discussions have been full of misunderstanding, misrepresentation, hurt feelings all around, blanket statements, and a general lack of compassion or insight. Its often as if we don't really hear what others are saying but are separately instead engaged in a discussion with ghosts from previous discussions with all the accumulated baggage. At times we shout past each other, selectively hearing and cherry picking what is said for more fuel to add to the fire. It is even more regrettable when these discussions involve Buddhists because there is just extra arrow added on top of extra arrow, increasing suffering and seemingly disdaining the skillful means we as Buddhists should be developing and practicing.

Why have or participate in these discussions then? For me personally at a certain level there really is no choice. From a very young age, standing up to racism or asserting myself in a forum with racial overtones was part of an existential struggle. I felt like if I didn't speak out, stand up and fight back, I would not exist as a person and any risk was worth taking to prevent that. Those times I was silent or didn't fight back, I would torture myself again and again remembering my failure, cowardice and humiliation and despising myself for my weakness.

With meditation I have started to realize that the cost of anger is a steep one - the loss of personal balance and objectifying the focus of my anger which in other words is dehumanization and doing to someone else the very thing I don't want to happen to me. That's not to say I still don't get angry but the intensity has lessened and its not as all consuming. There is the awareness on some sort of fundamental level that the anger is not me and I am more than just the anger. I can be somewhat objective and watch it as an observer.

Also there is the realization that not every battle has to be joined, not every comment answered. We can choose not to accept those "gifts" as Goenkaji calls them (reminded of this by a post on Kloncke). There is something powerful in standing up for oneself and fighting back. There is also something powerful about restraint, abstaining, taking the time and space to just be.  

What comes next after the fighting and then the restraint and abstaining? How about a try for the middle way? I have been listening and working on Gil Fronsdal's Concentration series at Audio Dharma. At one point he describes concentration meditation like fishing - too much slack and the fish gets away, too forceful and the line will break. Perhaps these discussions on race needs to be the same - enough creative tension to get people thinking outside of their normal assumptions but not some much as to make them defensive. Easier said than done but adding compassion, trying out equanimity and remembering we are all in this together could help. What if at the point where someone says something that brings on very strong feelings of aversion and rejection - we try and label these feelings and then watch them with non reactive awareness? What would happen if we could get angry at someone else's limited and seemingly bigoted perspective but then put that feeling in a "larger container" and watch its power fade?

What if we could listen to each other for what lies behind our words?

Could there be a simple and shared desire to be heard, acknowledged and appreciated?

Would this premise be worth testing? How about a Buddhist bloggers' roundtable or panel discussion on different topics related to race, diversity and Buddhism? But the goal would not be to show how someone is wrong or convert others to your viewpoint, it would be to practice what Katie calls "mindful blogging" and do it in the challenging context of a dialogue about race, diversity and Buddhism.  

Sooo... Anybody game? I guess this is somewhat presumptuous since it assumes people are actually reading my ramblings...Is anybody out there?

ps - just in case someone is out there, I want to again acknowledge influence and inspiration from Kloncke and Dangerous Harvests for this line of thought - thanks!


  1. Interesting post. Race and diversity are issues that get raised in almost any venue and not just in Buddhism. Common thread though that runs through is that it is a rough and tumble conversation in person, let alone in the disembodied world of online discussions.

    Am I game? Always. But the venue is of prime importance. I would love to have a real-life, flesh and blood round table discussion over Race and Buddhism. Actually, even more important would be a capable moderator (maybe mediator).

    Bantering back and forth on blogs, forums and emails is a start but very limited. Face-to-face communication is paramount.


  2. Hi John,

    Thanks for the quick response and also the good points you make. I also agree that discussions about race and diversity are general. I guess what I'd like to see is how we as Buddhists can do it differently, in a way that furthers our practice as individuals but also contributes to a shared understanding or at least a shared process of inquiry.

    Face to face forum would be great. I live abroad but would be really happy to see this happen. I suspect that for many of us its not just distance but also time/money which makes this internet interaction while limited still important. It would be great to see both a face to face and a virtual roundtable.

    What kind of sub topics would you like to see discussed?

