Forum: BIPOC Buddhism

La Sarmiento, Margarita Loinaz, and Carol Iwata discuss the experiences of BIPOC Buddhist practitioners—the obstacles they face, and the contributions they are making. Moderated and with an introduction by Mariana Restrepo.

By Mariana Restrepo

My family and I immigrated to the United States when I was in my early teens. As undocumented immigrants, we had to go unnoticed; we had to blend in as much as possible, never calling attention to ourselves and never talking about our situation because you never knew who could be trusted. There was no celebrating our heritage and customs. When speaking in Spanish to friends at school, I often heard “This is America! Speak English” or “Go back to your country!” I learned to be observant and, following all these rules, I unconsciously learned how to belong. I assimilated. Looking back, it was a process of discerning what fit and what didn’t, erasing the parts of me that were considered “other.” Back then, my accent mortified me. While my features granted me white-passing privilege, my accent—rolling R’s and demarcated Y’s that sounded more like J’s—was a clear giveaway of my Latin American origin.

I first encountered the dharma in Miami and then Nepal, both diverse communities where diverse cultures and backgrounds are welcomed and celebrated. It wasn’t until I attended my first meditation retreat that I was reminded of that feeling of being “other” once again. It was a silent retreat, and the demographics were what you typically would expect: middle-aged, upper-middle–class, white, and mostly male. I had been invited to attend, yet I felt out of place; I felt like I did not belong.

It wasn’t until I listened to a talk by Rev. Lien Shutt that I realized what made me feel that way. She mentioned how the emphasis on nonconceptualizing often translates to not offering clear instructions. Practical aspects, such as how to behave in a shrine room, bow, and prostrate, are often learned through observation rather than practical instruction. This is a nice ideal, as Rev. Shutt mentioned in her talk, but historically, placing people of color in positions of not knowing has had very real repercussions in their lives, from not being able to receive services to even being punished. In a practice context, even if the aim is nonconceptualization, withholding knowledge can have huge consequences in the lives of BIPOC practitioners, effectively making practice inaccessible for them. In listening to Rev. Shutt’s talk, I realized that not knowing—not knowing what was expected of me, then failing to meet those expectations—created significant anxiety. Instead of being a refuge, the retreat became one more place where I felt I didn’t belong.

In this forum, I talk with three BIPOC teachers whose work has focused on making Buddhism more diverse and inclusive. They discuss how attempts at diversity and inclusivity in our sanghas often fall short, how a basic lack of understanding of BIPOC practitioners often renders practice and practice spaces inaccessible, and how assimilation so often passes as diversity.

It’s been twenty-three years since the first People of Color retreat at Spirit Rock in 1999. We have come so far, but as La Sarmiento mentions in the forum, we are far from a kumbaya moment. So, where do we go from here? It is not a question of whose burden/privilege it is; after all, interconnectedness is at the heart of our Buddhist practice. This forum doesn’t assume it has all the answers. Rather it is an invitation, an opportunity for each of us to examine our roles and responsibilities to our sanghas and each other. Whether it resonates with you or rubs you the wrong way, I invite you to lean into that space and explore why. —Mariana Restrepo, Associate Editor

Moderator: Mariana Restrepo, Panelists: Carol Iwata, Margarita Loinaz, La Sarmiento

Mariana Restrepo: Is there something we can identify as BIPOC Buddhism? Are there distinct Buddhist practices or teachings, for example, that have more affinity within the BIPOC context?

Margarita Loinaz: What stands out for me in BIPOC sanghas is the emphasis on community, the relational aspect, the interconnectedness, and the valuing of our ancestors, the understanding of what comes through the lineage that we’re born into physically and culturally. I feel like the priority within the BIPOC sangha is the relational aspect of the teachings.

