Insight teacher Gina Sharpe is working to create a truly inclusive sangha. The place to start, she says, is facing the truth that even Buddhist communities aren’t free from the suffering caused by racism. A profile by Andrea Miller.
Buddhist teacher Gina Sharpe once asked a student why she only attended meditation retreats that were specifically for people of color.
“Gina,” the woman answered, “I’m from the South. If I’m the only black person in a room of ninety-nine white people, there’s only one thing that’s going to happen.”
“What’s that?” Sharpe asked.
Then came the woman’s answer—graphic and powerful.
“A lynching,” she said.
Looking back, Sharpe pinpoints this as the moment when she “really got it.” While the white Buddhist community may be very sweet, very well intentioned, that doesn’t change people’s visceral experience. “It was nothing I could argue with,” Sharpe explains. “It’s an emotional wound that won’t heal.”
Originally from Jamaica, Sharpe has a complex heritage—white, black, and Chinese. “I’m so assimilated that I’m more comfortable than many people of color in a white world,” she acknowledges. As a Buddhist practitioner in the Insight Meditation tradition, she never had any qualms about attending retreats that were otherwise all white, and for a long time she didn’t entirely grasp how difficult it was for many people of color. Yet the first time she led a people of color retreat, she noticed an unfamiliar feeling of relaxation.
“I didn’t realize that when I’m not in a diverse place, there’s a certain amount of unconscious tension that I carry,” she says. When she practiced with other people of color, the tension dropped away.
New York Insight is ten floors up on West 27th, but even from this height I can hear the sounds of Manhattan below—horns honking, music pulsing.
Even though we come together in what appears to be separate bodies contained in our own sacks of skin, we are inexorably connected.
Gina Sharpe is at the front of the room wearing an understated gray top and black slacks. Previously a successful corporate lawyer, she was one of the center’s cofounders seventeen years ago and is now its guiding teacher. To open her teaching, she taps a singing bowl, releasing a warm hum.
“We choose to spend our time together as a community,” she says. “Even though we come together in what appears to be separate bodies contained in our own sacks of skin, we are inexorably connected. So, in that spirit, I ask you to turn to the people around you.”
Reaching out my hand to greet my neighbors, I suddenly see what makes New York Insight unusual. Like so many convert Buddhist centers in North America, it has a clean look that is at once cheerful and spare. There are tidy rows of chairs and cushions, a pot of orchids, and a soothing statue of the Buddha. But unlike so many convert Buddhist centers, New York Insight has a diverse membership. Indeed, it looks like New York City itself—a vibrant mix of black, white, Asian, Latino.
While it might be tempting to think that this diversity happened automatically—a natural result of the center’s urban, multicultural location—it is actually the product of years of effort.
According to Buddhist philosophy, ultimately there is neither black nor white; these are simply constructions of mind. But practically, there is a legacy of slavery in America, and racism is woven into the fabric of society. This is real.
“Given that,” Sharpe tells me, “it’s not just a matter of ‘Let’s put people in a room together and let them meditate and everything will be hunky-dory.’ Work has to be done on all different fronts.”
And that work starts with understanding structural racism. “What does structural racism really mean? It means it’s not your fault,” says Sharpe. “You’re not to blame—you don’t have to feel guilty—but you should recognize it as a problem that needs a solution. And how do we as Buddhists solve problems? The first thing we do is we sit down and try to see the truth.”
Yet many Buddhists don’t want to see that structural racism operates in their own communities. According to Sharpe, white Buddhists often believe they’re so goodwilled that they can’t possibly be racist, and this means that they can’t be taught. Nobody wants to be seen as racist; nobody wants to look inside and see racist tendencies. “So when you bring racism up,” she says, “there’s so much guilt and shame about it that you get shamed.”
They’re not coming. What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they coming for these precious teachings that we have? This, according to Sharpe, is frequently the underlying attitude of predominantly white sanghas in regard to people of color not attending their centers. “There’s a feeling of ‘It’s their issue, not my issue,’” she says. “But racism hurts everybody.
