Buddhism and Race Conference at Harvard Divinity School

In April 2016, I participated in two panel discussions in the Buddhism and Race conference at the Harvard Divinity School. Preparing for and participating in the panel discussions have been a transformative experience for me.  I am still processing and hope to write more about it.  Here is a reflection on the conference I have written for the Humanity Magazine published in Taiwan in Chinese (translated from my original piece written in English as posted here).

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On April 22-23, 2016, I was invited to speak at the Buddhism and Race Conference hosted by the Harvard Buddhist Community of Harvard Divinity School.  It is the second Buddhism and Race Conference hosted by the school, with the first conference in 2015 addressing issues of race and racism within the Buddhist community.  At this conference, sangha leaders, activists, community members and students were invited to reflect on the impact of practicing Buddhism within a racialized society, while at the same time other forms of oppression such as patriarchy and class discrimination were also addressed.  The focus is to share approaches that various teachers and practice communities have developed to facilitate inclusivity and connection within the context of Buddhist practice and to apply transformative and compassion-based approaches to race-based trauma within Buddhist practice.  The event was sold out and attended by students at Harvard, members from the surrounding community as well as Buddhist teachers and practitioners from various traditions in the Northeast of United States.

In the Opening night panel on April 22, I, along with Lama Justin Von Bujdoss, Greg Snyder (cofounder of Brooklyn Zen Center) and Jessica Morey (from the Insight tradition), shared why it was important to hold dialogues on race and the challenges involved.  Before the panel began, however, the moderator, Lama Rod Owens, took everyone through a trust-building process to establish a space conducive to an open, honest, heart-felt conversation supportive of risk-taking that would be based on love, respect, humility and deep listening.  This is a similar process we used at the Generation X Dharma Teachers conference, recently hosted by Dharma Drum Retreat Center in June 2015, and it had been very successful in fostering a sense of community based on love, mutual respect and open-mindedness.  Because I have undergone this process with most of my fellow panelists at the Gen X conference, I felt comfortable sharing the inner work I have done over the past few months in preparation for this conference.

This is no ordinary conference where panelists present prepared PowerPoint slides.  The panel discussion was an opportunity for me to investigate my own experiences regarding race and other forms of oppression in society using my Chan practice and it has been a truly transformative experience even before I arrived at the conference.  When the panel discussion began, I was ready to speak from my heart and so did other panelists, which set the tone for the entire conference for everyone to feel safe to share their thoughts and experiences.  In fact, in my response to the question of why this kind of dialogue was needed, I pointed to how rare such an opportunity was in our society.  While there is no shortage of courses in universities that study oppression involving race, gender and class, they tend not to offer opportunities for people to speak honestly and openly about their own experiences.  Other panelists shared the importance of white teachers and practitioners to investigate their privileges in American society so that less pain would be inflicted on the members of racial minority due to the lack of awareness of their biases.  I shared how the inner work done using Chan practice had helped me gain clarity in my experiences on the receiving end of racism and sexism is crucial for cultivating empathy with everyone who is oppressed in one way or the other.  I also shared the importance of cultivating this mental clarity to discover our own deep-seated prejudices as a result of growing up in racist, sexist and classist societies and how I, too, have inflicted pain on others.  This kind of dialogue is facilitated by and facilitates the inner work that is crucial for creating a genuinely inclusive society.  Furthermore, it is through dialogues like this, I believe, that we develop skills needed to talk about this sensitive topic so that everyone ends up feeling nourished and supported instead of alienated and angry.

On April 23, the morning panel was titled “The Challenges of being People of Color in Largely White Sanghas.” The panel consisted of practice leaders from People of Color groups at centers of Insight, Zen, Tibetan traditions.  In the United States, many predominantly white Buddhist centers have tried very hard to help members of racial minority, People of Color, feel comfortable and included in the community to engage in the practice at their centers.  The panelists shared experiences of not being able to relax and feeling compelled to hold back part of themselves when practicing in the predominantly white environment.  Having the space created for them in People of Color groups in their centers had allowed them to feel more confident in their practice, and the invitation to lead their practice group has been invaluable to their growth.  As a result, they were able to feel free to bring of themselves into the practice and thus have more to give in return.  I am very grateful for the panelists’ heart-felt sharing of what tends to be very difficult to share especially due to the feelings of shame and resentment that often arise when recalling these experiences.  We can all learn from their experiences how insensitivity to the needs of the members in the group who may feel dominated by others that are blind to their privileges.  Sometimes it is about race.  At other times, it may be about gender or other differences in power based on social class or ability.  Whether intentional or not, individuals who are not seen and acknowledged often feel deeply hurt and may even internalized their sense of inferiority which can become a serious obstacle to their practice if not acknowledged.  As members or leaders of our practice communities in Dharma Drum, we should learn from their experience and see if we are doing enough to make everybody feel truly welcome and appreciated.

