Q&A with Jizo Chronicles

I am very honored that Maia Duerr reached out to interview me for the Jizo Chronicles blog, not to mention that she includes me in the group of “socially engaged Buddhists”! I have advocated for a long time that one of the best ways to reach out to Asian American Buddhists is to raise our profile in the magazines and blogs dominated by White Buddhist discourse. And Maia decided to do just that.

Ever wondered what’s up with my whole Angry shtick? Who inspires me? You can read the full interview here.

Alan Senauke: On Race & Buddhism

This piece, “On Race and Buddhism,” first came to my attention while browsing the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website, but was later taken down when the site underwent a major redesign. In response to an appeal I broadcast, Ven. Kobutsu Malone was generous enough to contact the author, Hozan Alan Senauke, and forward me a copy of this essay. That was about two years ago.

It took me until this year to finally set aside the time to email Alan Senauke and receive his permission to post his essay on this blog. The author should be familiar to anyone long involved in the engaged Buddhist or Western Zen landscape; Senauke is a Zen priest ordained in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, has served as executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and also is the founder of the Clear View Project (which has its own blog).

This essay is also available in his recently published book The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines, which brings a Buddhist perspective to issues as wide ranging as globalization, poverty, militarism, race and privilege. (Full disclosure: I am borrowing heavily from Maia Duerr’s Amazon review here.)

I am delighted to share this essay below.

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Zen Master Dogen wrote “Gourd with its tendrils is entwined with gourd.” This means we are all intimately bound up, wound up with each other. Truly inseparable. At Buddhist Peace Fellowship, San Francisco Zen Center, and at Berkeley Zen Center, we have been talking about the complexities of diversity, race, zen practice, and our communities in the United States. This is not just about “political correctness;” it is about practice and awareness. My own thoughts are not entirely clear. If I sound critical, it includes self-criticism. My own efforts have fallen short and I think we need to work on this together.

After six years of practice, homeless among householders, wayseekers, and mendicant teachers, the Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree with the firm intention of awakening. After seven days he perceived the true nature of birth and death, the chain of causation, and awakened to realization with the morning star. At that moment he spoke these words: “Wondrous! I now see that all beings everywhere have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of misunderstandings and attachments they do not realize it.”

Allowing his understanding to ripen, allowing Bodhicitta, the mind of compassion to ripen, he took up the responsibilities of teaching, sharing his experience in a way that unlocked the mystery of our own experience. As the Buddha came to express it, “I simply teach about the nature of suffering and the end of suffering.” This is a radical teaching. It goes to the root. His understanding that all beings everywhere have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones leaves us today with a great responsibility. As the wheel of Mahayana Dharma turned, our own Zen vehicle, that responsibility was further clarified by the Bodhisattva vow to save all beings.

And yet this vow was there from the beginning. Why else did the Buddha rise from the comfort and joy of enlightenment and freedom to teach? Why else did he offer teachings like the “Metta Sutta,” where he says:

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
All living beings, whether weak or strong, 
in high or middle or low realms of existence, 
small or great, visible or invisible, 
near or far, born or to be born,
let no one deceive another, nor despise any being in any state; 
let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another.
Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over 
and protects her only child, 
so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, 
suffusing love over the entire world, above, below, 
and all around, without limit; 
so let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

True to that teaching, he offered refuge to everyone he met on the path. Kings and paupers, ascetics and householders, people of all castes, brahmins , outcasts, and criminals. After some strenuous convincing, he even offered refuge to women. That’s a long story in itself, not unrelated to the issue at hand today. The Buddha’s reluctance reminds us that patriarchy has deep roots running through most cultures.

Taking refuge means committing your life to waking up, to taking on the problem of suffering and the ending suffering for all beings and ourselves. This is what zazen is about. Sitting upright in stillness means to see oneself in complete interdependence with all beings, with the rocks and trees and ocean and sky. The emptiness we so often talk about is not some kind of negative space. It is total interdependence. “Gourd with its tendrils entwined with gourd.” True reality is empty of any one thing, empty of self, because all things, all people co-create each other.

Seeing through and beyond dualistic thinking is the direct experience of zazen. I underscore the word ‘experience,’ because, if we are caught by our ideas or an idle wish, we slip back into the tide of duality. All of us have such experiences from moment to moment, time to time. A moment of merging with someone or something we love, a moment of doing something completely, a moment of losing oneself in meditation. At times in zazen we settle fully into the realm of nonduality and recognize that this is our true mind, our true state of being. All the great spiritual traditions express an understanding of this natural way of life.

By habit we see the world dualistically. Driven by doubt and fear, by a lack of trust in our true Mind, we see things as self and objects, as us and them, as other. It seems so hard to recognize the truth that Tibetan Buddhists teach: that every being was at one time my own mother. The root of racism is denial of this truth. It is about seeing people as other in a systemic way. It is such an entrenched habit we are not usually aware of. I would emphasize the word “systemic,” because ideas are like a virus in society. They have a power that goes beyond our individual like and dislike. Racism is a system of domination that is economic and political as well as personal. It runs deep in the oppressor and the oppressed alike, but the damage caused is different.

Even though I have the privilege of a good education, middle class male upbringing, white skin, I find in myself deeply ingrained survival responses as someone born a Jew. Several years ago at a meeting of international Buddhist activists in Thailand I realized that by evening of the first day I had figured out who among the westerners was Jewish. And I realized that all the Jews were doing the same thing and had “signified” to each other. We knew who each other was, and we were more comfortable for it. This, I am sure, is a pattern that goes back through centuries of ghetto life, of being seen as the other by a dominant culture. It’s not a genetic thing. I can still remember sitting in the den at home, my mother telling me how to watch out for myself at school. She explained that some people would exclude and threaten me just for being Jewish. It’s so deep that sometimes I often find myself looking around the zendo and counting those I think are Jewish. Some of you may find yourself making a similar census. I know that people of color do this.

But let’s remember where our Buddhism came from. Our ancestors come from India, China, and Japan. When I visit Suzuki Roshi’s temple in Japan, Rinso-in, I always walk in the graveyard where the old priests of the temple were buried. How amazing it is for Zen to leap oceans and cultures and be so generously offered to us. We should accept it humbly, recognizing the price of suffering paid to plant the Dharma seed here. We owe it to our teachers and ourselves to share this practice with the same generosity and openmindedness. Keep in mind that most Buddhists even in America don’t look like me. They are Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and so on. I come to Buddhism out of suffering. They come to Buddhism by birth.

How does it feel to come to Zen practice as a person of color? And such people will come; they do come. My friend Sala Steinbach, an African-American practitioner at San Francisco Zen Center, says, “If it is about liberation, people of color will be interested.” They are. The Dalai Lama draws stadiums full of people in Mexico. In South America there are Zen and Tibetan teachers with very strong lay sanghas. I ask my Asian, and Latino, and African-American friends about how it feels to come here, to San Francisco Zen Center or Spirit Rock. And I ask myself what feelings come up to see these friends to walk through the doors . Dogen suggests that one take a step back to turn one’s light inward and illuminate oneself. What I see in myself is then reflected back into the world.

The answer to how it feels to anyone largely depends on two further inter-related questions. First, does one feel safe and seen in the community? Are the conditions of one’s life acknowledged, welcomed, explored in the sangha? I suspect the answer is sometimes yes, and too often no. Thoughtless words can turn people from the temple and from the practice. I have seen this happen. An offhand comment is made about how we are all white an middle class here, with people of color and working class friends sitting right there. When we unknowingly see through a lens of class and white supremacy, people are made to feel invisible and uncounted. 

White supremacy is the cornerstone of racism, created out of blindness to one’s (my) own privilege as a white man. It is at once personal and systemic. If one wants to see white supremacy, the practice of turning our light inward needs to be blended with dialogue with friends and sangha members who don’t carry this very particular privilege.

The same kinds of painful things happen if you are homosexual, or if by reason of injury or fact of birth you can’t get up the steps of the temple. These blindnesses hurt and turn people away. That’s what it might feel like from one side. 

