We interviewed Norman Fischer, abbot of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, about his perspectives on the diversity workshops he attended and on affirmative action. —B.G.
Norman Fischer: The model presented at this workshop was based on the understanding that everybody has been hurt, that all of us in one way or another have been in the position of being oppressed and of being oppressors.
I think you can see the Noble Truth of suffering as a truth about oppression. We are all powerless in the face of the impossibility of our lives. So we are all oppressed by life itself. Being oppressed and confused by our oppression, we oppress others. That’s what samsara is—we are victimized by our lives because of the way we approach our lives, and in the shock of this we turn around and victimize others. And this is the way of the world. Dharma is to encounter this fact, appreciate it deeply, and turn it around.
Buddhism very specifically talks about compassion and love and gets into the visceral, personal feelings that we have of hatred and aversion. Buddhist teachings make it clear that if you feel hatred toward others or toward yourself, this is something you need to work on. And Buddhism provides tools to do that work.
But I believe that in addition to that personal work, there are vast institutional issues we need to take on. We do this through real—literal—affirmative action. I don’t think anybody can argue reasonably that we don’t need to uproot hatred and aversion. But somebody could argue against affirmative action. She or he could say, “Since I’m open and I really don’t have hatred, why should I go to this workshop, read these books, do this outreach into the larger community?”
I don’t buy that analysis. It’s not enough to say, as we have for years in our Zen sanghas, “We’re open to everybody.” That’s always been true, but that’s not enough. As individuals we need always to be asking ourselves, “What am I doing to actually take steps to make this different in my life and for others?” And a Buddhist sangha needs to be asking itself the same question.
Sala Steinbach: I love hearing you being as forceful as you are about this. How dare you advocate affirmative action when the society seems to be saying that we’re not going to do that any more?
NF: What’s the choice, to take negative action? This workshop is one of the best things that we have done in this regard. Each affirmative action we take leads to more. You think to yourself, “Now I see something that I didn’t see before.”
The main thing that I learned is that diversity is more subtle and richer than you think. You might initially think that counting the number of dark faces in a room will tell you how much diversity is there. We are concerned about how many dark faces there are, but the workshop showed me that there are a lot of ways in which people differ from each other in areas such as economic background and sexual preference.
As a Jewish person, crossing over and being on one side of the room with the other Jewish people in the sangha was a unique experience. Everybody in the sangha knows I’m Jewish, but the workshop got us to talk about some dimensions of my life that would ordinarily never come up. Now that’s true for everybody else as well. And it turns out, of course, that the workshop shows you that everybody is from multiple backgrounds, and that in itself is very eye opening. We see that we’re the same and that we’re also extremely different. And there are ways in which any two of us don’t really appreciate and understand each other. That all comes out, and we get to understand each other better in those ways.
I think we need to educate ourselves. Our own members who are from other cultures need to speak to us about those cultures, and we should do some investigation through reading and discussion. In our book stores now alongside the Buddhist books we have sections focusing on African-American and women’s studies.
Barbara Gates: In addition to educating yourselves about your Zen community, haven’t you also taken affirmative action by beginning to do some projects in your local community?
NF: Last year we offered a five-week meditation class to the public in Marin City, a primarily African American community, through the Marin City Project, which is an organization whose charge is to offer job training, psychological help and community activities of all kinds to prepare the community for new development that is about to happen there. Most of the people who took that first class were White, very similar in background to the people who already come to Green Gulch.
During the course of teaching this class, I explained that one of the reasons I was offering it was to reach the Black people in the local community. One of the people in the class was a White woman who is the director of a couple of different child care services in Marin City. She suggested that I give a class for the child care workers who are mostly African-American women. So I just finished a four-week course with them, and I’m going to go back to continue it. I think it’s going to be ongoing.
In these classes, we would meditate for maybe twenty-five minutes and then have a couple of rounds of discussion; the discussion was focused on the work they were doing with the kids. I would give homework assignments around mindfulness practice in working with the kids. We would look at whatever they found most difficult in their work and see if they could increase their awareness of what it was that made those situations difficult.
SS: So perhaps the workshops help support you in exploring the dynamics of your own community, in doing projects like the one you have taken on in Marin City.
NF: Dharma deals with compassion in a very broad way. The workshop you lead brings it down to a particular social analysis and a particular psychological analysis that usually the Buddhist teacher doesn’t. But that’s exactly why affirmative action and a workshop like this are important, because to have a very broad kind of teaching that doesn’t relate to particular circumstances in which we live can be misleading. To have this wonderful teaching about compassion and then not to discuss compassion in action is how religions go off. We have these wonderful ideals, and we go to church or temple or the meditation hall. We sing songs about our ideals, we listen to talks about them, and we pray. Then we walk out and we unconsciously do things that are very destructive without really knowing what we’re doing. So we have to get down to looking at particular cases. And then, unfortunately, when we do that we get into conflict. It’s easy to say, “Compassion is wonderful; Buddha is great.” But if somebody says, “Yes, and therefore we should do this and we shouldn’t do that,” somebody else will say, “Wait a minute, this is not what compassion is.” I believe that we have to get in there with those kinds of conflicts because if we don’t, then we have a very wonderful and universal teaching that has no application anywhere.