On Sunday, January 19, 2014, Deirdre Eisho Peterson offered the following Dharma Talk in honor of Martin Luther King Day. The talk concluded with an opportunity for participants to reflect on a number of questions and share their experiences;  these questions are posted at the end of the dharma talk.

Good morning everyone.  Right now, half a century has passed since some of the momentous events of the Civil Rights movement in the mid 1960s.  And while we don’t see the level of violent societal racism that was evident then, racism continues today.  What I want to talk about this morning is a difficult topic, really looking at the personal aspect of racism – how we ourselves can experience prejudice against others, how despite our good intentions we can be unconscious perpetrators of racism, and why our Zen practice is so important if we are to work deeply with this.

It was just over 50 years ago that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, AL for his role in organizing a non-violent protest again segregation in that city.  While he was in jail, he began to write a letter.  Because his jailers would not allow him writing paper, he wrote the letter on the margins of newspapers.  He would give the newspapers to his lawyers to secretly carry to the outside world.

The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is one of Dr. King’s more powerful and inspired writings.  In responding to questions as to why he was in Birmingham, and why he was creating trouble, he writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly – affects all indirectly.

This network of mutuality is of course something very familiar to us in the framework of Zen – and at the same time, it is a truth that is bigger than Buddhism or any particular religious path or political view.  What affects one directly – affects all indirectly.

So at the time that Dr. King was in the Birmingham jail, I was in the first grade and a little too young to understand the significance of what he was saying or what the emerging civil rights movement was all about.  What I did know were the images that were on the nightly TV news that year and in the years that would follow – some of the ugliest scenes of deep racial hatred – of police officers with clubs, of beatings, tear gas and snarling dogs unleashed on non-violent marchers in the South.

So what were to make of these images, and the fear and hatred of that era?

To look at this, we need to look at the stories that our country told itself then, and the stories and beliefs we received from our families, schools, and the culture in general when we were growing up.  Beliefs and value sets about what was important, about how society should be, about the way the world is.  This includes stories about money, about class, about gender.  And, stories about race.

It is very difficult for us to see some of these stories, this conditioning, because it has been hard-wired into us.  This conditioning becomes part of the lens with which we see and experience and create our reality.  Many times we don’t see, we are not aware of this lens of conditioning, and as a result it isn’t questioned.

When it comes to racism, I’ve been reflecting on the stories around race that I grew up with.  It’s not like there were intentional conversations.  All of this is more subtle, more implicit.  The bits of conversation we overhear, the remarks that are made, the way we see people treated.  Studies have shown that children as young as three are already picking up racial attitudes, long before they have any understanding of them.

My mother, who would be 96 years old if she was still living, grew up in the Jim Crow South.  Segregation was the law of the land, and it permeated everything, all aspects of life.  At the same time, my mother was partially raised, as were many children of that era in the south, by an African-American housekeeper.  My mother called her Aunt Lou.  I don’t know Lou’s last name, but in my mother’s old scrapbook there is a tiny photograph of her, just a cut-out of her face.  Lou was born a slave.  She was a child during the Civil War and was freed by President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.  The time of slavery seems a long time ago, but when I look at my mother’s scrapbook I see that this time is not far away at all.  The legacy of that time in America is still with us today.

Here’s an excerpt of an article I read in a Florida newspaper last year, just after the killing of Trayvon Martin.   It was written by an African-American columnist.  “As a black person, I live race.  I am always acutely aware that  my race constitutes what is referred to as primary status:  that is, in the eyes of whites and other non-blacks, my skin color is the most important piece of information about me.  This condition is inescapable.  Race confounds our understanding because in addition to being ever-present, it is lived subconsciously by the victim and the perpetrator in a complex mix of conflicting sentiments, evasions, and often degrading actions/reactions.”

So I doubt that many of us here in the zendo this morning consider ourselves racists.  When we think of racists, we think of extremists, the people who commit appalling hate crimes.  Yet we are not seeing racism clearly if we limit it to something involving the extremists that we vilify.  I’d like to read you a few definitions of racism that look at this more deeply:

First:  racism is not necessarily about believing in stereotypes.  It is being steeped in the cultural ego’s fear of the other, without being aware of how deeply it is in us.

Here’s another:  racism is about seeing people as “other” in such a systematic way that it becomes an entrenched habit that we are not even aware of it.  It is racial mindlessness.

And a third:  aversion and avoidance are the two primary and most insidious forms of racism in the US today.  This also involves denial of seeing that people of color live in a different world.  It is the racism of ignorance, of not seeing, of being unaware.  It is subtle.  It is everywhere.

So the common thread in these definitions is the unawareness.  That we don’t see.  It’s like a deliberate not-seeing that in Buddhism is called Ignorance. And if we are to wake up, we need to see what is going on around us and inside us more clearly.  This is healing self and healing others.

Some of the things that we could bring to the surface and explore are the stories and beliefs, the conditioning, that we inherited around racial issues.  Whether we are a person of color or a person who is white, we have inherited stories and conditioning around race.  If we don’t make these stories conscious, there’s a good chance we will continue to see the world through other people’s belief systems.  Every time we bring one of these stories up to daylight and take a look at it, there is a little more liberation.

