By Lena Turnbull
As the Black Lives Matter movement ricochets across the United States and around the world, people are reflecting on systemic racism and white privilege. More and more White people recognise the ways they benefit from a system that centres their needs. There is increasing public acknowledgment that the privileges White people experience come at the detriment of marginalised communities. People are joining across race, ethnicity, age, gender and culture in wanting to take action towards a more just and compassionate society for all.
So when the newsletter editor asked me to write about the Black Lives Matter movement, I quickly said yes. As a social worker and social policy researcher, issues of social justice are always at the forefront of my mind. But then I had to pause and think: what would the readers of a Buddhist centre newsletter want to read about in relation to issues of systemic racism and white privilege? How does Dharma intersect with issues of social justice? I sometimes wonder about that when I’m involved in political action or observing political action in the West; whilst I know there would be individual Buddhists present, I wonder: where is the wider movement of Buddhists taking action?
This leads me to wonder about the separation of Dharma from social justice or ‘politicised’ issues. When I look at it from the individual perspective, I see that people engage with the Dharma in all kinds of ways and with different motives and expectations. In practice, some people come to a Dharma space or approach a Dharma practice with a desire to feel good, or even to feel safe from the harsh world “out there”. People often want to connect with others with shared values and to enter a resonating space. I reflected on how at different times in my life, without realising it, I have used meditation to soothe myself from what sometimes feels like an actively violent or uncomfortable world, and I wonder if others have done the same. While we may recognise samsara in our everyday lives, is it possible that some of us seek to make the Dharmic space “sacred” (and separate) in a way that provides respite from that suffering? If so, where is the space for issues that make us uncomfortable, like systemic racism and white privilege?
With that in mind, I wondered if anyone would even want to read about the Black Lives Matter movement in a Buddhist newsletter; whether some people would feel like this is not the space for that conversation. And if there was interest in reading about the Black Lives Matter movement, what would that look like? Social justice issues are a part of my everyday work and social life, of my reality, so Dharma intersects with and touches these issues on a daily basis for me. This might not be the case for many readers, so what will be their response to this kind of article? I started to get tangled up in ideas of what this piece ‘should’ be and whether it should even exist. So I decided to pause, sit and listen.
Lama Rod Owens is a Black, queer Kagyu teacher in the United States of America. His online work is prolific and he speaks a lot about race and marginalisation in Dharma communities in the West. Lama Rod studied under Venerable Lama Norlha Rinpoche, who was the founding abbot at Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery (KTC) in New York. He completed a traditional three-year silent retreat at KTC and went on to study at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation (co-authored by Reverend angel Kyodo Williams) and is about to release a second book entitled Love and Rage: The path of liberation through anger.
I have included some links to Lama Rod’s work at the bottom of this piece, and I invite you to sit and listen too. Keeping an open mind and open heart, I invite you to reflect on his story; that as a member of marginalised communities, he has felt unsafe in Western Dharma centres and that in order to protect himself, he left those communities.
As Lama Rod spoke to his experience, I wondered about this sense of safety: what does it mean to feel safe? To me, it means you can express a level of authenticity and vulnerability without fear of backlash or hurt. To me the Dharmic path is so visceral and far-reaching that to fully engage, grow and apply the teachings, the ability to be vulnerable is essential. Without that ability, there’s so much growth you could miss out on.
I deeply felt the hurt that Lama Rod expressed in feeling excluded from predominantly white Western Dharmic communities. I heard his invitation (in this podcast interview) to sit with that feeling of hurt, rather than move to an intellectual understanding or into problem-solving mode. I took that hurt to the cushion in compassion practice and expanded it to include all beings who have felt excluded from communities. I wished that they would all find happiness and the causes of happiness.
For me, that feeling of compassion is a really solid basis for further reflection. It prompted me to wonder what I can do, as a member of a Buddhist community, to ensure that the community is inclusive to people of colour, Indigenous people and members of other marginalised groups. How can I help make the Dharma equally accessible to all? How may I use my position of privilege as a White person, who never has to fear rejection or violence based on the colour of my skin, to examine the structures and practices in place that may lead to exclusion?
I would invite the White people reading this to reflect on this too. Not because it’s ‘trendy’, but because Black people and members of marginalised communities across the world are bravely telling us that they’re hurting and have felt excluded from all facets of society. How can we open up our hearts and minds and hear them? What I have heard has propelled me to want to do better, in all facets of my life.
I want to actively make my community a welcoming and safe space for members of marginalised communities. I hope there might be ways we can all learn from the Black Lives Matter movement, as a small Buddhist community in Melbourne. Positioning ourselves from our Dharmic framework, how can we apply learning from this movement and how might we take action, in our individual and communal lives?
I want to express heartfelt gratitude to Lama Rod Owens for generously sharing his painful experiences in aid of others’ learning. Lama Rod’s online work is prolific and in the writing of this piece I drew from this podcast Lama Rod Interview, this article and these blog post and @lamarodowens.
The views expressed in this piece are my personal views.
 For the purpose of this article, I am utilising Ruby Hamad’s definition of white privilege which is included in the book “White Tears Brown Scars”. In the author’s note, Ruby writes:
Whiteness is the privileging of those racial, cultural and religious identities that most resemble the typical characteristics associated with fair-skinned (Western) Europeans. Consequently, the terms ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’ are not descriptive – they are political. When we talk about ‘white people’ we are not really talking about skin colour but about those who most benefit from whiteness. When we talk about ‘people of colour’ we talk about those who are excluded. I continue to have misgivings about the terms – due to the proximity of ‘people of colour’ to ‘coloured’ as well as the danger it can collapse the needs and issues of certain marginalised racial groups into others – but the lack of better terms necessitates their use at times. Expression such as ‘non-white’ imply whiteness is a neutral default and it can get cumbersome and redundant to list the various categories of ‘brown’, ‘black, ‘Asian, ‘Arab’ and so on individually.