76 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 1
78 – The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Stages of Practice When You’re Going Nowhere

This episode is the second part of a two-part series I’m calling “Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race.” It’s the story of my particular school, Soto Zen, in America, but even if you identify with a different type of Buddhism you may find it interesting because so many forms of Buddhism face a similar lack of racial diversity in the west – despite the diversity of our surrounding communities. Even if you’re not particularly interested in the development of western Buddhism, this is also the story of facing collective karma, and of a group questioning its collective “self-nature.”

Read Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 1



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Talking about Diversity: From Aversion to Curiosity
A Scholar Asks Uncomfortable Questions
A Stark Picture of Our Culturally Skewed Buddhism
Three Aspects of Our Buddhism It Would Be Good to Question
Thomas Bruner Brings It Home to Soto Zen
Working on DEI in Our Sanghas: How Could It Actually Look?


In the last episode I told you the story of my lineage of Zen over the last 100 years or so – its birth in America, its growth, its rocky adolescence, and how it’s coming into an adulthood of sorts that gives it the strength to face the koan of race. This koan is reflected in the fact that our North American Zen Sanghas are overwhelmingly white, and few of us know the first thing we should do about that – or even whether there’s anything we should do.

As I described in the last episode, two basic assumptions have characterized convert Zen (and probably Buddhism in general) in the west: 1) Zen practice is about letting go of all the various aspects of self-identity, including race, gender, and difficult personal experiences like trauma, injustice, physical or mental illness, poverty, etc. Dukkha is caused by your own mind; actions taken for social justice or personal healing might be important, but they’re more or less outside the purview of Buddhist practice. 2) Zen isn’t for everybody, so the fact that we’re almost entirely white is just the way it is. Those of us who established and joined the existing Soto Zen centers just are who we are; we unwittingly created Sanghas that appeal to people like us (largely white and middle class), but there’s not much we can do about it.

To face the koan of race means questioning these two assumptions, and then, once the questioning starts, it continues and goes into places that can be quite uncomfortable. In this episode, I’ll go into more detail about what’s involved in facing the koan of race in our Buddhist communities, and what a tremendous growth opportunity it is to do so, sharing with you some of what I learned and experienced at the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA) conference I recently attended.

Talking about Diversity: From Aversion to Curiosity

One of the speakers at our conference was Thomas Bruner, a consultant and founder of Bruner Strategies. He draws on decades of experience to help organizations in three areas of development: Leadership (including changing your organizational culture to be more adaptive and effective), Development (fundraising and strategic planning kinds of things), and an area called “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” As I only recently learned, “diversity” refers to the objective level of diversity within a particular group with respect to a particular parameter such as race; “equity” refers to how fair and equitable the distribution of power, resources, and opportunities are within a group, with attention to how the group’s institutional structures result in that distribution, and “inclusivity” refers to whether all kinds of people feel welcomed when joining the group, and valued as a full participant. Conversations and efforts focusing on these three related areas are often called “DEI” for short, and I’ll use that acronym a few times in this episode.

Thomas Bruner is also a dear friend and Dharma brother of mine. Every few months or so, my husband and I have him come stay the night in our guest room. We go to dinner and talk and talk, then come back and talk some more, sitting on the couch sipping wine. Then we sleep, and wake up the next day to continue talking over breakfast. The last time Thomas came he was preparing for his visit to the upcoming SZBA conference, where he was going to give a presentation about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in American Soto Zen. That ended up being one of the major themes of our conversation.

“To be honest,” I said, “I don’t really get the big deal about this. I mean, part of me thinks I should care about the racial diversity (or lack thereof) at my Zen center, but for the most part it’s hard for me to give it priority over all the other things we need to take care of with very limited time, resources, and staff. The very word ‘diversity’ makes me feel somewhat guilty, anxious, and defensive.”

Bless his heart, Thomas patiently and creatively engaged me in conversation about this without judging my reactions. “I hear you,” he said (I’m paraphrasing from what I remember, not quoting directly). “But what about the bodhisattva vow? If you believe the Dharma is an effective means of relieving suffering, don’t you want to share it more widely? In particular, don’t you want to make it available to those who, in many ways, face the greatest challenges in our society – people of color?” (In case you don’t know, a bodhisattva is a being who vows to attain awakening but then remain in the world of suffering in order to help liberate all other beings.)

