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Category Archives: Harmony and Difference

Race, Class, Glenn Beck, and Dharma

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In the wake of the travesty on the Washington Mall this weekend (Tea Partiers’ staging a “Reclaim the Dream” rally on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), Marnie Louise Froberg, author of the blog Smiling Buddha Cabaret, has just posted an absolute tour de force essay on racism, class, privilege, Glenn Beck, dharma, and more. It’s called “White Riot.”

Because it dives deep into the “heart of identity politics,” Marnie smartly includes a brief teaching on Equanimity from Gil Fronsdal at the start of the post. We all need a lot of upekkha to get through this topic.

Here’s an excerpt:

As long as economically and socially disenfranchised whites are reminded of the “otherness” of various minorities, whether they be religious minorities, ethnic minorities or other groups, the division remains. And that division is one that can be manipulated in order to control and direct populations into serving the interests of the ruling classes. Because, disenfranchised white person, you are not the ruling class, nor are you a friend of the ruling class, you are their pawns as long as the divisions between all disenfranchised people are held to. This is true in all circumstances including those divisions within “Western” Buddhism. In that case it is a simple reflection of the current socio-cultural milieu in which Buddhism is growing in the “West” . There is a much larger picture than “East vs West”  “Asians vs converts” , “superstition vs science” or whatever the various factions choose for labels.

Wow. Great job, Marnie. I highly encourage my readers to take a look at the whole piece. You may not agree with it, but I hope it makes us all think more deeply about the subject.

Radical Dhamma: Engaged Buddhism Starts on the Cushion But it Can’t End There

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Buddhist Peace Delegation, Washington DC, 2007

This past Monday, we had a memorial service for Robert Aitken Roshi at the Upaya Zen Center temple. We were on the last morning of our seven-day Buddhist Chaplaincy Training intensive, and I’d just been blessed to spend the week with 38 chaplaincy students, Roshi Joan Halifax, Sensei Fleet Maull, and Jimmy Santiago Baca, all of us exploring “Dharma at the Edge.”

Roshi Joan asked me to say a few words about Aitken Roshi during the service. As I prepared to do that, I remembered just how radical Aitken Roshi was in his life and in his Buddhist practice. As I recounted before on this blog, I got a chance to spend three days with him back in 2005. I’ve never forgotten his encouragement to me to ensure that the Buddhist Peace Fellowship would not forget its radical, anarchist roots, and to keep placing ourselves in harm’s way if need be for the protection of all beings and of the Earth.

Some time after my trip to Hawai’i to meet Roshi, he sent me a gift in the mail – a copy of the book Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. This was characteristic of his great generosity as well as his desire to educate fellow Buddhists about the mechanics of radical social change and anarchism. I still can hear his strong voice in my head: “It’s not enough to sit on the cushion.” Roshi’s heroes were people like Dorothy Day, Emma Goldman, Philip Berrigan, Daniel Ellsberg, and Kathy Kelley (of Voices in the Wilderness).

Yesterday, I came across a wonderful piece of writing from sister blogger Katie Loncke. She writes:

As Buddhists and dhamma practitioners, I would love to see us having more conversations about what compassion and social change actually look like: locally, on the ground, in practice.  Because it’s too easy for us to invoke these words — compassion, inner work, social change — and assume that everyone is on the same page.

The truth is, we’re not all on the same page.  And it’s not until after the event is over, on the subway ride home, when a gaggle of us start discussing in detail the relationship between inner and outer work, that these fundamental differences emerge, sharp and cold, like mountain peaks, from the soothing golden fog of Buddhist unity.

Katie then goes on to outline five points where she digresses from “spiritual liberalism”:

1.  Mystified Mechanism. When we start doing the inner work of developing compassion and insight, our outer social justice work will automatically get good.

How?  Sometimes folks talk about spirituality helping to reduce burnout, or converting the motivation of anger into the motivation of compassion.  But while both are wonderful benefits, neither speaks to the testable effectiveness of the particular outer work itself.