    Your idea of a moderator is a good one!

    be well,

  3. Great idea, Firehorse! I also like the idea of 'in-face' conversations and I think people who can do that *should* - and record and post it for the rest of us. For those of us in 'the boonies' though, the internet is a good enough venue to raise this important issue.

    How do we start? Perhaps each of us could post on our blog what our 'issue(s)' is/are with race and where we stand; trying to be succinct, mindful, and compassionate. Then you or another volunteer could aggregate, post a summary, ask questions, etc, and we could all post again a few days later. It would be like Nate's 'blog swap' - only with a set topic and follow-ups.

    What do you think? You've already taken the lead (thanks!); so what's the next step?

  4. Nice post. I'm not steeped in Buddhist discussions on race, but the first thought that comes to mind is that race and other classifications are as false and misleading as notions of a permanent self.

    No self. Non self. No race. Non race. Human race. Too cute?

  5. Yes, Steve, these classifications are empty of an inherent nature, but their impacts on the social world we live in are very, very real.

  6. I just caught your link on Twitter.... glad I did! I'm glad to be a part of this discussion.

    Through my work (my job), I am often a part of and sometimes an initiator of conversations about race within schools. I've been lucky to learn from great colleagues about how to start these conversations.

    For the benefit of all involved, and to create an environment that is supportive and open, sometimes it is a good idea to start with some basic principles or ground rules. Ground rules might include: --It's okay if we don't resolve this today;
    --It's okay if we are a bit uncomfortable;
    --It's okay if emotions come up.

    As a practitioner of vipassana for many years, I was pleasantly surprised-- sounds like some good ground rules for practice also. Given that, as an occasional facilitator it's also important to be see when emotions are given room to be expressed, and also when that's useful/not useful. I think the same questions we ask ourselves while observing the mind can be good for directing a conversation as well ("is this useful?").

    I'm still working on and learning about how to incorporate concepts and practices from mindfulness training in conversations about race (and class, in our situation)...Looking forward to the Mindfulness in Education conference in Boston in March...

    Thanks for opening up this dicussion-

  7. Excellent post and idea Firehorse, thank you for your candid and honest prespective of the situation. It is true, understanding is lacking all around.

  8. Folks - thanks for your comments, receptivity and encouragement!

    Steve not sure if this fits but I am also reminded of Suzuki Roshi saying, "not always so".

    Nathan thanks for pointing out the impact in the social world of these "empty" classifications. You had a recent posting about this that I liked.

    Isamaria - sounds like that's already a good start towards putting together some guidelines for mindful internet discussions. I would like to hear more.

    Kyle - thanks and that is one great squirrel picture!

    Buddhist Philosopher and all - for the sake of efficiency and getting things rolling it seems like what is evolving is putting together an organizing committee to discuss/decide on venue, format, initial participants, moderator, how to link etc. for this roundtable discussion. Would any of you be interested in helping out?

    To cross fertilize here are some comments from over at Tricycle:

  9. @Firehorse - I'd be glad to help anyway I could, but to warn ya I doubt I'd be well received. :-)

  10. I've been thinking about this for a while after reading your post, Nathan's, and then I see the one by Brad Warner. I'm just not sure how to approach the subject. I have lots of ideas, but maybe this is really where a skilled moderator can direct the discussion.

    Maybe someone can be directed to write a short post to get the conversation started, and then the moderator posts a comment that directs someone specific to respond, and then on and on. And each new post would contain links to all the previous posts.

  11. @Kyle - thanks for the offer! Let me try to get a few pieces in place and get back to you, hopefully soon.

    @Richard - we may try for something a little more centralized like one panel discussion that would lead into something like you are talking about. Would you also be willing to help organize?

  12. Happy to be a part of the conversation in any way. I want to bring this up with a few colleagues locally and at a small conference next weekend. I think I have been hovering around this topic for a while with both work and practice, but it's a good opportunity for confluence. More to come, surely. Metta....

  13. Isamaria,

    If you or anyone else are interested in helping organize this, please "friend" me at:


  14. Firehorse,

    I really appreciate your thoughts here and the invitation to engage in more dialogue on this issue. While I have mixed feelings about doing so online, I support this conversation in spirit. Thanks for getting the ball rolling, or keeping it rolling!

    I just posted my contribution to the conversation here: