August 20, 2012

"The Buddha was a person of color," an interview with Gina Sharpe

Gina Sharpe In 2004 Tricycle published an interview with Vipassana teacher Gina Sharpe titled "Does Race Matter in the Meditation Hall? in which Sharpe spoke about race and dharma and leading retreats for people of color. Six years later, as she prepares to lead another retreat for people of color at the Garrison Institute, Sharpe spoke with Steve Kent about recognizing the needs of individual dharma students and how these retreats address an obvious cultural need. 

Garrison InstituteHow will the retreat address racial issues?

Gina Sharpe: The teachings implicitly address all of the ways that we separate ourselves from each other, e.g., homophobia, racism, gender bias, and all the ways we see others as separate from us, looking at particulars of difference, that blinds us from the ways in which we are connected, we share human frailty and strength.  And it is not taught any differently than any other classic meditation retreats.  The retreat will include meditation instructions, dharma talks, and reflection.  The only difference is that when we practice with communities of color, participants look around and see a diverse range of people in the meditation hall.  They see themselves and their life experience mirrored in the teachers, and in the ways the teachings are presented.  That allows safety and relaxation that allows practice to penetrate more deeply.

Garrison Institute: Meditation posits non-separation.  How does a separate meditation retreat for people of color square with the dharma?
Sharpe: The Buddha was a person of color.  Allegedly he came from a princely cast; and he was a social radical. He brought people of all castes together in a time when society had very strict rules against such mixing; he had women in his community, which for that particular time in that culture was a radical idea. He did not adhere to the rigid class structure or ideas about who could do what, even though he clearly respected the rules.  Similarly, the issues we address in our modern time are relevant to all people and go beyond the conventional ways in our culture of working with difference.   All efforts to be inclusive square beautifully with the Dharma, where we are recognizing the needs of students and working to meet them.  The Buddha was a great master of working with the needs of each student individually. The suttas (discourses of the Buddha) are full of examples of the Buddha devising ways that would help students understand the teachings and practices from his own understanding of the inclinations and abilities of the individual students.  Addressing an obvious cultural need is no different.

To read the full interview with Gina Sharpe click here. If you're interested in participating in the "Living in the Light of Divine Sanity: A Retreat for People of Color" at the Garrison Institute August 31-September 2, click here.

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Richard Fidler's picture

When someone says "Buddha was a person of color", the speaker is bringing present-day attitudes towards race and attributing them to a culture that could have had very different ideas about that subject. To what extent were different races represented in Northern India during the time of the Buddha? Were the Dravidians considered of a different race or just a different ethnicity? What were attitudes toward race at that time? We don't know. It is likely that the culture Buddha was immersed in did not see racial issues in terms of "white" and "people of color." That characterization is profoundly racist, since it sets one race against all the others.

Dominic Gomez's picture

OTOH, such 60's awareness of the others among us was a response to the desensitized mindset of previous generations. Rather than differences of skin color, ancient beliefs of one group's superiority seem to arise from distinctions of class or caste. Later, during colonial expansion, beliefs of inferiority were applied to these other, newly "discovered" people of different colors.

celticpassage's picture

What we really need are special retreats for Scotsmen.
Surely there is no group more deserving for special consideration than Scotsmen.
I mean they have kilts and everything!

Will.Rowe's picture

Some people do not see people, only gender, race, class, sexual identity. Emphasizing our human similarities rather than our differences, uniting rather than dividing, seems a more harmonious approach with more productive results to me.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism originated within a rigid caste system. The spiritual equality of all human beings was quite revolutionary for the time.

Dominic Gomez's picture

My understanding is that "the buddha" is people of ALL colors. And all persons (regardless of gender, ethnicity, class, educational level, etc.) are Buddhas.