My Post as Guest-Blogger at Buddhist Peace Fellowship

For those who don’t know, I spent time on staff at the Rochester Zen Center in Rochester, New York in the 80s.

I began Buddhist practice in 1983 in Denver, Colorado, then decided on Zen practice and was accepted as a Staff member at Rochester Zen Center in 1986.  I left to pursue an individual path in 1988, although I continue to practice Buddhism.

My turn to Buddhism, and particularly Zen, worked for me, and continues to, after an attempt to end my life in 1982.  It was no small matter that I decided to go on a spiritual quest and this led to almost ten months of going to different teachers and religious groups, from Christian groups to New Age to Hindu to Sufi and Native American.  I found value in all, but at that time, Zen spoke to me the strongest.  I attended Buddhist-Christian Conferences in Boulder, Colorado, amongst other events.  My essential question was not about comfort or fitting in.  I needed to find the meaning of life.  I saw no point in life experience as it was, at this point.

My interest in the beginnings of a Buddhist Peace Fellowship organization while in Colorado, dovetailed my interests in social justice, anti-oppression, and my personal spiritual practice.

In retrospect, my Zen monastic period was a way to save my life and life itself.  It was a genesis for all of my traumas that I had tried to ‘let go’ of and ‘move on.’  It came crashing.  No pretty belief system would get me out.  Zen spoke to me.

I also attended retreats with various Buddhist teachers including Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tai Eido Shimano Roshi.  I attended talks and short retreats by a myriad of teachers including Seung Sahn and John Kornfield.  I read more philosophy including spiritual works by Meister Eckart, Thomas Merton, Arthur Schopenhauer, Nietzsche.  I began reading James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass, something I had never done seriously before.

For the issue of ‘stealing,’ I was asked by their editor Kenji Chienshu Liu, if I wanted to contribute to a series at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship blog.

The below post is a short reflection in the spirit of Master Dogen’s ‘Mountains and Waters Sutra.’

What is Stolen in Mappō Empire Buddhism? A Black-Pacific Meditation

Identity? What Identity?

It is interesting that on my earlier entry on mixed race heritage, people have written me saying that we create our own identities.  I agree but I don’t think it’s ‘natural’ or pre-determined, or ‘the way it is.’  As I had said in that article, every identity is a static ‘thing’ that is grafted onto us, into us, and through us.  With this graft, people and systems do things to us.  In this array of ‘things’ that we are considered to be, we ourselves, supposedly create a thing that we can apparently hop in and out of when it disagrees with other’s assumptions about this ‘thing’ that we call ourselves or they call us.

Whenever it is convenient for us, or for the ‘other’ who calls us or assumes us to be that ‘thing’ – whatever it is, we can say ‘no, that’s a stereotype.’   So what is this identity that is mediating mutual experiences of us, me, I?  It is a mediation, a curtain, if you will, a whole set up of configurations that depend on the textbooks we’ve read, things we’ve been told, the experiences we’ve had in relation to those things we’ve been told.  Some of those ‘things’ solidify.   Then, further, we start to make it about blood and bones.  This is, in social science language, called ‘essentializing’ and ‘essentialism.’  This is ‘who I am.’  Or more often:  ‘this is who they are.’  But we hop in and out of the particulars of that identity, don’t we?

It’s a complete waste of time!   But what is even just as dangerous, is to say  the very liberal, hippy-ish thing: ‘I‘m beyond identity, I’m not an identity.’  If we look closely at this, it is a form of resistance against being boxed into a set of categories and therefore, prejudices.  But it is just as dangerous in that people who say those things, resort (usually, not always and/or in every case– that is why I say ‘usually’) to downgrading traditions, norms, histories, cultures.  They may say things like: ‘we’re just all human.’  If we are ‘just human,’ what does that mean?  Usually, I’m very experienced at being on the receiving end of this so bare with me……. usually this means being the dominant-as-normal.  In the United States, it is whiteness or blackness or Latino-ness, or Asian-ness.  We’re back to essentialism, but this time, it is NOT MARKED but is a silent ‘normal’ that is not universal.  But it is said as universal.  I’m just human, you’re just human.

To me, this means ‘quit being so black.  Quit being so Japanese.  Quit being so Armenian.  Quit being so Polish, quit being – quit being – quit being.

Difference is silenced along with this.  Difference, in the liberal sense, is so often seen as a variation of whiteness or any other dominant; or as a hindrance to the human (i.e. – the dominant white normal)  that we supposedly all are.  Everyone has the same morals underneath it all; everyone has the same desires underneath it all; everyone wants happiness underneath it all.

