SITE UPGRADE COMING SOON: On or around December 1st, 2021, I'll be moving Mindful Teachers to a new, more mobile-friendly platform.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Buddhist Perspectives on Diversity, Discrimination, and Social Justice

Photo by Oluremi Adebayo from Pexels

by Catharine Hannay

Here are a variety of thought-provoking perspectives for individual reflection and for possible use in teaching. I've gathered these quotes and links from a variety of sources, including the popular Buddhist magazines Lion's Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Perspectives on Buddhism and People of Color

"To be marginalized in spaces like these means you are doing much more emotional labor than others simply to stay in the space... so you can then do the actual dharma practice you came to do... this extra emotional labor may eventually lead to emotional burnout."
No One Like Me by Lama Rod Owens

"As I sat listening to the guided meditation on the 32 parts of the body... after the directive to contemplate the skin, the recording had nothing more to offer on the subject of skin color. How could that be all there was to say about such a complex issue? And why had I not been prepared for the upheaval it could and did cause? 
It was clear to me that any consideration of the weight of racial experience as it pertains to skin color had been totally overlooked—and in a class meant to deepen our understanding of diversity through the dharma, at that! In that moment, I was doubly wounded—but perhaps not surprised." 
Brown Body, White Sangha by Atia Sattar 

"Until eight or nine years ago, I would have said that I was pretty conscious about race; I also would have assumed that Buddhist sanghas were welcoming to everyone... We don’t identify other Caucasians by saying, “Oh, they’re white” because it’s given that white is the default and everyone else is different. Toni Morrison writes, “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” 

We do this in the sangha as well... at dharma center after dharma center, we see white Buddhist teachers. If you’re white, you don’t tend to notice this backdrop, but if you’re not white, you do... It’s painful to know that for all our best intentions, white Buddhist practitioners are missing an awareness not only of what it really means to carry a certain identity but also of how to be sensitive to the impact of that identity. "

Facing My White Privilege by Tara Brach 

"When we look around, we can readily see that most of the recognized Insight Meditation retreat centers are headed by whites and typically lack racial diversity. Added to this, and of delicate significance, is the fact that our practice is generally in silence. Subordinated cultures have a history of experiencing silence as oppressive, and exploring this tender territory on retreat is often misunderstood by white teachers. Much harm occurs for people of color when this pain is felt deeply and met by an inadequate response, within a formal structure, where personal contact is limited." 

Healing the Broken Body of Sangha by Ruth King

Prominent Black Buddhist Teachers

I've taken this list from the participants in a panel of Buddhist teachers of black African descent, held at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. (See Power and Heart: Black and Buddhist in America)
  • Myokei Caine-Barrett: "the first woman of Japanese and African descent, the only ordained Western woman and the first female priest in the Nichiren Order of North America." 
  • Ruth King"a celebrated author, educator, life coach, and meditation teacher... [she] serves on the Teacher's Council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She teaches the Mindful of Race Training Program to teams and organizations, blending mindfulness principles with an exploration of our racial conditioning, its impact, and our potential."
  • Lama Rod Owens: "Considered one of the leaders of the next generation of Dharma teachers...  a Black, queer male, born and raised in the South, and heavily influenced by the church and its community."
  • the Venerable Pannavati: "a former Christian pastor... black, female Buddhist monk... She has adopted many “untouchable” villages in India, helping them establish an egalitarian community based on Buddhist principles of conduct and livelihood."
  • Gina Sharpe: "born in Jamaica and immigrated to New York at the age of 11... After retiring from the practice of law, she co-founded New York Insight Meditation Center. She currently serves as the Guiding Teacher."  
  • angel Kyodo williams: a Black, mixed-raced woman Zen priest... defies and transcends any title, descriptor or category you can imagine 

Buddhist Perspectives on Other Marginalized Groups

  • It's Time for Buddhists to Address Ableism and Accessibility by Vidyamala Burch for Lion's Roar"often [Buddhist centers] are multistory and without elevators, meaning that people with mobility impairments are inevitably excluded from encountering the dharma... In the U.K., for example, around one in three people lives with a long-term health condition, and around one in five lives with chronic pain. Many of these people will show up at our Buddhist centers... It is important that we accommodate such people by providing easy access and comfortable seating, being inclusive of different postures while meditating, and, perhaps most important, simply being kind."
  • How Women Are Remaking Buddhism by Zen priest Joan Halifax for the Washington Post"Although it has not been typical for women to have positions of authority within traditional Buddhism, in our time, we are seeing a dramatic and positive change for women in all Buddhist orders. For example, I believe there are more women roshis (Zen masters) in the United States than there are in Japan. In the United States, more and more women find themselves head of monasteries and Buddhist institutions."
  • Stances of Faiths on LGBTQ Issues: Buddhism from the Human Rights Campaign: "In general, there is no rule prohibiting LGBTQ people from serving as Buddhist monks or nuns. Though some select temples and monasteries may prohibit the ordination of LGBTQ people, schools of Buddhism, overall, have not adopted a consensus on the practice."

