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Which Side Are You On?

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Which Side Are You On?



Justice is traditionally represented by the symbol of a scale, where the strengths of a case’s opposition and support are weighed out, ostensibly with impartial objectivity.

This symbolism is noble but doesn’t take into account the often-unconscious biases that we carry into so many situations, the collective sum total of which amount to institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and more.

Even so, the scale is an important symbol that helps us to visualize countervailing energies.

I believe that somewhere there is a metaphorical scale that is collecting the courageous responses that have been flowing so strongly these past weeks: from the thousands of people of color and white folks showing up in the streets of New York, Oakland, Chicago, St. Louis, and other cities – often in the face of police armed with military-grade guns and equipment, teargas canisters, and even tanks – to individuals who are writing brave words, folks like Paul Gorski talking about the challenging conversations we need to be having, and like Jessie S, naming how anti-black racism lives in each of us and what to do about it.

On the other side of the scale are the acts that have provoked these responses and the silence that so often accompanies them. This past week it was the decisions from Missouri and New York grand juries to not indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively. But these are simply the latest in a long long long line of injustices, and the conspiracy of silence and complicity which keep those injustices in place.

As terrible as these grand jury decisions have been, they are serving the purpose of waking up a lot of people who have been oblivious to or in denial of racial injustice. It’s pretty impossible to deny that something is horribly wrong when you watch the video of Eric Garner – a peaceful and unarmed man who did nothing more than selling a few cigarettes on the street – pleading for his life.

And then you realize that the officers involved are not being held accountable in any way.

And then you learn that young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by the police compared to their white counterparts.

And that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites

The scale is there, waiting for you to weigh in. Which will it be? Speaking out the truth of this suffering and finding ways to respond to it… or remaining silent, eyes closed, living in the ignorance of your personal comfort zone.

I am speaking right now particularly to those of you who identify as Buddhist, and who happen to be white. If you choose to remain silent now, to turn away, you are weighing in on the side of perpetuating the injustices that run rampant in our society.

Because you see, something big is a’brewing right now, and you, me, we have a precious opportunity to step up and help it happen. This waking up is not just an individual thing. This process that the Buddha illuminated more than 5000 years ago involves everything and everybody. This is what he said at the moment of his waking up, “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”

I realize the title of this article will irritate dharma practitioners who have studied and practiced the way of non-duality. I am one of you (a longtime dharma practitioner), and I get that. I get your concern.

And – this is an invitation to realize that non-duality includes points at which we need to take a stand on the side of love. You can hold a place of compassion for an individual officer who may have been trying his best in the moment, and yet call out the ways that he (or she) acted from a place of unexamined bias, and call out a ‘justice’ system that is blind to the reality of racism.

It’s time.

Which side are you on?

If you’re ready to stand on the side of love, here are some starting points:

  • Use your dharma practice to help you settle into a place of receptivity and curiosity…. And get in touch with your deep intention to help all beings be free from suffering, yourself included.
  • Listen. Listen to the experience of people of color without jumping to defensiveness or explanations. Be willing to be in a space of ‘not knowing.’ We have much to learn.
  • Understand that racism hurts all of us. Don’t act out of guilt. Realize it is in everyone’s best interest, including yours, to dismantle an unjust system.
  • Organize a conversation about institutionalized oppression, racism, and privilege in your sangha. Get inspired by the models of the East Bay Meditation Center and Brooklyn Zen Center who have put the values of diversity and inclusivity at the heart of their practice.
  • Show up in support of actions that are happening in your city.
  • Join up with Sangha in the Streets, a Facebook group where you can find out about ways to offer a contemplative presence at these actions, or initiate one yourself.
  • Start a conversation about what the Beloved Community would look and feel like, talk about your vision and listen to others. Check out this video from Dr. Lee Lipp, a senior practitioner at San Francisco Zen Center.

Above all, don’t be silent. Don’t turn away. You may not know what to do, but you can at least talk about that… talk about what you are seeing that deeply disturbs you, reach out to others, start a conversation about what needs to happen. And listen, always listen.

About Maia

I've been practicing and studying the Buddha way since 1994, and exploring the question "What is engaged Buddhism?" since the late 90s. As former executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and editor of its journal, Turning Wheel, I had the honor of meeting and working with many practitioners of engaged dharma, including Roshi Joan Halifax, Joanna Macy, Alan Senauke, and Robert Aitken Roshi. I write about socially engaged Buddhism on my blog, "The Jizo Chronicles," as well as on the theme of personal and collective freedom on my website, "The Liberated Life Project." Through my Five Directions Consulting, I offer support to individuals and organizations who aspire to integrate awareness into their work.

