Affinity Sanghas and the Practice of Refuge

Arisika Razak explores the history, meaning, and ultimate refuge of affinity-group sanghas.

By Arisika Razak

Function 1, 4, 2018 by Chloe Rosser.

I want to practice with people like myself. I feel comfortable around nappy hair and locks. Accented voices are soothing to me. Looking around at brown and yellow faces, I feel at home…In most of my environments—work, school, and social—I am the only African American present and, many times, the only non-white…In my sangha, however, where I may reveal my innermost feelings—my joys, pains, and fears—I want to feel safe, free, and supported in a way that I don’t yet feel within the dominant culture…White people generally have no idea how it feels to be one among many, as most can choose to function in all-white settings…For those raised among their own ethnic groups, adjustments and accommodations must be made in order to blend in. One must always be conscious of one’s speech and mannerisms and the need to appear unthreatening. One’s ethnicity must be submerged or moderated.

—Robin Hart, from “Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities”

The Buddha taught that all humans are subject to illness, aging, loss, and death; however, those targeted by institutional oppression experience shortened lives, lesser resources, and a constant barrage of physical and psychological attacks in addition to the normal vicissitudes of the body. This means that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), LGBTQIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Intersex, and Questioning) or queer people, working-class individuals, disabled people, and the elderly don’t always feel safe in gatherings of those with dominant-culture power and privilege. The response, increasingly, has been the formation of affinity-group sanghas, in which we practice in concert with people who reflect our social positionality and/or bio-cultural identities.

My reflections are based on my experiences in Western, meditation-based, convert Buddhism—especially Theravada Insight traditions that have developed in the United States. They also reflect my experiences as a Black person and my awareness of anti-Black racism. We are suspect in almost every legitimate endeavor we undertake. Whether we are entering our homes, napping in the public area of our college, or jogging in the streets, we are suspect. We can be murdered for being in what someone else considers “the wrong place”—a place they think belongs solely to people who do not look like us. This is also true of Buddhist spaces, whether we are students or are taking the leader’s seat. In her 2019 Buddhadharma article, “Awakening Fueled by Rage,” Zen priest Zenju Earthlyn Manuel wrote:

Many, because I interweave my experience of blackness with Buddhist teachings, assume my teachings are limited to skin color. The assembly often seems perplexed by the turning of the dharma wheel from a lived experience unfamiliar to them, and many express confusion as to whether I am actually espousing Buddha’s teachings or just speaking about my skin color…Even while wearing Zen robes, some students and teachers do not see me as a legitimate Zen teacher, even within the institution in which I was ordained.

Our presence raises questions. Our dharma is considered incomplete.

What is often lost in discussions of affinity-group sanghas is their historical context, the fact that many Euro-Americans who were exposed to Buddhist teachings in the 1950s and 1960s had those encounters within Asian and Asian American sanghas—sanghas from which they then decided to break away. In other words, they established Euro-American affinity-group sanghas that reflected their needs as modern, Western, middle-class Euro-Americans. Ann Gleig, in her book American Dharma, describes the founders of the Western Insight tradition—who studied abroad with Asian teachers—in this way:

They extended the modernization process initiated by their Asian teachers by discarding what they saw as Asian “cultural baggage” and rendering the dharma in a form that was most accessible for an American lay audience. As Kornfield explains, “We wanted to offer the powerful practices of insight meditation, as many of our teachers did, as simply as possible without the complications of rituals, robes, chanting, and the whole religious tradition.”

This cultural modification of Buddhism isn’t new—and it’s not necessarily problematic. Larry Yang makes clear in his book Awakening Together that Buddhism has always evolved to fit the contours and contexts of new cultures and times. It took about seven hundred years for Buddhism to successfully integrate the indigenous Chinese cultural philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism—and until that happened, says Yang, Buddhism was unable to take root in China.

In spite of Buddhism’s Asian heritage, the dominant-culture narrative accompanying the current development of Euro-American convert, meditation-based Buddhism has been particularly dismissive of Asians and Asian Americans. When Tricycle editor Helen Tworkov asserted in 1992 that Asian Americans had not made any significant contributions to the development of Buddhism in America, she was ignoring the fact that Buddhism was brought to the USA in the late nineteenth century by Asian and Asian American immigrants.

Dr. Funie Hsu, in her article “We’ve Been Here All Along,” shares the response to Tworkov by Rev. Ryo Imamura, a Jodo Shinshu priest. In his letter to Tworkov, Rev. Imamura pointed out that his grandparents and immigrants of their generation were the ones who brought Buddhism to America and nurtured it here; it was his American-born parents and their peers who kept Buddhism alive despite the need to keep it quiet or even to practice it in concentration camps. “It was us Asian Buddhists,” he wrote, “who welcomed countless white Americans into our temples, introduced them to the dharma, and often assisted them to initiate their own sanghas when they felt uncomfortable practicing with us” (italics mine).

Hsu asserts that anti-Asian racism and white supremacy problematized Asian American Buddhist practices, “delegitimizing the validity and long history of our traditions, then appropriating the practices on the pretext of performing them more correctly.” Her views are shared by Ajahn Amaro, the abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery, who wrote in support of Hsu’s article following the strong backlash against it:

It is sad to say, but in conversations with Western-born Buddhist teachers and practitioners, at formal meetings and conferences as much as in informal dialogues, I have regularly encountered the kind of white cultural conceit that speaks of practicing “real Buddhism” rather than “folk Buddhism” weighed down with so-called “cultural baggage.” As one whose lifestyle is devotedly built around such “baggage” (preferably understood as “skillful means”), such comments and discussions come across bearing the ugliness and conceit of…unconscious racism.

Issues of racism in Euro-American convert settings have been discussed for over three decades. In 2000, a sixty-page document, “Making the Invisible Visible—Healing Racism in Our Buddhist Communities,” was presented to the Western Teachers’ Conference at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Authored by over twenty-five long-term Buddhist practitioners, it is composed of personal comments and essays, resources for addressing the issue of Buddhism and diversity, and practical suggestions for making predominantly Euro-American Buddhist establishments more accessible to marginalized communities. It states that “the oppressive racial and economic conditioning of our greater society” is also present in our sanghas: “Practitioners of color face…obstacles of access, as well as of attitude…It is extremely difficult and painful for people who are already marginalized in society to then be marginalized again in their spiritual community.”

This marginalization, and the accompanying issues of safety, inclusion, and invisibility, affect women, working-class individuals, the queer/LGBTQIQ+ communities, and the disabled community. Transgender activist Ray Buckner has discussed the shaming and rejection that members of the LGBTQIQ + communities may experience from the larger society, as well as the unworthiness and self-doubt this shaming generates. In “Our Opportunity to Include All Genders in Buddhist Communities” in Lion’s Roar, Buckner pointed out that while skillful teachers may share wisdom that speaks to their condition as a trans person, less skilled teachers and sangha members may cause great harm due to their lack of awareness of trans bodies, gender pronouns, and the embodied issues that make meditation practices and dharma teachings more difficult for trans people.

At the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland California where I teach, affinity-group sanghas based on ethnicities, sexual orientation and gender identities, language, environmental sensitivities, and/or disabilities are the norm. Another core teacher at EBMC, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, has written to why these groups are so important:

Embodiment and issues of embodiment not only affect every part of our lives, but they are also every part of our lives…None of us can simply shed our bodies. Differences in appearance—judged to signify “same as ‘us’ and therefore safe,” or “different than ‘us’ and therefore threatening”—when combined with social differences in power and unexamined privilege, create the toxic conditions of racial “othering.” …Most people in meditation-based communities need to feel at a minimum “that I belong here when I look around the room,” in order to soften their body armor and let down their psychic shields enough to focus inwardly through one or more meditative techniques.

—“May I Also Be a Source of Life,” from The Arrow Journal

I believe that most of us intuitively understand the benefit of practicing in a sangha where the dharma is taught in your primary language, includes your lived experience, and accommodates your disabled body. Our center recognizes communities that have been inadvertently excluded: the deaf community, those with multiple chemical sensitivities, and those whose bodies require different accommodations. This is definitely challenging. Scented body products and aromatics linger for hours, so being scent-free means lifestyle changes. But accessing a scent-free sangha is not simply a lifestyle preference; it may make the difference between a functional life and weeks of illness.

One of the most problematic issues facing affinity groups has been resistance by dominant-culture people who feel they are being excluded. While marginalized communities constantly deal with issues of exclusion and not fitting in, members of dominant-culture groups usually have the privilege and power to enter any space they choose. Accusations of “reverse racism” and segregation often arise; sometimes, sangha members just ignore affinity-group restrictions, as in “I’m a person of color, too—I’m pink.” For those in the dominant culture, the way beyond that kind of thinking and that sense of exclusion is through interrogation of their own experiences. In “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People,” in The Arrow Journal, Kelsey Blackwell says that white people, even if they don’t truly understand the need for affinity groups, can still learn to trust those who do. “If the presence of spaces for people of color engenders discomfort, insecurity, or anger,” she writes, “I hope those emotions will be seen as an opportunity to look deeper within oneself to ask why.”