The way Buddhism was sold to white America was very individualistic. You sit on your cushion, you meditate, you work on your stuff, and you don’t have to deal with the world. —Carol Iwata

Carol Iwata: I agree. And I wonder, how would the relational aspect really take hold in the predominantly white sanghas? I spent some time talking with the Buddhist scholar Jake Nagasawa about how Buddhism was sold, if you will, to white America, because it was very individualistic. You sit on your cushion, you meditate, you work on your stuff, and you don’t have to deal with the world.

Another is that race and racism are central to our practice. Awareness of it and of being safe from white supremacy, voyeurism, all of those things—awareness, too, that race is embodied in us. In that way, our practice is more embodied, as well.

I think this awareness of race gives impetus to a lot of the social justice work that comes out of BIPOC sanghas. It’s not unusual for people in larger, predominantly white sanghas to accuse their communities of spending too much time on social justice. They didn’t come there for that—they came there to get away from it.

La Sarmiento: For me, having been brought up in a dominant culture sangha, I remember when I went to my first people of color retreat at Spirit Rock. I was like, “Oh my God, people on the stage look like me. And they’re speaking about experiences that I never hear in mainstream retreats.” Whether we came from immigrant families or our ancestors were slaves in this country, there is the common thread of a history of colonization, marginalization, and oppression that we could feel, a depth of understanding that never really gets spoken about in dominant culture sanghas.

It was just so clear to me, the quality of presence, of actually feeling like a sangha. There was a sense of connection, versus just a bunch of people sitting in a room together doing their own thing. It’s very collectivist. We need each other in order to survive. That’s how we get through. And it’s not the same for the dominant culture, especially white folks.

Mariana Restrepo: Are there any particular practices or teachings you have found that speak more directly to the experiences of BIPOC practitioners?

Margarita Loinaz: Thich Nhat Hanh was able to center suffering as the doorway to liberation in a way that I’ve never seen any other teacher do, not quite like that. He was so embodied because of his own trajectory of what he went through, what he saw, the horrors he witnessed, and his own struggle with anger and rage. All that helped him teach a way of opening the heart to our own experience, our own feelings.

He also taught how in the midst of pain, we could smile. This smile even in the face of great suffering provides a deep opening in our hearts. He demonstrated the integration of interdependence and compassion, both of which are aspects of Buddhism that feel very relevant to marginalized communities.

La Sarmiento: I was so angry when I entered the dharma, and I remember I read a Thich Nhat Hanh book where he invited me to smile at a flower. And I’m like, I can’t smile at no goddamn flower. I’m so angry. It took me a while to get Thay’s teachings. But once I got there, I saw, it really is so defiant, right? No matter the intensity of what we’re holding inside or the intensity outside, to keep our hearts open is one of the most revolutionary things.

For me, one of the Buddhist teachings that resonates is the remembrance of our own buddhanature, our own basic goodness, wisdom, and compassion. It’s all already there in every single one of us on the planet. We have this inherent dignity that no one can take away. All these teachings point toward moving through our suffering into liberation. Learning to work with it and transform it is key, especially for those of us who’ve been marginalized, suppressed, or colonized.

Carol Iwata: I agree so much. I think the teachings that are critical for the way that BIPOC people practice Buddhism are the ones that are founded in what our life experience is. Those that speak from that awareness of how we have been marginalized or how we have been oppressed, of how we have suffered at the hands of larger forces. Examples of such teachings come from folks like Lama Rod Owens, Thich Nhat Hanh, angel Kyodo williams, and Resmaa Menakem.

There is a collection of essays that came from Thich Nhat Hanh’s people of color retreats called Together We Are One. At the back of the book, there’s a beautiful invocation naming every one of the families of the earth: white, black, red, yellow. It’s just so gorgeous. I cried when I first heard it, and when I’ve read it to groups, other people have cried as well.

Even fundamental teachings can be framed in a way that is conscious of the BIPOC experience. I went to a retreat led by angel Kyodo williams, hosted by Upaya Zen Center. She was teaching from the Hsin Hsin Ming (“Verses on the Faith-Mind”), which is one of the foundational Zen teachings about duality and oneness. She talked about oneness and nonduality as being complete within, that connecting wholly with yourself is where oneness starts.

