The Interracial Buddhist Council, started several years ago by Ralph Steele, Julie Wester, Mary Orr and myself, is founded on two basic principles. The first is inclusivity, that the benefits and beauty of the dharma be made available to all cultures and races. The second is the commitment to actively address the legacy of sorrow and pain that racism has caused in society and is still causing.
There’s an enormous price for racism, for all of us, that includes the cycles of shame, hate, fear, poverty and violence—conditions that we all live with. Within our own cities and communities, at the root of many of the wars of the world, from the Nazis to Rwanda, from India to the genocide of the Native Americans, racism taints all of us, even in our silent complicity.
To alleviate the suffering caused by seeing one another through the filters of race, class and gender is at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. The practice of not-harming is to see each being as your brother or your sister. More fundamentally, the practice of mindfulness itself is a cultivation of the capacity to be present and see clearly, without getting entangled in prejudice or delusion. Meditation is a perfect way to inwardly liberate the mind from these habits and entanglements. As we open our eyes and move into the world, the obvious next step is to take that same attention and direct it to outer forms of suffering such as those caused by attachment to race, gender and class in this society.
The Buddha himself took an extraordinary stand against the powerful racism and classism in India. People would come to the Buddha and say, “How do we know who is a true Brahman, a true noble, a great priest?” And he would say, “Not by birth is one a Brahman, not by being born into the Brahman caste, not by race or family or color is one a noble being, but one is noble simply by having a noble heart.”
The Interracial Buddhist Council has sponsored a number of retreats, mainly daylongs and weekends led by a variety of teachers of color, including Ralph Steele, Michele Benzamin-Masuda, Lewis Aframi and others. On the first daylong retreat for people of color, it was wonderful to have fifty Latino, Black and Asian-American Buddhists at Spirit Rock Center. Now there are ongoing groups in the San Francisco Bay Area that meet periodically in the Zen and vipassana communities. We’ve had an invitation from Tetsugen Sensei in New York to hold a large retreat there, and later we hope to have a national retreat.
The Interracial Buddhist Council has also been connected with several interracial retreats, sponsored by Michael Meade, for young men of color from the inner city. These retreats with Michael Meade, Luis Rodriguez, Maladoma Somé and others have been among the most intense and moving experiences of my life because we honestly address the fear, prejudice and pain that keep us from trusting one another as human beings.
The communities of Western Buddhist practitioners are often particularly insulated from communities of people of color. It seems essential that we include this issue in our practice. It would greatly serve our communities, our hearts and our consciousnesses to actively work for diversity as well as to work with racism.
At the end of a recent Insight Meditation Society retreat that I taught with Ralph Steele, he said, “I want to ask you a favor, because I’m the only African-American person in the room. The next time I see you, please bring a brother or sister who is a person of color to retreat.” I want to support Ralph in that plea and in a commitment to address racism. If we, as practitioners of awareness, can’t include racism in our consciousnesses, then who can?