If it weren’t for Duke Ellington, Gina Sharpe might still be in Jamaica.
Her mother was a legal secretary in Kingston, her father an alcoholic and womanizer. The couple divorced when Sharpe was five. Then a few years later, her mother decided to try to make a better life for her three daughters. Leaving them in the care of one of her former teachers, she immigrated to the United States, where she worked as a domestic servant—the only thing she could do under the radar.
Sharpe describes what happened to her as a Cinderella story. The teacher, who had a rather plain daughter, was cruel to the attractive Sharpe sisters. They were all supposed to have their own bedroom, but instead she piled them into one room and sometimes didn’t give them any food to eat. Not wanting to add to their mother’s burden, the girls did not tell her what was happening.
Finally, one of the sister’s school friends told her father about the situation, and he marched over to the teacher’s house. “I’ll talk to your mother later,” he told the girls, “but you’re coming with me now.” He and his wife already had five children of their own, but they welcomed the Sharpes into their family.
Meanwhile, the girls’ mother got married and acquired legal status in the U.S., yet she still couldn’t send for her daughters because she didn’t have enough money in the bank to satisfy the immigration requirements. But her new husband, a musician, was friendly with Duke Ellington. One day, Ellington caught her crying and asked what was wrong. After she explained the situation, he put the needed money into her bank account, and she immediately set to work on reuniting with her children.
Gina Sharpe, at age eleven, left her native land. Driving from the airport through Harlem, she was taken aback by the relentless expanse of towering buildings, the dirt, and the stark absence of nature. Yet she does not remember ever being homesick for Jamaica.
Sharpe had always excelled academically and, at her new school, a placement test landed her in ninth grade, making her three years younger than her classmates. Moreover, she was put into an experimental double-honors class for especially gifted students. It was like being at a private school, only without the price tag.
Sharpe was just fifteen years old when she entered Barnard, the prestigious women’s college affiliated with Columbia, and the age difference between her and her classmates proved to be too much. Unprepared for the extracurricular activities of sex and alcohol, she dropped out after one year and got a job as a secretary and—briefly—as a model. She did not have to strike too many poses before concluding that models were treated like pieces of meat. Moving to the West Coast, Sharpe became an assistant to a movie producer and worked on the films Little Big Man, Alice’s Restaurant, and Paper Lion. She introduced her sister Alma to the sixties’ sex symbol Troy Donahue and the two were married for a couple of years.
In 1970, Gina Sharpe returned to Barnard and completed her degree in philosophy with a minor in psychology. As it happened, on the day of her graduation Duke Ellington was across the street at Columbia. Though she did not speak with Ellington, Sharpe sat in the audience and watched as he was awarded an honorary degree.
Night has fallen, and through the windows at New York Insight all I see is darkness speckled with light shining from other windows near and far.
Tonight Sharpe is offering a few Buddhist meditation pointers, which are in essence all about being at ease without collapsing. I try to “breathe the breath” as she recommends, and then she shifts into what she calls “the underpinning of the practice”—the Buddhist teachings.
About her meetings with students, Sharpe says, “I want to understand how the practice is manifesting in their life and thinking, because I believe that practice should permeate everything. It shouldn’t be that you sit for forty-five minutes or an hour in the morning, and then you get up and there’s no more thought of it. In every moment, there’s a dharma lesson.”
So when a student comes to Sharpe with a real-life concern such as “My mom is dying,” Sharpe’s response is twofold. First there is the simple human piece, which is, “Oh my God, your mom’s dying. How are you and how is she?” Then Sharpe shifts into her role as a teacher, leading her student to explore deeper questions in the vein of: How does impermanence work in your life? What was your relationship to your mom? Are you holding resentment toward her and have you worked with that from the point of view of suffering and the end of suffering? Sharpe may point students in a certain direction, but, she says, “The student is wise enough to get it. I don’t have to lend my wisdom because they’ve got their own wisdom that they can work with.”
Sharpe’s approach leading tonight’s dharma talk is similar. In fact, as she puts it, it’s not so much that she’s leading a dharma talk but rather that we’re all creating the talk together. The format is inquiry, and it’s not a one-way street.