Mariana Restrepo: In your experience, are there any practices or teachings that can feel oppressive or harmful to BIPOC practitioners?

La Sarmiento: Sitting with that, it’s bringing up the whole no-self teaching. The interpretation I’ve experienced from dominant culture folks is “None of these identities you have are important because we’re all one.” And my retort to that is “Well, whose one are we being?” The absolute truth is yes, we’re all one, but the relative truth is we don’t treat each other that way. And as human beings on the same planet, that is what we need to address. Getting there is a beautiful aspiration, but we’re nowhere near that right now.

Also, the way Western convert Buddhism was brought here in a monastic model has been very inaccessible to a lot of folks who can’t take a week or a month or three months off work. It’s elitist, and trying to find ways to create access so everyone is able to practice, so parents can practice, has been a challenge. There’s not a lot of inclusion of family. In Thich Nhat Hanh communities, they invite kids, they start them at a very young age. They ring this bell throughout the day, and all the kids stop playing and just take three breaths.

The absolute truth is yes, we’re all one, but the relative truth is we don’t treat each other that way. As human beings on the same planet, that is what we need to address. —La Sarmiento

Carol Iwata: Thinking about the monastic model that came with Buddhism to the United States, what’s intriguing, and very telling, is that Caucasians decided to focus on the meditation part and threw away a lot of the rest. They said, “Oh, that’s cultural Buddhism.” That’s why a lot of us Asians have some difficulty in mainstream Buddhist communities, because they’ve rendered the Asian roots of Buddhism invisible and have just whitened them out.

It reminds me of a story that Lama Rod Owens recounted in Radical Dharma. He went to the head teacher of his community and said he was having a terrible time because of the racism and homophobia he was experiencing. And the direction from the teacher was, “Go sit on your cushion, go work on it.” That is a poisonous teaching. That could drive somebody to not only leave the sangha, but also to despair and possibly self-harm. I think the most destructive teachings are the ones that choose to interpret oneness, nonduality, as excluding everything that BIPOC people are. Some people say, “I don’t see color,” which is an amazingly blind comment. The white American way of practice focuses on the individual and on the absolute to the exclusion of the relative, the world that we live in with all of its issues.

Margarita Loinaz: It feels like a form of disembodiment, a negation of the body, a negation of our vulnerability and need to connect. A major difference is that teaching within BIPOC communities is more embodied.

The BIPOC community is so diverse. I come from the Latin American Caribbean culture, where we dance. I mean, I dance all the time. I can’t imagine not dancing. At Christmastime, the grandparents and the parents and everybody would dance so much we got blisters on our feet. So, there’s this engagement and ability to enjoy the embodied experience. Sometimes, when I feel that rigidity in Buddhism, it reminds me of the dogmatic teachings that exist in every religion, where they tried to choke the humanity out of the person.

With the study groups, we sometimes use music, dance, and unstructured movement to engage our bodies, holding the principle that the very fabric of our lives, with everything in it, is the chariot to freedom. Everything about our lives with nothing left out is the path, and the teaching becomes life itself—if we are able to recognize this.  That is radical and threatening to social structures that want to have people conform to the world of convention.

One of my favorite teachings from Dogen is in Bendowa, “The Wholehearted Way.” He described how the incomparable awareness of all things returns to the person in zazen, whereby the person and the myriad things intimately and imperceptibly assist each other. He was talking about how the manifested world is like the lover and it’s also ourselves. We’re in this incredible relationship. Dogen used to complain about how many other teachers of his time were so dogmatic they would miss that point. They would miss the freedom he was speaking to.

