Does Race Matter in the Meditation Hall?

Vipassana teacher Gina Sharpe talks to Tracy Cochran about a Buddhist retreat for people of color.

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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.

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

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markhazell45's picture

One of the truly painful things about the four noble truths is that ignorance is often very difficult to recognize. In recent years I have had the good fortune to have "the dralas of reality stream into my life and remind me" of my ignoring of something or other, and I have recognized that although I don't consciously hold negative or hateful views of people who appear different from myself, I sometimes find myself behaving awkwardly or hesitatingly with people and this hesitation and clumsiness seems to be a sign of my recognition of difference -- and that's all it takes for someone to feel uncomfortable. The other person could be a person of the opposite sex, or a person of a different racial background, or a person who exhibits different cultural characteristics than my own, or......

The point is that instead of initially recognizing their basic goodness, their inherently worthy selves, I instead recognize difference. Generally this initial perception or difference doesn't last for more than a moment, but as I said above, that initial moment can be all it takes to create division and barrier. Knowing that this occurs, I practice, seeing how quickly the skandhas form, how quickly we move from form to feeling to perception to concept to ME, me in my cocoon of opinion, belief, habit, my cocoon which is meant to be parted and stepped out of.

The cocoon is, as many great teachers have said, an innocent mistake, but it's a mistake that can feel, in the context of the history of our society, like a big impediment to others' comfort and sense of well being -- what seems like nothing to me can be perceived very differently by others. So if a retreat for people of colour, or for women, or for people of different sexual orientation allows people to take the initial steps toward entering the dharma, then I'm all for them.

SkipBon's picture

As long as they are viewed as stepping stones and not a place to cocoon for the rest of your life.

SkipBon's picture

"It’s not that we want to exclude them. Last year, two came and they were welcomed. We don’t encourage it, however. [laughs]" Imagine white people saying this about people of color?

"But Buddhism in the West has taken on the cultural trappings of the West, including racism." I'd really like Gina Sharpe to back that claim up with evidence. You can't just make generalizations like that and not back them up.

The real issue here is how can Gina Sharpe do and say things about whites that no white could ever say about non-whites without it being accused of racism?

macbabe's picture

Your little treatise is proof that she's right. You've missed the issue entirely because you assume both 'sides' are on a level playing field when they are not.

When yet another young Black man was shot and killed by white cops I asked the question on the Facebook page of a well known white dharma teacher - how does a Black practitioner quiet the mind enough to meditate when you see the people around you (who look just like you) being shot and killed on a regular basis? How do you turn inward when there is clear and present danger outward?? The question was entirely ignored. I asked again and it was ignored again. Had I not had other experiences of racism this would have been enough proof to me that there is still much work to do. You are proof that there is still much work to do.

SkipBon's picture

Your hyperbole reflects an emotional reaction not an actual response. Racism does not solve racism. Exclusion does not fix exclusion. Dualism is not the remedy for dualism. And an eye for an eye, etc. Perhaps you can help Gina Sharpe provide examples of how Buddhism in the west is racist against people of color?

wsking's picture

You silly thing! That was your answer! Do not see it, do not respond to it and continue with your practice. You label it dangerous or black or white or anything and your mind does the rest. If you stay still, your own meditative energy has the power to calm the situation: both as it appears to you and as it appears to others. It is dangerous, but don't let it affect your practice. Continue. Your practice is your greatest responsibility because it has the power to purify, free, calm, pacify, and control. If you can stay still, you will see that the situation slowly calms itself. The energies relax and subside. Even if you are not at that stage yet, your practice is more powerful than you yet are sensitive enough to understand. Mani mantra by a serious meditator is very powerful. You become a human dynamo for peaceful energy emanating outward. If you have taken refuge, that is your greatest responsibility. Don't sell yourself short. Keep going!

"Straight runs the Way. Not two, not three.
Taking as thought, the thought of no thought,
taking as truth the truth of no Truth,
singing and dancing all is the voice of Dharma.
Wide is the Heaven of Boundless Samadhi,
endless the Dharma Gate of Fourfold Wisdom.
This very place, the Lotus Paradise,
this very Body, Buddha."
Hakuin Zenji.