24 responses »

  1. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Wonderful Maia! So beautifully balanced yet compelling. I will share widely. This is an opening, and we do need to step up.

  3. Pingback: A Call to Action | Shunyata's Apprentice

  4. Reblogged this on Endless Light and Love and commented:
    The time is Now, we must no longer bury our heads in the sand or turn a blind eye to racism and injustice. We are part of one world and one humanity, we should ALL come together as one voice, one voice against injustice, we need to act against the governments, politicians, corporates and government institutions that protect the few at a cost to the many. We must make a change or things will get worse!
    Wake Up, Wake Up and be one of the few that will change our world and make it a better place for all human beings to live as God intended, as one!
    Namaste with Love

  5. I thank you for sharing the post and the inspiration… 🙂

  6. Maia,
    Thanks for keeping the conversation alive, awake, and loving.
    I admit to bristling a little at the idea of being on one “side” or the other. Truly, the idea that “we” or “they” are separate is what’s at the root of so many misunderstandings.
    The “side” where each of us can do the most effective practice is inside.
    I appreciate your inspiration, and also the practical tips and resources.

    • Hey Vincent,

      Well, try this on. How about if the ‘side’ I’m talking about is not lining up one person against another, or one group of people against another. Instead, this is about standing on the ‘side’ of awareness rather than ignorance.

      Thanks for engaging with the article via your comment…

      • Dear Maia,

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my comment.

        Yes, we’ve seen that standing for or against groups or types of people simply brings up defenses all around.

        I doubt we’ll hear anyone who would claim to be on the “side” of ignorance. Sadly, one person’s awareness may be considered ignorance by others.

        With deep understanding and a focus on our connections, commonalities and inter-being, I believe more people engage in thoughtful dialog and action.


  7. What about the injustice done to the shop owners who are now suffering at the hands of thugs and bullies?? We have raised up on a pedestal two men who committed crimes. Whether they should have died for those crimes? No certainly not. But they committed crimes and that is what started this horrible nightmare. Not racism. And now innocent people are suffering and this article is praising the worst of the worst for their ignorance.

  8. I get it that this topic makes people uncomfortable and even feeling ‘fear.’ I would hope, though, that people can see how privilege is connected with this as well. As white folks, our fear is primarily connected to our emotional safety zone. People of color and particularly African Americans have had to deal with fear at a whole different level, one in which their physical safety and economic wellbeing is at stake. For generations. Good to have some perspective here.

    • I think part of white privilege is not having to realize what that deeper level of fear you speak of is really like – I think Tim Wise addresses that some. The whole “white people’s problems” genre kinda gets to that as well. I’m with you, though, seems people need to just wake up and catch a little perspective. At the same time, I do understand, having grown up in the very racist south of the 50s-60s, that some of that stuff gets very deeply conditioned in and people have a hard time transcending it. Which of course is why all this racists stuff goes on and on and seems to just shape-shift rather than really get much better. Thanks for the wonderful work you and the BPF folks are doing to help!

  9. I’m also really interested in the sub-text here, of how we align ourselves with that which we clearly understand as “right” or “noble” – as in the Eighfold Path or any ethical position – without falling into the “us vs. them” trap, without dropping into dualism. I’m constantly perplexed by this in dialog with fundamentalists and right-wing or even libertarian political acquaintances – how do I define what I see as the ethical, compassionate path in a way that isn’t dogmatic or narrow, yet clearly favors some policies over others? What are those core values that support this path of being compassionate and strong in support of the poor and other victims? Sometimes I get lost in the complexity of it all… Good to come back to your clear perspectives again!

  10. Also good to know there are actions and words arising on this subject arising on so many fronts! Maybe you know of these people, but thought I’d share the link – not Buddhist but deeply committed folks:

  11. My first time to stumble on this website and I can’t believe the liberal socialist bigotry. I thought this was a Zen site. Instead all I hear are the ramblings of Maia. The conversation of the two men who died by the hands of the police should be centered on the notion of their Karma. Those young men made conscious decisions to disobey the eight fold path. When they decided to violate the law, they should expect consequences. Grand juries found the officers not at fault for carrying out the law. The young men like these two have the responsibility of choice in determining their karmic fates. As individuals we need to choose wisely in the path we follow, the path to the left or to the right. This constant carping of institutional racism is just another karmic trap played on the mind by maya. You are where and who you are for a reason, to find at onement. Don’t get caught up in this delusion of pity.