Mariana Restrepo: I read an analogy La used regarding inclusion in sanghas, and it goes like this:

Say a dominant culture sangha or organization is having a dinner party and they decide they want to invite some new guests. The guests say, “Oh that’s great! Can we bring our own food? And we’ve got music and we like to dance after we have dinner.” The dominant culture sangha is like, “No, we’ve already ordered the food and we just need you to come to the table and eat our food. We don’t need your music, we don’t need you bringing food that smells different or looks different.”

What are the offerings that people of color are bringing with them into the larger Buddhist communities? What are the things that practitioners of color are bringing with them that help Buddhism grow in a different direction or push the boundaries?

La Sarmiento: It’s so interesting to me that they want us there—to be there and to stay long enough so they can take a picture and put it on their website or their brochure—but they want us there in the way they want us to be there, so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable or challenged or confronted. And that’s not really inclusion; that’s assimilation. To me, if you want to be a “woke” white person or whatever, allow people to bring dance, bring music. Let’s have more potlucks. Our BIPOC sangha is always sharing food and enjoying being together.

What I’ve found, especially in sangha organizations involving meetings, is there’s no connecting and checking in with each other. Like, “How are you? What’s alive for you in your life right now?” Instead, it’s “Okay, here’s our agenda. And we need to get all this stuff done.” That’s a real turnoff, you know? We need to start from the place of relationship, because when we’re in relationship with each other, when we trust each other, respect each other, maybe even love each other, we’re there for each other truly.

I mean, BIPOC all count, right? When we go into a room, we count. If there are four people of color and everybody else is white, then we’re always trying to get the context, to figure out how safe does it feel to be here? But white people don’t do that. They’ll be in a room and just take up the space and not notice dynamics or consider who’s there. In my experience, dominant culture folks don’t like being uncomfortable. To me, if you’re on this path to be comfortable, I think you’re on the wrong path, because this path is super uncomfortable if you’re actually practicing it. It’s confronting our conditioning, our habitual tendencies, our ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. And if we’re not willing to be humbled or listen deeply to how others experience life, then what are we doing together?

Our greater presence within the Buddhist community is pushing for an accountability to the essence of the teachings. The teachings all come through a cultural context, but their essence isn’t limited by culture. —Margarita Loinaz

Carol Iwata: We could look at it in a compassionate way and say that maybe what some white folks are doing on the cushion is thinking about their suffering, and trying to understand what they have done to contribute to that suffering. But I don’t know if, or how much, that awareness extends to other people who are suffering and how I’ve contributed to their suffering, too. Even in the bigger religions, a lot of times, people come to feel better instead of having to confront things.

I think one thing that’s necessary in predominantly white sanghas is the presence of BIPOC people. As La said, we all count. If there are four BIPOC people out of sixty, it’s hard to feel comfortable there. There need to be more people of color in the sanghas. But you don’t just say, “You’re welcome, so come on in.” The program has to reflect issues and the realities of BIPOC people. If you never see someone who looks like you on the cushion up front, then you’re just not going to show up. Or maybe you see one twice a year because we’re going to try and be inclusive—so we’re going to invite this person in, and then we’re going to pat ourselves on the back that we did that.

Margarita Loinaz: Our community, the Buddhist community, is just a reflection of the culture we’re in. The same issues we see on the street are also in the meditation hall. Our greater presence within the community is pushing for an accountability to the actual essence of the teachings. And it’s interesting because the teachings all come through a cultural context, but the actual essence of the teaching isn’t limited by culture. The radical aim is to recognize our essential nature, the absolute inherent freedom of that—even a glimpse of that is the most powerful thing we as teachers can offer any student.

We’re also impacted by the relative environment and the reflection we get from the larger culture. The vulnerability of the human soul. We have interjected a lot of negative feelings about our own embodiment. We’re forced to look at that. And in mainstream, white dominant society, people are not—there’s a positive reflection all around, so that identity is propped up. But the fact that we’re bringing up, and we keep bringing it up, is an offering to the greater community of Buddhists to come to terms with how we make each other suffer, how we are not living out the teachings, how we’re carving out these little compartments to identify with. There’s no freedom in that. The fact that we are bringing that up is an opportunity for the greater community to find a different, more genuine freedom. That is what the teachings are about. So we push the envelope by our mere presence and by the need in our souls to be included, just like every human. Every being wants to be included and feel safe. That’s at the heart of Buddhism—and not being willing to look at that is a distortion.

