“I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”
~ Dr. Martin Luther King
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ~ Mother Theresa
“We only need to be still and things will reveal themselves in the calm water in our heart.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
As I start writing this, I am wondering what I can say to give some perspective to the unfolding events in our country. There is a deep sadness, some fear, and real hope for change as I witness what looks like the sea turning. We are seeing karma unfolding. Every action has its roots is what has come before. The country we live in has a painful history of greed, ignorance, and delusion that allowed America to believe it was moral and just to kidnap, enslave, and own another being based on the color of their skin. The full effect of over 350 years of violence and exclusion has never been fully reckoned. When we hear about white individuals with power killing Black and Brown skinned individuals without power, we are seeing the continuation of the brutal legacy of buying and selling humans, the legacy of the lie that we are worth less if our skin is dark.
2,600 years ago, the Buddha left the life of extreme privilege and protection to understand what leads to suffering and what leads to the end of suffering. He broke with convention and spread the new doctrine that our station in life is not determined by our birth and social class. He changed the meaning of noble from one who is born into a life of privilege and honor, to the ennobling acts we do which create nobility in ourselves. He discarded the tradition of caste that kept people stuck in limited roles. He accepted all who came to end suffering, the poor, the privileged, even a serial killer and most radical of all—women.
He taught a new way of understanding ourselves and our world and saw that all suffering stems from the three constantly burning fires of greed, hatred and fear, and the ignorance or delusion that keeps us from seeing the truth.
As a white person, I know my race has committed atrocities in the name of greed, hatred, and delusion. If I believe that my personal history and my ancestor’s history of victimization and oppression exempts me from responsibility, I am not facing the truth that I too am included in this systemic hierarchy of privilege.
For those of us who meditate, we know that the more we engage in meditation and deep looking, the more we show up for what’s happening in our lives. Meditation is not a way to escape from our reality and from pain. Meditation is a way to be with it. Stepping into a larger capacity we have the opportunity to find the strength to wake up.
There is a world that is frustrated and angry because of the need for justice and accountability. There are people around the world who are standing up to the legacy of this inheritance.
In Christianity we learn we are our sibling’s keeper. In Buddhism we learn, we are our sibling. This is the understanding of Interbeing. That we are all capable of the same actions if our conditioning were that of others. We also see that we are not able to stand apart from what is happening. If we are Black, we are caught in this system of oppression and if we are white, as much as we would rather it be different, we are also caught in this system of oppression. As white allies, we can act as anti-racists honestly facing and checking our bias and seeing ourselves as not just good individuals, but as part of the white race.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a poem in 1978 in response to helping the Vietnamese boat people. Call me by my True Names tells us that we are both victim and victimizer, “I am the twelve year old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.” He writes that if he were raised with no hope, with few resources and learned that violence was the only way to get what he needed, he too would be capable of the same actions.
In response to what is happening in our country, I am writing in the footsteps of my teacher Thay.
Breathing in, I clearly see the roots of racial suffering in my land. The injustice of the Europeans who claimed the land of the First Peoples. I know that the poison of greed enabled European settlers to rob the land and lives of the First People who cared for the land and animals of America for centuries. I know if I were raised in a different time and place, I too would be a colonist who displaced native culture and I too am the First people whose lives and culture is shattered by white colonialism.
Breathing out, I am aware that my land is still connected to the indigenous people who cared for it. Breathing in and out, my heart is filled with sadness at the injustice and oppression of the Native people of America at the hands of white people.
Breathing in, I can clearly see the flowering of discrimination as white European Americans kidnapped Black citizens to buy and sell them as possessions. Breathing out, I know the poison of delusion & greed, fueled this violence and ignorance. Breathing in and out I heartily regret the actions of my race who acted in ignorance, fear, and greed and deprived others of their rights and lives. Breathing in, my heart is weighed down by the continued loss of life, threat, and disadvantages of my Black and Brown skinned siblings who are afraid for their lives.
As I breathe, I know that if I too am the white police officer, a son, a father, a husband who deprives another of breath, and in my fear, shoots a Brown skinned son, father & husband. And I am the Black son, father, and husband who is shot, and suffocated. I am not separate from either of these beings.
I see myself as the young man fueled by pain and hopelessness who smashes store windows and sets fire to cars and as the store owner who loses their livelihood because of my frustration and rage. I make space in myself to hold all this pain.
Breathing in and out, I know that I too am the Brown skinned person without papers in the US, who escaped a life of poverty. I am also the white ICE agent who arrests and deports those without papers and separates their children from their parents because I am following orders.
I am the Neo-Nazi who rallies and believes that one religion and race is superior. I am the Jewish student who is shot attending temple during the High Holy days. I can clearly see the roots of ignorance and hatred that make this possible. I know that if my life were different, I too would be capable of these things.
Breathing in I am the transsexual women who is beaten for using a public bathroom. I am also the ones who beat her. I am not different from these people. I can clearly see the seeds of fear that fuels this hatred and violence.
Breathing in and out, I see that the toxins of ignorance, hatred, fear, and greed have brought poison into the body and consciousness of my country, America. I vow to practice transforming these afflictions, to create wisdom, kindness, and generosity which are the remedies to these wounds for myself and for my nation.
Knowing I am not separate from the constructs of racism and discrimination, I set my intention to practice clear seeing into my own unconscious bias around race, gender, religion, and economic inequality. I will look with compassion when I want to look away or deny that I am part of the white race which has created the dominant culture of power and repression. This is not different from our practice. Waking up to what is—is our practice.
May we all trust our light,
Reference: Nhat Hanh, T., (1997). Call me by my true names; The collected poems of Thich Nhat Hanh. Parallax Press: Berkeley CA.