Chan Practice and Contemplation about Race

This article is a reflection of my participation in the Third Buddhism and Race conference at Harvard Divinity School in March 2017 published in the Spring 2017 issue of Chan Magazine.

Chan Practice and Contemplation about Race: Reflection on the Third Buddhism and Race conference in March 2017

By Rebecca Li

When I was invited to return to the Buddhism and Race conference in 2017, I had no idea what I was expected to talk about.  I agreed to go because I learned a lot from participating on the panels the year before and the experience transformed my Dharma practice and teaching.  While I felt honored to be invited back and excited to see my friends, I was not sure what I would contribute to the conference this time.  I wondered if I was being invited to speak on behalf of Asian American Buddhists who remain relatively invisible despite their important contributions to Buddhism in the United States.  Whatever the case, I told myself that I would make good use of the opportunity to contemplate this important issue and would not be too worried about what was expected of me.

Serendipitously, prior to the conference, I was invited to participate in a documentary project in which Asian American Dharma practitioners and teachers shared their experience.  My experience during filming allowed me to explore my experience as an “Asian American,” and to examine why I had hesitated to engage in discussions of race even though I knew, at least intellectually, that race issues are central to much of everyday life here in the U.S.

At the opening panel of the conference, titled “What is the Conversation?”, I mentioned that I had shied away from discussions of race because I felt unqualified since I did not grow up in this racialized society.  But I also came to realize that my experience growing up in Hong Kong, a relatively unracialized society, and of having my perspectives shaped unconsciously by living here allows me to appreciate how powerful the social forces revolving around race in America has been in shaping my being and the way I relate to others.   I recounted the recent experience of filming for the above-mentioned documentary on Asian American Buddhists.  To begin the filming of my segment, I was asked to say “I am Asian American, and my people are …”.  What the director assumed to be a straightforward process ended up taking much longer because I had trouble saying that phrase.  I felt like I was asked to introduce myself with someone else’s words.  It was important to me for my sharing on that video to be heart-felt, and I thought it necessary to voice my objection to introducing myself that way.  Struggling with identifying myself this way in the presence of others helped me to investigate my feelings about this subject matter more deeply.

I asked myself if I was ashamed of being Asian American.  After all, I have read accounts of Asian American children who grew up here feeling that way due to internalized racism.  I didn’t believe that was causing my reluctance to introduce myself as “Asian American,” but instead felt my reluctance was resistance to having an artificial label imposed upon me.  The category “Asian American” is the result of an effort to categorize individuals with Asian ancestry as neither black nor white.  I often told my sociology students that I became “Asian” when I came to this country, referring to the point that before I moved to this country, I was not seen through preconceived notions of how “Asian” or “Chinese” are supposed to be.  People related to me as a student, drama enthusiast, so-so tennis player, etc.  In other words, I was treated as a person with my own idiosyncrasies, passions, and flaws.  Here I have often been seen only as Asian or Chinese and was forced to identify myself almost exclusively with my ancestry and to be judged accordingly.

One of my first interactions in graduate school was someone commenting on how I did not act like a Chinese.  When I asked her how many Chinese she has met, she was unable to think of one.  Here I was, being forced to defend my self-worth based on pure imaginations she had in her mind about how “Chinese” are supposed to behave.  I was disheartened by the fact that I was seen only as part of this category called “Chinese.”  I am ethnically Chinese, yes; but that is not the only thing I am.  The experience left an impression because it left a rather deep wound.  Since then, many times, I was either “too Chinese” or “not Chinese enough.”  The question of whether my being Chinese will become an issue in an interaction always lurks in the background.  I could be having a fun casual conversation with someone, and out of the blue, my individuality would be erased entirely by a passing remark where I am thrown into a pile of faceless “Chinese.” This makes fully trusting someone difficult, as I never knew when this might happen.  When it does, I feel completely alone, since no one acknowledges that this is, or even might be, hurtful.  This is what living in a racialized society does.  In those moments of my resisting saying I am Asian American on camera, I realized that I have experienced this label as a form of violence, of being thrown into a box that does not capture who I really am, and feeling the pain of isolation that accompanied that experience.

Investigating my mind through Chan helped me become more clearly aware of the subtle mental processes created by being seen only as a category.  Despite the absence of outright discrimination or bigotry by and large, and very often with people really trying to be nice, I came to understand the pain I experienced from these instances over the years as that of not being seen as a full human being.  For the nice people who insisted on seeing me through their abstract category of “Chinese,” the parts of me that do not fit into “being Chinese” were either disallowed or ignored.  As painful as this has been, I have also learned not to allow myself to recognize the experience in racial terms.  Looking back, I realized that I picked up the racial vibe very soon after moving to this country, and realized that thinking and talking about race makes people uncomfortable.  In my effort to survive in this country without a single family member or close friend at that time, it did not feel safe to do anything to make other people uncomfortable.  So my instinct compelled me, without my being aware of it, to steer clear of recognizing my experience as an issue of race, even though there was no shortage of such experiences.