A woman sitting cross-legged on her chair takes the mic and explains that she’s been meditating consistently for quite a while and she can feel how the practice has transformed her life. Yet, she says, “I have a hard time with actually landing on the teachings. They don’t stick.”
“What do you mean?” Sharpe probes.
“Like the four noble truths. I’ve heard them a million times, but every time it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what they are!’ Somehow I’m not super connected to them.”
“Is it okay?”
The woman adjusts her hat. For her, she says, it’s okay. Yet she wonders if it really is. She’s just happy doing what she’s doing. Shouldn’t there be a next step?
Sharpe pauses. “So what can I do for you?”
“I love your questions!” The woman smiles. “I guess the question is… I mean… you don’t know me well enough to give me the answer on a personal level.”
“Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t!” Sharpe laughs. “Everybody learns differently. Maybe you don’t need to know what the four noble truths are.”
The woman persists: “Is it important to find a teacher?”
“Is it important to you?”
“I guess I’d want to have a reflection at some point.”
“When it becomes a heart’s desire—if it ever does—then you look for a teacher.” But for now, Sharpe asks, what are other ways to seek the answers to life’s big questions?
“There’s a lot,” the woman says. “Meditation is one.”
“Go for it!” says Sharpe. “Live your life fully. It doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s.”
There is skillful means in Sharpe’s teaching. It’s not one size fits all. When a man in a grass-green shirt and glasses asks a related question, she gives a much more tempered, traditional response.
The man, who identifies himself as Ken, explains that he appreciates how meditation focuses the mind. Yet he’s unclear how this leads to what he defines as the larger objectives of meditation: developing compassion and understanding no-self and impermanence.
“How long have you been practicing?” Sharpe asks him.
“For a few years but not consistently. Sometimes I give it up.”
“Have you ever been on a silent retreat?”
“No, but I try to go to dharma meetings about three times a week, here and at Tibet House and the Shambhala Center.”
“So where do you think you’re falling short?”
Ken simply repeats that he isn’t seeing the connection between meditation and wisdom.
Sharpe asks, “Are you interested in being able to think it through, or are you interested in being able to see it work its way into your life?”
“I’d like to know the intellectual connection.”
“Aha! Well, there’s a lot to be said for being able to reflect—we’re intellectual beings. But we’re also emotional and physical beings. The way to realize these connections is not by thinking them through.”
Take the concept of impermanence, she tells him. You can watch the shifting tides and the spinning hands on a clock and you can tell yourself 150,000 times that everything is impermanent. Yet that doesn’t mean you understand it in your gut.
As Sharpe sees it, the teachings of the different schools of Buddhism all wind up in the same place: the four noble truths. Nonetheless, if we’re all over the place in our practice, shopping around and sampling different traditions, we may have breadth but not depth. When we choose a path and delve into it deeply, our intention is not like a cork bobbing on the water but like a stone dropping down: the mind steadies and insight appears.
“If you’ve been practicing for a while, a retreat is really helpful,” says Sharpe. On retreat, you get a base of stillness and silence, which broadens and deepens your practice at home.
“Then insight is nothing that you have to seek,” she concludes. “It simply happens. The mind is still and so it sees the nature of reality, and, from that, wisdom and compassion arise. When we see for ourselves that we are deeply connected to other beings, we don’t have to try to be compassionate. Compassion arises because we know there’s no difference between us. Your sadness is my sadness; your joy is my joy. Meditation is a way of helping the mind settle so it understands that in a deep way.”
Gina Sharpe’s home is full of buddhas. There’s a white one presiding over the kitchen where her husband, John Fowle, is making lunch. Then there’s a buddha of gilded wood in the piano room and one of brass in the bedroom. And hanging on the living room wall there’s a Chinese painting on tin of an arhat. Thirty-five years ago, Sharpe tells me, she was going up an escalator in Bloomingdale’s when she saw this arhat and decided he had to be rescued from just being somebody’s decoration. For Sharpe, Buddhist imagery is a tangible reminder to practice. She smiles when she puts it this way: “Lest you forget.”