Thomas’ words stopped me short for a moment, but then I argued it was presumptuous of me to reach out to share the Dharma with people because I think they’d benefit from it. After all, the vast majority of Buddhist sects don’t proselytize. We offer the Dharma, and if people want it, they come. But then I started thinking about the Mahayana Buddhist teachings about skillful means as presented in texts like the Lotus Sutra. Basically, a bodhisattva is bound by her vow to respond to all and any suffering beings, and if she faces any challenges in helping those beings (e.g. they don’t understand, don’t want to listen, are distrustful of the messenger, are distracted, or put off by the bodhisattva’s manner), it’s the bodhisattva’s job to be patient and creative and find a way to help anyway. (I talk about this at length in Episode 40 – Being Beneficial Instead of Right: The Buddhist Concept of Skillful Means.)

Don’t get me wrong, my resonance with the image of a bodhisattva employing skillful means doesn’t in any way mean I feel a determination to “save” people of color by making them Buddhists whether they like it or not! A true bodhisattva would never be so arrogant, or so limited in her approach. There are many ways to help beings: Kindness, listening, working for social change, maybe even encouraging someone to explore more deeply the faith tradition they grew up in.

Still, there are people of color who are interested in Buddhism, and increasingly we’re hearing their stories of not being able to find a sense of belonging within existing, mostly-white Sanghas. (Example: “Healing the Broken Body of Sangha” by Ruth King.) And there’s a place and time for reaching out beyond the walls of one’s own Dharma Center, not to recruit but just to let people know the Dharma exists and is available. A member of my Zen center pointed this out in a recent discussion we had at my center about Zen’s lack of racial diversity. She described the black churches her African American friends attend – lively places full of warmth, community, and music. “One big reason I can think of why my friends wouldn’t come here,” she said. “No drum set!” But then she said she could also imagine some African American kid being dragged along to church by his mom, all the while secretly longing for some peace and quiet, and a chance to just be alone and face a wall in meditation.

After many hours of honest discussion with Thomas, I started to look forward to the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion presentations at the upcoming SZBA conference with some curiosity and openness. I had begun to sincerely wonder why our Sanghas were so white, and whether there was anything we could do about it without sacrificing what was essential about our practice.

A Scholar Asks Uncomfortable Questions

The 2018 SZBA conference opened with a keynote address by Dr. Ann Gleig, an Assistant Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies at the University of Central Florida. She’s done a lot of research for her forthcoming book, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, and her presentation – called “Undoing Whiteness in American Buddhist Modernism” – was a scholarly, relevant, and challenging review of the state of Buddhism in the west and why it’s so white. In short, she pointed out that what we think of as being “essential” about our Dharma practice is heavily influenced by culture, and represents a version of Buddhism suspiciously compatible with the existing racial hegemony in America. (The meaning of hegemony, I had to look it up: The dominance or control of one state or social group over others.) In fact, Gleig suggested that some of ways we’ve chosen to practice Buddhism actually maintain or exacerbate racism. This was not easy to hear.

Briefly, Gleig described our racist hegemony, or the manifestation of “whiteness,” for the sake of the discussion:

  • “the Jim Crow era of white supremacy has been replaced by a subtler legitimation of structural dominance”
  • “the maintenance of white Anglo-American identity and culture as universal, normative, and dominant”
  • “the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ of white power”
  • “the hidden nature of white identity or what has been called ‘color-blindness’”
  • “the systematic marginalization, erasure & oppression of people of color rather than individual racist actions or bias”

In other words, what we’re concerned about is not so much the overt, explicit, openly racist actions of individuals like those who recently marched in neo-Nazi rallies in Charlottesville, although obviously such actions are harmful and must be addressed. Unfortunately, when we only focus on the overt racism of individuals, we can easily let ourselves off the hook (“I’m not racist!”). Instead, we’re being asked to examine how we benefit from, and help maintain, racist culture and systems. Even more specifically, with Dr. Gleig’s presentation, we were being asked as Buddhists to consider how the way we understand and practice Buddhism “intersects with whiteness.” That is, how did/does whiteness influence our Buddhism, and how does our Buddhism influence our whiteness?

