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.

Brad Warner on Privilege

A bit late on reposting, but here’s a post I deeply appreciated—Brad Warner’s response to the following question about privilege: “Have you ever considered that it may be easier for you to give up attachment to identity because your identities are not problematic, are in fact usually not considered identities at all? I honestly do want to know what your thoughts are about your position in the world, so please tell me.”

His comments struck me as incisive. Here’s the meat of his response.

I do not think that attachment to identity is something that can be quantified. I don’t think it’s something some people have more of than others, at least at the outset of practice. Except perhaps in some very rare and extraordinary cases.


I believe that all of us, no matter what our race, sexual orientation, gender, etc., are socialized to cling tightly to individual identity and to believe in it very strongly. This goes far beyond matters of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. Those aspects of identity are very superficial compared to the much deeper issues of seeing oneself as separate from the rest of humanity and from the Universe itself. So my guess is that maybe someone who has forged a strong identity based on his/her/zher race, culture, sexual orientation etc. might have a tiny fraction of a percent more attachment to identity than someone for whom the questioner says identity is not an issue. Maybe. Maybe. Just a teeeny, weeny, itty bitty bit.

But in terms of what we’re dealing with in Buddhist practice this would hardly make any difference at all. In those terms, even for members of the ruling class, identity is a HUGE issue. Perhaps it’s even worse for members of the ruling class because they’ve never seen their identity as an identity, having been able to take so much for granted. I’d say a person who has grown up having to understand their identity as identity actually has a small head start on what Buddhism is dealing with in these areas.

I was surprised he took on this question, and he has some very solid points here. His personal anecdotes on privilege are also worth reading. I hope he blogs on it more.

Opportunities, Incentives, and Privilege

On the last Asian Meter update, Adam asked about the dynamics that underlie the small number of bylines that TheBigThree set aside to Asian writers. 

So, why do you think that is? Is it just blatant racism, or are there other factors? How many Asian writers have submitted material/applied for positions at The Big Three? How do they source their writers and material?

I responded separately that I believe this pattern to be a case of institutional racism, rather than “blatant” racism (such as an informal policy or a consciously implemented prejudice). This question is explored in more detail on an old post at Dharma Folk.

The second part of the question speaks to the submission process—we know the output, but what about the input? This question has been asked several times before and is worth revisiting. Below I’ve provided a similar comment that Ashin Sopaka left a long while ago.

While I do not in any way invalidate your experience of racism in Buddhism (I myself have seen negative comments like “ethnic Buddhists”), I can’t help but wonder how many Asian American (AA) Buddhists are stepping up to the plate, applying for jobs or submitting articles to the referenced publications, asking to be involved in panel discussions, etc. If this is happening and AAs are being actively excluded, then indeed, this is racism at its ugliest. Or, are AAs sitting back and waiting to be invited/involved? Or are AAs refusing the invitations due to language barriers, or whatever other reasons?

The logic here is straightforward. Perhaps this inequality is of the marginalized groups’ own making—there are fewer Asian writers because fewer Asians submit articles. This point was addressed directly by another blogger.

Ashin[hpoya], I can answer that one for you. These publications don’t think to ask Asian-Americans, so Asian-Americans are rarely if ever extended an offer to refuse in the first place. It’s not that Asian-Americans aren’t stepping up, it’s that there is a network of white convert Buddhists entrenched in the publishing field and they reach out to print articles by and about other people like themselves, without stepping out of their bubbles or making serious attempts to include other voices.

Some of this has to do with race issues in publishing. The staff at these magazines is virtually all white and always has been. That is not unusual in the publishing world, but it is regrettable at publications that seek to represent a religion that is overwhelmingly non-white (and even English-speaking Buddhists are less than 50% white). It isn’t racism in terms of actively disparaging non-whites. It is white privilege, the privilege to be focused only on one’s own community, to believe one’s own community is representative of the whole, and to not ever have to think about how one’s whiteness allows smooth entrance into the world of publishing and speaking for Buddhism in a way that people with far more history with Buddhism (but far more melanin as well) are as a group unable to access (the occasional individual exception doesn’t invalidate the general rule here).

Mr. Boyce’s article and his shock at how it was received are typical of this pattern. A person of presumably no malicious intent, he was simply blind to how his decisions wound others–blind because his skin color and social privilege allow him to not have to think about such issues until someone blows up at him after the fact. This is not racism as outright hatred, but institutionalized racism that affects the whole society and is especially entrenched in the media (i.e. the industry of representation and normative information control), Buddhist magazines included.

This response cuts right into the interwoven threads of opportunity, incentives and that pernicious elephant on the dining room table: white privilege. While hinging on white privilege, what’s key is how this privilege increases both opportunities and incentives for white writers at the expense of People of Color.

The Asian Meter merely puts some casual observations to the test with systematic inquiry. How many Asians actually write for The Big Three? Adam’s question goes further and points in the direction of what’s going on behind the scenes here. What are all the players doing? The answer to his question is more complex, and it’s exactly the sort of question we need to be asking in order to effectively address racial imbalances in our publications.

