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Vipassana teacher Gina Sharpe talks to Tracy Cochran about a Buddhist retreat for people of color.
In late spring, Tricycle contributing editor Tracy Cochran met with Vipassana teacher Gina Sharpe for a frank discussion on race and the dharma. Sharpe is co-leader of the People of Color retreat, a semi-annual gathering that has drawn plenty of attention—and some criticism—since it first appeared in retreat catalogs in 2003. Sharpe, who serves on the boards of Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts, and New York Insight, in New York City, was interviewed at her home in northern Westchester County, New York.
What gave rise to the People of Color Retreat? It arose out of a board meeting at Insight Meditation Society [IMS] at which we were setting priorities. Joseph Goldstein [cofounder of IMS] and I suggested the idea in response to the Board’s desire to pursue diversity in the sangha more actively. It’s not a secret that people of color don’t come to our retreats in great numbers. The work Jack Kornfield [cofounder of IMS and Spirit Rock Retreat Center, in Woodacre, California] has done to foster diversity at Spirit Rock was also a great inspiration.
Isn’t Buddhist practice based on the truth that there is no separation, that we are all one? Why separate one group from another in a retreat? Yes, separateness is an illusion, and grasping a separate identity is a source of suffering. But many people of color say that they have not been comfortable in the nearly all-white retreats, so we’re creating a safe space where they are able to practice—to open their minds and their hearts, including to the sorrow and grief of racism.
You describe the way you make this particular suffering a source of connection rather than separation at the retreat. Isn’t there a risk, though, of fostering further separation? Using separation to heal separation has its obvious dangers. We’re mindful of that. But how long can we ignore the reality and pain of the culture’s history of race relations? The idea is that people feel safe and comfortable so they can practice.
Most white people tend to assume that they aren’t invited to these retreats. It’s not that we want to exclude them. Last year, two came and they were welcomed. We don’t encourage it, however. [laughs]
I’ll tell you what really confirmed my feelings about the need for separation. I was at a two-month retreat at Spirit Rock last year. There were two African Americans, one Hispanic man, two Native Americans, and me—out of about a hundred people. In the middle of the retreat, an African American woman approached me and said, “I really hate to disturb your retreat, but I just have to ask your name.” I felt her loneliness, and it touched me deeply. We became good friends.
In the closing session, as we formed discussion groups, Jack Kornfield asked that a group of people of color be formed. We had a wonderful time. It wasn’t as if we sat there talking about issues of race or color, but there was a certain relaxation that I hadn’t even noticed missing before. It was palpable. And after our first retreat, people told me how wonderful it was to look up at the dais and see teachers who looked like them.