On the other side, the Buddha’s understanding is “all beings have the wisdom and virtues of the enlightened ones, but because of misunderstandings and attachments they do not realize it.” This understanding is so precious that we are obligated to share it. I don’t mean crude proselytizing, but the Buddha himself never stopped preaching Dharma. Now we have centers and institutions for Dharma. To make zazen and Dharma available, we need to tell people they are welcome and invite them to practice with us. We must find ways to open our doors to those who can come to us. Some San Francisco churches have created a kind of covenant of “open congregation.” This means that in their literature and at their services, classes, and events they make it known that they welcome people of color, gays and lesbians, and so on. This is being pro-active rather than passive on questions of diversity and inclusion. 

Already we are taking practice to jails and hospitals, to people who might not be able to come to the meditation hall. We can also take ourselves to mosques, churches, and synagogues, where we can meet with minsters and parishioners. If we make ourselves known there, we will be welcome, and people will appreciate that we have reached across various lines to witness their own practice. 

This is necessary, because in America passivity means white supremacy. It is subtle and pervasive, conditioned by and conditioning our magazines, movies, tv, our clothing, all the things we buy. It is a virus infecting my own mind as a person with so-called privileges, and the mind of someone who might not have such privileges. Recently I was invited to talk about Buddhism and race to a diverse group of teenagers doing an interfaith social action internship in San Francisco. I hope I did a good job talking to them, but it was curious to me that I was the organizers first choice for a Buddhist speaker. The irony is that Buddhism in America gets defined as and by people who look like me, not by the far more numerous Asian and Asian-American practitioners. 

But the wonderful thing about what the Buddha taught, what we can experience in zazen, is that each of us can go beyond duality. It can’t be done just by reason and talk. We have to uncover the reality of the world, which lives deep in our bones and then bring it back out into the world. We must be willing to make a lot of mistakes. Make our mistakes, learn the lessons and go back at it. The African American scholar/practitioner bell hooks writes about this in “Buddhist Women on the Edge”:

“In a culture of domination, preoccupation with victimhood and identity is inevitable. I once believed that progressive people could analyze the dualities and dissolve them through a process of dialectical critical exchange. Yet globally the resurgence of notions of ethnic purity, white supremacy, have led marginalized groups to cling to dualisms as a means of resistance….The willingness to surrender to attachment to duality is present in such thinking. It merely inverts the dualistic thinking that supports and maintains domination. 

“Dualities serve their own interests. What’s alarming to me is to see so many Americans returning to those simplistic choices. People of all persuasions are feeling that if they don’t have dualism, they don’t have anything to hold on to. 

If we are concerned with dissolving these apparent dualities we have to identify anchors to hold on to in the midst of fragmentation, in the midst of a loss of grounding. My anchor is love….”

I like to think that love and compassion are anchors of my practice. But they depend on mindfulness too. Zazen is rooted in mindfulness, breath after breath, thought after thought. This kind of training carries over into life outside the zendo. I try to uncover my own thought patterns. This is sometimes painful and embarrassing, but it is the essence of saving myself and all sentient beings. It is amazing to see the stories one can make up about other people, and how these stories are conditioned by race, or class, or privilege. Check it out for yourself. When you meet someone you consider different from yourself, do you think you know something about them? Do you think you might know the same kinds of things about another white person or someone more like you? This is a mindfulness practice, watching one’s thoughts about race, or any kind of difference. It is for our own sake, and not for the sake of political correctness. This is a very personal practice. 

Then we can go further into our extended communities. Ask your friends of color how they experience the practice and the community. This is entering the realm of not knowing, risky, but completely necessary. In the wider Buddhist community, it might mean making excursions and visits to Asian Buddhist temples. They are friendly places. The same Dharma resides there, though it may take some different forms. We think nothing of going to restaurants featuring Asian cuisine. 

