Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"White Space" - Considering Race and Racism in American Zen Sanghas

This post about the 50th Anniversary celebration of San Francisco Zen Center has haunted me since I first read it. The whole thing is worth reading, more than once. For most white practitioners, it probably will take several reads and plenty of contemplation to truly get a sense of all the layers being expressed. Forgive me if that sounds nasty; I'm just keenly aware these days how slow the process of decolonization seems to be. Over and over again, I'm running into well meaning, intelligent white folks - people who look exactly like me - that turn away, act defensive, or posture that we live in a post racial world the moment race is brought into a discussion.

Anyway, back to Sistah Vegan's post.

Yes, overall I really enjoyed the event last night. Great celebration and memories of the Zen center’s past 50 years. Green Gulch Zen Center is beautiful and I have developed amazing relationships there, so I thank the co-founders for making these sites possible. I deeply appreciate what I have learned from Zen Buddhism and the practice’s impact on how I constantly try to be mindful and compassionate– including how I try to teach largely white racialized subjects about systemic whiteness and structural racism. But I have to admit that I am quite disappointed in the mistake of seeing Simone as Angela Davis because that ‘mistake’ potentially represents an overall problem of recognizing the impact of a homogenous Zen fellowship: what does racial homogeneity do to the collective white racialized subject’s consciousness if they participate in a mostly white (and quite financially stable) Buddhist fellowship in a nation in which whiteness is privileged? I actually wish that white dominated Buddhist fellowships would add a rule that everyone has to participate in ‘mindfulness whiteness ‘ sesshins. It would be great if an added tenet to Buddhism, for such congregations, could be, “We shall learn about how structural racism and whiteness impact our Zen practice. We shall be open and loving to transforming ourselves and not become angry as we learn about how white racial formation has deeply affected our Zen hearts.”

First off, mindfulness whiteness sesshins would be a great practice. I fully endorse that idea.

Beyond this, though, there are so many aspects of convert American Zen practice communities that are taken as basic forms and approaches, but actually are rather white in conception. The commonplace blending of psychotherapy with Zen teachings. The curious relationship with the Asian ancestry, which is often either demonstrated through an attempt to strictly adhere to "Asian" forms or a nearly complete rejection of those same forms as "unnecessary," and/or "cultural baggage." In fact, the very manner in which Zen centers are laid out - the use of space - is often "white" in ways that are completely invisible to most of us white folks. Professor John Powell has written a fair amount about "white space." Here's one of his articles, which points out how "public" and "private" space in the U.S. was historically - and continues to some extent to be - divided along racially determined lines and understandings of space.

Speaking of space, over the past year, our sangha has been considering whether to move from our current location or not. As the head of the board, I have been at the center of all of these conversations, a placement that - as a white male - hasn't been lost upon me. I'm finding myself struggling with the tone and tenor of many of our conversations. Over and over again, the issues of "noise" and "disappearing parking" seem to dominate the day. Over the winter, during the board's annual retreat, an initial vision of sangha was produced by a subsection of the board that felt to me, and a few others, like a privileged image. It was essentially a cute, little building on top of a hill with a rolling stream cutting through the front of the location. Although that image was rejected, given that we intend to stay in the city, there still seems to be a strong sense of "needing" to be in a "quiet" neighborhood with lots of available parking and other amenities. The strongest voices advocating for this are long term members who are regular meditation retreat practitioners - nearly all of them white and solidly middle or upper middle class.

As one of the financially poorest members of the community, it's difficult not to think about how class comes into the picture. And when I think about the kinds of images being brought up around space, they correspond directly with predominantly white, middle and upper middle class neighborhoods. Consistent quietness in the city is intimately connected with how white folks with means use space. It's not what you find in poorer neighborhoods, and it's not what you find in mixed race, mixed income neighborhoods. At least here in the Twin Cities. In those neighborhoods, more people are regularly outside. Doing things in groups. Making noise. Having fun. Some are causing trouble too. But the main thing is that the space of the neighborhood is more actively used as public. Shared. Church parking lots double as farmer's markets and playgrounds. People more regularly gather on front lawns or porches. Even the front ends of privately owned shops often serve as gathering spots for those that frequent them.