2. Healing As (Total) Resistance. Smiling at strangers on the subway is resisting militarism.

Well, I disagree.  Our healing work, spiritual work, and structural resistance work ought to inform each other, but they are not interchangeable substitutes.  Mandela didn’t inspire a movement and challenge the status quo just by praying compassionately for the liberation of the oppressor. (Though he did that, too.)

3. Social Change Relativism. Together, a growing movement is working for peace and justice in the world.  From green business to prison meditation to high-school conflict resolution programs on MTV, signs of hope and change abound.

Are all forms of progressive activism equally useful?  No.  But the shorthand of social change frequently obscures this fact.  Coupled with a feel-good engagement paradigm, the ‘every little bit helps’ idea makes it very difficult to hold each other accountable for our political work and its actual outcomes.

4. Root vs. Radical. Radical political agendas fail to grasp the root cause of oppression: dualism.  And ultimately, the best ways of overcoming dualism are through meditation and small-scale, intimate, interpersonal, compassion-building exercises.

Even if dualism is the “root cause” of oppression, that doesn’t make it the best or most actionable point for resistance, always.  Besides: why is this idea of dualism so pervasive and tenacious, anyway?  In large part because of the political and material structures (i.e. schools, economies, hierarchical religious institutions) that train human beings.  Without changing the power relations governing those material structures, there’s little hope of giving non-dualistic living, and appreciation for inter-being, a real shot on a global scale.      

5. Bhudd-opian Visions. Gandhi said it best: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Often, this gets construed to mean: build the best alternative society you can, and slowly it will change the entire society.  Especially in Buddhist communities that prize extended retreat time, a decade of study with a realized Asian master, and this sort of removal from everyday householder society, there’s a danger of trying to build our sanghas into utopias, and assuming that they will automatically radiate peace and well-being into the world.  Might be true on an individual or small-group level, but why should we believe that we can scale up well-being from personal transformation to world peace, without specific strategies for tackling enormous material systems?

I think these are really important questions, and I bow in gratitude to Katie for bringing them forward. On the same morning I came across Katie’s article, I also happened upon this piece on Transformative Organizing (TO) from this year’s US Social Forum. I’ll write more on this in another post, but in a nutshell, “TO is about creating deep change in how we are as people, how we relate to each other, and how we structure society. It brings together approaches to transformative change, ideological development, and impactful grassroots organizing to create a new paradigm for organizing.”

The interesting thing to me is how TO starts from the basis of effective organizing, and enfolds both inner and outer transformation from there. Too often, I think that many of us as engaged Buddhists give short shrift to the dimension of outer transformation, as well as the challenges in our relationships with each other, especially when there are power inequities based on race, class, and gender. It’s kind of like a spiritual/political bypass.

Meanwhile, in Montague, MA, this week, hundreds of people are attending the Engaged Buddhist Symposium at the Zen Peacemaker Institute. I wonder if these conversations are happening there as well, if people are exploring where the radical edge of dharma lies, and how we as practitioners in this day and age, living in this profoundly broken yet beautiful world, can really get down in the dirt with all beings.

If you’re at the Symposium, or if you have thoughts about all this, I’d love to hear your voice in the comments below.

July 29: Buddhist Love Delegation in New Mexico (and a lot of background story)

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This Thursday evening, July 29, I’ll be joining with my friend Russ Russell, a Zen priest with the Desert Mirror sangha, to offer a Buddhist presence at the Interfaith Vigil for Immigration Reform in Albuquerque. If any of you reading this are in or near Albuquerque, I hope you’ll join us. Send me an email at maia [at] and we’ll figure out how to find each other.

If you’ve been reading The Jizo Chronicles for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been writing about the situation in Arizona ever since the passage of SB 1070, the anti-immigrant bill. This Thursday, the bill goes into effect, which is the reason for the interfaith vigil (as well as a much larger event in Phoenix).

