Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 14 Spring 2017
This spring, Sakyadhita USA (SUSA) held its first regional conference at the University of the West in Rosemead, California. The theme of the conference was “Diversity in the Dharma: Buddhist Women Engage Race and Exclusionary Politics in America.” The aim of the conference organizers was to bring together lay and monastic dharma practitioners to reflect on how Buddhist teachings can speak to the politics of race and exclusion in sangha and society. It’s a conversation many white Buddhists have not been eager to engage both out of fear and out of the belief that enlightenment is beyond race and gender.
The location could not have been more suitable to this goal. The mission statement of the University of the West is “to provide a whole-person education in a context informed by Buddhist wisdom and values, and to facilitate cultural understanding and appreciation between East and West.” One of the very first Buddhist funded universities in the United States, it is historically affiliated with the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights and Fo Guang Shan, a Buddhist organization from Taiwan.
The University of the West mission statement resonates with the mission of Sakyadhita USA which is to establish an inclusive alliance of Buddhist women in the U.S. and to promote dialogue among Buddhist traditions. The gathering reflected these goals as lay and monastic dharma practitioners from diverse communities shared stories of exclusion based particularly on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender and their attempts to transform their sanghas into more inclusive communities.
In what follows, Charlotte Collins (SUSA president), Elise DeVido (SUSA vice president), and Carol Winkelmann (board member) share some thoughts about the insights and challenges of the conference conversations.
Elise: I would like to thank everyone involved in the conference. Born in discussions at Sakyadhita International in Yogyakarta 2015, the conference came to life due to the work of University of the West, SUSA Board Members, SUSA’s Conference Planning Committee, and many others, through virtual meetings, emails, and face-to-face meetings of people all over the USA and abroad. All busy with jobs, studies, and family obligations. In my past experience, not all collaborative projects go well, but this one was outstanding. The conference reflected SUSA’s values AND energized SUSA forward into the future.
Carol: I was struck by the stories of participants who have been trying to create inclusive practices within their sanghas for many years. To me, these accounts were simultaneously heartbreaking and heartening. For example, some sanghas have modelled or made explicit “best practices” for welcoming and including participants of color only to have new white members sabotage or in some way challenge these efforts. Other sanghas have not been able to diversify despite their best intentions. Still these communities persist in seeking new ways to welcome people who have little reason to trust given the history of racism in the USA. To me, these stories reaffirm the fact that transforming our sanghas to more racially diverse, inclusive, and healthy spiritual communities is a continual, day-to-day effort—just like enlightenment can be considered a continual practice and not a permanent state. More contemplative practices—like the hard work of sharing stories about racism in our sanghas and listening deeply to those stories as we did at the conference—can help to transform us and to sustain us even when we become discouraged in our efforts to make our communities more racially diverse and healthy or when we are tempted (as Buddhism traditionally is wont) to think of embodiment as irrelevant to enlightenment.
Elise: Our goal was to bring together a rich variety of engaged Buddhist groups for discussion and brainstorming and it was amazing to have so much talent and energy in one place: this by itself was priceless. Great hearts of compassion and righteousness inspired me. I hope in the future SUSA will lead more conversations among American Buddhists of all ethnic and gender identities and on the different vocabularies and experiences regarding social issues among different generations of American Buddhists.
Carol: In the future, we can strive for greater diversity. It was a priority of the planning committee and SUSA provided scholarships for travel and registration. Still outreach work itself faces multiple obstacles, including a history of white neglect of marginalized people—of their wisdom, of their sense of belonging, of the challenges they face in a racist culture.
Charlotte: I had assumed there would be more Theravadan monastics in attendance. And, on a more procedural note, we had decided to stop for lunch at 11:00 a.m. to allow Theravadan monastics to eat lunch by 11:30 a.m. Theravadan monastics, in keeping with the Vinaya, eat no food after 11:30 a.m. in the morning. So we set the schedule to end the morning sessions at 11:00 a.m. Perhaps next time we can collect information about monastics’ affiliation during registration. Then we can plan to start lunch at noon.
Elise: We also inadvertently lost 20 minutes before the morning panels. We needed to recoup those precious minutes: This created some disappointment.
Charlotte: When we saw that we weren’t on track to end by 11:00 a.m., we decided to shorten the two morning panels. This impacted the panelists’ opportunities for Q & A with a very motivated audience. We also cut out the morning 10-minute break. In the post-conference reviews, one attendee said we should not have eliminated the morning break. Point taken! In contrast, the afternoon session comfortably allowed time for panelists to talk, for Q&A, and for a long mid-afternoon break.
Elise: I was saddened to hear that some people felt unsafe in a sangha. A sangha must be a place “for taking refuge” in all senses of the term, and if it is not, then it’s a failure. For a next conference we might investigate more deeply into Buddhist teachings on “fear.” We also need to continue our inquiry into violence in America, how we perpetuate violence in thought, word, and deed. We need more meditation on Wise Speech and Wise View and “deep thinking about karma and interdependence over vast periods of time and space.” 1
Charlotte: I was inspired by feedback from our morning keynote speaker, Bishop Myokei Caine-Barrett. She asked me why Sakyadhita should follow the structure of academic conferences with panelists at a table up front and an audience in rows down below. For an alternative model, she described another conference or meeting in which speakers and participants were seated in concentric circles. Although I’m not clear on how this structure actually operated, I get the point that it might be useful to consider different models for how to allow speakers (that is, people with experience on a topic) to share with an audience (listeners/learners). However, one thing I do strongly feel is that we did not get nearly the full benefit of each of our panelists’ knowledge and experience. I believe exploring other configurations is worth considering as we plan our next SUSA conference and the one after that, on and on.
Carol: I agree! The conference theme was timely and appreciated. In the future, we can think of other ways—with the help of our membership—to make the time allotments and format more felicitous. Overall, the conversations were challenging and sometimes deeply emotive. I felt inspired once again as a white academic to lean into difficult conversations about interpersonal and organizational avoidance of issues of race/ethnicity. This neglect is a hidden violence in our sanghas. Just as we do not live in a post-feminist age, we clearly do not live in post-racial age—as white communities so often like to believe or pretend they do. Our conference walked directly into that uncomfortable truth. Enlightenment doesn’t happen outside of embodiment and its suffering.
Elise: It’s worth thinking more about Engaged Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa’s2 “three levels of violence”: inner (ignorance, attachment, hatred); outer (harmful behavior); and structural (violence caused by institutions, systems, and cultures) and the dialectical relationship among all three levels. As individuals in SUSA and as an organization, let’s continue along this path:
The Bodhisattva Vow to save all sentient beings is a very special challenge to all Buddhists. Without that vow, we may become very selfish. We may not be able to change the world right now, but we can begin by encountering, understanding, and sharing the suffering of others, and wishing to help. Of course, we must do this with equanimity and detachment. This is compassion, karuna, our basic attitude guiding both our more internal and our more external work. There must be a balance of the internal and external…3
Carol: And to those words of wisdom, I would add the words of angel Kyodo Williams from her book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, which, addressed to people of color, resonates as the challenge and responsibility of the first-order across the multiplicities of oneness:
With a little awareness of who we are and our shared humanity with others, we can begin to relax a little. It doesn’t mean we drop our battles, say “racism and violence don’t exist anymore,” or lose our passion to push for the rights and space that we should have as human beings. Maybe, though, we can begin to approach those efforts more as the work that is here for us to do […], rather than as a struggle, which makes us feel constrained as soon as we hear it. We set ourselves up for an “Us vs. Them” mentality, which is dangerous and, in all honesty, unrealistic. Wherever we are is Our House, and we must all live in this house together” (5).