Furthermore, the emphasis on cars, and parking, feels classed and somewhat raced as well. We have a new light rail train going in that ends right at the doorstep of our current location. The conversation around it has mostly been about the potential noise factor. The few conversations we've had where the train might be a vehicle for bringing in new members, or easing the commute for some current members, quickly sputtered. It's not that people can't see the possible value of a train or public transit; it's mostly that few of them will really consider using it regularly, and aren't really thinking much about folks who do use public transit (like myself) as a significant portion of membership. We, as a group, are off the radar. And the handful of folks like myself that self identify as bikers and public transit riders are mostly considered an anomaly.

I'm not questioning my fellow sangha member's sense that meditation retreats are difficult when there is nightly music right behind one of the walls, and when there is construction going on during the day outside our windows. What I am questioning is the movement from the extremes of our current location - which may require us to relocate - to a set of visions that are essentially devoid of many of the elements that make up urban living.

Oh, and then there's the desire for a better kitchen. Why? Primarily so that the cooking being done for meditation retreats goes smoother, is easier. I've heard next to no talk about, for example, wanting a better kitchen so we could cook more community meals, or to perhaps have a soup kitchen for homeless folks, and any other shared eating activity beyond retreats. Wanting a better kitchen for activity that takes up approximately 3-7 days a month, and involves between 7-20 members of the community, feels like a really limited vision for a kitchen. And an expensive need as well.

All of which makes me wonder who it is that our community really desires to serve. Are we yet another white, middle class organization with a great inclusiveness policy, but which is still driven by the desires of it's white, middle and upper middle class members? What does it mean to want to be located "in the city," and yet also want to avoid at least some of what makes up what I would call a vibrant city? There are great Buddhist sanghas located in cities all over Asia. Some of them also have sister temples located in rural areas, in the manner that San Francisco Zen Center has emulated.

I don't have any definitive answers or conclusions at this point. We are really in the middle of the process. A part of me wonders if I should post this, and that's exactly why I am going to post it. I am deeply grateful to my Zen sangha as it is and, as Suzuki Roshi said, "it could use a little improvement." May we find a more enlightened way forward.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Blogging the Buddhist Near Enemies

There's a good post over at the blog Recovering Yogi about blogging and the Buddhist teaching on the near enemies. Here's the selection I want to consider.

This brings me to the topic of blog comments. A unique phenomenon relatively new to our internet culture, blog comments take the concept of the letter to the editor and make it immediate, anonymous and lethal. There is a fine line between contributing to a discourse and using your opinion to skewer someone else’s feelings. And nowhere does that skewering show itself as more insidious than when the blog comment comes from a place of pity.

In Buddhism they talk about near enemies.

“The near enemies are qualities that arise in the mind and masquerade as genuine spiritual realization.” (citation) Near enemies are the ways an amateur Buddhist might behave under the guise of being “mindful,” without quite grasping the concept in its entirety (which we could have compassion for, natch).

Compassionate, but clear and direct blog commenting is an art. Something I have spent a fair amount of time practicing, both in responding here on DH, but also in comments left on other blogs. Given that whatever we offer is there for anyone around the world to look at, I do think it's smart to be careful what you are doing. No doubt the flamewars some folks have engaged in online have led to some pretty nasty outcomes. Divorces. Job loss. Family rifts. Perhaps even some violent attacks and murders. Beyond any direct correlations though, there's also the general dispersal of negative energy that happens whenever people leave comments that personally attack or demean others, or which are designed not to add to a conversation or challenge an idea or set of facts, but is simply about derailing or diminishing a discussion.

