No One Wakes Up Until We All Wake Up

Buddhist practice is not meant to be comfortable, says Tenku Ruff. We have to keep pushing our edges — and that includes waking up to the reality of deeply rooted white superiority.

By Tenku Ruff

Photo by Joan Villalon.

Dear White People (including myself),

It rips my heart out that I had to craft yet another vapid statement about an awful, heartrending crisis showcasing our failure as white people. As Black people die, we white people make platitudes from our safe refuges. As Soto Zen priests, we are called to see the cries of the world, to save all beings, to meet suffering in the world around us. We are failing.

Black people are dying in disproportionate numbers during this pandemic because of racism. The causes and conditions that lead to their increased likelihood to die from coronavirus are racism. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes come from racism. “Weathering” happens to black and brown human beings because of actions that we, as white people, take and neglect to take. We are killing people. People die as we retreat to our safe temples, in our safe communities, and sit on our soft cushions, high above the utter madness that is the suffering of racism and the lie that race exists.

We must dig deeply and unearth our deeply rooted white superiority.

Many or most of us come to the Dharma through suffering and a desire to end suffering. But as soon as we start to feel a sense of ease from our own pain, we start building a wall around it, creating a safe bubble. The thing is, our ego constructs this wall, and the more comfortable we become, the stronger the ego fights to keep our bubbles intact, until the very conditions for awakening are no longer at the forefront of our practice. Practice is not meant to be comfortable. As we practice, we have to keep pushing our edges. That there is nothing to hold onto is a fundamental truth of Buddhism. Our bubbles not only keep people out, they actively prevent our own practice from growing and deepening. Our bubbles prevents us from living our Bodhisattva Vow. Until all beings simultaneously wake up, no one wakes up.

We have to do better! George Floyd died violently under the knee of a white man. We know this because we saw it on video. How many people die unseen? In prisons? From illness? Of heartbreak? Our prisons are full of brown bodies, put there in unfathomable numbers by our white system invested in seeing brown bodies locked up. How many people in prisons are dying, unseen, of the virus of racism? Of the virus of covid-19? Of the virus of despair?

Writing black words on white paper will not prevent this. Reading books will not prevent this. We must connect, feel, listen. We must dig deeply and unearth our deeply rooted white superiority — see it, name it, and GIVE IT UP. If this doesn’t serve your interests, think about what you’re saying. Are you saying that you are willing to allow human beings to suffer and die so that you can continue to give to your weekly Dharma talk, then have tea and cookies inside your nice, safe Buddhist bubble, undisturbed by the rage and terror and trauma and grief outside? What kind of enlightenment is that? It is a sham!

Waking up a lifetime endeavor — a lifetime of failure, of repair, and of returning. Woke is the engagement, not the end product; it is the work under our noses, right here, right now. It’s time to step down off our teaching daises and listen and learn. Our white expertise is in the way. It not only blocks our path, it causes harm.

What are we willing to give up so that ALL beings can survive, even SHINE? How are we going to shine the spotlight now focused on us onto others for a change?

What are our action plans? Do our plans make our white community members uncomfortable? If not, then we need to make a better plan.

Does this plan give hope and satisfaction to our black community members? If it does not, then we need to make a better plan.

White people, it is time for us to give up our comfort and join our black family in mutual anguish.

Are we really going to wake up or just play a game of waking up?

Tenku Ruff

Tenku Ruff

Tenku Ruff, Osho, is a Soto Zen priest who trained in Japan. She is a professional chaplain living in New York and holds a Master of Divinity from Maitripa College.