On the panel, I also shared when I started to have an inkling of my unwillingness to recognize the role played by race in my life.  Years ago when I was still working out my difficulties with Simon Child, my current teacher and one of Master Sheng Yen’s Dharma heirs, in intensive retreats, as I penetrated layers and layers of conditioning and vexations, I felt I was blocked by an invisible wall in my mind.  Looking back, it was not so much that it was invisible as I was reluctant to face it.  At the time, I wondered if my sense of alienation and feeling undeserving, which became more acute after I moved to the U.S., had to do with racism and I remember wanting to explore it but feeling a very strong resistance to pursuing it.  Even though I fully trusted my teacher, the instinct against bringing up race was so strong that I held back over and over again.  At that time I noticed that the resistance was so strong that I shied away from the inquiry when I asked myself why I hesitated to bring up the issue in interviews.  Now that I recognize my resistance, the inner work I did preparing for the conference illumines the emotional dynamic underlying the resistance.

While I would not wish it upon anyone, I am glad that I went through this process of hurt and alienation and the inner struggle to recognize my resistance and pain.  I now have a better sense of how difficult it is to cut through the layers of self-views and beliefs that obscure us from clearly seeing the power of cultural conditioning and social control.  They are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to notice them operating in the mind.  This process of self-exploration also helped me explain the question “how is the discussion of race connected to Chan practice?”

Intellectually I understand that race is an important social force in American society and any engaged citizen should try to understand the issues and be part of the solution.  Hence, it is a topic that an engaged Buddhist practitioner ought to be familiar with.  I have been wondering, however, whether it, and if so how it, is important for every Dharma practitioner to make a serious effort to investigate the role race plays in their being?  I came to the conference wanting to work on this question.  Throughout the conference discussions, I kept discovering very important things about myself and the practice.  Even though it was a conference, it felt more like an intensive Chan retreat for me, and by the end of the conference, the connection became clear and I was fully convinced that looking at race needs to be part of Chan practice in American society.  I look at race as a starting point, which will help us learn to examine other mental categories that may separate us from other human beings, such as gender, sexual orientation, social class, lay/monastic, political orientation, or religious affiliation.  Practicing this way will deepen our understanding of our mind and its myriad conditionings by the social world so that, if we want, it is possible to be free from them.  Looking at race highlights the fact that understanding ourselves only at the psychological level is not enough.  We need to also understand ourselves as social beings who interact and act out beliefs and worldviews promoted by various social institutions that are often unbeknownst to us, or unacknowledged.  Cultivating a clear awareness of how social structure and cultural beliefs about race shape our mind and actions is crucial to reducing suffering to self and others and achieving liberation at the individual and collective levels.

The practice of Chan is to cultivate clarity of what is actually going on.  Our sense of reality is often distorted by filters we apply in our mind, leading us to view reality in ways that confirm our existing beliefs and worldviews while ignoring the inconvenient facets of reality that contradict them.  This is the main mechanism through which we maintain a sense of self with a coherent narrative.  We come to understand ourselves as a fixed entity rather than recognizing that it is, like everything in the universe, a conditioned process.  This is the fundamental ignorance of the true nature of self that Sakyamuni Buddha talked about.  The cultivation of total awareness and the questioning of entrenched beliefs and self-views in Chan practice cuts through layer upon layer of conditioning or self-attachment.  The moments we remember to practice, we can see everything, including ourselves and other human beings, in their totality.  In these moments, we cannot help but feel deeply connected with everyone, allowing unconditional love to arise naturally.  With that understanding we are inevitably compelled to refrain from causing suffering, and strive to bring joy to self and others.

As I investigated race in my own experience, the fact that race is socially constructed became more than a theoretical concept taught in sociology.  It helped me make sense of my experience.  While we want to believe that race is biologically-based, scientists have found that people from different racial groups can be more similar genetically than some of those put in the same racial group.  Furthermore, how racial groups are defined changes over time and varies across societies.  In other words, racial categories are not independently, inherently existing entities.  They are empty!  These categories are made up by humans according to the historical and cultural contexts in our society.   Race is an idea we have created to put people into different categories which are often ordered hierarchically.  Though empty, the idea of race is, nevertheless, very powerful and sticky.  People believe in and identify with race very strongly, often without being aware of all the ways it impacts their thinking and actions.  While racial categories are socially constructed, being put into these categories, and putting others into them, has real consequences.

As I observed how the idea of race affects my experience of reality, this is what I discovered: when I see another person through these categories, I am seeing the ideas associated with that person’s race fed to me by society–through my parents, teachers, friends, and the media–rather than seeing the person in front of me.  I see issues that I have read to be associated with that racial category coming through my mind.  All of this shapes my assumption about this person, creating the impression or illusion that I already know who s/he is.  With this thought in my mind, the next thought is “there is no need to talk to or pay attention to what s/he is saying.”  I then respond to my idea of this person based on these assumptions instead of the reality of the person.  When this happens, we are mistaking the thoughts and ideas that flow through our mind for the person right in front of us.  Not being aware of this confusion is fundamental ignorance (literally “no clarity” in Chinese).  That is how we can blurt out things that define an individual entirely based on his/her race without even knowing it.  When the hierarchical order of racial categories is also in operation and if the person belongs to an “inferior” category, we may not even hear what this person has said because we are so habituated to tuning people of that race out.  Yet we are offended or confused when we are called out on our actions because we are completely unaware of the operation of these ideas in our mind.