Just sit right there and don't get distracted. The mandalas are always encircled by charnel grounds. Your job is to stay in the middle and create the blessing for everyone.

wsking's picture

Since I have lived all over the world and been meditating for such a long time, I have noticed that different racial groups and their cultures have different vibrations. That vibration is just in our nervous systems. We resonate with similar systems, and that feels comfortable. When we meet a vibration that we don't resonate with, everything feels off and we don't get along very well, if at all. That is not a fault, just a biological fact. I don't see that we have to let it affect our caring or respect for each other, but admitting it does seem to be a step in the right direction. Obviously, "God" loves differences. Creation is full of variations. They are rich and wonderful. We all carry memories of experiences with people of another race that make us prone to over-generalize our feelings and conclusions about people as a racial group. It is unfair and untrue, but a common failing of our human nature. We need to understand that difficulties around this issue are normal, natural, and part of us. It is good to admit them and work with them. Having separate retreats is beneficial. If people like them, it shows they are needed. I hope that it will help everyone understand and accept that differences are okay and similarities are okay. We have both opportunities to love, and that is a good thing. We can retreat together and we can retreat apart, Its all part of sincere practice. Just as different parts of the Buddhist tradition may be more suitable for some people than others, and different mantras and meditation techniques be more suitable for some than for others, retreating in separate groups may provide support to some people more than others. I think this is a very good thing as long as we don't become exclusive, generating more of the same problems we are trying to dissolve now. Meeting together and meeting apart, we appreciate the whole mandala and find an easy entry into a richly rewarding personal practice. Does that make sense?
I think it was a great Bodhisattva of recent times, Martin Luther King, who said, "We all came on different boats for different purposes, but we are all in the same boat now!" It seems a good way to approach practice also, answer special needs and then include all of them into us..

StephanieNoble's picture

I am a long time practitioner at Spirit Rock and have attended numerous retreats. The only way I can explain to myself the need for a People of Color retreat is to remember that when I attended my first retreat I chose a women’s retreat. Why? I didn’t feel the need for exclusivity anywhere else. But going into that retreat space, sitting in silence with eyes closed, living in close community, I just wanted to relax into the ease of being with other women. It felt safe. No man has ever physically harmed me, yet there was that sense of needing to be with others who understood and shared my experience, even though we weren’t going to be talking to each other as we sat in silence. After a few years that need to be ‘among my own’ faded away. I attend retreats based on the teachers, the theme and my schedule, not on who else will be attending. It feels quite safe and natural to attend non-exclusive retreat. And more than that, the presence of men being vulnerable in the deep silence enriches my experience.

I teach a women’s meditation group. It didn’t start out as a ‘women’s’ meditation group, but no man ever attended, even though they would have been welcome, and after a number of years the sangha asked me to define it as a women’s class. In the process of writing my upcoming book, ‘A Woman’s Guide to Awakening’ based on the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness, I came to understand why. Although we have many shared concerns with men, we also have specific challenges that we deal with, and biological differences that make our practice slightly different from that of men. So I do understand why sub-sanghas arise, based on shared experiences and challenges.

I remember when the inception of a People of Color retreat happened. Spirit Rock is in a rural part of a very white and very rich county, so it wasn’t surprising that the weekly classes, attended by locals, were almost all white. When I first started attending classes there, I was told the teacher wanted to speak to me. Hmm, was this an ‘uh oh’ or an honor? Neither. Anna Douglas had heard that my husband was black, and she wanted me to encourage him to attend. Well, I knew that wasn’t happening, and it had nothing to do with the color of his skin. He’s an artist who likes to do his own thing and is not interested in any kind of spiritual community. When I think of all the members of my extended African-American family, few would have interest, none would find it convenient and almost all have their spiritual needs quite well met already and are deeply involved in their Baptist traditions.

It is my hope that POC and other exclusive retreats give people an entry into the joy of Buddhist practice in community. Then, after attending one or a few of these kinds of focused retreats, I hope they will feel ready and welcome to sit at any retreat and feel safe. I hope that they are encouraged by the POC retreat teachers to branch out rather than establish segregated communities in perpetuity. That would be very sad indeed, for them and for the larger community.

SkipBon's picture

Thank you for that. People of color don't need white paternalism. When a bunch of white practitioners talk about increasing diversity in their sangha, the assumption is that people of color need to be given access to our spiritual path, rescued-- saved, if you will. This urge is perhaps a western christian cultural artifact that persists automatically, regardless of the spiritual path white westerners choose?