Identity, as in many things in life, are contradictory.  In a certain perspective, I say that identity is a political tool.  Always.  Even if there is no one else around, if we say we are an identity, then what internal boundaries and suppositions and thoughts and modes, do we take on ourselves without thinking?  How?

Do not mistake me to say that I am preferring no-identity, which I critiqued earlier above.  What I am deconstructing are the obstructions that let us pre-determine a static notion of self and other.  We have heritages, we have commitments, we have traditions, we have ancestral histories, we have legacies of values which we determine in life to be beneficial to us or not or we endure or not or if we change them slightly.  Time moves us.  Identities are political.  The only reason someone would call themselves ‘mixed race’ or ‘Asian’ is because it is easier to do in conversation.  But they have come from the categories given to us by the larger culture, the rulers, the governments of nations.

If you go to other nations and go to rural areas, and speak with elders, they remember their earlier lives when many people were considered to be of a certain language and region, or of certain customs or spiritual practice, and most often a combination of those.  Sometimes, as in earlier British Isles, people were named by their professions in relation to the rulership (that is why some people were named Baker, Carpenter, etc.)

Kurdish identity had to come for survival.  It was being killed off by the rulers, made ugly and not compatible with the nation-states that governed the people.  But those who call themselves ‘Kurdish’ are diverse.  Most of them, when left to their own devices, call themselves by language groups and regions, not religions and ethnicities.

What I point to is the un-questioned norm and its brutality and prison-like conditions for the psyche and for efforts toward liberation and justice.  We look down or up on ourselves and others; we look with pity at others or ourselves based often on identity.  We look life and people into these identity categories.  Then we forget about them if they are identities that do not do any good for us or supposedly have nothing to do with us.  Especially if it is another nation, or a demoted and marginalized ethnic group.  For dominant groups in most countries, if one looks closely, we see that the people whom the ancestors of the dominant group committed the most viciious and homicidal crimes upon to create the nation, is the group either most often ignored and criticized, or assimilatable and romanticized.  Often both at the same time.  Identities re-create this over and over.  There is no liberation there.  Within that space where the identity that struggles for survival meets the dominant, there is a struggle that needs to be lessened when the struggling group must both save themselves from their cultural norms disappearing; and also learn the dominant modes and codes of behavior in order to survive and fight against the tide.

Identity, then, can be used strategically, but not be a controlling factor that stigmatizes the self and others.  Identity may be a mediating structure of historically made-up assumptions and definitions that we psychologically travel through unconsciously, it doesn’t have to be an iron cage or ‘real.’  It is only a political reality.  This leaves the person or group’s heritages, cultural traditions, inheritances, goals, aspirations, etc.  Not identity.

Thoughts on Zen and Intellect

In middle-class dominated thinking in the first-world nations, ‘Liberation’ is meant to mean an escape from things, people, situations.  It is a ‘transcendence’ state-of-mind-or-place.’  It is a worldview where there are the ugly world and situation, and the place beyond.  If we think about how the US worldviews are formed, and what has gone into it to form ‘freedom,’ then we must take this definition of ‘liberation’ into account.  It is, from the start, a world of two things, divided in half. One is the ugly real, the other is the ‘free-from….” state-of-mind or place or situation.  What does that liberated space look like? Sound like? Taste like?

Above :  Calligraphy character ‘Nyo’  meaning ‘suchness, likeness, things as they are.’

So escapism is thought to be ‘bad’ and ‘unrealistic.’  Yet most Americans from the United States, chase happiness and joy and fun and success.  Perhaps without even knowing what these things mean and what they do to us and each other, we continue to do them.  Maybe it’s more like mimicking, pretending, following what everyone else is doing.  So we can become a famous basketball star, or a movie star, or make oodles of cash as a lawyer or a computer software engineer.  Or perhaps we invent something.  Mimicking and going along is easier than, perhaps, thinking and reflecting on what has happened and how we have gotten to where we are.  Mimicking is also easier when there is exclusion and marginalization that goes on being that way and is supported by the way policies, laws, and money flows in support of those ideas while being different may create a loss of being supported by them.  Non-thinking, then, becomes a survival tool in a country such as the United States.  Escapism becomes easier and perhaps necessary when all the pain of covering our enlightened selves up with cultural assumptions and legacies, buries us.  Does partying, addictions, drugs, alcohol, depression, physical illness, mental illness, begin out of thin air?  Are individuals solely responsible for being this or that?  What of history?  And if we question liberation, and what this means, in this contexts of the other questions, what does liberation mean?  Are there other definitions? practices? and cultural norms related to liberation?  For instance, liberation is not a goal, but a way of life.  Am I constantly escaping?  No.  Because my thoughts of liberation are based on history, justice, and other ideals that do not match the predominant notion of liberation.  Liberation is an act that requires GOING INTO, not escaping, in my worldview.  This is decidedly Zen.  With Zen teachers, often when we have some sort of pain in mind or body that comes up, we were admonished to go there into the pain and become it.   We had to trust the Buddha’s enlightened view on the world – that is was ‘impermanent.’

Zen practice revolves around disciplined actions designed to realize the multiple ways in which we keep ourselves from understanding our enlightened state.  This ‘enlightenment’ that Zen speaks of, is often equated with ‘heaven’ in the predominantly Anglo and white-dominated countries.  There has been no deconstruction of their own histories in relation to worldview and politics, history and the creation of self.  As I have mentioned earlier, mindfulness practice needs to include historical and political study within a focus on power relations and how ideas and dominant societies have been formed.  Without this, the interior practice alone may make an interesting anomaly in identity and self, but render it ineffective for social change.  And is social change something that Zennists and Buddhists want or understand? Presently, I think Buddhism and Zen in general, suffers from the individualisms within the contexts of dominant first-world nations that make up the majority of practitioners in the Western nations.  It refuses, still, to look at its history which is largely unfathomable.   I remember Masao Abe, a pre-eminent philosopher which expounds on Zen and Western philosophy, asked his audience in a talk  some time ago, which went something like this:  “Imagine an eyeball that still works, floating in space by itself.  It sees everything.  It travels, it can see all angles unhindered by anything.  What is the one thing it cannot see?”

Seeing, really seeing, takes understanding in time, of time.  Time and space, being related, then can see different positions, actions, effects, causes and configurations, that make up any moment of the present.  This, I feel, has been in the Buddhist scriptures as an aspect of enlightenment.  But enlightenment, under the system of progress and evolution, has become a goal to reach.  In that life of reaching goals, we quickly use that as a point of domination against those that ‘haven’t gotten it yet.’  What signs do we have to tell ourselves we are closer to enlightenement?   Usually they are materialistic, or based on a metaphysical feeling, or sets of assumptions.  This too, I’m afraid, is not enlightenment at all.

But we must trust in our judgements too.  Pure spaces do not exist.  The Buddha, like other leaders, died of poisoning, according to the Buddhist records.  He did not escape being accidentally poisoned.  He lived with suffering as well.  At this juncture,  then, the intellectual aspect of our ‘knowing’ must be questioned.  Some stupid people have labelled Zen as ‘anti-intellectual.’  Nothing could be further from any truth than that.  However, since the United States is primarily an anti-intellectual country, where movie stars are asked for their opinions on world issues in favor of, or perhaps equal to a university professor who may have spent their whole lives on that subject, Zen seems to act as a further intensity towards feeding anti-intellectual energy and furthers acts of refusing to face history.  ‘History and my life must mean something else.  It can’t mean the suffering I have seen and felt so far. I need to get there without thinking about it.  I need heaven.’

Post-structural and post-colonial thought, brings complexity and ethics to the question of being in our own prisons that were made in the past.  Our assumptions of history, the human being, emotions, the body, etc. are divisions and categories that may limit creativity and keep the imagination in prisons.  New ideas are not necessarily creative.  They can be new forms of the old things.  How, then, must we read, interpret, think, feel, create?  I say, first we must grapple with that which is unknown, unfathomable, and not reach-able by the known ways.  This is what the old Zen masters meant when they retorted:  If you want to catch the Tiger’s cub, you must enter the Tiger’s cave.

Whiteness, Buddhism and History

White Buddhism is a term that has been used to name the domination of Buddhist practices and ideas through the practices and perspectives of mainstream white American/Europeans, explicitly and implicitly denying and demoting other perspectives.  It has largely become this way due to the predominantly white European and American people interested in non-Christian spiritual practices taking it up and carrying the translation of Buddhism from Asia to the so-called ‘West.’

When confronted with this issue, of course many teachers and practitioners were uncomfortable while a minority of white teachers embraced the possibility of a Buddhist practice that were not based on the white interpretations of Asian Buddhism(s).  It must be mentioned that not all white people and people who pass for white,  believe or practice the same things.  Some resist.  The term ‘whiteness’ is used in cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology, to mean a whole series of worldviews and systems put into place from the legacy of colonialism and white supremacies that have become normal in order to create liberal nation-states.  Since the world is mapped in our minds as self in nations, with their parallel ethnic markers–this groups versus that group etc.,  most of us are entrenched with a normal way of looking at things and desiring things and ways of living in the world that are increasingly, but never totally–‘white.’  For anyone to truly understand whiteness and grapple with what it is, I think there is one term-thing-situation-history-perspective-reality, that people must be willing to visit.  That is: colonialism and its legacy in the way we structure reality including our interior selves and constructions of identity–any identity.

Whiteness is not ‘evil’ or ‘good.’  Also, it is not embodied in white bodies while ‘non-white’ being embodied in non-white.  It is more complex.  This is because ‘whiteness’ is a set of assumptions and views and positioning tactics, not about the color of skin. Some people of color may be more white than a white person and a white person may be very not-white.  It is about making certain ideas privileged, while others automatically or systematically get demoted or marginalized–over and over and over.  Even through the most kind and thoughtful mechanisms, the same results occur.  The same values show up.  This is because it is reinforced.

Histories and their political constructions of struggle and victory and how ideas become dominant and therefore oppressive, must be part of Buddhist training if we are to talk of mindfulness.  But I rarely encounter anything like this in Buddhist circles.  Occasionally, yes.  I was lucky to be at the Rochester Zen Center in the 1980s where sometimes, social issues and the struggle of cultures were addressed in talks given by teachers.  But the usual things would happen at most of the centers I know of, as well as reading Buddhist books written by teachers in the West.  It is often filled with the reconciling of social issues with meditative (and therefore individualistic and ‘interior’) practices. It has never been about be-friending people-of-color, talking about the issues.  And on another level, we must look at assimilation and how becoming middle-class has assimilated all people toward the idea of acquiring things (including ‘good ideas’) as a part of the self in order to reach enlightenment (becoming parallel with reaching heaven or God, escaping trauma).  So in this way,the struggle for racial/ethnic liberatory possibility in Buddhist practice, is either individualized and retreated into interiors by meditation or as usual, becomes the job of the one person-of-color at the western Buddhist centers – to ‘take care of the diversity issue.’  This is very white.

Advocacy. Does that have a place in Buddhist practice?  In the West, social activism is about missionary work  (making others come into your belief-system and practices for the better) and doing things for the downtrodden through ‘giving.’  The dominant does not change, but needed work  in feeding, housing and empowering the downtrodden.  But this isn’t social change.  In this way, Buddhist centers often do the same things as the traditionally Christian ways of working in society has taught.  And these are truly important, so that is not my point.  The point is, this links whiteness with Buddhism, limiting what ‘compassion’ and ‘mindfulness’ are – and in particularly Christianized and individualized and condescending ways.  What other ways can we work? Of course I am generalizing.  I want to put out there, that to historically and politically look at and into things; to really study dependent origination — the doctrine of Buddhism in which everything exists because of everything else and not by themselves–is for me, one of the most important actions that we must do for social change.  Shall it just be relegated to Engaged Buddhism?  So if there is engaged Buddhism, what are the other Buddhists doing?

Historical and political constructions of self through struggles of dominance and destruction, violence and victory, defeat, disempowerment;  the way we govern ourselves and others is fraught with violence which was done in history. And most often this life of ‘normal’  is not recognized as either violence or history. In the same way, Buddhist practice as it is focused on the interior mechanisms of self in relation to emptiness, or compassion or wisdom, has a history in violence as well.  It is not personal violence that I am talking about, but a social violence.  This is also not about inclusion.  Everything cannot be included. However, everything must be accounted to–including those that are not present before us–Our ancestors, those that toiled for us in the past and who have done so without you knowing.  And those on the other side of the street, or the neighborhood, town, or the other city or across the continent or oceans, those that have passed on recently — they must be here in order to account for our lives.  Our lives includes our spiritual practice.  Privileged lives usually come from the exploitation that created that suffering in the past and in the present (real estate deals that displace poor people from homes and raking in profits for it, as one of trillions of examples).  Meditating it away is not a solution but unfortunately and ignorantly, this is done everyday at the Buddhist centers.  Let us bring whiteness into the light of colonized minds.  We must come down from our little mountains.  It must begin without the judgement of ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ or ‘scary.’  It can be faced.  With this, we can practice de-colonizing the world we live in and continue to create.