We have essentially dehumanized another person, reducing him/her into certain preconceived notion, rather than recognizing his/her full humanity.  Because we are convinced that these preconceived notions are the person, we cannot see the person as someone with a story to which we can relate with an open heart.  We have reduced this living, breathing human being into a lifeless object, a racial category, and this can lead us to not thinking twice about diminishing, dismissing or even demonizing the person.  When we are not aware of such tendencies in our mind, we respond in ways that cause suffering for self and others.  The experience of not being seen and feeling invisible, not to mention any unfair treatment one may receive, is very painful and contributes to one’s feeling undeserving of love and respect as a full human being.  Hence, every time we treat someone as a category instead of really seeing them for who they are, we are causing great suffering.

Sadly, we also cause suffering to ourselves since we are often unaware of how we ourselves are dehumanized in the process.  Since racial categories are defined relative to each other (eg. black vs white, white vs non-white, etc.), when we only see someone as white/black/Chinese and therefore as different, we can only see ourselves as not-white/black/Chinese in that moment.  We lose touch with the rest of ourselves.  Hence, when we see others through, and relate to someone only as, a racial category, we reduce ourselves to a category as well and cease to see ourselves as full human beings.  We deny ourselves the full range of our experience as a human that can happen only when we allow ourselves to connect fully with others as fellow human beings.

When we become aware of how the social structure of racial hierarchy is superimposed on our thinking, we begin to realize how our being and our ways of relating to others have been conditioned by this structure.  Hopefully through practice we can also discover that we need not choose to see people through the lens of these categories.  The habit is so entrenched that it may not feel like we have any choice.  But we do.  Each moment, we can choose to follow our habits that cause suffering for self and others, or we can choose not to repeat those habits even though they are familiar and give us the illusion of comfort.  We can choose to see all others as fellow human beings like ourselves, free from such categories.  I am not talking about ignoring the difference in our experiences, backgrounds, worldviews, beliefs, or the fact that this person may not even like me.  We can be keenly aware of all these differences but still choose to listen to and feel for others as fellow human beings trying to cope in this world of suffering.  When we do, we connect with ourselves and others more fully, and we are more able to empathize even though we may disagree.

Powerful conditioning may compel us to hold onto the categories and the hierarchical order of the categories, especially when we occupy a position of privilege.  Voluntarily deciding to share power and privilege that humans have spent a lifetime accumulating and/or protecting is no easy task.  We should commend anyone, including ourselves, for even considering doing so.  We may find ourselves not yet ready to tackle every category.  One may be more ready to give up one’s privilege that comes with one’s race but not with one’s gender, for instance.  Nevertheless, we accept that this is where we are right now.  The practice will afford us the clarity to recognize that we are, in this moment, choosing to retain our privilege.  At least we know where we are and are clear about the work that is still ahead of us.  Practicing in this way, perhaps we can limit the harm done to ourselves and others in the meantime.

Paying attention to how race conditions our being and our relations to others is only a starting point.  There are many other hierarchies and categorizations in our social structure based on gender, sexual orientation, social class, age, political orientation, religious affiliation, body shape, to name a few, that can be used to generate and perpetuate a sense of separateness from others.  We also have a tendency to use these categories to put others down in order to elevate ourselves as a way to cope with our suffering.  As a practitioner, when we feel inferior to others or see others as less deserving of love and respect than ourselves, we can check to see if we are seeing others through one or a combination of these categories, and how they are embedded in hierarchies. We can practice seeing how we are overlooking aspects of their humanity.  No less importantly, we practice remembering that we always have a choice and we do not have to go down the path that causes suffering.

Chan practice is precisely about investigating our mind’s very entrenched habits.  Diligent practice allows us to see more clearly how social forces condition and perpetuate views of our place in social structure and how they compel us to relate to others based on these categories.  The practice is about seeing clearly how the structure works in shaping ours and others’ views and actions so that we know whether the thoughts and actions we choose every moment are perpetuating this structure or dismantling it to free ourselves from the bondage of unhelpful and harmful thoughts and beliefs.  As we practice this way, our mental, emotional and behavioral responses begin to change and we can better contribute to the liberation of all people from the bondage of the unjust structures that live and operate in the mind.

I love the way Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams reminded us that we gain our humanity when we are able to let go of our privilege and leave others’ humanity intact.  She also insisted that we must engage in this conversation out of love for everyone involved.  If we cannot do it out of love, perhaps this particular group or moment is not the right one.  I also appreciate Lama Rod’s emphasis on the need for healing from the pain we have inflicted on each other, intentionally or unintentionally, as a result of living in this racialized society.  I am grateful to Jan Willis who brought up Shantideva’s teaching of “do no harm, practice good” repeatedly throughout the conference.  It sounded simple, but diligently checking to see if we are indeed practicing good instead of doing harm will bring profound transformations to our heart and our actions, rendering us a contributor to this project of collective liberation.


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