It’s important to recognize that affinity-group sanghas are not a panacea. Members of marginalized groups may enter affinity-group sanghas expecting to find a safe and welcoming space, but we all have multiple intersecting identities, and even affinity groups cannot always meet our need for safety and understanding. Difficult and ignorant people are found in every group—greed, hatred, and delusion are part of the human condition. In a BIPOC sangha, one might encounter xenophobia, anti-Black racism, ableism, homophobia/transphobia, and sexism. In recognition of this, some teachers of color have ended their retreats with a forgiveness ritual in which they both ask the sangha’s forgiveness for any harm they may have caused—due to action or inaction—and also forgive the participants for any harmful impacts of their own. Anti-oppression should be a normal part of every teacher’s training.

It is also critical that participation in an affinity group always be voluntary. Some members of marginalized groups may wish to take part in an affinity-group sangha; others might prefer to participate in a larger sangha. A quadriplegic friend of mine stated that he enjoys being part of sangha primarily composed of able-bodied people. When he’s meditating in his wheelchair, he says, he’s just like everyone else.

When I’m teaching diverse groups of people—and BIPOC includes a diversity of intersectional identities—I try to include teaching stories and anecdotes that are inclusive of different ethnic groups, gender identities, sexual orientations, and class backgrounds. Even working with exclusively Black affinity groups, I’ve learned that there is a universe of Black identities. I try to balance my cisgendered, elder, African American self with a teacher from the greater diaspora, one who may be younger, gender nonbinary, or queer.

Both in Buddhism and in the culture more broadly, there is a long history of cultural appropriation by members of the dominant culture—of claiming artifacts, ideas, and lifeways of marginalized groups without acknowledgement of the source. This can be especially egregious when folks who have appropriated cultural materials reap significant financial benefits that do not flow to the original source. Even when it is only knowledge that has been taken, the pain of cultural appropriation can be significant. The choice in our sanghas to recognize this history matters, as Funie Hsu reminds us:

The exclusion of Asian and Asian American Buddhists from conversations on American Buddhism is cultural appropriation. It renders invisible our foundational role in establishing and maintaining Buddhism in America despite white supremacy. [This]…erasure denies our right to claim our deep and specific connection—indeed, our centrality—to American Buddhism. It appropriates our historical authority in order to promote the white ownership of an indigenous Asian practice for liberation.

For myself, I’ve learned it’s important to cite the sources of my information. Given that the default assumption in a racist society is that all significant intellectual ideas arise from people of European descent, it’s important to highlight and center the dharmic and scholarly contributions of people of color and other marginalized groups. It’s also important to honor contributions that embody Buddhist notions of generosity, service, mutual aid, and devotion—qualities that are often devalued in the dominant culture’s focus on textual knowledge and intellectual mastery.

In that spirit, I want to acknowledge the generosity and kindness of the Euro-American, meditation-based, convert teachers who first introduced me to Buddhism, and I also want to thank the many teachers of color who have offered me a dharma and a sangha that welcomes my whole Black, embodied, female self. That’s what I want. It’s what we all need. Rev. angel Kyodo williams explains why:

I’m entitled to gather to determine the way and the path to my freedom. You will let me do that and not obstruct it. You will not put your needs and your desire for some kind of picture above my necessity. Doing so obstructs my ability to understand what it is to first be with myself, to be with people that I have not been allowed to be with just as I am.

—quoted in Nice Racism, by Robin DiAngelo

The larger sangha to which I want to return is a sangha that understands this statement, one that is committed to a lifelong process of learning and growing in order to better serve all people. It is a sangha committed to the process of cultural humility, cultural sensitivity and diversity, inclusion and equity. That is the sangha in which I—in which all of us—can take refuge.


Arisika Razak

Arisika Razak

Arisika Razak RAZAK is Professor Emerita at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she also served as the director of the Women’s Spirituality MA and PhD program and as Director of Diversity. She has been an inner-city midwife for over two decades, has performed nationally and internationally as a spiritual dancer, and has led embodied healing workshops for over thirty-five years. She teaches at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland.