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Lions Roar : September 2014
neW yorK InSIGht is ten floors up on West 27th, but even from this height I can hear the sounds of Manhattan below— horns honking, music pulsing. Gina Sharpe is at the front of the room wearing an under- stated gray top and black slacks. Previously a successful corpo- rate lawyer, she was one of the center’s cofounders seventeen years ago and is now its guiding teacher. To open her teaching, she taps a singing bowl, releasing a warm hum. “We choose to spend our time together as a community,” she says. “Even though we come together in what appears to be separate bodies contained in our own sacks of skin, we are inexorably con- nected. So, in that spirit, I ask you to turn to the people around you.” Reaching out my hand to greet my neighbors, I suddenly see what makes New York Insight unusual. like so many convert Buddhist centers in North America, it has a clean look that is at once cheerful and spare. There are tidy rows of chairs and cush- ions, a pot of orchids, and a soothing statue of the Buddha. But unlike so many convert Buddhist centers, New York Insight has a diverse membership. Indeed, it looks like New York City itself—a vibrant mix of black, white, Asian, latino. While it might be tempting to think that this diversity hap- pened automatically—a natural result of the center’s urban, mul- ticultural location—it is actually the product of years of effort. According to Buddhist philosophy, ultimately there is neither black nor white; these are simply constructions of mind. But practically, there is a legacy of slavery in America, and racism is woven into the fabric of society. This is real. “Given that,” Sharpe tells me, “it’s not just a matter of ‘let’s put people in a room together and let them meditate and everything will be hunky-dory.’ Work has to be done on all different fronts.” And that work starts with understanding structural racism. “What does structural racism really mean? It means it’s not your fault,” says Sharpe. “You’re not to blame—you don’t have to feel guilty—but you should recognize it as a problem that needs a solution. And how do we as Buddhists solve problems? The first thing we do is we sit down and try to see the truth.” Below: Sharpe at New York Insight Meditation Center, where she is the guiding teacher. It’s an almost entirely volunteer-run organization with a deep commitment to openness and diversity. You don’t have to feel guilty about structural racism, says Sharpe, “but you should recognize it as a problem that needs a solution.”