My experience with groups that limit attendance to a shared identity based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., is that you find you can be more honest and sincere with others and yourself in this context. That, for me, is troubling. I need to be equally honest, sincere, and non-censoring regardless of who I'm with. Hiding out in one of these identity groups, may be a stepping stone, but that's it.

John Haspel's picture

Becoming distracted by issues such as race and making this an issue to be remedied by “Buddhist practice” leads to ever-increasing deluded assumptions. The Buddha awakened to the understanding that from ignorance of the Four Noble Truths, through twelve observable causative links, all of the unsatisfactory nature of life arises. This is known as Dependent Origination.

Dependent Origination is often misunderstood and misapplied, or ignored completely, to create a doctrine that “Buddhist practice is based on the truth that there is no separation, that we are all one.” Whether as human beings we are all “inter-dependent,” or “inter-connected,” in a physical or philosophical sense is irrelevant to the Dhamma. It could easily be said that from this deluded doctrine of insisting that “we are all one” creates the issue of separation when the doctrine falls apart in practical application.

Racism is one aspect of the First Noble Truth. Over-Emphasizing racism creates an ongoing and deepening identification with skin-color. To end racism and all suffering, the Buddha taught an Eightfold Path.

Gina Sharpe asks “How long can we ignore the reality and pain of the culture’s history of race relations.” An aspect of ignorance of the Four Noble Truths is the insistence of clinging conditioned mind to ignore anything that would challenge the assumptions that deluded thinking is built on.

The hatred and ensuing suffering of racism is rooted in ignorance, as is all human suffering. The separation and isolation between people based on skin color, or any other reason, is rooted in ignorance. Perhaps the reason why “black only” retreats seem reasonable, and that any notion that fosters additional self-identification in any manner is reasonable, is continued ignorance of the Four Noble Truths and avoidance of integrating the Buddha’s path to ending all suffering.

The First Noble Truth states that life in the phenomenal world is generally experienced as unsatisfactory. The Second Noble Truth states that it is craving and clinging born of ignorance that originates suffering. The Third Noble Truth states that cessation of suffering, including the cessation of racism, is possible. The Fourth Noble Truth is the truth of the Eightfold Path developing the direct experience of the cessation of suffering.

I am not saying that there should not be Buddhist retreats exclusive to skin color if that makes participants feel safe, as stated here. If black people feel safer when white people are excluded, or if white people feel safer when black people are excluded (or any other ethic group) individual ignorance must be looked at. Organized isolation is not the answer. The belief in separation and the cause of all human suffering originates in ignorance of The Four Noble truths and ignorant views of what constitutes a self in an ever-changing environment.

Modern “Buddhism” is mostly white. This not due to something lacking in the Buddha’s teachings. This is due to to a misunderstanding of the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings and adaptions and accommodations to the original teachings that preserve clinging conditioned thinking.

The Buddha teaches that, despite hardened views of self, these views are anatta, not-a-self, and must be abandoned. This includes views that “I am black” or “I am white,” or any other self-referential attachment to skin color. Anatta insists on establishing delusion in every object, event, and idea that arises from ignorance. Creating events as a reaction to ignorance are not likely to bring an end to ignorance, or the global suffering that ensues.

Retreats for groups based on skin color may feel safe for those attending but are not likely to develop awakening. Whole-hearted engagement with the Eightfold Path develops individual cessation of ignorant views and resulting suffering, including the suffering of racism.

John Haspel

melcher's picture

Why is it that I get the feeling from every one of these rants that the purpose rarely, if ever, goes beyond an egotistic desire to ram religious dogma down my throat? Is there a compassionate human in there or is this just a pre-programmed machine spouting scripture like one of those fortune telling machines at a carnival?

I would skip over this commentary entirely but since the subject of white racism is one that permeates the very atmosphere we breathe I was curious to see whether some kernel of wisdom or true contemporary understanding would arise out of the general drone. Instead we get the customary litany of dry critique along with accusations of 'ignorance' directed at any slight deviation from the ethical norms of ancient India.