Why does this matter to me so much? I’ve been wondering about that. You know how some issues just grab us and won’t let go, but they don’t have that same effect on other people? This seems to be one of them. I’ve been blogging, tweeting, and Facebook-ing about this, proposing the idea of a Buddhist “Love” Delegation to Phoenix, and a few people responded. But for the most part it doesn’t seem to touch the same nerve in other (mostly white) people that I know.

Then I remembered Mrs. Sanchez. I grew up in Southern California, just outside of Los Angeles. I went to a small Catholic school where I was in the minority – a good 75% of my class was Chicano/a, and I was one of the few white girls. My best friend was Pattie Sanchez and most weekends I would hang out at Pattie’s house. Mrs. Sanchez introduced me to tamales and enchiladas, and watched over me just like I was Pattie’s sister. The Sanchez’s celebrated every milestone along with me and my parents… from First Communions to graduations to family births and family deaths. Their house was really my second home, and they were my family. Mrs. Sanchez was like my second mom.

So I think at some sub-conscious level I’ve been holding Pattie and Mrs. Sanchez and so many of the other people I grew up with in my heart as I’ve been reading about SB 1070 and the likely consequences of it. As I wrote in an earlier post, I feel impassioned to speak out about SB 1070 because:

  • It’s mean-spirited… the opposite of lovingkindness.
  • It’s a massive display of white privilege. The bill mandates law enforcement officers to determine people’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion.” What exactly does that mean? If you have brown skin, you’re a suspect. Hey, how about me? I might be an illegal German/Slovenian immigrant. But would anyone ever think of that? Bingo. Racial profiling.
  • It will create a climate of distrust, and will almost certainly prevent people from reporting crimes to the police out of fear of being deported.
  • It’s redundant… the federal government is already responsible for enforcing immigration laws (for better or worse). The way I see it, even if you think that the immigration system in this country needs a major overhaul, this bill is still offensive and injust. (See this excellent interview with Rev. James Ishmael Ford, a Zen priest and a Unitarian Universalist minister, for his take on the bill.)

I’ve had to go through my own process to discern how to respond to this issue, and I want to share some of it with you because I think it’s a good illustration of socially engaged Buddhist practice, at least I understand it.

My first thought was to head to Phoenix on July 29 to join the Day of Non-Compliance there. But I struggled with this plan. There were a lot of factors to consider – it would be a big trip to take in terms of time and money, not to mention the carbon footprint. I thought perhaps I could take the train from Santa Fe to Flagstaff and then get a bus down to Phoenix. All of this felt like pushing against the river, especially in light of the fact that just a few days later, I need to be on full-duty for our core training time in the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program.

But I was willing to do this even if it felt like it was a big stretch. Then I looked at my ego… how much did I want to be in Phoenix, perhaps participating in civil disobedience, simply to satisfy my identity as “an engaged Buddhist”? I’m not immune to having a big ego and being righteous.

But then again, on the other hand, it truly did feel important to offer solidarity to people in Arizona who will be affected by this bill.

Every day of the past month I’ve gone back and forth with this, not being able to fully commit to going but also not being able to decide it was out of the question. Only in the last week did I finally become clear that I wouldn’t go to Phoenix but would instead make a donation to support Alto Arizona, the group that is doing much of the organizing around this day and immigrant rights.

The day after I made the donation, I saw the news about the Albuquerque vigil on July 29 via Twitter. Finally, the “appropriate response” took shape. Albuquerque is much closer to home – only an hour away. This was a way to take action that felt more sustainable in terms of time, money, my own energy level, and travel. I emailed Russ and she responded back almost immediately that she would join me.

Activist movements are often filled with people who are martyrs to a cause, and with the expectation that we should be martyrs to a cause or we’re not really doing anything worthwhile. I’m not sure this belief system really helps a situation. It’s not that I think we should never get out of our comfort zone… in fact I’m sure that if we don’t, no real change occurs and we never challenge our own ideas of power.

But I also believe that we need to find ways to take action that generate joy and connection, not further suffering. This, to me, is what is at the heart of socially engaged Buddhism.