So even if you feel that none of this applies to you, it’s important to recognize that this conditioning is still there in the mind.  You can’t live in this society and not have absorbed some of the conditioning.  It will manifest in our thoughts and emotions around race.  I’d like to deny that, to say it isn’t true of my mind, because I abhor racism.  But if I’m not seeing what can surface in my own mind, then I’m in denial, and whatever thoughts arise still have power over me.  We disempower these thoughts when we see them, observe them, see them for the conditioning that they are. When we can see, then we have a choice how we will respond.

The question is, can we use our Zen training to deeply examine our conditioning?  To look closely, without denial, without judgment or shame, at our thoughts and emotions that arise around race?  For those of us who are white, can we start to look at ways that we can embody an unconscious attitude of white privilege?

This is where our Zen practice, and how we work with the mind, is so essential.  What is required is the commitment to practice — to examine all of what passes through the mind.  If we have a thought with racial overtones or an emotion around race that ripples through consciousness, can we see it?  We want to try to see all of it – to not let thoughts pass through unnoticed. To be that impeccable in our practice.  To have the courage and the meticulousness to see and acknowledge what is there.  To cultivate a fearless transparency.

Only when we have the willingness to look at all of it, to not pretend it’s not there … can experience more freedom from it.  Otherwise, unexamined, it festers. We might even start to believe it.  The great thing about practice is that everything that arises is grist for the mill.  No matter what your thoughts say about others.  For while this talk today is focused on issues around racism, it’s not just about race, it’s about all the ways we push away “otherness” – religion, ethnicity, class, sexual preference, age.  When we look closely we see that the mind can be filled with judgments, opinions, aversions – all things that we make self from.  All our twisted ancient karma, born of our body mouth and thought.

Here’s the Zen teacher Alan Senauke, talking about racism and how we practice with it:  “We try to uncover our own thought patterns.  This is painful and embarrassing but it is the essence of saving myself and saving all sentient beings.  It is amazing to see the stories that we can make up about other people, and how these stories are conditioned by race, class, privilege.  This is why we need a mindfulness practice, where we watch our thoughts about race or any kind of difference.”

I don’t know if Enkyo Roshi in NYC would remember this, but once many years ago I saw her in dokusan.  I remember that it took me quite a while to work up my courage to talk to her about this, because I was afraid of what she would think of me.  I told her that I felt ashamed of some of the thoughts that could come into my mind on the subway, thoughts about race and class and ethnicity, all of it.  I told her that those thoughts weren’t my values, but there they were.  And Roshi gave me a great teaching, one that has always stayed with me.  “Oh that’s just conditioning.  Just see it.”  Not a big deal.  Just what can manifest in the conditioned mind.  In my own experience, I’ve found it helps to mentally smile when these thoughts arise, even the ugly ones.  Ah there you are, hello.  Breathe in, breathe out.

In working with the racism that we may encounter in our own minds, it’s really important that we remember one of the profound, difficult and liberating teachings of the Buddha:  to take nothing whatsoever as me or mine.  All of it, a flow of conditioned things arising and passing away, all of it non-self.  Although each of us has different thoughts and different thought patterns, none of us own our thoughts or control them. We quickly see when we sit down to practice zazen that thoughts are not under our control.  What we find, in zazen, is Thoughts Without A Thinker.  Each one of us has negative thoughts, has loving thoughts.  From a practice standpoint they are all just thoughts.  They arise under certain conditions and pass away.  We don’t have to take ownership.

So let me give you an example of something that I’ve been working with recently.  I read an article in the op-ed section of the NY Times.  It was written by a black man, a professional, who wondered why, on trains, white people didn’t sit next to him.  That story really hit me.  Was I one of those people?  So where you sit on a train, or in a waiting room, is a really interesting place to observe how conditioning manifests.  When I looked at my actions on a train, I realize that the first thing I look for is someone who looks reasonably quiet, like they are not going to yell into their cell phone.  This is just being practical.  But then I realized that I usually look for someone like me.  Female, probably probably middle aged.  Probably white.  All of this largely unconscious, mind you, until I read that article.  So once that became conscious for me, I decided to work with it.  When I had a choice of seats, I’d sit next to a person of color.  I’d say hello and sit down.  Externally, not a big thing. But internally, there’s something more.  What’s important is coming out of the trance, where we make choices that we aren’t even aware we’re making.

I’d like to conclude with a teaching from Thich Naht Hahn.  He is talking about how we can work with the suffering that rises up from the past.  That could be our own personal pain, or it could be at the societal level.  He says this: “If we are standing firmly in the present, we can see that The Ghosts of the Past, which follow us into the present, also belong to the present moment.  To observe these Ghosts deeply is to transform them.”  Through our attention and our presence, we don’t have to be bound by the ghosts of the past.  This is healing the present for ourselves and for all beings.

Questions for Reflection

What messages or stories did you receive when you were growing up about racial issues? These could have been direct or more implicit.

Are there any specific moments that you especially remember as a child around racial issues – either that you witnessed (in person or perhaps via the media), or that you were involved with?

What comes up for you now, as an adult, when you recall this?

How do you see that conditioning on racial issues impacts you today?

What happens if you notice racism in your own mind? Do you tend to believe your thoughts? Not really notice them? Pretend that they are not there? Judge yourself for having them?

How could dharma practice be of benefit to you personally in working with racism in the mind?