Even though it was some months ago, in my writing about this I still have to avoid naming specific people and groups. The event sponsored by a Buddhist group was a gathering meant to bring together people interested in Buddhism and in social justice. But the urge to express discontent with injustice doesn’t easily meld with organized Buddhist institutions and presents all sorts of problems stemming from Western Buddhism’s elitism among other things.
At this gathering, among the many speakers were two women, both noted Buddhist teachers – one who is black, who I’ll call X and the other who is white, I’ll call Y. I attended the gathering mainly to hear X – she had spoken at our temple several years ago on a book promotion tour and her talk and her book brought me to tears with her passion to bring Buddhism to the disenfranchised.
But I was supremely disappointed at the first session of the gathering where X was the main speaker. In her flowing robes and long list of rankings and titles, she presented herself as a GrandmaWiseWoman. I thought, “She can’t be much more than 40. Why is she acting like such an old lady?” I told my congregation later that I felt X was “phoning it in”- going through clichéd meditation exercises as if our poor consciousnesses were starving for the drops of wisdom she dripped down upon us.
I am happy to say X showed a different side on the last day of the gathering when Y was the main speaker. At first I thought Y was being naturally low-keyed by rambling through some loosely tied together quotes, but then I came to think, “She has no stuff.” Like I saw at the Catholic-Buddhist dialogue in Rome in 2015, some people have substantial teachings to share, such as Mushim Ikeda and Alan Senauke, and some (to be unnamed) have only a worn-out script or worse yet, touchy-feely straws that one can barely grasp at.
During the long Q & A (since Y’s actual presentation was so brief), Y made statements about blacks and Hispanics not sufficiently cultivating their inner peace so that’s why they were experiencing suffering over the slights of current-day society. X came up to the Q & A mic, now dressed as a regular person in pants and an untucked shirt under a simple vest. She lit into Y, saying the black people in America can’t help but be angry after centuries of slavery and the subsequent discriminatory treatment to the present. I told the temple members who were with me that this was the dialogue the gathering should’ve begun with and continued. Unfortunately the time slot was almost finished and Y did not offer much acknowledgment of X’s point.
Photo by Danielle Scruggs from Apr. 7, 2016 Chicago Reader article
On the middle day of the gathering there was a panel of young black activists. The moderator was a well known Latina activist but it was obvious from the start that she was being paid to stick to a script, a series of questions designed to lead the panelists and audience to the need for meditation, the product that the sponsoring group wanted to build demand for. To her credit, she managed to get in one dig at the overwhelmingly white audience. “In our community for decades we’ve been actively fighting the developments that displace families but now the white people have joined us and they’re trying to take credit for starting all the protests.”
Her meditation-steering questions were ineffective with the first two panelists, both Christian ministers who emphasized prayer and following God. The third panelist professed to be non-religious, so the moderator attempted the meditation-shill on him. He flat-out rejected the suggestion. He said like anyone else he took time to relax, usually by hanging out with friends or playing games, but he saw no need to schedule a special time to be sitting around cultivating his inner peace. Listening to him talk about his life revolving around the fight for people’s rights, I felt he was describing true selflessness.
From what I read about the Black Lives Matter movement and from my recent experiences of Chicago protests, I see that the young activists are avoiding the personality cult that Martin Luther King, Jr. got caught up in. Instead of having someone as the official spokesperson, the activists see themselves as facilitators, bringing many voices of the community to the public’s attention, letting them directly convey their painful experiences.
In Buddhism anger is said to be a poisonous effluent from our ego-attachment. But I think we need to see that there is such a thing as non-self anger. In the Black Lives Matter and No Dakota Access Pipeline movements, we can see so many people showing us this non-self anger, an anger to motivate us to fight the mistreatment of our fellow human beings and the damage to our environment.
Although after the conference, Y released a statement supporting the fight against injustice, at that gathering she represented the view of a lot of white Buddhists, “Hey, what’s their problem? Those black and brown people should be doing more meditation so they’ll be less angry.” I think this is a time that all Buddhists should be learning about true non-self action from these activist Bodhisattvas instead of feeling they need to buy the ego-enhancing meditation product we want to sell them.
(I know in this rant I sound like a sectarian Shin follower bad-mouthing meditation but I believe meditation can be a worthwhile practice of self-examination in the context of Dharma learning. I just hate to see it promoted as a pricey program of rewards for individual consumption, like a luxury car or cosmetic surgery.)