I have no idea if I got it “right” on this one, but I am looking forward to being in Albuquerque this Thursday night with my dharma friend and “standing on the side of love,” as the Unitarian Universalists put it. Maybe we’ll see you there.

Oscar Grant, Audre Lorde, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the Question of Loving Our Enemies (guest post)

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It’s summer, and that means it’s the season for guest posts to give me a little time off from writing. Here’s a post from one of my favorite bloggers, Katie Loncke. Her blog, Kloncke, is dedicated to “social and spiritual liberation.” She’s a great writer and a beautiful soul.

An update to this post: the verdict came down yesterday in this case. Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Oscar Grant.


Oscar Grant, Audre Lorde, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the Question of Loving Our Enemies

by Katie Kloncke

July 6, 2010

Cross-posted at Feministe. As the verdict approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about the relationships between state violence and intimate violence. In what ways our focus on state violence, and mechanisms for resisting it, jive and don’t jive with methods for dealing with intimate violence. Aaron Tanaka made a wonderful comment on the original post — as always, Aaron, I’m truly grateful for your insights and questions, and their organic connection to the great work you do.

Just yesterday, only 20 minutes after a conversation about police alternatives, as my friend Noa was dropping me off at home, we found ourselves in an impromptu cop watch. Four officers were arresting three men on my block — two of whom I recognized as regulars on the corner, and one with whom I’ve tossed a football across Hyde Street traffic. When I saw the cops lining the men up against the fence, I just stepped out of Noa’s car onto the sidewalk and inserted myself. After one of the officers attempted to intimidate Noa by calling in her plate number (we’d been stopped and talking in the car inside a red parking zone), she drove around the block, parked, came back and joined me for the next half hour as we watched these three men get yelled at, cuffed, and loaded into a police van.

I’ll maybe write up a full summary tomorrow, because the effect of our intervention on the cops’ behavior was pretty interesting, as well as the conversation we struck up with two male officers. For now, here’s my Feministe piece from Sunday.



[Trigger Warning: discussions of sexual assault and deadly State force.]

Love your enemies.

For feminists, is there any phrase more terrifyingly reactionary?

Love your enemies. Even the one who assaults you in private and reaps accolades as a brilliant community organizer in public. (One of my mom’s former boyfriends.)

Love your enemies. Even the ones who throw cherry bombs at you in the school bathrooms. (My dad’s fellow students at Yale, in the 1950s.)

Love your enemies. Even the one who tells you women should be seamstresses, not lawyers. (Opa — my mom’s dad.)

Love your enemies. Even the one who tells you, as a child, to bit down on your lower lip so it won’t grow too big. (Grandma — my dad’s mom.)

Love your enemies. Even the white police officer who shot and killed you while you were lying helpless, face-down on the ground with another officer’s knee on your neck. (Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old Black man killed Jan 1, 2009 in an Oakland subway station.)

Jury deliberations began yesterday for Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer who fatally shot Oscar Grant. All of Oakland awaits the verdict. Both police and non-profits are making preparations to quell the “violence” anticipated after this “deadly lightning rod” of a trial.

Deadly? Violence? According to CNN’s coverage, not one single person was seriously injured in the 2009 protests following Grant’s death. Nobody injured, let alone killed. Windows were broken; dumpsters set afire. Is this violence? Sounds more like property destruction to me.

Whatever happens, whether riots flare up or not, things will once again settle, and the ordinary state violence will resume as usual. After all, there’s only one individual on trial — not an entire racist police force armed with deadly weapons. Not an entire patriarchal, militaristic, anti-immigrant, plutocratic (ruled by wealth) law enforcement system. Not California, the US state running “the largest prison system in the Western world.” That won’t be standing trial anytime soon. So what are we supposed to do?

Love your enemies.

What an injunction, huh? Just how are we supposed to achieve this? And why?

The “how” I’ll leave aside for now. Let’s focus on the why.

Why should we love our enemies? Why not hate them? Or at least get angry?