Mariana Restrepo: Many dominant culture practitioners say separate BIPOC spaces are divisive. On the other side of that, there’s a need for spaces that feel safe and inclusive. How do we nourish BIPOC spaces without creating a sense of division?

La Sarmiento: It’s such an intense question, because it’s somewhat putting it on us. IMCW is a predominantly white sangha, straight, cisgender, highly educated, middle- to upper middle-class community. And as much as I think IMCW wanted members of our BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities to be funneled into the larger community, most folks, especially in the BIPOC sangha, felt like that was the safest place for them to be—and that’s still the case, sixteen years later.

In a lot of ways, I feel like, whose responsibility is it to take this up? Because we’re exhausted. I stayed away from sangha leadership for fifteen years because it was just like banging my head against the wall trying to raise consciousness and awareness with the dominant culture folks in our sangha. It’s amazing I don’t have a concussion. I coined this phrase, “racial is glacial,” because it’s slow, you know? It’s a deep practice of patience and perseverance. It’s painful knowing that there is not complete buy-in to becoming truly diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive. The same folks are constantly waving the flag, but if it’s not the whole community, it’s not going to work. We can’t change unless we choose to change. I think we’re far from a kumbaya moment, and it’s not up to us.

Margarita Loinaz: So much of what we have absorbed from the mainstream is feeling that responsibility of bringing up these issues, the notion that we somehow need to be the ones moving it along. And there are periods of time where you push and push and you can see things moving and opening, when there are enough people, white people, who have done the work, who are committed to continuing to look. And there are people who have made huge changes. After twenty-five years and tremendous effort, a significant number of BIPOC Vipassana teachers completed training in the past four years.  This is a great accomplishment. Over the same twenty-five years, I have also seen that for some people within the dominant culture of multiple sanghas, the changes of heart that make inclusion and the sharing of power possible has yet to happen.

We need to take care of ourselves for the long haul, to know how much to invest and when to retreat. Right now, I am mostly working with study groups within the BIPOC community, which I find easier. I am trying to pass along the teachings that I have been given, which are so profound and so liberating. Using the Dzogchen teachings, we go deep. What are we really? What is the ultimate goal of practice? How does that relate to real freedom and seeing through social structures?

That has been key—learning to think structurally, not just about the individual, but also about these structures that shape the content of our minds and replicate oppression. That is the real freedom, seeing how we manage once that understanding dawns. Because we see the limitations of our own minds, our own thinking, and how much we’ve swallowed. How do we weave the vulnerability of our cultural identity with that which goes beyond it? That’s the question for me these days, which is really about nonduality.

Carol Iwata: I believe very strongly in saving all beings. I will talk to people, white people, who have done serious anti-racism work. I have meetings with them, have lunch. But I don’t have endless energy. I do feel that I need to take care of my BIPOC community first. I’ve said a number of times that racism will end when white people decide to end it. I don’t think it is the responsibility of BIPOC people to figure out how to change the hearts and minds of the predominantly white sanghas.

BIPOC practitioners can’t make themselves feel safe. They can’t make themselves feel seen. They can’t make themselves feel heard. Those are things that the white community has to work on themselves. How have they, consciously or unconsciously, contributed to making people who are different, whether they’re queer or differently abled or from a different racial group, feel uncomfortable or unwelcome? I want to see majority-white communities doing a lot more work and people seriously looking at what they can do to change the environment, rather than asking BIPOC people to come in and train them how to do it.

Mariana Restrepo

Mariana Restrepo is deputy editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar). She is Colombian with a Nyingma-Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist background, has an MA in Religious Studies, and currently lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina with her husband and two children.