One does not deal with the endemic racism that permeates American society by ignoring or transcending it. In order to see its illusory nature one must stare it directly in the face. When one is the victim of racism it is not enough to turn away. (First of all, one may be shot.) One must engage with the society of racism or else find a temporary refuge with those of like mind, like color, and like experience. To the degree that Buddhism becomes a way to avoid dealing directly with specific contemporary situations, to that degree it has devolved into just another epicenter for ignorance and irresponsibility.

zebu111's picture


GL's picture

Brilliant response! But I think it was too much for the average "modern" Buddhist to confront.
They are so stuck in their suffering... or someone elses suffering... that they cant stop the contagion of abberation and suffering.
Its all understandable... but a trap that we would concentrate on one type of suffering and set that asdie from the noble truths... because cureently this one really hurts. ;)
all suffering hurts. thats why we call it suffering.
GL's picture

Have you read The Way of Tenderness by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. I think she addresses some of your concerns directly.

John Haspel's picture

Hi Info,

Yes I did read The Way of Tenderness and found it an eloquent look at prejudice in the modern world in general and within modern "Buddhism" in particular. My concerns with suffering are directly addressed by developing understanding of the Buddha's teaching on Dependent Origination and the Eightfold Path. This brings understanding of the roots of all deluded thinking. This what I hope to convey with my comments here. Peace.

macbabe's picture

The actual suffering is not just the racism itself. It is the insistence of white society that it be forgotten, got past or ignored by the supposedly 'newly enlightened' . He who does not acknowledge that he is sick can not be healed. There is an insistence that racism be ignored and not at all dealt with that is causing current suffering. This is not the fault of people of color.

SkipBon's picture

What if being a victim of racism is just bad karma, individual and collective karma?

sallyotter's picture

i grew up in a segregated society. It was ingrained in my being. Today I look at it, acknowledge it, and don't act on it. But it is still there. Several years ago I worked at an inner city clinic where I was the only White person, staff or clients. A great learning experience. I grew to love it but was uncomfortable at first.
I have to see that I have intellectual reactions and emotional reactions. The emotional reactions result from my childhood. Mindfulness has given me the tools to face them without judgement.
I support any means to open the door of Buddhism to all sentient beings. Racism may be "contrary to Buddha's teachings", but until we become enlightened, it rests in each of us.

rameshgadiraju's picture

Racism in Buddhism is like an oxymoron. The two main aspects that Buddha condemned are castism and rituals.

We are in different stages of our spiritual growth we may not see the reality, the racism, castism, sexism, elitist, etc.. All these are mere labels. We will realize more and more we practice. We will come out of ignorance, some day. Both the oppressed and oppressor have to work, to know the reality. It might take time to get there. If some one shows discrimination, think that they have not gained insight. We should feel sorry for ignorance and help them.

Selecting a teacher is very important. We should select a teacher, who does not show discrimination, does not think of materialism, who is learnt or close to knowing the truth. There is difference between giving a good speech and behaving good. If a person knows scriptures, does not mean they are great. They will become great, by behaving good. There are many sects in Buddhism. Select a teacher based on the method you felt comfortable and thought that you can learn to become enlightened. You may want check out Bhavna society in West Virginia. Two hours from DC.

sam.wechsler's picture

I am delighted to see this interview. (I accidentally responded to a comment, but prefer to join the discussion more fully so am re-entering it here.) I believe that the argument of "no separation" and "oneness" is too often used, especially in conversations about race, by people who would rather avoid the painful, heart-breaking work of facing our shame--shame that is born of the complicity with a culture that grants those of us who are white enormous historical and present-day privilege. Beyond spiritual bypassing, the idea of "oneness" can be used to further that privilege and the devastating effects of white supremacy that pervade even our sanghas, in ways that we often cannot see.

mahakala's picture

Does race matter to you?

and then..

Do you attend a meditation hall?

and then..

Who are you?

and then..


Danny's picture

Of course, in ultimate or mind-independent reality, there is no such thing as race. But in the US, black and white Christians (especially in the south) often practice their faith in the very same way, segregating into different houses of worship. They seem to be more comfortable that way. I'm not suggesting it's the right way, but it does have deep cultural roots.

celticpassage's picture

Segregation and bias exist in all cultures and their activities. That's why there's China town, Greek town, little Italy, etc. Sangha's are full of hypocrites, liars, deluded people, greedy self-serving people, and very emotionally needy people. Of course there will be problems.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Segregation & bias also exist in the abodes of the gods. No being is exempt from the 3 poisons.

celticpassage's picture

Beats me how anyone would know what the gods are up to. But besides that, it has nothing to do with human Sanghas.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The agonies of the gods are simply human foibles writ large: Cronus fearing his own kids, Lucifer getting evicted, etc. Humans in sanghas are just as likely carriers of greed, belligerence and foolishness.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Dr. King once remarked that "the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." Let's not continue that karma in Buddhist America.