For example, in creating the Asian Meter database, one of the key factors I noticed has to do with the composition of a magazine’s regular contributors. If you are a white writer, you’re more likely to be tapped to write again in Tricycle than if you happen to be Asian. (I don’t have the numbers in front of me right now, but I’ll happily dig up the numbers for another post.) One solution might be for Tricycle to do more outreach both to recruit new Asian writers and also to retain old ones. But I’m getting ahead of myself here—it’s only by looking deep into the issue that we have the empirical basis to act on such a suggestion.

I haven’t provided a very thorough response, but Adam’s question has no simple answer. Just think of when we ask the same type of question in other fields. Why do so few women become surgeons? Why do so few African American students sign up for business plan competitions? It is no less controversial to ask why so few Asians write in the major American Buddhist publications. But it’s my belief that questions like Adam’s are among the few ways we can make any progress towards a truer diversity.

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.

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.

White Privilege Isn’t a Bad Thing

I tend not to read long blog posts, but I often mark them with a star and sometimes sift through them on weekends. Over on My Buddha is Pinka couplesuch posts from early August really resonated with me this morning. Richard Harrold writes about how as a journalist, he got involved with the local Lao Buddhist community in Michigan.

Richard reached out to help and get involved in the community, even though he didn’t share a common ethnic or cultural background. He helped teach English, and offered to assist with challenges involving the local township board. Even when his overtures were declined, he still managed to publish articles highlighting the local Buddhist Asian community. He spoke directly with the township attorney about specific issues that may have underlain miscommunication with the Lao temple board. I imagine none of this was smooth riding. Indeed, Richard expresses his personal ambivalence with regards to the linguistic and cultural differences, especially on the topic of sexuality.

Some of what Richard was able to accomplish was due to resources available to him by virtue of his white privilege. Importantly, he was able to bend his privilege to the benefit of others who were relatively disadvantaged. Being white gives you an edge when talking with white administrators, when writing to a majority white audience, and even to the extent of being involved in the publishing industry.

In a sense, I have nothing against white privilege. I’d just like all of us to share these privileges. One way to move past institutional racism bias is by making use of our privilege—be it of gender, culture, sexuality, race, etc.—for the benefit of others with less privilege. You might want to see what you can do to help bridge cultural chasms in your local Buddhist community. Or say, if you happen to be a regular contributor to Shambhala Sun or Tricycle, then the next time you talk with the editors you might ask them if they’d considered offering more articles to be written by People of Color. Think of it as a democratization of noblesse oblige.

Finally Read Dharma Punx

Fortunately due to a delayed flight, I was able to read all of Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx straight to the end. This topical sentence popped out at me:

My mind tended toward judging and resenting all of the rich, white Buddhists who were there with their brand new BMWs and designer clothes, yet in my better moments I realized that maybe there was some hope for our country if the ruling class was at least trying to wake up.


Buddhist Demographics of the Future

I’m taking off my P.C. gloves, so beware! This post at the New York Timesgot me thinking about the demographics of Buddhist America. It’s currently taken for granted that Asian Americans constitute the majority of Buddhist Americans. But there are some who quietly anticipate the scales tipping, when white Buddhists become a solid demographic majority. If this shift should occur, the increase will come almost exclusively from converts. White Buddhists generally don’t have that many kids. In two generations, Asian Americans will more than double their share of the national population – much of it not due to immigration – while the proportion of white Americans will steadily decrease. If we were to base the size of the Buddhist community solely on the kids of people who today identify as Buddhist, then the future numbers of white Buddhist Americans would likely halve before long. A future white majority would have a much larger contingent of second and third generation white Buddhists, but these “Dharma brats” would still be vastly outnumbered by white converts. Asian American Buddhists will ever increasingly consist of native-born Americans – for example, the kids of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Buddhist refugees are getting married and raising their own kids right now, just to mention one group. Add to that the ranks of all the other Buddhists of color, parent and young alike. Will the future of Buddhist America be one where white converts dominate Buddhist minorities both culturally and numerically? If so, I wonder whether this white Buddhist majority (who come with white privilege) would have any greater urge for diversity (say, in TheBigThree) than they do now as a distinct minority.

If You Haven’t Had Enough…

More on race, privilege… and karma!

You can catch the earlier part of this thread herehere and here.

Power of Education

In response to certain comments, I twittered a quote from Resist RacismPeople of color are not responsible for the education of white people. This quote resonates with me because it conveys the point that if people of privilege want to be educated about racial issues, then there are other (and better) ways to do so without finding a person of color and asking her to set aside a chunk of her life to write up a 30-min summary. One spectacular alternative is self-education. After all, we have ethnic studies for a reason. For Asian American studies, you can check out or order books like the classic Strangers from a Different Shore or the more recently published Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. For discussion of race issues in the Buddhist community, you might want to flip through the Angry Asian Buddhist Reader (because I must admit my ramblings are neither representative nor coherent). If we are committed to diversity, then we should be committed to educating ourselves and noting the inequities that may very well exist beneath our noses. These disparities aren’t exclusive to Asians or people of color. Gender, class and sexuality are also polarized on scales of privilege—these issues need to be addressed too. I’m not trying to say that I have no responsibility in this discussion; we all must play a part. But shoving the responsibility of one’s education (or ignorance) onto the less privileged is itself a manifestation of this privilege. We can all be better than that.