Expressions of Whiteness in Buddhism

By Kaitlyn Hatch

Recently the Black Lives Matter movement has gained incredible momentum, first in the United States and now globally. We are seeing a potential tipping point of white people committed to anti-racist actions and consciousness raising as almost every group, organization, community and business has issued messages of solidarity. Not all the messages of solidarity have been well-thought out or included actionable accountability protocols and follow-through, but almost everyone has put out a message.

There is, however, a notable silence from Buddhist communities dominated by white practitioners. Buddhism is a small religious community with only 7% of the global population identifying as Buddhist, compared to 31.5% Christian, 23.2% Muslim and 15% Hindu. The Buddhist population in the United States only makes up 0.8% of this global total, so it’s fair to say that if you know one Buddhist on this continent, you are probably connected to almost all of them.

My own dharma network extends from communities in Canada, to the UK, to the United States. In every case white-bodied practitioners dominate these spaces. Some of these communities have issued messages of solidarity, but overall, I am seeing very little direct action from white Buddhists. I would like to say I am surprised by this, but that wouldn’t be true. I am not at all surprised, just as I was not at all surprised to learn that many male Buddhist teachers abused their positions of power in various ways, including sexual abuse and manipulation.

This is a calling in of other white dharma practitioners, a way to share my practice of learning to see whiteness in the dharma. A significant part of this practice is informed by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s teachings in her profound book, The Way of Tenderness. Zenju was the first Black dharma teacher I studied and practiced with and one of the first teachers who presented the dharma through a queer lens. Zenju also teaches in ways that reflect my personal experience where cis-gender, straight teachers have not.

As a white person, seeing whiteness is not so simple. 

To live in a white supremacist society as a white person is to have your whiteness confirmed constantly. It saturates our television shows, our books, our movies, our news feeds, our corporate cultures and yes, our dharma and Buddhist communities. The karmic impact of colonialism and white supremacy spreads across the entire globe, and has been baked into the very teachings meant to liberate us.

After reading The Way of Tenderness, I set the intention to look for expressions of whiteness in my body, speech and mind. The core of this practice has been to become mindful of my implicit biases, how they come to be, and to get curious about the language used to enforce and perpetuate whiteness and white superiority. I also use shamatha as a way to ground myself and stay with the discomfort of seeing my complicity in a system that causes harm. In doing so, my awareness of whiteness in Buddhism has heightened, along with my curiosity and longing to see it clearer. After five years of centring anti-racism in my practice by focusing on the poison of ignorance, I’ve developed some capacity to see the water in which we are swimming as white practitioners.

Racism is not about skin colour, but about power and control and an attachment to ‘white’ being the default and everything else being deviant and therefore inferior.

I am writing this as someone racialised as white in Canada, who has lived in the UK and Australia and is currently living in the United States. While much of my anti-racist work has happened since I moved Stateside, I believe that what I have to share applies to white practitioners anywhere, and I acknowledge that the impact and classifications of race differ depending on your social and cultural context.

The first example of whiteness in the dharma is the phrase “When Buddhism came to the West.” You have probably heard some variation of this countless times. The stories are almost always about the founding of some community—how a teacher came to America or the UK from Chinese occupied Tibet or Japan, or some white college-aged student travelled to India or Bhutan to study with a guru and ‘brought back the teachings’ to their community.

It was curiosity and looking at how language is used that helped me first challenge this narrative while reading Crooked Cucumber by David Chadwick, a biography of Shunryu Suzuki, best known for his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. When Suzuki came to the United States, he was coming to support an already well-established Buddhist community–a Buddhist community of Japanese immigrants. The language in Crooked Cucumber presents the Japanese congregation as ‘getting in the way of’ the white people who started showing up to practice there.

This is a discovery narrative, which is unsurprising in the United States, a country founded on the ‘doctrine of discovery’, a doctrine used to justify the genocide of the many Nations indigenous to this land long before European colonialists arrived. The discovery narrative, also held by white Canadians and Australians, is rooted in the belief that the religion, technology, and infrastructure of white European colonialists was superior to that of the (darker skinned) Indigenous populations already established in the places they invaded and colonized. But there was sophisticated infrastructure, agricultural technology, and spiritual practices throughout these lands before Europeans started colonizing them. There was also “Buddhism in the West” before white people in the 50s and 60s “discovered” it.

