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Vipassana teacher Gina Sharpe talks to Tracy Cochran about a Buddhist retreat for people of color.
But what is Joseph Goldstein doing up there? Joseph is there because he is one of the finest Theravada teachers that we have in the West, and if he’s willing to teach, I don’t care what color his skin is. We’re very happy to have him. And besides, we don’t yet have senior teachers of color.
Aren’t there? The Dalai Lama has identified himself as a person of color. Yes, and there are many other Asian teachers, but so far, all our senior teachers at IMS are white.
Imagine if you saw a retreat for white people listed in the catalog. That’s been implicitly the case for a long time! I think it would be very difficult. As they say in the Tibetan tradition, “Everything rests on the tip of motivation.” I would wonder what the motivation for such a retreat would be—it would seem exclusionary, not inclusive. But of course, I see the paradox that you’re getting at. And letting go of the “us and them” mentality and all of the ways we hold ourselves separate is ultimately the goal.
Might not Buddhism be considered a religion of color, in a sense? The Buddha was not Caucasian, as everybody knows. But Buddhism in the West has taken on the cultural trappings of the West, including racism. We all wish or hope that we’re not bigoted, but it’s culturally a part of us, so we need to look at it in all of its gross and subtle manifestations. In the absolute sense there is no separateness, no color, no race, but in the relative sense there are differences that are very real and very deep and sometimes determinative of our fate.
The paradox is that during those moments when we are most awake and aware, we feel transparent. We feel like human beings rather than little islands of difference. So why is it important to honor these differences? The differences do all fall away in those rare and precious moments when there is no separation between inside and outside, you or me. Awareness has no race or gender or IQ. It is only when we fall out of awareness that we grasp onto these characteristics. Still, these particularities are part of the vehicle through which we experience our lives, and we have to use the vehicle. Practice is facing the truth of suffering, seeing its cause, and abandoning that cause so the heart can be released. Racism is one type of suffering. In practice there is always the dance between feeling the truth of our suffering and letting go of it, not in a dismissive way but in a way that honors it.
Image: Participants at the 2004 People of Color retreat, held at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York