Audre Lorde, one of my all-time favorite feminists, has one answer. With hatred we harm ourselves, and anger only takes us halfway to where we need to go. From “Eye To Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”:

Read the rest of this entry

Where is the Love? (aka: Meet Me in Arizona)

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To my knowledge (which is limited), the word “love” doesn’t show up very often in Buddhist suttas and teachings, at least not in the way you see it over and over again in the teachings of Jesus. Which may be why people get the impression that Buddhism is primarily a cerebral exercise. The prevalent use of the word “mindfulness” just reinforces that notion. I was recently at a meeting where someone suggested that a better word might be “heartful-ness” – because what’s really happening if we practice deeply is that our heart awakens and we respond to the world from that place.

(A semantic note: Part of the problem here is a cultural/linguistic one. Western modes of thought and language tend to reify dualism. As you may know, the Chinese word shin [xin] means “heart-mind.” There’s a wonderful article by Shohaku Okumura on this word and its Japanese parallel kokoro here on the Buddhadharma website.)

Which brings me to Arizona.

Arizona needs a lot of love right now. Over the past few months, the state has passed a couple of bills that make it pretty difficult to be a Latino/a living in that state and not feel that you are despised and unwanted. First came SB 1070. Less than a month later, the governor signed another bill that limited the teaching of ethnic studies classes in public schools. And on top of that, the state’s education department started to mandate re-assignments of teachers who it was deemed didn’t speak English well enough or who had an accent. (See how some Stanford University professors responded to this.)

A number of people are responding by organizing a Summer of Human Rights in Arizona. One of my favorites is the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign from the Unitarian Universalists. One of those UUs is also a Zen priest – James Ishmael Ford. Danny Fisher did a great interview with Ford which you can read here.

So how about it, dharma sisters and brothers – who would like to join me in a Summer of Love in Arizona? Let’s practice the dharma in a big-hearted way. Since I’m in New Mexico and Arizona is my neighbor, I’m thinking of going to Phoenix on July 29 for a Day of Non-Compliance (the day SB 1070 goes into effect). Perhaps we can get a Buddhist Love Delegation organized, similar to what a number of us did in Washington D.C. in 2005 and 2007 (see photos here and this past Jizo Chronicles post).

We’ve got one month. Anybody else interested? Let me know and let’s see what we can cook up.

And by the way – I’m also following up to find out more about the potential Buddhist group that’s going to the Gulf states to respond to the oil spill. I’ll be writing again soon with details on that.


Quote of the Week: Thich Nhat Hanh and bell hooks

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I’ve been thinking about what to offer for this week’s quote, and came across something a little bit different: a conversation between Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh and writer and cultural thinker bell hooks in Shambhala Sun.

I love the way they traverse through some difficult subjects, including racism and injustice,  keeping love and the Dharma as their touchstones throughout. This passage comes near the end of their conversation:

bell hooks: And lastly, what about fear? Because I think that many white people approach black people or Asian people not with hatred or anger but with fear. What can love do for that fear?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Fear is born from ignorance. We think that the other person is trying to take away something from us. But if we look deeply, we see that the desire of the other person is exactly our own desire—to have peace, to be able to have a chance to live. So if you realize that the other person is a human being too, and you have exactly the same kind of spiritual path, and then the two can become good practitioners. This appears to be practical for both.

The only answer to fear is more understanding. And there is no understanding if there is no effort to look more deeply to see what is there in our heart and in the heart of the other person. The Buddha always reminds us that our afflictions, including our fear and our desiring, are born from our ignorance. That is why in order to dissipate fear, we have to remove wrong perception.

bell hooks: And what if people perceive rightly and still act unjustly?