When we have closely examined ourselves, and begun to look around and share our thoughts with others, then we have started to create the conditions for change. If our whole society could take such steps, it would be the start of a wonderful, hopeful era. Could there be racial peace for the first time in history? This is no pipe dream. It is the Bodhisattva Vow, the working of our Way Seeking Mind. 

If each of us and the sanghas we cherish could nurture this process of mindfulness, the change could come much quicker. Compassion and peace could blossom in very surprising ways. And our life of zazen would be a golden wind blowing across a meadow of wildflowers. 

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Again, I am deeply grateful to Alan Senauke and Kobutsu Malone both for their correspondence over the years and for their contributions to ensure that this essay be shared. You can purchase a copy of Alan Senauke’s book, The Bodhisattva’s Embrace, which contains this essay, either here or here.

How to Raise a Segregated Sangha

One theme I often see pop in my comments is color-blindness. In an extreme view, this theory holds that if racial and ethnic divisions are eliminated from our language, they will then be eliminated from our consciousness and thus from society in general. This theory is often argued with reference to Rev. Martin Luther King’s “dream” of a world where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Oft misinterpreted.) The root false premise under the many different extensions of this theory is the notion that racial bias is something learned and does not develop independently—that people are inherently color-blind.

Which brings me to a point made the other day. How to raise racist kids?

Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.”

Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two.

Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that <insert your ethnicity here> is better than everybody else.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book and column NurtureShock get straight to the heart of this issue by using that ever-so-hated bane of the uneducated: empirical inquiry!

What Bronson and Merryman discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The attitude (at least of those who think racism is wrong) is generally that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good.

Color-blindness is where good intentions are led astray by woeful ignorance. What Bronson and Merryman’s studies demonstrate (which we already knew from plenty of personal anecdote) is that kids can arrive at deplorable racial conclusions without their parents’ help. The thought can be chilling—we’re inherently not as open-minded as we’d like to think we are. So does that mean racism is inevitable and all resistance is futile?

I bring up the false premise of inherent color-blindness because understanding the flaws in this premise lead us to seeing the problems in the notions that arise from it—such as the flawed notion is that racism is a problem that can be solved.

Some of humanity’s afflictions can be solved and some can be managed. For example, smallpox was solvable, yet cancer has to be managed. Through policy, education, screening, research and ever improving treatments, we can reduce various cancer mortality rates to almost zero. But once at (near) zero, we can’t just pack our bags and go home because this achievement is only possible through the aforementioned concerted action. We need to manage the problem because, by its nature, it will always come back. Racism, like cancer, is a terrible problem that must be managed.

There’s a lot more to say here, especially with relation to our implicit biases. My point is to put another perspective on what’s been said before. By ignoring race, by whitewashing our rhetoric and by living up to a deluded standard of color-blindness, we perpetuate the painful racial segregation of our sanghas. We need to cultivate mindfulness, not dismissal, of this issue in order to overcome it—or, rather, properly manage it.

(Thanks to the Angry Asian Man for the heads up on this post!)

All the Same

In lieu of the snarky post, here are just some thoughts on some previously posted comments. When I write about the marginalization of Asians in Western Buddhist institutions and dialogue, a common retort is that Buddhism has nothing to do with race—it is about the path to the end of suffering. We all suffer regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and many other factors. The promise of Buddhism is likewise applicable to all of us, regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and many other factors. In this sense, we are all the same in our potential to attain complete liberation. I couldn’t agree more.

This “all the same” line is, however, a non-response to the issue of the marginalization of Asians (among others) in Western Buddhist institutions. At both the institutional level and at the level of discourse, we aren’t treated the same. I’ve posted repeatedly on the paucity of Asian Americans as writers for Shambhala SunTricycle and Buddhadharma. There is also the disgusting white Western savior rhetoric, where the West will come to save Buddhism from those backward Asians. There is the equally disturbing “separate-but-equal” refrain that all the various Asian communities are fine, but that Western Buddhists should create and nurture their own separate group—eerily similar to the argument for Orania.