    • Hi Jake,

      I read these comments and am willing to engage in conversation with folks who come here to visit, so there is no need to refer to me in the third person.

      Your stance here doesn’t leave much room for karma to apply at all levels, not just the individual. You are assuming, first of all, that the laws these two men ‘violated’ are beyond question or critique, and that these laws are being applied and enforced equally to all people. You are also assuming that the grand jury process is infallible. You are assuming that the actions of these two men, and the actions of the police officers involved, exist in an isolated vacuum, not as part of a larger pattern. I wonder if you can imagine that a well-dressed white woman, for example, who was accused of selling loose cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island, might encounter the same response as Eric Garner did.

      There is quite a lot of evidence to point to the reality of institutionalized racism. In addition to the ProPublica study I cited in this post, see also this article:

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.

      • Maia, what is troubling about your who side are you on critique is it’s tone. The selling of cigarettes enforcement was demanded by the liberal mayor of New York to collect taxes. The police were used as his enforcement bureau. I agree it was a poor use of the police. But step back for a moment, this country affords it’s citizen more freedom of upper ward mobility than any other country at any other time in the history of mankind. We as individuals choose our path with every step we take and word we speak. Our karma predetermines our door way in life and it’s up to each one of us how we proceed on this samsaric path and how long we choose to keep coming back. Racism is not the devil you should be fighting, but what is in your mind and how choose to give power over you. I think the gospel said it best, render unto Ceasar what is his and under that which is his. The young men you and others belabor about made their choices and unfortunately they suffered the consequences. It’s not our mission now what was in the hearts of of the police doing their jobs. I will wager you this, if we show authority respect where it is do, fofilling our dharma, we have nothing to fear.

        Recognition of the inner light is far more important than beating our chest and demanding an end to, as you’ve put it, institutional racism. The suffering that exists is as much the result of karma. End it now just be in the moment.

  12. Sorry, you lose your wager Jake! Plenty of stories that illustrate that tone of skin is much more important in how one’s treated in this society than “respect for authority.’ Try this article for starters.

  13. Also, Jake, I don’t know where you’re coming from in your interpretation of Karma. Sounds a little more Hindu than what I have absorbed of the Buddhist approach, mostly Zen, over the years… Buddha’s version is a little more compassionate than yours. Besides, to just say, oh well, these guys had bad karma and so deserved what they got ignores the social aspects. Does karma visit its effects differently on different races? The reality is that people of color are way more likely to shot by a police officer than white people. That’s a social issue that people of conscience are right in addressing, and to just dismiss everything as the result of individual karma is a pretty clever way of avoiding our responsibility for creating social conditions that are fair and equitable.

    • John, I am not dismissing the civil responsibility issues. My position in having worked on both sides of the law enforcement fence is that much of the public chooses to view only the side of the perceived victim. These two men were given a choice to give up peacefully and choose to fight back. Your notion that the police actions were racial were found groundless by the grand jury system that reviewed all the facts in the cases.

  14. I suggest John if we really want to single out cases of blatant racism that exist today we focus on issues like: sky rocketing out of wedlock birth rates, black on black crime and murder rates, fetal civil rights against abortionist, eating flesh and out of control Islamic racism. Far more harm is caused by these categories than any of cases of legitimate police racism in this country. Victims and perpetrators have karmic ties that date back long ago. Prayer and meditation do more to mitigate these fates than any other intervention, vocal or otherwise.

    Where two or more are gathered there am I, sayeth the Master.

  15. “Legitimate police racism.” What an interesting phrase.

    • According to the FBI crime stats black people are more likely to be killed or robbed by other black people, not white people. I guess you could infer that blacks are more racist against blacks than whites. What I do not understand about this website conversation is the hang up you have liberal bias. You seem to be judge and jury on these recent two cases with out ever setting on the grand jury or even reading the facts of the cases. I am in the community of several large metropolitan cities every week and I can tell you that racism today is nothing like It was 60 years ago. People in this country can find opportunities to advance like no other country on earth. Yes people have to deal with their prejudices, but these are not limiting in their opportunities to advance. Yes we have to put off self gratification in order to get ahead in life and make good choices. All of this comes down to individual efforts. There is no free lunch.

      Coming back to my real concern about this Web discussion is the lack of emphasis on the eight fold path in your discussions. Right thinking and living and acting can stop most of the perceived racism you guys claim to think exists. Take a look inside and ask your self why you feel so guilty for other people’s poor choices.

      Be in the moment and let sticks and stones fly, they really can’t hurt you.


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