Thich Nhat Hanh: They are not able yet to apply their insight in their daily life. They need community to remind them. Sometimes you have a flash of insight, but it’s not strong enough to survive. Therefore in the practice of Buddhism, samadhi is the power to maintain insight alive in every moment, so that every speech, every word, every act will bear the nature of that insight. It is a question of cleaning. And you clean better if you are surrounded by sangha—those who are practicing exactly the same.

bell hooks: I think that we best realize love in community. This is something I have had to work with myself, because the intellectual tradition of the West is very individualistic. It’s not community-based. The intellectual is often thought of as a person who is alone and cut off from the world. So I have had to practice being willing to leave the space of my study to be in community, to work in community, and to be changed by community.

Thich Nhat Hanh: Right, and then we learn to operate as a community and not as individuals. In Plum Village, that is exactly what we try to do. We are brothers and sisters living together. We try to operate like cells in one body.

bell hooks: I think this is the love that we seek in the new millennium, which is the love experienced in community, beyond self.

Thich Nhat Hanh: So please, live that truth and disseminate that truth with your writing, with your speaking. It will be helpful to maintain that kind of view and action.

Zen Priest to “Stand on the Side of Love” in Arizona

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Meanwhile, back here in the U.S., there are plans brewing for a National Day of Action in Arizona on May 29th to speak out against SB1070, the anti-immigrant bill that I blogged about last month. At least one Buddhist will be in the crowd — James Ford, who is both a Soto Zen Priest as well as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Here is Ford’s entry on the subject on his blog, Monkey Mind. (Thanks to Ari of the Zen Peacemaker blog for telling us about this.)

Anybody else planning on being in Phoenix on May 29?

Arizona: Do I Look Illegal?

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Sorry I have been an absent blogger lately… I am on the road to the Wisdom 2.0 Conference near San Jose, CA, which starts today. It should be an interesting combination of high tech and mindfulness, with speakers like Roshi Joan Halifax, Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos), and Meng Tan (of google).

This road trip took me through Arizona, so the recent passage of  SB1070 (the anti-immigration/immigrant law) has been very much on my mind. No matter what your thoughts about the current state of immigration, my take on it is that as human beings and socially engaged Buddhists we should be outraged by and speaking out against this piece of legislation. Why?

  • It’s mean-spirited… the opposite of lovingkindness.
  • It’s a massive display of white privilege. The bill mandates law enforcement officers to determine people’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion.” What exactly does that mean? If you have brown skin, you’re a suspect. Hey, how about me? I might be an illegal German/Slovenian immigrant. But would anyone ever think of that? Bingo. Racial profiling.
  • It will create a climate of  distrust, and will almost certainly prevent people from reporting crimes to the police out of fear of being deported.
  • It’s redundant… the federal government is already responsible for enforcing immigration laws (for better or worse).

Here’s one way to respond, cooked up by some Facebook members:

In defiance of the new bill in Arizona and in support of the Arizona citizens who will face harassment every time they step out their doors, the call is out for everyone to ask the question: “Do I look “illegal?” during the week of May 1st to May 8th. The focus is on raising awareness on the day of May 1st but by the overwhelming response, putting out this message is extending for the rest of the week.

Post the question as your status on Facebook. Throughout the day, send the question out on Twitter. Ask one another the question, “Do I look illegal?” Hopefully, this will get all of us thinking and discussing what exactly does “illegal” look like..

Finally, wear shirts, buttons or hold signs saying, “Do I look ‘illegal’?” and take pictures to either send to Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona and/or post them [on Facebook]..

Her mailing address is:
Jan Brewer
Governor of Arizona
1700 West Washington
Phoenix, Arizona 85007

So I’m looking for a t-shirt to wear tomorrow. There’s also a good online letter to Sen. Brewer that you can sign and send, from the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Let us know what you plan to do, and your thoughts on this issue.

Correction: In the original post, I wrote that “The bill mandates law enforcement officers to determine people’s immigration status based solely on “reasonable suspicion.” Actually, there is a provision in the bill that race cannot be the sole grounds for reasonable suspicion. However, as attorney Patrick Rung writes: “even if that’s the case, what non-racial basis can be used to justify a check of a person’s immigration status? So far, that’s a question that no one – including the proponents and authors of the bill – can adequately answer. And that makes it subject to a vagueness attack.”

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