It's so easy to let it rip online, thinking there aren't any "real world" consequences, but that kind of thinking is flat out wrong.

On the other hand, I have noticed that some people err too much on the opposite extreme. Trying too hard to not offend, to appear compassionate, and that as such, whatever they've written is undermined. Sometimes, you misread the emotional state of a blog author or another commenter, and then respond as if they are really angry, or sad, or upset in some way. And they weren't when they wrote whatever it was that they wrote. I've had a few blog posts over the years solicit highly concerned reactions from readers and even a few family members. Posts that were about me trying to write out what I was struggling with, but which weren't indicative of something serious, like thoughts of suicide (yes, that, among other things, has come up.)

What's curious about blogging and commenting is that a percentage of it involves sharing things really publicly that people in the past tended to not share that way. Perhaps they would never say such things. Or only share with people that they were most intimate with. But now we have these ways to offer up whatever we are thinking and feeling - right now - to whomever. Some of us use our real names, and some lurk behind anonymous tags and images, but regardless, there's still this feeling of sharing and wondering how people are going to take it. Maybe it's less dramatic for those who are writing and commenting anonymously, but I'd argue it's still present for them too. Go check out any hot political or relationship blog and you'll see endless amounts of passionate debating, often amongst people whose comments are not really traceable.

I think most people haven't really caught up emotionally, or even intellectually, to what we are doing online. Which is why using the near enemies as a guide while writing and commenting are helpful.

Are you attached to your views? Are you indifferent to the feelings of other commenters or the main blogger? Do you feel envious of another commenter or blog writer for some reason?

I offer this practice for folks to work with. Take the next week or two and notice what you see.

As always, comments are welcome.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Lack of Integration in Yoga and Zen Practice

Another, more serious but more subtle, symptom of our current trouble with yoga is that a large number of people are attending classes for years without developing an authentic, personal relationship to the practice. When I work with such students in my office and ask them to do a foundational asana like Downward Facing Dog or Triangle, there is a pervasive sense of strain, rather than ease and enjoyment. My eyes and hands—my whole embodied sense—tells me that these supposedly intermediate students are arranging their bodies as they think they “should,” rather than experiencing the internal dynamics of the asana for themselves. They imitate rather than inhabit the pose. While such students undoubtedly experience myriad benefits from their asana practices—improved fitness and strength, greater flexibility, improved concentration and self-esteem—they are not only risking injury but also missing out on the deeper opportunity and the challenge that can make yoga something more than the hippest form of exercise, relaxation, or psuedo-spiritual consumerism.

The above is a quote from an article on the website of Lisa Nash, a chiropractor who also practices the Feldenkreis method and teaches yoga. She brings up many excellent points in her article, ones that I have written about in the past. But I zeroed in on this lack of inhabiting the body, because I think it applies not only to yoga practitioners, but also to a lot of folks in the convert Buddhist world.

A lot of people seem to be doing what I'd call "intellectual zazen." Intellectual zazen is meditation isn't the "dropping off body and mind" Zen Master Dogen spoke of. It's willfully ignoring the body while fixating on the mind. You're sitting there all hunched up, knees filling up with pain, back inflamed, trying to let go of your thoughts. You think "If I can just let go of this thinking, I'll be ok." All the while, your body is telling you, "Hey, dude! Get a clue! You can't even feel the placement of your limbs. How can you claim to be present?"

Body/Mind splitting is old as the hills. However, the ways in which modern society is structured tends to exasperate the divisions. Jobs are often either almost all head, or all physical activity. "Labor saving devices" have stripped us of basic skills like cooking and handwriting that involve the body more. Those with more financial resources outsource much of the physical labor in their lives, while those in poverty tend to have little time or energy to develop their minds.

And so, our spiritual practices are suffering. We think we are waking up, becoming liberated, but more often than not, we've simply ramped up one side or the other.