JoseBuendia's picture

There are all kinds of retreats advertised to people with all kinds of different characteristics. There are GLBT retreats, retreats for teenagers, retreats for people under 30 years old, retreats for women, retreats for men, retreats for women with cancer, retreats for health care professionals, retreats for artists, 12 step retreats for people with alcohol and substance abuse problems.

In light of this, why is there any controversy whatsoever about retreats for people of color? It seems to me that only 150 years after the end of slavery in the U.S. and only 60 years after the formal end of Jim Crow laws that people of color are enough of a cohesive group with common experiences that this kind of retreat makes a lot of sense.

At the end of the day, we die alone. It is a lonely path sometimes that leaves a lot up to each of us as individuals. So, if we have friends with common experiences to have a cup of teas with at some of the breaks, isn't that great?

sam.wechsler's picture

I whole-heartedly agree. The argument of "no separation" and "oneness" is too often used, especially in conversations about race, by people who would rather avoid the painful, heart-breaking work of facing our shame--shame that is born of the complicity with a culture that grants those of us who are white enormous historical and present-day privilege. Beyond spiritual bypassing, the idea of "oneness" can be used to further that privilege and the devastating effects of white supremacy that pervade even our sanghas, in ways that we often cannot see.

purplepetunia's picture

I was born and brought up in Asia. I am dark skinned like Siddhartha Gautama Buddha! Yet when I go to different sanghas in the West I hardly find anyone who looks like me. To be flocking among birds who look just like me, and carry bags filled with 'similar' contents of the past ( personally experienced or passed on through stories by my ancestors) is not what motivates me to do a retreat. Retreats are opportunities to look at conditioned reactive programs that arise within me in an intensive way.

When the author says people of color need a 'place to be safe' what does it mean? what is unsafe being among other humans in a hall where we sit and close our eyes and go inside? do we feel unsafe every moment when we walk into a grocery store full of people whose skin does not match one's color? Do I feel unsafe because the others don't carry the same contents in their bundles of miserable experiences that my ancestors had and passed on to me unwittingly?
Why do we trust this mistrust that the color of the outer skin creates in our egoic mind? why do 'colored' people say they feel 'safe' seeing a 'colored' skinned human being teaching the Dharma? 'who' or 'what ' within you is behind this mistrust? I am not asking for stories to support the mistrust--- like the kind you would tell a psychotherapist that all your problems are because of your parents. It may be true at some level. But that does not liberate you from the reactions that your system has created in response to circumstances and continues to keep you reacting long after they are dead and gone.

If you watch the latest scientific evidence on National Geographic about the human journey by Spencer Wells you will begin to realise how small minded we are as a species in keeping ourselves separated based on skin color, personal and cultural experiences. It goes to show how deep our conditioning really is--That our egos simply keep us licking the mirage it creates to quench our thirsts. The conditioned mind does not allow us to go past all those layers of mind created separations and sufferings and allow us to see for once that 'it' is at the core of this fear.

Isn't a place where one has an imagined feeling of being 'unsafe' or 'I do not belong here" a perfect place for practice? to see what arises within? and what happens when one sits with all that crap? It's a great opportunity for all of us who are 'colored' to also see the 'desire' to feel safe amongst others who are also bound by the same type of chains. ( All of humanity is enslaved- based on our stories we are tied and chained by different types of mental devices). What a great opportunity to sit together as humans. Sitting in comfort is no different from going to the temple or the church where the egos are stoked, the ego driven sufferings validated, stories are heard over and over again reinforced over and over again and the egos go home feeling safe and unified. In truth, all we have done is entangled ourselves into a tighter knot.

I am not saying the suffering from racist practices didn't exist or doesn't exist. But it is important to know deep down what is our ultimate purpose of following a path that is meant to liberate us from this egoic conditioned self. How are we ever going to achieve that if we keep stoking the flames of the ego and keeping it feeling good and comfortable? Do we just want to shuffle the furniture in the space where our ego sits?-- keep it comfortable -- away from all imagined dangers and threats? or do we take the teachings to heart and see through the conditioned programs, and experience true liberation of the mind and heart?
It is unfortunate that even those 'leaders' and teachers who have practiced for decades continue to keep the 'masses' at the level of the egoic existence and inadvertently perpetuate the notion that one needs several lifetimes to be liberated.
The Truth is, we cannot find the Truth in separation. We continue to seek to validate our illlusionary egoic side of the human mind when we give into the desire to be separate or when we feel safe only when we are set apart from 'others' in a special way.

What keeps us bound to the imagined shackles? let us tear off our outer skins, cast away our inner stories for a moment, just for a moment, and truly see who is driving the bus. Would you willingly drive your bus to the cliff and suffer through fear and untold misery? day after day? moment after moment?
What is stirring up this ocean of 'suffering' ?

Only human beings seem to want to to hang on to their suffering. Perhaps to define themselves as worthy of being alive. THAT is the ego talking-- making itself worthy of being. No other species in the animal world lives in such misery.
It's clearly time for the 'leaders' to stop teaching 'feel good for the ego' dharma. Perhaps read Krishnamurti for a change.

GL's picture

PurplePetunia - thats a insghtful response
But I think it was too much for the average "modern" Buddhist to confront.
They are so stuck in their suffering... or someone elses suffering... or enjoy suffering.. that they cant stop the contagion of abberation and suffering.
All the rac issues and past is understandable and reasonable ... but its a tra... a trap that we would concentrate on one type of suffering and set that asdie from the noble truths... because cureently this one particualr type of suffering we all agree really hurts. ;)
All suffering hurts. Thats why we call it suffering. And thats why we meditate.

Pema Gilman's picture

Thank you for this detailed exposition. I have (as a POC) often wondered if separate POC sanghas perpetuate the very separation that pacifies ego's delusion of 'self and other'.
It is my hope that separate POC sanghas provide temporary places for people to heal from the traumas of racism and that its members will ultimately feel safe within themselves and wherever they carry themselves.

Dominic Gomez's picture

There's a spectrum of attitudes toward race. These range from visceral abhorrence of physical differences to racial superiority to segregation, discrimination, to clueless insensitivity for the feelings of other (kinds of) people. Buddhism teaches the universality of the Buddha nature, but many folks are either unaware of this teaching or, if they are, deny it. Recognizing that all people regardless of "race", etc. are potential Buddhas and acting in accord is a positive step.

Elaine Axten's picture

My experience of IRL sangha was within the Triratnan/FWBO context. For about a decade I was a mitra and subsequently started training to become an order member. I am grateful for the experience I had there, the meditation teaching, the sangha, and the dharma. However, beyond introductory sessions, events and retreats - mitra training and training towards ordination and nearly all retreats are single sex as is the ordination retreat itself.
I have had some experience of mixed retreats that were MBSR based around pain and disability. While the MBSR courses had a point to 'segregation' in that we are using, for instance, body scan in a slightly modified way, of course there is the benefit of being with others who are also dealing with a pain condition or disability who are also meditators, and so I would never say never, in that sense, because sometimes it is a good thing to experience certain aspects of practice very deeply with others who have something quite specific in common with you. However, the gender divide felt to me entirely routine, divisive and hierarchical. Basically, you could 'ignore' it if you wanted to, but it was a patriarchy nevertheless. In wider society there is a sort of apartheid going on. While there is good reason to allow space for consciousness raising or sharing experience exclusion can be rather crushing and end up mirroring the inequities of society at large.

mpoliver's picture

With a wish to free all beings I seek refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Enthused by wisdom and compassion, today in the Buddhas' presence I generate metta for the benefit of ALL sentient beings.

As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, until then, may I too remain and dispel the miseries of all worlds.

