International Western Theravada / Vipassana Teacher’s Conference
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, CA
June, 2002

Note: This is an edited version of the original presentation. Please note that material included in brackets has been added to this version by the author for purposes of clarification, but was not included in the original presentation.

I want to say a few words about freedom from racism, or healing racism. I’ll begin with a quote from a speech by Edward James Olmos that he delivered a few weeks ago at a graduation ceremony:

Every single person in here and on this stage today still uses the understanding that there is a Caucasian race, that there’s an Asian race, that there’s an African race, and an indigenous race. Well, I am here to tell you, you should have never invited me if you didn’t want to learn one thing today. And that’s: there’s only one race, and that’s the human race. Period.

I have spent my entire adult life trying to realize how in the world are we ever going to come together when we keep on using the word race as a cultural determinant. How can we even look at one another, understand our unity and humanness, when we consider ourselves different races. Why was it started? We all know why: because it’s easier for me to kill you because you are a different person, a different race, and for you to kill someone else, because they are a different race.

–Edward James Olmos, commencement address at National University, San Diego, May 2002

Now, let me speak from my own personal history and experience here in this sangha. Here in the practice (in the Theravada practice), approximately twenty-nine years ago I did my first week-long retreat with Jack Kornfield and Jacqueline Mandel. There were about one hundred people in attendance and I was the only person of color in the room. Together, we practiced the five precepts–at least in the meditation hall. From 1975 to 1979, anywhere from two to four times a year I would do a week-long retreat, including at Yucca Valley. About one hundred to one hundred fifty people would be there. But I was still the only person of color. Why was I doing that to myself?

From 1979 to 1982, I decided to take a break from the Theravada practice and I began (up in the Northwest) to assist in coordinating most of Steven Levine’s retreats, and some of Ram Dass’s retreats, waking up early in the morning as a bell-ringer. I’ll never forget one morning, stepping into this one building and ringing the bell, and hearing this person say, “Lord, you sent a nigger to wake me up!†Because of my practice, I took a breath and continued walking. Was I being a do-gooder? No. [I was using my practice to work with my experience of that comment, and not react, while continuing on with my duties.] Having been a Vietnam veteran, I’ve seen a lot of people die. [From that perspective, I realized I’d rather wish kindness on this person, rather than arguing back.]

Somewhere around 1984, Jack Kornfield began to teach at Lama Foundation. The following year, I decided to take another retreat out at Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley. It was a month-long Metta retreat. I believe it was only the second one in the country. Joseph and Sharon had just finished with a month or two of doing Upandida Sayadaw. [There we had the honor of having the presence of U’Janaka Sayadaw and U’Silananda Sayadaw, Burmese meditation masters.] Again, there were approximately one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty people. I felt good, for a moment, because I wasn’t the only person of color in the room. There was at least one other person, a Vietnamese monk. I said, “Wow, this is incredible.†He and I were in the same group with Joseph. Once, Joseph said, “You two are the old students.” And I said, “Joseph, something has to change.” He said, “What do you mean, Ralph?” I said, “Just look around. Something has to change. This is not right. We are the only people of color, just two of us.” He said, “Yeah, you’re right. But you’re here now, so let’s do the practice.” And I said, “Wow. Okay. I can do the practice.” And I learned something very important from that exchange; namely, I learned that I can take this practice and really not look at the issue of diversity. But now–at the present moment– I’m taking this practice and I’m looking at this issue.

As time went on I ended up again at Lama Foundation in New Mexico, and I had to make a decision: whether to become a closet practitioner or…, or what? What I decided was that I love to practice because it takes care of my P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) from being a Vietnam veteran. And so I said, “Jack, I want to learn how to teach this.†And he said, “Okay.†It was great. He came to Lama Foundation once a year for ten years. I began ringing the bell, and sitting in groups, then one year he said, “Ralph, I want you to start a group in Santa Fe.†I started a group in Santa Fe, and now that group is alive and strong, doing its own thing. And then another year came around and he said, “Okay, next year you are going to give a dharma talk.†Great. I had a whole year to prepare for it! No problem.

