A piece I wrote for the 50th’s Anniversary issue of SFZC’s Windbell
Born into a Buddhist family in Viet Nam, I carried the feel and cultural essence of Buddhism in my body and heart. After years of living in overseas American Embassy communities, the plains of the Midwest and then the West Coast of the continental United States, I came to meditation practice via Thich Nhat Hanh and other Dharma books. When I went looking for sangha, City Center was actually the first place I came to.
Coming to a morning sit, I entered the Laguna door. There was a door watch who did not acknowledge my presence. I tried to enter the zendo but was stopped with nonverbal movements and an immobile face of the shiningly white, bald, black robed person who then pointed me towards the cushions in the gaitan. I sat. Got up when everyone else did …and followed the silent stream of people out the Laguna door. No eye contact. No human interactions.
I did not go back. Especially when I found the Women of Color sitting group at the Harriet Tubman Center which sat in a circle, had check-in, and the dharma talk’s had examples I could relate to.
From 1998 to 2002, though practicing Insight, I had occasions to interact with ZC as co-founder of the Buddhist of Color and as a participant of the People of Color group. During this time, there were numerous instances of covert and subtle racism. One example stands out in particular. In response to resident’s fears of theft arising to us “wandering the halls”, a door watch (who had to be “a person known to ZC”) was assigned. We were going to/from the gaitan and the Buddha Hall with zabutons for our meeting.
However, by 2002 and after my first visit back to Viet Nam after 28 years, when the call to intensive practice became louder than any other voice, I did go to Tassajara. My intention was to do one practice period and then leave as I was not interested in SFZC given my previous experiences. However, after three plus years at Tassajara and Zen practices overseas in Japan and Viet Nam, the emphasis and practices of Zen which comes from an unshakeable trust and faith in the inherent Buddha Nature of all beings, has won over my heart and mind. And, I am aware of its ability to points towards real freedom I have also come to know and appreciate the expressions of Soto Zen via the forms, rituals, and SFZC-cultural mores.
When I teach in SF and in downtown Oakland, I have been approached by many who have come to SFZC wanting the Dharma yet was met with non-interactions, non-responsiveness, and unskillful responses. People experience these as coming from entitled white privileged perspectives and/or the inability to make the forms of Soto Zen practice accessible.
Just this month, I co-lead a POC 1-day at City Center. There has not been such an event at any of the SFZC branches for many years. Once the announcement went out, we were both asked at various times, “Why are you doing a group at an institution known for its racism?”
Wishing to honor our offering, we held the Sit. A third of the group had had interactions with ZC before but had not felt welcomed or fully met. By the end of the day, there was a strong request for the group to be ongoing. I am pulled by people’s desire and need for the healing powers and the possibility to know the innate freedom which the teachings of the Dharma can bring and the fear that having such a group at ZC would bring people to an environment which could further contribute towards the oppressive forces people already experience.
How can SFZC express our practices in the wider communities outside of its walls? How are our Bodhisattva Vows manifested in the neighbors and communities around the different centers? What is the impact of the intentions of these vows?
How can there be more awareness of white privilege and ways in which it fosters an entitled presence and unskillful interactions? Until these tendencies are addressed, the ability, especially of leaders at ZC, to be fully with oppressed people’s myriads and, most likely, “different” experiences is compromised. For now, reports is that there are too many unconscious, ignorant and/or defended responses from guilt or the entitled sense of “knowing” what POC’s “need” to be skillful or appropriate. Secondly, how to move beyond awareness to making wise efforts toward more skillful ways to address and establish a power-shift towards equity and parity; to move beyond characterizing racist behavior or situations as personal or interpersonal interactions to taking steps to address them on the institutional level.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of SFZC. The foundation of SFZC rests on the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a teacher of color. My hope for SFZC future, and its present, is for more awareness and skillful effort towards making the Dharma accessible.
As Suzuki Roshi said in a talk on June 1, 1969:
And actually, what is right effort is very difficult to explain. So to realize our mistake and to start to find out how to behave—how to make our right effort will be our—our practice. This kind of practice also will be continued forever.
And the way we behave, the way we do, should be always be renewed according to the time [and] according to the place you live. On each situation we must find how to live [and] how to practice our way. This is right effort.
Who is it that part of “our way”?
We take the Bodhisattva Vow to save all beings. ALL beings. Including those we have been conditioned to think of as “other.” If this vow could be said to come from “love,” then these words from bell hooks can be the call for right/wise change:
To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility.
May all beings have ease of access to the Dharma.
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