To incarnate as a human being, to experience "race", what a precious gift this is.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.

jackelope65's picture

I am white and because of multiple illnesses and surgeries have become relatively 'poor' white. In the USA, you need to have lots of money to go to retreats. At one point, Tsonkni Rinpoche's organizing group was kind enough to give me a full scholarship to his retreat on Martha's Vineyard, but off season rates were $90 a day. People of colour statistically have even less finances than most white people, and really cannot afford great teachers. The Dalai Lama's prices are the most expensive. It would hurt less if fees at Sangha's were a little higher to support those with less money. The homeless can receive mass in a NY Catholic church for free. Although I do concede that racism may decrease the number of people of colour in Buddhism in practice in the USA, I think poverty is the greater cause. If we dealt with the poverty issue properly, more people of all types could afford retreats, in addition to Sangha, which are important to progress. By the way even with a full scholarship, that retreat in Martha's Vineyard would have cost me about $4,000 dollars. If Buddha went to Greece to teach, do you think he would have hired a colosseum or have taught in the streets? My Maine Sangha is extremely kind and would accept person's of any type, but I do appreciate that racism is alive and well in the USA and I think that it is great that Tricycle is dealing with this problem head on.

Keith McLachlan's picture

I wouldn't pay $4,000 for a retreat, even if it were taught by the Buddha himself.

You say the Dalai Lama's retreats are the most expensive. I find his books to be amongst the least useful.

rameshgadiraju's picture

did you try bhavana society in West Virginia? They won't ask money for the retreats..

bardo's picture

Look, all I said is I have not been witness to racism in Buddhism. I also said any Buddhist who is racist in any way is not practicing Buddhism. Both these statements are true. Otherwise, I realize delusion runs wild in society and individual selves. I would put my life on the line to end racism. But I think there are many, many places where racism is truly hurting people, causing poverty and much suffering and that is not in Buddhist Centers.

rosa's picture

Well, no, you also said that since you haven't been witness to racism, it must not exist. If other people experience it, can you credit their experience, or do you deny it? As compassionate people, isn't it incumbent upon us to open our eyes and ears to the experiences of our fellow humans?

If racism were not in play in Buddhist centers in the US, we would have Buddhist leaders of much more diverse ethnic backgrounds. If racism were not in play in Buddhism in the US, we would see greater diversity in Buddhist gatherings as a whole.

We can't disclaim responsibility for the patterns we are part of simply because we strive for better. We're not there, yet.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhisms of theorization have long been the enclave of white upper class intellectual males. Change doesn't happen overnight.

justone's picture

I am genuinely curious what people mean by the words "racism" and "racist". Looking online at I found this...

"rac·ism [rey-siz-uh m]
belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human
races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the
idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a
doctrine; discrimination. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races."

Somehow, this particular definition does not fit (for me) into this interview and the comments here except that it appears that people of color have not had the same opportunity to take on leadership roles in the Buddhist tradition, I assume due to exclusionary institutional blindness.

It would help to have some more specific language as we engage around this topic. Mudslinging and broad generalizations don't further understanding.

By the way, I am not part of a formal sangha so I lack some of the interior institutional experience some of you may be referencing. And I am curious how the broader community can be more inclusive.

rosa's picture

When I say "racism", I mean patterns of value-laden categorization based on race or ethnic background. These patterns can be institutional (such as laws that disproportionately impact some groups more than others [i.e. sentencing differences between drug crimes of crack v. cocaine, where the substance is the same, but the population using each variety is on average, different] or enforcement that unfairly falls on one group more than others [see NY's stop and frisk law for example] or where it's harder for some groups to succeed [school quality across different communities]) or personal (say, if I cross the street nervously when I pass a black man at night). They can be intentional and conscious; they can be unintentional and unconscious.

To my mind, the big problem is that we all carry around unintentional and unconscious racial bias, and we have to work to recognize it and clear it out, but that's hard to do, because the social stigma in so many communities AGAINST "being a racist" is so huge, that we feel like, when someone says, "Hey, that thing you did? It was race-based and bad and reinforces bad patterns in society and interpersonal interaction," we often have a defensive reaction: "Are you saying I'm a racist? How can you tell me I'm a bad person?? I'm a good person!"

Good and bad are irrelevant. What IS is what matters. There have been so many studies that demonstrate that in the western world, we all have race-based, value-laden habits of thought that we're not aware of. So in that sense, we're all racist. But let's stop worrying about THAT and start worrying about how we can dig into that and work to make it better, ESPECIALLY as white people. People of color are well aware of this, and they're not well-positioned to change white culture.