The second example is how white Buddhists talk about patriarchy. During the Q&A after a talk given by Pema Chödrön, a woman expressed her interest in Buddhism alongside her misgivings about how dominated it is by male teachers and paternalistic, patriarchal views and beliefs. The first time I listened to this talk I did not question the response my beloved teacher gave, which was to tell the woman that she shouldn’t let patriarchy prevent her from participating in something that speaks to her, and besides, because of Buddhism coming to the West, this problem was “going away.” Pema insisted that she was one of many women teachers, and that the influence of these changes in Western Buddhism was feeding back to Asian Buddhism.

Buddhism as a spiritual practice and religion is not easily separated from cultural trappings. Patriarchy has deep, deep roots in Buddhism—indeed, in every major religion practiced globally—because patriarchy has deep roots in virtually every nation, society and culture globally.

The Buddha himself, it is said, initially rejected women from becoming nuns. When he finally allowed it, it was with caveats made to appeal to men’s fragile masculinity and inability to take responsibility for their sexual urges. These have carried on into all modern Buddhist communities. Patriarchy, misogyny and sexism are as baked into predominantly white Buddhist communities as they are into predominantly Asian Buddhist communities, but in white dominated communities, racism is used to ignore that fact.

When I finally questioned this narrative of ‘Western Buddhist superiority’ (see, white-bodied Buddhist superiority) it was hearing Roshi Joan Halifax say nearly the same thing Ani Pema had. I would not have noticed the racism in this if I’d not recently listened to philosopher Serene Khader speaking about Missionary Feminism on the podcast The Philosopher’s Zone. In episode 3 of a five part series called ‘Philosophy in the Wake of Empire’, Khader says, “Missionary feminism is characterized by idealization. So we idealize something … when we attribute kind of positive features to it that it doesn’t actually have. I think that a lot of what Missionary Feminists work with is an idealization of “the West” and of the history of the West. The particular kind of narrative about the history of the West that they have in mind is that Western countries eliminated gender inequality, which is already not true.” (emphasis mine)

Khader explains how this language implies that there is some ‘intrinsic superiority’ in Western culture—a classic example of white supremacy and colonialist superiority playing out in our modern context. By claiming that patriarchy has been eradicated in Buddhism in North America, the implication is that Asian Buddhists are sexist while North American Buddhists are not. This is an example of how power dynamics intersect and work to uphold one another, and how even decades-long practitioners can fall foul of blindspots and dualism. In naming specific teachers, I am not trying to shame, but to call to attention how we can call-in other white people and explore what accountability looks like, so we can address both racism and sexism in our communities. Particularly given the impact of Orientalism and how it is used to dismiss, ignore, or justify sexism in white-dominated Buddhist communities led by Asian teachers.

And so we come to the example of what was the first big shift for me as a practitioner looking to see and name whiteness in Buddhism. This came about when I was in the midst of studying Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka teachings and grappling with the Ultimate versus the Relative. The core messages I was receiving from white teachers and translators was that the Ultimate view is the superior view, and that my work as a Buddhist was to ‘let go’ of the Relative.

While listening to a dharma talk by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, I encountered what I now call White Spiritual Bypassing. Elizabeth went into the ‘relativity’ of race, by stating that her skin could get tanned enough that we might consider her brown. This made me deeply uncomfortable, but until I read Zenju Earthlyn’s book, I wasn’t capable of articulating the issue beyond knowing, in my gut, that it was harmful and ignorant.

In The Way of Tenderness Zenju has an entire chapter on “the multiplicity in oneness”. The work of waking up is not to see oneness as sameness and blend into a monolith, but to let go of the belief that certain ways of being human are superior to others. To be human is to be diverse. The Ultimate is not superior to the Relative, but mutually dependent with it—like a box and lid or two sides of a coin, they go together. Both/and. Not either/or.