During one of those years, I had a conversation with Jack, Julie Western and, I believe, Mary Orr. We said, “We need to do something about this sangha. It’s much too European-American.†So we designed the concept of the Inter-Racial Buddhist Council. It took a few years before we did a retreat here at Spirit Rock. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. Why? Because we got a lot of flack from the teachers and staff here–everything from, “Why do you want to do a retreat like this?†to “Why can’t they just come in with everybody else?†But after explaining how Ruth Denison had instigated so many retreats just for women, and how the gay and lesbian community was such a strong force in initiating its own retreats as far back as the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, some understood that people of color needed to have their own retreat. And they finally gave in.

I’ll never forget that day–of having that retreat here. There were about fifty or sixty people, Jack and I, and, I believe, Michelle Masudo. We were in tears just about the whole day. For the first time in my life, in this room, I felt the difference between working in a meditation group of mostly European-Americans vs. working with a people of color meditation group. I’d never been in a room like that before. The difference was like black and white. I had never felt so much sadness and, at the same time, so much joy—in myself but also in the room, in everyone. I had certainly never experienced that in any European-American retreat setting. Just looking at people who were more connected to and in contact with their sadness was a very different experience—[an experience of what it feels like being in a room with an oppressed culture compared to a culture that wasn’t born into oppression]. I realized, “Wow, this is definitely an oppressed culture,†[because this was the first people of color retreat I had experience, and I saw what a rare opportunity this is in our culture today]. One person stood up and said, “I’m so glad to be here. I thought I was the first. I thought I was the only African-American, gay, vegetarian physician in Oakland.†It was incredible; it was an incredible moment. The group was very culturally diverse. And I thought, wow, there’s something to learn here.

Now I want to read you something a Native American man wrote about wanting to be in a people of color group [in which he compares his experiences of entering a sweat lodge with that of entering the sangha]. He wrote, “For me, to sit is a ceremony.†He is a shaman, an Indian shaman, who has done a lot of Theravada practices. He continues:

It is no different than a sweat lodge. It just has slightly different protocols and rituals. I go to listen and hopefully learn something. In the sweat lodge, not just anyone can come. You have to be invited, whether that’s a personal invitation or an invitation to an entire group.

For me, if the dharma is to continue as a people-of-color-dharma, people need to be invited by other members of the group. I don’t think this requires any special rules, necessarily. It’s just like a ceremony, a spiritual ceremony. Regardless of color, one should be invited. Tam (a white woman, by the way) said to me last week that often, white people don’t get this. I believe this has to do with the issue of privilege, about which I’ll say more later. “What do you mean, I don’t have a right to go where I want when I want?” they say. Well, in our Native American world-view, you don’t necessarily have that right. You have a responsibility to the group, and sometimes that means you aren’t a part of the group. This is true in all indigenous cultures. Members of one cultural society don’t necessarily know the ceremonies of another and aren’t expected to. They also don’t feel slighted because of it.

Someone else wrote the following about being a European-American in a people of color sitting group:

First of all, I appreciate your honesty. But I must say that I feel a little perplexed. Perhaps I am being naïve, but I joined the group as a way of healing and looking inward, while both giving and receiving energy within the group without any thought to racial issues. As I said during last Friday’s group, I had some apprehension about being a white person in a people of color group, but that was quickly dispelled by the warm welcome that I received. This is my first foray into mediation practice. I have never been part of any sangha. It was never my intention to intrude on or infiltrate anything. I truly understand the need for safety, and if my presence causes any uncomfortable feeling for those who have been there before me, I will gracefully exit. I do, however, think that focusing on our differences rather than on singularity is what leads to racism, or even war. My feeling is that we are all hanging by a thread and must try to be kind to each other and ourself.

These two statements I just read to you came out of a group in Albuquerque, a people of color group that actually Joseph seeded. It’s a very mature group, quite unusual. They don’t want their group to just be a “people of color†group. They want European-Americans to be included and have European-Americans in their group. [But, they need to have an understanding that people of color live in an oppressed culture–the American society–and need to show a certain kindness toward the people of color in the group.]

Now I want to have you consider two concepts: separation/segregation vs. integration. You need to understand that at one time in most of our lifetimes, only forty years ago or so, this notion was forced upon us. Only now is it a choice. Now, it’s a choice—a separation of people of color from European-American culture or an integration of the two cultures. Separation or integration. Here at Spirit Rock, we’ve been doing a lot of different projects and activities in relation to people of color as a means to include them, but we also need to understand that our way of doing things is still segregation. That’s okay…but only if integration eventually follows. [Currently, we have people of color retreats, and then we have other retreats. Yet although people of color are invited to our regular or other retreats (and scholarships are even provided), they are only now beginning to attend. Mostly this is because of the inspiration they feel from having first attended a people of color retreat, and then deciding to continue in the practice.]