Does that help or clarify? Sorry, I kind of got on an activisty tangent at the end, there.

justone's picture

Thanks rosa. So, what does racism look and sound like in a sangha? (I am not being facetious. I have never been in a sangha and am curious what racist thought/behavior's manifestation is. Is it they way people look at others? Where they choose to sit? Who "gets" to talk? Something people say?)

rosa's picture

I actually am not part of a sangha enough to give specific examples of what racism might look like particular to that context, but I will give some real examples that I think could come up in any community:

1. A person of color is at a special interest gathering for the first time (in this case, a knitting group), and a white person who has been there a couple of times before says, "I didn't expect to see someone like you here!" Awkward silence.
2. When telling this story to another person at the gathering, a third person tells the POC, "I'm sure they didn't mean that in a racist way." This denies the POC's experience and categorically questions the validity of their interpretation, while categorically supporting the idea that a white person's version is automatically more valid.
3. The POC brings this up later to a larger group, who overall spring to the defense of the white person. Same problem as instance 2.

There might also be things like a lower likelihood of taking the POC "under the wing" of a leader, or more overt things like clearly racist comments, but I find those are less common in communities that value themselves as anti-racist.

SkipBon's picture

Hypothetical examples are not fact. You are making this stuff up to support your argument. Real proof. Real evidence. Or it's just more paranoid projections and assumptions.

Helen Wolff's picture

As a Caucasion 16-year-old I began to become aware of the racism in America as a volunteer at a large local hospital in the Bronx. I wondered about the "layers of color" in the jobs at the hospital...all the doctors, it seemed, were White and all the nurse's aides, it seemed, were Black. My parents had friends and acquaintances who were African-American, and seemed to welcome encounters with all people, so I was open to noticing this kind of thing. I made friends there with a female African-American volunteer my age, and with a Caribbean-American male graduate student working there for the summer. Soon even I began to see the VIOLENCE inherent in racism. A man spit on me in the street because he had seen me and my male friend walking together. And my neighbors saw me differently all of a sudden. I was devalued to them. But I was just beginning to learn about racism. I was not Black in America. A few years later Michael Schwerner, another volunteer I worked with at the hospital, and one of the most respectable men I had ever met, was murdered in Philadelphia, Miss.during the time of the Sit-ins. There's more, so much more, because of our conditioning and it's effects on the heart/mind.
So, I think victims of racism may, understandably, need a space to feel safe, to feel well understood, and to heal as pain and fear, and rage may arise. I think POC Sanghas may provide the SPACE for this. Space not separation.

Pema Gilman's picture

The distinction you make between SPACE (to explore & heal) and SEPARATION (a place to be cut off from) is important to this discussion. "Space" need not be permanent.

rosa's picture

I think an important distinction here is the one between "being a racist" and "having racist habits of thought". I can be very soft and loving and open in the world and still have racist (and sexist and classist and etc) habits and thoughts, both that I'm aware of and that I'm not aware of. In fact, I would argue that everyone raised in the US not only can but DOES have those habits and thoughts, because we are raised and socialized in a setting where there's a great deal of institutionalized racism (etc). Even the most well-intentioned among us -- regardless of our background -- has these, and it's incumbent upon us to engage with those habits and thoughts and training.

The very fact that white folks (I among them) so disproportionately make up Buddhist communities in the US demonstrates that racism (even if unintentional) is at work. I'm glad to know that there are pockets of the larger community that are engaging with this in a variety of ways, including POC retreats. And we white folks need to take up our part of the work.

bardo's picture

I am happy the writer of this article and all the people who attended the retreat are happy and had a great retreat. I have no problem with any group getting together for a teaching or retreat and even excluding others if that makes their retreat better for them (and ultimately the world as that is why we practice anyway), but the authors assertion that..."But Buddhism in the West has taken on the cultural trappings of the West, including racism" totally ridiculous. I have been around the country, read many books and articles, attended Dalai Lama teachings, teachings by other great lamas in many lineages and am a long time member of a Sangha in my hometown. I can say unequivocally that racism does not exist in Buddhism in the West nor is that even possible. Of course, there could be isolated delusional individuals who have some problems with race, but they are an extreme minority and by doing so they are not practicing Buddhism. By far, most Buddhists in the US are practicing love, compassion and wisdom and are busy trying to relieve suffering for all beings. Since I, with all my interactions with Buddhists over the past 40 years have never met a Buddhist racist, where does this author come up with this idea?