You may or may not be aware of the fact that there’s often tension between religious scholars and the devout practitioners of the religions they study. Fortunately, I think the priests at the SZBA conference were fairly open-minded and gracious and made Dr. Gleig feel welcome, and she herself was very respectful and skillful (she’s also a Buddhist practitioner). Still, it’s not uncommon for scholars to poke holes in our deeply cherished notions and ideals. For example, I quietly nurture in my heart of hearts an ideal of some “unchanged essence of the Dharma” that has been intimately transmitted through the generations from Shakyamuni Buddha right to me. However, I don’t have to listen to a scholar talk about Buddhist history for long before I realize reality is a whole lot more complicated than that.

A Stark Picture of Our Culturally Skewed Buddhism

Gleig described a major shift in Buddhism in the 20th century, a development scholars call “Buddhist modernism.” Essentially it was a reinterpretation of Buddhism – actually begun by Asian Buddhists – in order to make the religion more acceptable and respectable to modern Asians and western culture, as well as presenting it as compatible with science. Among the changes to the religion, Gleig explained, were “a claim to return to the ‘original,’ ‘pure’ and ‘authentic’ teachings of the Buddha” and “a framing of Buddhism as a rational and empirical religion aligned with science.” Buddhist modernism strongly emphasized meditation practice over ancient ritualistic and so-called “superstitious” elements of Buddhism (these were dismissed as cultural accretions or corruptions). It also rejected the traditional Theravadin presentation of a clear separation between the mundane world of suffering and the supermundane levels of experience attained by spiritual adepts, instead maintaining that the highest level of awakening was possible in this lifetime for the laity as well as for monastics. Zen Buddhist modernism in particular emphasized a sense of practice being “pure experience.”

Gleig’s point was not that this modernist interpretation of Buddhism was somehow wrong, but she challenged our belief that it was somehow inherently true, as opposed to being culturally influenced like everything else in human society. This is a very disquieting thing to consider, and let me explain why so you’ll understand better why we religious folks can sometimes be so resistant to change. When I think the most profound and important aspects of my entire life, I think of moments of awakening I’ve experienced that seemed universal in nature. I think of intimate connection with my teachers, where our mutual recognition seemed to defy the absolute impossibility of ever really knowing someone else’s experience. I think of the path of Buddhist practice I discovered, though which I liberated myself and which seems, to me, to be the culmination of two millennia of spiritual innovation and wisdom. I think of how I take the Dharma seat as a teacher, relying on authority based on a tradition verified and held in common with others. It’s extremely uncomfortable to open up to the possibility – or, I should say, the probability – that there’s a fair amount of culturally biased delusions mixed in with all of my experiences of Buddhism.

But even as I experience that discomfort, I can hear my teachers laughing at my folly. “Ha ha,” they say (in my imagination). “So you’re still attached to the Dharma, eh? What did you think the Heart Sutra meant by the line ‘no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path, no knowledge and no attainment,’ anyway?”

Three Aspects of Our Buddhism It Would Be Good to Question

Dr. Gleig got more specific in terms of things we should question about our approach to Buddhism. I’ll talk about three important messages I personally took away from Gleig’s presentation (there was a lot more I won’t get around to mentioning).

First, in our strong emphasis on individualistic meditation practice and Dharma study as the “essential” aspects of Buddhism, we’ve tended to dismiss other traditional aspects of Buddhism as merely “cultural” – and therefore lesser, or inessential. These include cosmological imagery, ritual elements, and practices focused on building community. We tend to be very confident as we dismiss these elements, but in doing so we actually reveal how deeply we’ve been influenced by Buddhist modernism, our culture, and our whiteness. We’ve adopted what we’re comfortable with and what appeals to us, but that’s not the same thing as adopting only what’s valuable or true. One of the aspects of whiteness is a conflation with what’s “universal” or “normal” with what’s actually just “white.” Many of the Buddhist practices, teachings, customs, and imagery often labeled as “merely cultural” may contain important things currently missing from Buddhism as we know it – things which may appeal to a more diverse audience.

Second, we have sometimes (perhaps often?) misused the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of the Two Truths – that is, the teaching of there being two aspects to reality, absolute and relative. (See Episode 74 for more about absolute and relative.) When we overemphasize the absolute, we concentrate primarily on how the small self – with all of its conditional and relative characteristics such as gender and race – has no inherent existence. Ultimately, we say, everything is one, and attachment to the small self leads to dukkha, or suffering. Liberation comes from rising above or letting go of petty distinctions – so the need to acknowledge, affirm, or address racial identity runs counter to practice. However, in the correct application of the Two Truths doctrine, the absolute doesn’t, in Gleig’s words, “bypass the relative.” True liberation doesn’t come from hiding out in the absolute, avoiding the messiness of life, but embracing our embodied existence and experiencing absolute and relative as two aspects of the same reality.

Third, the time has come for a recognition of collective karma – and collective liberation. For the most part, throughout the millennia, the Buddhist understanding of karma, practice, and liberation has been focused entirely on the individual. There’s been acknowledgement that the Sangha, or community, is an essential support for an individual’s practice, but only fairly recently have Buddhists started to apply Buddhist principles to considerations of human action, responsibility, and suffering at the collective level. For example, racism arises in our society from self-centered greed, fear, and delusion. It causes suffering for all of us, albeit in very different ways. If we don’t face and clean up our collective karma, we’ll continue experiencing agitation and trouble and be unable to truly settle on the path to awakening.

Insight Meditation teacher Kristin Barker expressed beautifully expressed the how important exploring racism is to our Buddhist practice in a piece she wrote after participating in a course about awakening to whiteness:

[Before the course] “The truth is that I didn’t know I was suffering. The understanding of deep interdependence means that operating in a culture that objectifies, exploits and oppresses, even and especially when hidden from the dominant view, divides the heart against itself… The upside [of facing our own racism] is so much greater than I knew, so much greater than just “accepting the hard truth” like a bitter pill. I submit that the upside isn’t even to do less harm to people of color although that is a necessity. The upside is wholeness. I have found that, just as promised, if I can turn towards the suffering of racism, against my ego’s self-protecting tendencies, I do experience pain … yet come to suffer less.”[i]

Thomas Bruner Brings It Home to Soto Zen

We had a couple more relevant presentations and discussions over the course of the rest of our SZBA conference, including a panel discussion on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity in Zen. Thomas Bruner spoke on the last full day of our conference, and by then we were primed and ready. I filled him in when he arrived on the many things we’d discussed so far, as he was concerned what he had to say might have already been said. However, what he had to say was the perfect culmination of what was, for many of us, our initiation into the whole realm of DEI. I told him later he “knocked it out of the park.”

Thomas is dynamic speaker and a funny and very sincere person. He started by thanking us from the depths of his heart for our service to the Dharma as priests and leaders of practice centers. We knew he was sincere, because he’s a longtime Soto Zen practitioner himself who even considered ordination at one point. Thomas is also intimately familiar with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work – so he was really the perfect person to get through to us why this work matters and how to go about it in our Zen communities.

Again, Thomas talked about much more than I’ll mention here; I’ll just concentrate on what really stuck with me.

After presenting some research he conducted on the actual demographics and current DEI activities going on at our Soto Zen centers, Thomas put up a remarkable slide labeled “Common Zen Orthodoxies and DEI.” (Remember, DEI is short for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.) The slide had two paired lists. On the left was a list of commonly held Zen beliefs, and on the right was a list of principles for successful DEI work:

Zen orthodoxy: “We teach sameness and oneness” (the importance of the absolute perspective);
In successful DEI work: “We see and honor differences.”
Zen orthodoxy: “We do not recruit or promote;”
In successful DEI work: “We reach out, invite and engage.”
Zen orthodoxy: “We do not chase after people;”
In successful DEI work: “We inquire of people who do not come or stay.”
Zen orthodoxy: “We are hands-off;”
In successful DEI work: “We help people find their way in and through.”
Zen orthodoxy: “Zen is not for everyone;”
In successful DEI work: “The Dharma is potentially for everyone.”
Zen orthodoxy: “We are cool, calm, dispassionate introverts;”
In successful DEI work: “We are friendly and relational.”

Wow, in that one slide Thomas managed to pretty much sum up why our Sanghas are so lacking in diversity! A number of our core beliefs about our religion and how we should conduct ourselves are directly opposite of what’s a good idea if you want to include more kinds of people in your group, especially if they haven’t yet found a way into it.

Later, Thomas went into more detail about his “hand-off, dispassionate” versus “friendly and relational” observation in a way that touched many of us in a very deep place. He suggested, if we really wanted to increase the diversity, equity, and inclusivity of our Zen communities, we should consider enhancing our pastoral care. “If my brother died,” Thomas said, “I want you as my priest to know it. I want you to come over and find out how I’m doing. If I just got a new job, I want you to know it. I want you to come over and celebrate with me.” As he said these things, they sounded pretty basic – like they’re the least anyone would do for another person in community, let alone a priest. However, you might be surprised how many of us have not viewed such simple pastoral care part of our responsibility. We lead meditation, explain Buddhist teachings, and listen with an open mind if you want to come and talk to us. Keeping track of your everyday challenges and joys? That seems like a whole lot of extra work when the whole idea is encourage people not to be too attached to all that stuff anyway!

But the way Thomas put it made many of us deeply question ourselves. One priest was actually in tears by the end of the presentation. I don’t know why, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was struggling – as I was – with the fact we have dedicated our lives to compassionately helping people by sharing the Dharma, but we might actually have hurt some of the people we serve by failing to show a basic level of friendliness and consideration. Ouch! Since the SZBA conference I have started keeping notes on all of my interactions with my Sangha members, especially after a formal practice conversation – and when I review my notes I’m shocked at how many important things I would have otherwise forgotten but definitely should remember and care about.

Working on DEI in Our Sanghas: How Could It Actually Look?

Thomas closed his presentation with a number of very practical recommendations if we want to commit to DEI work in our Sanghas. At the bare minimum, he suggested we white people put ourselves through one of the peer-led, self-examination and education courses such as “White Awake,” where you learn about – and process – the reality and impacts of racism and white privilege. At the very least, then, we’ll be acting in accord with our aspiration to do no harm.

If we want to “lean in” to DEI work, Thomas recommends, we should get explicit and deliberate about it in our teachings, Zen center communications, meetings, policies, and procedures. We can also take our ubiquitous inclusivity statements (almost every Zen center has one), which nobly state we welcome all kinds of people to practice with us, and transform them into equity statements, which commit us to the kind of work that actually leads to diversity. Among quite a number of other things, Thomas recommends developing partnerships with communities of color in order to build and learn from such relationships with humility and curiosity, instead of simply guessing what might concern people of color. If we want to make DEI work a priority, we might find ways to make our Sangha culture warmer and more relational, develop programs specifically for people of color, and offer more events or venues where formality is set aside or relaxed.

In short, Thomas showed us what facing the koan of race in our Sanghas could actually look like, and none of the things he suggested involved throwing away what we find most precious in our Buddhist practice. None of the things he suggested involved those of us who happen to be white magically changing the color of our skin or erasing the history of racism. Instead, we’re asked to question who we really are as Zen teachers, practitioners, and communities. Fortunately, at least in theory, we Buddhists are well-practiced in examining ourselves and letting go of ideas that no longer serve.

In January 2019 my Sangha, Bright Way Zen, will start a six-month course of study called Awakening to Whiteness. Where we go from there I don’t know, but I already feel – to use Kristin Barker’s words – more whole.


[i] http://dharmatown.org/11850/i-didnt-know-i-was-suffering/


76 - Western Zen Grows Up and Faces the Koan of Race – Part 1
78 – The Ten Oxherding Pictures: Stages of Practice When You’re Going Nowhere