Without integration, there's no awakening.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hyatt Hotel Boycott Hits the North American Yoga Community

More and more people are starting to organize against injustice across national lines. While offering support to justice efforts in other nations is nothing new, what is fairly new (in the last generation or so) is the increased presence of movements that are linked to an issue, with actions occurring at the same time in multiple nations. The global boycott of Hyatt Hotels is one such movement.

Recently, yoga blogger Roseanne Harvey offered a post linking the Hyatt boycott to the high profile Yoga Journal conferences, which occur at various times across North America. They are expensive events, well attended by primarily economically privileged white women. In and of themselves, despite the presence of quality yoga teachers, they tend to be representative of many common criticisms of modern North American yoga: classism, lack of racial diversity, overly focused on asana, etc.

Harvey's post focuses on the increasing pressure Yoga Journal is facing to join the boycott of Hyatt, and move their conferences elsewhere. I support this effort, and urge readers to check out Harvey's full post, linked above, for more details.

Why the boycott? Here are the four main organizing points:

Hyatt’s subcontracting is destroying good jobs and exploiting immigrant workers.
Hyatt housekeepers suffer abuse.
Hyatt has refused to remain neutral as non-union hotel workers organize.
Hyatt turned heat lamps on striking workers during a brutal heat wave.

You can read more about each of them here.

I wanted to share a short sample letter that another yoga blogger, Carol Horton, included in a conversation on Facebook. Any reader interested in writing Yoga Journal can use it as a template.

As you may be aware, well-known yoga blogger Roseanne Harvey recently posted an article on It's All Yoga, Baby, explaining that Yoga Journal has been asked to join a global boycott of Hyatt Hotels protesting their exceptionally poor treatment of low-wage hotel workers.

I feel strongly that it would be a huge mistake for Yoga Journal not to join the NFL, NOW, and other groups in supporting this boycott. Beyond the politics involved (which I support), the image of conference goers crossing the picket line is a public relations disaster waiting to happen. It will definitely reinforce all of the negative stereotypes of yoga being only for thin, rich, white women for years to come.

Conversely, if Yoga Journal joins the boycott, it will be in good company and show that it truly supports the idea that yoga is for everybody.

Thanks so much for your time and consideration of this issue.

People of privilege tend to see activism and political efforts as totally separate from the realm of spiritual practice. Appeals to purity, a need for "no distractions," or simply a desire to "transcend" the "worldly" are all excuses I have been told by folks who believe in this separation.

When you are suffering directly from the policies and decisions of corporations and/or governments, it's a lot more difficult to ignore.

In my view, however, there's no separation between the suffering of those who work at Hyatt, and my own suffering. It's all interrelated. And so, even though I am not directly impacted, I am still connected to it. The same goes for those workers and any others oppressed by the anti-gay policies of Chick Fil A. My recent post on Chick Fil A focused primarily on animal rights, health, and the environment, but I was rightly taken to task for appearing to minimize the oppression folks are experiencing because of Chick Fil A's policies and funding of anti-gay organizations. Just as with Hyatt, I am not directly impacted by the company policies of Chick Fil A. I may be at least indirectly impacted by some of their funding efforts however, and in any event, as I see it, the vow to liberate all beings includes speaking out against injustice whenever possible.

Comments and/or additional information any of the issues spoken about above are welcome. May you all be well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Buddhist Take on Food Justice

Somehow, I forgot to post about the article I had published recently in Turning Wheel's online journal. It details an exciting food justice effort that is part of the Whealthy Human Village project I have been working on over the past several months. Here is an excerpt from the article. Thanks to Katie Loncke for including it in Turning Wheel's month of Food Justice posts, which I encourage everyone to check out.

In response to invites from members of the local Native community to collaborate, as well as what we felt was a lack of emphasis in Occupy Minneapolis on environmental issues, an offshoot group was formed in December 2011. The Whealthy Human Village is a multifaceted project that focuses on eco-centric life practices, food justice, indigenous rights, and healing arts. Underlying all of its work, really, is the thread of interconnectedness. Recognizing that we are not separate from each other, all living beings, and the history that shaped the places we live in, the Whealthy Human Village team is dedicated to redeveloping community, and helping people uncover or recover their connections to each other and the planet.