Fowle serves lunch in the dining room and the three of us cluster at one end of a long table. In the center, there’s a South African table runner decorated with a giraffe motif, and at our feet there’s a cat with a charmingly strident meow. The meal is a carrot-mushroom medley, perfectly seasoned asparagus, and brown rice topped with a kidney bean stew. Though I relish every bite, Fowle insists that his wife is the better cook.
The couple met more than three decades ago when they were both young lawyers—Fowle working for a firm in the Bahamas and Sharpe working for another in New York. Their first date was at a restaurant that served platters of sizzling steak, and Fowle says he was so nervous that he invited a friend along. “This particular friend was married to a brain surgeon, and he told me not to get involved with Gina because she was too smart. I totally ignored his advice.”
Less than two years later, on an afternoon in September, Fowle and Sharpe went to Tiffany’s and picked out a ring. The next day they got married.
I ask Sharpe how she and her husband find equilibrium in their relationship, and her answer is generosity and kindness. According to Sharpe, marriage is difficult because it’s a very close relationship with someone who has their own practice, their own history, and their own ideas about how things should be. We all have a history of trauma, isolation, and abandonment, and so much of what constitutes life is how our past difficulties manifest and how we work with that. Marriage, she says, is not just about “How do I get my needs met?” It’s about “How do I get my needs met? How does the other person get their needs met and how does the relationship, which is a third entity, get what it needs?”
“A marital relationship,” says Sharpe, “shows you all of the places where you’re stuck, all of the places where you’re selfish. Marriage is the dharma of sex and money and work and relationship all contained in one situation. If we look at it as practice, then we learn from the conflicts that naturally arise.”
As for Sharpe and Fowle, I’ve rarely encountered a couple so supportive of each other. When I ask Fowle who his teacher is, he tells me there’s a group: Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield. But his number one is his wife.
“This is clearly biased,” he says. “I don’t care. Gina is the best there is. What I love about Gina’s teachings is that they can cover a Buddhist text and be very detailed, and then she’ll open it up and take you from your head to your heart.” Fowle also points to the work that Sharpe has done for people of color in the dharma.
“It’s not about proselytizing to those ‘poor people of color’ who need to know the dharma,” she explains. “When we’re in a room that’s not diverse, we’re missing opinions, we’re missing viewpoints of the world. So getting a more diverse sangha is about enriching our community. It’s not about getting them to come get what we’ve got but for them to bring with them what they’ve got. When we all study the dharma together, it becomes really rich.”
Sharpe feels that a critical step to encourage diversity is retreats and sitting groups specifically for people of color. In these safe spaces, people of color have the opportunity to connect with Buddhist practice and many of them will fall so in love with it that they’ll then begin attending general retreats and sitting groups.
In 2005, Sharpe was instrumental in establishing the NYI People of Color Sangha, a sitting group that meets once a month. This was followed by other initiatives to reach out to people of color and to educate convert Buddhists, particularly those in leadership positions, about issues of race, diversity, and equity.
Recently, Sharpe and her collaborators launched “Cultivating a Beloved Community,” an eight-week course that explores differences and similarities through a Buddhist lens. The first course was led by four teachers—a white lesbian, a black gay man, a white straight man, and a black straight woman—and forty-five people applied for the sixteen available spots. “It’s not just talking about race or sexual orientation or prejudice,” says Sharpe.“It’s really looking at suffering and the end of suffering.”
“The way suffering ends,” she concludes, “is that its cause is understood. Racism is a huge part of American suffering. If we’re not attending to it, we’re being ignorant.”
August, 2015 update: Gina’s husband, John Fowle, died on July 28, 2015. A memorial fund in his name has been created at New York Insight Meditation Center to benefit the next Vipassana Residential Teacher Training. To contribute, send donations to New York Insight, c/o John Fowle Memorial Fund, 28 W 27th St #10, New York, NY 10001. Read John’s obituary in The New York Times and Tracy Cochran’s remembrance.