When anyone talks about skin colour as a relative thing, and therefore ‘unable to be found’ and so not Ultimately true, they are missing how race functions in the world. This kind of Spiritual Bypassing skips over interconnectedness, avoiding how our whiteness, in relation to others, causes harm. Racism is not about skin colour, but about power and control and an attachment to ‘white’ being the default and everything else being deviant and therefore inferior.

The issue is a cultural attachment to white, able-bodied, cis-gender and straight as the ‘norm’ or ‘default’ measuring stick for humanity.

We must look at the ego-clinging nature of whiteness on a personal, interpersonal, and collective level. The issue is not someone naming themselves as Black or disabled or transgender/non-binary or queer. These are all valid expressions of being human and examples of the multiplicity of oneness expressing itself. The issue is a cultural attachment to white, able-bodied, cis-gender and straight as the ‘norm’ or ‘default’ measuring stick for humanity.

Our relative experiences matter. They can’t be ignored just because we can’t ‘find’ them. Racism will not go away just because you ‘can’t find race’ while you’re meditating. Racism will not go away if BIPOC folks ‘practice better’. Racialized identities only exist because of whiteness as the measuring stick of humanness, and so the work of letting go of race is not the work of Black and brown practitioners, but of white practitioners.

Again, looking at translations of traditional texts, the implication is often that one can only attain enlightenment if they are born into the body of a man. The ‘superiority’ of this birth is not based on anything that can be inherently found. Patriarchy is a human system, just as race is a human system. Both systems were created to justify the dehumanization and ill-treatment of others, as a moral ‘loophole’ for enslavement and ownership of other human beings.

Ultimately, humanity is expressed in many ways and many different embodiments. As practitioners our embodiments are with us on the path we walk and are exactly what we need to wake up because our mind is not separate from our body. It doesn’t matter what your body is, your body is always in the present moment and you are capable of waking up with whatever embodiment you have.

I have dealt with a lot of frustration towards other white people as I’ve attempted to create spaces for conversations centred on anti-racism in our practice. I am met with dragging feet, platitudes, and outright hostility. This has been disheartening, particularly as this is a spiritual modality that seeks collective liberation, and gives us all the tools we need to dismantle racism.

Racism will go away when we learn to see our multiplicity, that there isn’t a default human by which we measure all other kinds of human. Racism will go away when we see that whiteness is a form of ego clinging. Whiteness will go away when we can see how it is interconnected with class, with wealth, and with maintaining power for the few at the expense of the many. Whiteness will go away when we cut through the ignorance that prevents us from seeing how we have been duped into a system that actively harms our Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx and mixed-race kin and sangha members. White body supremacy will go away when we use our practice to sit in the discomfort of our complicity within the systems of white supremacy on which our society was built. Only then can we stop planting the karmic seeds of oppression.

As someone who is queer, it’s been easy for me to see straightness and heteronormativity. I can converse with my chosen QILT2BAG+ family about straight culture and heteronormative weirdness, pointing out the baffling things straight people say and do from my rainbow hued lens. I appreciate that this gives me a lens for understanding how dominant identities function, and the suffering that comes from being ‘othered’ when you have an identity that doesn’t align with a dominant embodiment.

It is partially because of the pain of being othered that I am so dedicated to seeing whiteness in myself and in the texts and talks I consume. I do not want to participate in or uphold the messages of whiteness. I want to see whiteness because that is what it is to be actively anti-racist—to be constantly looking to see all the ways we are all being indoctrinated into this oppressive system, so I can first block and then dismantle those messages. To me, committing to anti-racism is just another way to commit to awakening.

BIOGRAPHY:

Kaitlyn Hatch is a writer, artist, podcast producer, philosopher, and designer, and has been a dharma practitioner since 2008. She is queer, non-binary, and disabled, and has Métis and British ancestry. Her practice is largely influenced by the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and she is an active participant in the Bhumisparsha Dharma community co-founded by Lama Rod Owens and the Liberated Life Network founded by Reverend angel Kyodo williams. Her primary teacher is Pema Chödrön, and she is currently enrolled as a student in the Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist chaplaincy training program where she is exploring the role of chaplaincy in social change.

You can learn more about Kaitlyn and her work in the world at http://www.KaitlynSCHatch.com

Original author: tenpel
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Friday, 07 August 2020
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