We need to eat away at the systems of oppression and privilege that underlie the white dominance over Western Buddhism’s non-white majority. I focus on Asians, and Asian Americans in particular, not just because I’m Asian American, but also because the asymmetry is fairly blatant. Many similar issues apply for other non-white Buddhists as well. The effort to make a more egalitarian community will involve moreoutreach to include its less privileged members. This struggle will also involve renouncing privileges we take for granted. Doing nothing, yet saying we are all the same, merely amounts to the perpetuation of this system behind what is either a lie or woeful ignorance.

Engaged Buddhist Christmas

Here’s a thought for an engaged Buddhist Christmas. Many people who convert to Buddhism may feel that they need to do something special for the holiday season. Say, wringing out all the Christian aspects of Christmas and then sprinkling some Buddhist pixie dust over what’s left. My family secretly aspires to celebrate Christmas the way the Jews do. There are several popularized ways that Jews celebrate Christmas in North America, but we frequently talk about the Chinese food and movie version—we’ve just never actually gotten around to it. My favorite way to celebrate Christmas is to volunteer at a meal center. (Credit for this family tradition goes to my mom.) It may be too late for most readers to sign up to volunteer—but this time of the year is perfect for Buddhists, especially Buddhists in the West, to celebrate the season through service to others. It’s a good way to spend your time even when it’s not a holiday. Just a thought.

Buddhism and Lifestyle Activism

Check out the post over at Enlightenment Ward, where NellaLou asks these questions:

  • Is Lifestyle Activism an expression of privilege?
  • Is Buddhism becoming a Lifestyle Accessory for the privileged Lifestyle Activist?

I haven’t yet read it in full, but these are questions worth thinking over.

Drawing Lines Beyond Labels

From Rev. Danny Fisher’s blog feed, I learned about the Jizo Chronicles by Maia Duerr (not to be confused with the Great Vows of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva blog). In the post Socially Engaged Buddhism Beyond Labels, Duerr strikes a contrast between engaged Buddhism and socially engaged Buddhism.

So here’s my theory (others, like Ken Jones, have articulated it in a similar way). I see engaged Buddhism as akin to what Rev Coffin is talking about when he talks about charity. On a very basic level, it’s pretty hard to avoid being an engaged Buddhist. We see suffering, and we respond. There are many Buddhist groups that are organized in this way, like the Tzu Chi Foundation — doing relief work, addressing immediate needs such as hunger, medical needs, etc.

Socially engaged Buddhism, in contrast, is about looking at the structures that lie underneath these forms of suffering, and then responding to those structures. At the root of the hunger and homelessness, for example, are systems of economic and racial injustice (to name just a couple) where some people have the odds stacked against them. This doesn’t mean that people can’t transcend their conditions; of course they can. But it’s a system that contributes to a vast amount of suffering, and the big question is: does it need to be that way?

I don’t understand where Duerr draws the line that separates engaged Buddhists from socially engaged Buddhists. Specifically what makes the Tzu Chi Foundation not a socially engaged Buddhist organization?

Buddhists for the Future

In Kusala Bhikshu’s most recent Urban Dharma newsletter, he included Ananda Guruge’s talk on the future of Buddhism.

What role do we have as practicing Buddhists in the world today? Buddhism has come to most us as our birthright with the milk of our mothers. We are heirs to a long and chequered history with a magnificent spiritual heritage. There are with us who, after their intellectual quest for a set of beliefs and practices, have chosen Buddhism as their guide to life. We are all Buddhists and we have in our hands a priceless treasure from which the modern world can benefit enormously. How we share this with the whole of the humanity is a challenge that we have to meet especially in the century that begins in two years with the 2600th anniversary of the attainment of Enlightenment by the Buddha.


Buddhism is not shared by merely communicating information and knowledge through teaching, publishing, mass media, Internet and the like. Our life, our dedication, our conduct, our commitment to human welfare, and our example alone will show the world that the humanism that guides us is what the rest of the humanity is searching for. This is our task for the new century and this is our challenge for the new millennium.

I appreciate the contrast he presents at the end. I’m not a big fan of Buddhist writing. The most inspiring Buddhists I’ve known have always been those whose conduct reflects their noble values.