Perspectives on Buddhism and Political Engagement

"Question: Buddhism teaches the principle of nonduality, which some Buddhist teachers say means that you shouldn’t take sides. How do we work with the fact that at the ultimate level there’s nonduality, but on the relative level there’s white supremacy and all the other injustices of the world?"
"Answer: ...When Shakyamuni Buddha said, “My desire and my vow is to make all beings equal to me,” he was talking about the vow to make all beings equal in enlightenment... The aspiration is not to be equal in pettiness, competitiveness, or partisanship. We desire to be equal in having an enlightened experience of reality that allows us to see all sides and act with wisdom for the good of the whole. We need our practice of Buddhism to figure out how to wisely engage in situations where there’s conflict."

"It is helpful to remember that conservative values like responsibility, self-discipline, merit, and respect for the past are also dharma principles... People with conservative political and social views often don’t feel at home in Buddhist centers (nor reading Buddhist magazines). People of all types need the dharma, not just educated, middle-class liberals. Is a Buddhist party line keeping people who need it away from the dharma?"  
Melvin McLeod, I Vow to be Political: Buddism, Social Change, and Skillful Means 

"I have found precious few other people in any sangha who are similar to my educational or occupational profile. I find this to be odd and unfortunate... it was my children who rebelled against the idea of attending any Buddhist groups — at all. This was in part due to the lack of balance in perspective and lifestyle; “Dad, these people aren’t like us. In spite of their posturing, they aren’t particularly friendly.”" 
Conservative Buddhists Speak, part 1 from Lion's Roar

"I think that any introduction of politics — liberal, conservative, whatever — leaks poison into a community. The saturation of Buddhist communities with liberalism can breed a certain smugness: the certitude of folks who have been in the echo chamber so long that they believe what they have memorized. This is a toxic environment for the politically misaligned.
Conservative Buddhists Speak, part 2 from Lion's Roar

"There's a danger in assuming that Buddhism and left-wing politics inherently go together, and that Buddhists ought to vote for liberals because they're Buddhist. Historically-speaking, Buddhism has tended to support conservative status quo regimes in Asia." 
Voting Buddhist? by the editors of Tricycle

"There is a perception gap when it comes to religious extremism — with Muslims regularly being unfairly cast as terrorists while Buddhists are generally depicted and understood to be pacifists.'The problem is far too many Westerners fail to understand that Buddhism, like any other religion, can be misused for political purposes.'"
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, quoted in Buddhist extremism: Meet the violent followers of a religion widely known for its pacifism

Perspectives on Buddhism and Activism

"Some observers may associate Buddhism, and especially Buddhist meditation, with turning inward away from the world. However, many argue that the Buddhist tradition, with its emphasis on seeing clearly into the nature of suffering and, thus, cultivating compassion, has a strong impetus for active involvement in the world’s struggles. This activist stream of Buddhism came to be called “Engaged Buddhism”—Buddhism energetically engaged with social concerns."
Buddhism and Social Action: Engaged Buddhism, from the Pluralism Project at Harvard University

"Many of the tragedies now being uncovered in policing are the result of the fact that as police officers we simply cannot see what is actually in front of us — a suffering human being in need of help... Those of us committed to nonviolence who are working in professions that sometimes demand the use of force need your support. If we want compassionate police forces, communities must get intimately involved with their police departments... And they need to do so with awareness, right speech, understanding of a police officer’s job, and compassion."


I think I'll leave it at that, with the final word, "compassion." 

I have no agenda at all in terms of convincing people that they should or shouldn't belong to a particular political party or that they should or shouldn't practice a particular form of Buddhist, secular, or faith-based contemplative practice. 

My only purpose is to spread awareness of the wide range of perspectives within each tradition, and the variety of approaches to balancing contemplation with compassionate action.

Recommended Resources

  • Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, book by Ruth King: "King helps readers of all backgrounds examine with fresh eyes the complexity of racial identity and the dynamics of oppression. She offers guided instructions on how to work with intense emotions mindfully and shows us how to cultivate a culture of care from a less tangled place to a place of greater clarity and compassion."  
  • Radical Dharma: Talking Love, Race, and Liberation, book by angel Kyodo williams and Lama Rod Owens: "Igniting a long-overdue dialogue about how the legacy of racial injustice and white supremacy plays out in society at large and Buddhist communities in particular, this urgent call to action outlines a new dharma that takes into account the ways that racism and privilege prevent our collective awakening."

You may also be interested in the following posts here at Mindful Teachers:

posts about Buddhism:

posts about civil rights and social justice:

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)