So there are problems. There really is discrimination, poverty, sexism, and homophobia in this country, no matter how much we would like to believe that these things are nothing more than ephemeral prapaÃ±ca, illusory delusions of the unenlightened. The fact that they are real means that there is suffering out there, and people cope in a variety of ways. Some of us write exceedingly long blog posts about it. And this one attempts to answer the question of why you should care.
There are those who wish this conversation would go away, who staunchly claim that “race is a construct” and that we, especially as Buddhists, should be “better than that.” I want to address that point of view. I want to answer the question of why I think that having this conversation is important for Buddhists, for Buddhists of a certain political persuasion, and for people in general.
In general, Buddhists are concerned with ending suffering.
To end suffering, one needs to understand the root causes of suffering.
In general, progressive or liberal Buddhists are doubly concerned about suffering in the form of racial discrimination, sexism, homophobia, and other civil rights matters.
The root causes of this discrimination are often the result of lingering racism, white privilege, or social inequalities which we have inherited from generations (centuries) of inequality in the past. In short, it is where we’re at. It is our current conditions based on our past, collective karmic history.
This inequality is, itself, a type of suffering.
Buddhist, therefore, should not only want to end this suffering but must understand its root causes.
Given the sheer complexity of our collective karmic histories and karmic causes and conditions, assuming that the solution to this problem is to simply wish race away by claiming that “race isn’t real” is at best lazy (at worst, it is hopelessly naive, ignorant, or itself an expression of racism). Just claiming that race isn’t real doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t end racial profiling. It doesn’t undo the long-term effects of poverty. It doesn’t make the actual racists in the world stop and think, “Hey, you know, that crazy liberal Buddhist blogger is right! I’m gonna throw out my Klan outfit.” Simply saying something doesn’t make it true, doesn’t make the problem go away.
Therefore, if one is interested in working toward social equality or justice, one must wrestle with complex issues. One must do the work required to truly understand the roots of our collective karmic histories.
So what do we do? What does working for social justice look like, especially in a Buddhist context? How do we create more inclusive communities and root out the causes of suffering?
Well, I would be remiss if I claimed after making the claim that life is complicated I would be naive to claim that there is one answer to that question. The simple fact of the matter is that every Buddhist community is different. Every Buddhist community in this country is contending with its own issues and problems. Sometimes they’re the same; more often they’re not.
For example, a Japanese-American Buddhist temple in California’s central valley may be suffering declining membership because the last three generations have systematically moved to the city. Those who remain are older, second and third-generation Japanese Americans who live in a culture dominated by actual prejudice and discrimination from the white majority and these folks may have been born inside World War Two concentration camps. For them, the Buddhist church is the one place they can go and not have to apologize for being Japanese. But the young minister assigned to the church, fresh out of graduate school in Berkeley, knows that the only way that the community is going to survive is by reaching out to the larger community, by doing more than holding Sunday Dharma services and Obon festivals. Meanwhile, they gotta pay their bills just like you and I which means hosting the annual bazaar to raise some cash. Oh, and all the while, the minister needs to attend to the explicitly Buddhist, religious, and spiritual needs of the community which means pastoral counseling, officiating at weddings and funerals.
On the other hand, a tiny Tibetan, store-front community in Brooklyn, home to two or three monks who escaped with their lives from the PRC’s Tibet, has completely different issues to contend with. For starters, they are charged with preserving Tibetan culture, not just Tibetan Buddhism, specifically for the ethnic Tibetans in diaspora. So they need to attend to the religious as well a cultural needs of a population without a home, a population in real danger of becoming extinct. But they gotta pay their bills, too, just like you and me and those Japanese Buddhists in the central valley; and the reality of being a refugee is that you probably don’t have a lot of cash on hand. But those curious white folks do, and they’re ready to pour all sorts of cash into the community. But they’re not necessarily interested Tibetan culture, just the Buddhism part. And the monks find themselves between a rock and hard place.
And these examples are different from a Soto Zen group in downtown Los Angeles, smack in the middle of a vibrant and bustling metropolis, home to a wide diversity of ethnic groups, a community that hangs its progressive ideals proudly on the door and says “all are welcome!” They gotta pay their bills, too, and since they’ve opened the door to anyone, they have to be prepared to deal with everyone’s egos and agendas when they come in that door. Because they’ve claimed that all are welcome, they have an obligation to attend to a wide diversity of needs impacted by everything from race and poverty to accessibility for the differently abled as well as all those explicitly Buddhist, spiritual, and religious concerns of their members; pastoral counseling, births and deaths and wedding.
These are fundamentally different problems than the ones facing the Big Three of the mainstream Buddhist press. They self-identify as representing Buddhist America which necessarily means that they’ve set themselves to an impossible task being the voice of hundreds of thousands of Americans who come form every segment, every race, every culture, of American life. To distill that diversity into a hundred glossy pages every month is a Sisyphean task. You’re bound to miss someone, you’re more than likely to offend someone else. But it’s a task they’ve willingly taken on; and, as the very people they claim to represent, it is our job to hold them accountable.
How ethnicity, race, class, gender, politics, or sexual orientation play out will be unique to those situations. But to assume that once you walk in the door to the zendo or once you open your copy of Tricycle that ethnicity, race, class, gender, politics, and sexual orientation sit out on the front steps and wait for you to come back is hopelessly naive and idealistic. We bring all of that in with us and we need to deal with it. Buddhists or not.
How we deal with it, I firmly believe, begins with empathetic listening.
This type of work, it seems to me is necessarily difficult work, work that requires an open, flexible mind willing to be proven wrong, willing to question its own assumptions, and is wary of simplistic essentialisms or vague platitudes such as “there is no race.” This type of work requires us to be ready and willing to learn new things, to look at familiar things in new ways, and most importantly, it requires compassionate listening. It requires us to be empathetic to another person’s point of view, even and especially if that view is contrary to our own or makes us uncomfortable. It is in this place of discomfort that one uncovers the roots of suffering.
This is tireless, thankless work. It is exhausting.
It’s not work that everyone is cut out for. And that’s okay. But if you’re going to claim an interest in Western social justice issues, you need to take seriously issues of race, class, sexism, and homophobia because these are part of the root causes of the very suffering you claim to want to end. If you’re going to claim an interest in social justice issues and then blindly look the other way when your own, fellow American Buddhists of different colors, genders, or sexual orientations are crying out, are suffering, then you need to question your own motives, your own beliefs, before yelling at me for doing nothing more than pointing out the obvious suffering of others.