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Lions Roar : January 2015
It’s been some fifteen years since you presented these issues in your acclaimed book, Being Black. are you writing? I am. One thing I’m working on, that speaks directly to all this, is a book about my own shocked recognition that I have spent many years—in the vernacular of black folks back to the days of slavery—keeping my head down. How so? By trying to stay smaller than was organic to the situation and to my experience, because I didn’t want to draw the ire of folks in the dharma world. And even though we don’t have any singular institution of Zen or Buddhism, there’s a power structure, one that is often unspoken. We can recognize it if we look at the Buddhist media and see who’s there—who are we being told to look at and listen to, and who is wielding those structures and who seeks to influence them. Many peo- ple I’ve spoken to say they don’t feel free, particularly folks of color and, in some traditions, women—each tradition has its own stuck place. The apparent hierarchy that exists in some of our spiritual structures is there to support us but it’s being leveraged as a mask for power structures and privilege. In some places of practice it’s very male or heterosexual; in some places it’s other things. But pretty much all over the place, it’s pretty white. So is what you’re writing part memoir, part guidance for feeling empowered enough to no longer be quiet, or, as you put it, “small”? Part memoir, part guidance, and a lot of critique. I’m also working on a collection of observations on our society, through what people would call a Buddhist lens. I would just say a lens of liberation. I look at what gets in the way, includ- ing the parasitic capitalism that we have not just as an eco- nomic structure but also as a religious structure. Capitalism has become a religion—many religions actually deify it at this point—and because of that, we’re letting it run amok with no real thought about how to change it. does something like the people’s Climate March, which BZC was quite involved with, suggest that things are starting to turn around? Hopefully the climate march is a disruption of a system that is consuming itself and all of us with it. The march did come from “the people”—it originated out of environmental justice organizations, not out of typical green groups and NGOs. It came out of brown and black and economically disadvantaged white communities, and indigenous peoples. It’s about across-the-board disruption. It’s about understand- ing that climate change is a leverage point for us to look at all of the failures, limitations, and places of separation and breakdown in our society. What does “disruption” mean? does it mean voting with our dollars? does it mean that if we don’t like what’s going on in the media, we become the media? What kinds of forms will disruption take? Yes. Everything. First and foremost we need to take back our power, and our power exists in our participation in all of these structures. It will be a challenge because we were weaned on this system. We are bred to consume. And, so, for us to break our own chains is just as difficult as it was for blacks to resist the slavery that they’d been born into for gen- erations and was all they’d ever known. The idea was that that system would continue forever because, once you had bred someone into the system, they didn’t know anything else. are you hopeful? Not in the sense of tomorrow, but I’m hopeful that the seed has been planted, that the irrelevance of the systems that continue to privilege small groups of people is laid bare now. We’re in this wonderful moment of going, “Oh, this doesn’t work. There are no winners in this.” How are we going to convince the captains of industry that they’re not winners? I don’t think we need to. It’s like, “How are we going to con- vince the plantation owners to let go of their slaves?” We didn’t. We had to snatch the slaves from their arms. There’s no such thing as being neutral. You’re either play- ing along with how things are or you are disrupting them and turning them on their head. Those are the only options. pursuing the possibility of a new monastery, as BZC is doing, seems like a major step forward. I don’t think I’ve ever been excited about a monastery before. [Laughter]. Why you are excited about this monastery? Because I can see myself there, whether that’s my physical body or not. I think that Greg and Teah and the leadership will plant the seeds for a deep practice home. The Western Buddhist world has spent too much time saying, “Oh, if we want people of color to participate, we can’t expect them to do real, deep practice.” With that attitude, people of color will never be fully accepted. As soon as Being Black came out, I was completely chagrined that I had invited people of color, through the book, into a place that was not welcoming. The good news is that BZC rings true. And the monastery, if it happens, will also be a place that is welcoming, and that’s a start. ♦ SHAMBHALA SUN jANUAry 2015 44