After this panel, I joined the breakout session led by Lama Rod Owens titled “Teaching from a Place of Inclusivity.”  Lama Rod Owens has done a lot of inner work to acknowledge his own experience of racism by others in order to move through the pain caused by such experiences.  He shared how we can all train ourselves to become more sensitive to our biases and privileges so that we will be less likely to hurt others by engaging in acts of aggression without even knowing it.  This is clearly where the Chan practice of cultivating clarity is crucial.  Without clarity of what is going on in our mind, we will not be able to see our perception of a particular person being less worthy of respect and thus would, by habit, engage in speech or bodily actions to belittle, ignore or offend this person, and we will be totally unaware of such appalling acts that we are committing.  In other words, we would be creating unwholesome karma moments after moment without being aware of it.  As Shifu has taught us, when we find ourselves doing so, we ought to repent and vow to cultivate a clearer mind so that we do not act this way again.

After lunch, I joined three other panelists in a panel titled “How to Adopt Practices to Address the Racial Aspect of Suffering” to share our thoughts.  The discussion was moderated by Harvard Professor Charles Hallisey, who amusingly said that he was reminding us who we are when he read our biographical information.  Yet, it really got me to reflect on who I was as I sat that on the panel and all the causes and conditions that brought me there.  It was a powerful moment and I am very grateful for it.

The panel consisted of a wide range of perspectives and it was certainly a wonderful learning experience.  It was a privilege to learn from Eleanor Hancock who shared her work on integrating Buddhist practices to investigate white privilege at the organization called White Awake.  She urged the white individuals in the audience to practice observing in their mind what comes up in the rare moments when they realize they are white.  She also invited everyone to stop and recognize what has been happening whenever something racist has been done and watch how automatic it is.  What she was sharing is precisely the inner work I was talking about and her organization has developed curriculum materials to help groups learn how to engage in this practice.  Greg Snyder, a Zen teacher in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki, shared this wonderful insight of our need to recognize that many people sit in meditation with the sense of “we” rather and the “I” that most white folks do.  He invited everyone to practice recognizing this because imposing one’s “I” subjectivity on others can be very traumatizing to them.  My dear friend and a fellow panelist, Lama Rod Owens, shared his experience in doing the work on applying the practice to help others heal racial trauma.

As for Chan, I shared my experience in using the teachings from the Diamond Sutra that remind us that all sentient beings have Buddha nature and that we should not look for the Buddha based on one’s characteristics.  A deep, unwavering faith in this teaching is crucial for us to move through moments of self-doubt when we are made to believe that we cannot practice because of our form, be it not having the right kind of body in the form of sex, skin color and physical ability or not having certain amount of schooling or living a certain life style.  When asked about how certain aspects of the teaching may inadvertently shutdown conversations on issues of oppression, I mentioned the importance of noticing how the social context we set up in our teaching space can speak louder than any word we utter, possibly conveying a message that is incongruent with the value and teachings we espouse in our uttered words which can in turn cause confusion for the students.  Hence, it is really important for teachers and leaders of practice centers to pay attention to this if we were to facilitate everyone’s Dharma practice.

After the panelists shared, discussion was opened up to the audience.  There were also breakout sessions where workshop leaders shared practices to facilitate inclusivity and to investigate one’s privileges as a way to deepen one’s practice.  Many participants of the conference reported the experience to be transformative to the organizers and are looking forward to the conference in 2017.  For me personally, this has certainly been a transformative experience preparing for and attending the conference.  At the surface, the conference theme seemed unrelated to what we usually teach and study in our Dharma practice.  In fact, it goes to the core of it.  I feel very blessed for the opportunity to share what I have learned from Shifu in this context so that more sentient beings can benefit from Shifu’s teachings.

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