Buddhist environmental activist and teacher Joanna Macy speaks of the time we live in as both the “Great Unraveling” and the “Great Turning.” Many of the old systems and ways of thought are falling apart, bringing with them an enormous amount of suffering and difficulties. At the same time, new forms and ways of being together are sprouting up everywhere, attempting to heal the past, while simultaneously inspiring a brighter future by experimenting with it today. In many ways, Occupy Wall St. is one of the catalysts working to accelerate the unraveling, while groups like the Whealthy Human Village are dreaming up visions of the “turning,” or awakening, and then trying to make them realities.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Chick Fil A Controversy Considered

A chicken sandwich fast food chain has taken over my Facebook feed. Sounds pretty odd, doesn't it?

Here's a commentary I wrote a few days ago on Facebook in response to the Chick Fil A controversy.

Never heard of Chick Fil A two weeks ago. Would love to go back to that time. The fact that a Christian conservative billionaire who thinks selling chicken sandwiches is "the Lord's work" comes out against same sex marriage isn't surprising at all. A fair number of fast food corporations are run by known bigots. Tom Monaghan of Dominoes Pizza instantly comes to mind. It's not that special folks. F
urthermore, Cathy knows his main audience. The Bible Belt. In my opinion, he did a masterful job of tapping into the angst of Christians who believe that they are somehow being oppressed these days. All this attention is making millions for the company, and while it's nice to see other companies publicly stepping back from association with Chick Fil A, there's entirely too much of a mega distraction circus feel to all of this.

So, here's what I think. Why not use this as an opportunity to say to hell with fast food giants? The famous Chick Fil A chicken sandwich contains 16 grams of fat and 1300mg of sodium. Think of how many millions of factory farm chickens have suffered and died to provide sandwiches that contribute to heart disease and all sorts of other chronic, debilitating illnesses? This is the norm for fast food: factory farms and disease producing products. Furthermore, fast food chains are a product themselves of diminished communities, desperately overworked people, crass capitalism that has bankrupted the many at the expense of the few, and an education system that places more value on the ability to take standardized tests than teaching real life, health producing skills like cooking, gardening, and foraging.

There's a great need to expand debates like this. Because simply slamming and boycotting - which has gone on for years on a smaller scale with Chick Fil A - hasn't made much of a dent in their bottom line. And it's also a little too easy for all of this to slip into company X is great because they support gay rights, while company Y is evil because they don't. It's a hell of a lot more complicated than that. Many of the same companies coming out in favor of gay rights these days (knowing that it will probably pad their bottom line, mind you), are also the same ones that basically own Wall Street, the White House, Congress, and our State legislatures. So, while I support any positive affirmation for GLBTQ rights, I think it's vitally important that the lens remain wide, and that folks keep their critical thinking skills fine tuned. End of rant.

At almost the same time, unbeknownst to me until later, fellow Zen blogger Algernon wrote a similar post on his Facebook page. Here's the last two paragraphs.

Opt out of fast food (except for emergency snacks) altogether. Explore (or re-discover) the creative and sexy joys of domestic cuisine. Cook and invite people over (without their iPay electronic devices) and have slow, sensible conversations over good food and wine about what makes a healthy community, what kind of friends are good to have in one's life, and maybe (as you feel comfortable with your company) get a little more direct about the issues that got you riled at the nasty fast food chain in the first place.

I'm not being cute here. I really think this is a more direct way of participating in the world and influencing it, even if only by a degree or two. This seems like a valid and important form of activism-and-community-building to me. (It might also change you some, if you are listening and not just persuading.) There is something about people who are quietly, fearlessly true to their hearts -- and a good dinner. They can be very memorable.