[As we begin to train and encourage people of color to become teachers, hopefully this will encourage people of color to come and practice. We as teachers can also encourage our sanghas through dharma talks to create more diversity and address the issue of the integration of people of color into our groups. However, how we each do this is up to the individual group to decide, based on its own insight and experience.]

One other concept to mention: racism. Now, racism is of course a very big topic and is very intense in the Western world. Of course, in other parts of the planet, there are two racehorses running, with a competition between racism and classism. Although this is a complex issue, let me just say that in Germany, for example, before World War II classism was a main issue. Since the wall that separated East and West Germany came down, however, racism and classism are equally issues to be dealt with in that culture. Here in America, racism has always been an intense and volatile notion. These are just facts. [This is what keeps us separate. I’m not saying we can dismantle this as a society, but we can begin to dismantle it in ourselves. And we can address this in our sangha. And this is at least a start.]

In 2001, I was invited to the National Conference of Black Lawyers to do some meditation work with them. The conference organizers decided to have their conference in Selma, Alabama that year because Selma had its first black Mayor. One of the speakers, a local attorney from Montgomery, Morris Dees, began to tell us some stories about some of his litigations. As he began talking, I started crying. So did everyone else in the room. I mean, I began to look at my watch to make sure that I wasn’t hallucinating or anything. I couldn’t believe some of the stories he told: How could a judge order all people of color out of the courtroom? Don’t you dare come in here!? And he told stories of kids being picked up for a misdemeanor by police, and then for twenty-four or forty-eight hours being sexually abused. Racism is alive and well. It is very, very strong. Very strong.

Why did I just go back outside my discussion of the sangha to give you some stories? Because, we are a very conscious group here. [We as teachers should be aware of what is happening in our world and how that might relate to our sangha, because our sangha is a mirror of what is happening in the world.] And this person, Morris Dees, has created what is called ‘a wall of tolerance.’ He has a computer network system of people always looking, surfing the net. When anything close to racism appears, they target it. Dees is so potent a person that some Jews have anointed him as a Rabbi. What are we doing? [Here is this person, acting like a Bodhisattva–doing it. And here I am in this room, the only person of color, and what are we doing?]

The last concept I want to touch upon is privilege vs. oppression. You need to understand that any person of color born here is born into an oppressed race. Now, of course, this is on a mundane or conventional level. But that person will never, never, know what it feels like to have a sense of freedom–on a mundane, conventional level. It’s impossible. It’s impossible. Except on a class level. . There are those people of color who have reached a certain economic level such that ‘money talks and color walks.’ But those are just pseudo-privileges. From Hollywood stars on down, it doesn’t matter if you’re a person of color or not: in either case, in American culture, money buys privilege. Those are just the bare-bones facts. From the conception of the Declaration of Independence, this society was designed for the person of privilege. European-Americans are privileged people. It doesn’t matter if you were born into a very poor family; at least you can step out and up in the world. [It is this discrepancy between oppression and privilege that contributes to the roots of racism in all areas of our society.]

Now, this is something that is very important. For people of color to grow and advance in this society, they have–to it’s an absolute must–connect with the culture of European-Americans. To get a taxicab, buy a house, buy land, or buy a plane ticket, the connection is necessary. For a European-American, to connect with people of color is a matter of choice. It’s only a choice. You need to understand this. We, as teachers, need to understand this. [Otherwise, it is too easy to walk around thinking that everything is OK in our sangha, and that it doesn’t really matter whether people of color are coming to our sangha or not.]

[So, in order for our sangha really to become more diverse, if that’s what it wants to do, it has to openly and sincerely invite people of color. I also invite you to investigate the language usage of your sangha and to learn to be respectful of the language usage of people of color. Hopefully, as European-American dharma teachers, you will be able to gain a more in-depth understanding of various cultures. From this understanding, you may become more comfortable with teaching the dharma to a culturally diverse population, as well as becoming motivated to make efforts to attract people of color to your sanghas. I hope that each of you will reflect on what I have said here today. Then we, as dharma teachers, can take advantage of this opportunity to openly acknowledge the homogeneousness of the cultural make-up of our community sanghas, and begin to consider becoming more diverse. Only then can we hope that individual freedom and cultural unity may be attained.]

Edited Version Appears In

Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism;