Turning to the Present Moment of Racism

How do we hold the realities of racism in our hearts, asks Doshin Mako Voelkel. And how do we hold the parts of ourselves that might want to look away?

By Doshin Mako Voelkel

Art by Jolanta Johnsson.

May those who are in danger of being threatened or killed by kings, thieves, or scoundrels, who are troubled by hundreds of different fears, may all those beings who are oppressed by the advent of troubles be delivered from those hundreds of extreme very dreadful fears. May those who are beaten, bound, and tortured by bonds … distracted by numerous thousands of labors, who have become afflicted by various fears and cruel anxiety … may they all be delivered; may the beaten be delivered from the beaters, may the condemned be united with life … May those beings oppressed by hunger and thirst obtain a variety of food and drink.

The Sutra of Golden Light, translated by R. E. Emmerick
(Luzac and Co., 1970)

This is our wish as practitioners. It is what we extend out to the suffering of the world. It is what we extend to our own suffering and to all beings suffering. It is how we hold dukkha.

Santikaro Bhikkhu writes, “In the Buddha’s original formulation …he neither spoke of ‘my dukkha’ nor of ‘your dukkha.’ He spoke simply of dukkha—‘there is dukkha.’ ” There is no “my” suffering, no “my dis-ease.” Only dukkha, its causes, and the path to relieving it.

So the four noble truths were not personalized in this sense. Yet we have a way of externalizing them, then internalizing them, and getting caught in that dualism. We may hear of the teaching of interconnection and maybe even say things like, “We’re all in this together.” But we’re not. On some level, yes, it’s true—we are all, without exception, one body, one reality. We share this life, this world, this universe in the ten directions. And yet, we cannot sink into this oneness as if that were the only reality. Doing so is succumbing to “emptiness sickness.”

I was reminded recently of a poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese.” Here’s the ending:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Again, on a deep level, this is true for all of us, without exception. Each of us has the seeds within for finding true peace, for finding our inner goodness and ease. And yet, for some, this truth is drastically withheld. For Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown, for Ahmaud Arbery, for George Floyd, for countless others—that fundamental opportunity was denied.

What part do I play in that? What part do we play in that? We may say, as a way of comforting ourselves, “Well, I’m not racist.” I’d like to ask anyone who says those words to take a step back and turn the light inward.

I have no doubt that we all have a deep wish for change. But sometimes we can also get caught up in bouncing back and forth between outrage and despondency. I know I do. We ask ourselves, what can I actually do?

The seed of ease and awakeness, we’re taught, resides in all of us, but that’s not to say that we don’t feel outrage, that we don’t take a stand.

There are ways of answering that question. As members of society, as a member of communities, we can vote, we can write letters, we can donate to organizations that are committed to undoing white supremacy. There are many things we can do, starting with simply acknowledging there is a discriminatory and unfair system that stems back hundreds of years, and that it hasn’t gone away just because it was made illegal. We begin there, acknowledging this unfair system and noting the myriad ways in which structural discrimination and racism operate within our society. We acknowledge the discriminatory practices within our policing, including the differences in incarceration, where somehow six times more Black men are in prison than white men. We acknowledge the fact that so-called “black drugs” like crack have one hundred times harsher sentences than that of cocaine, even though it’s the same drug, just with a different delivery mechanism. We start there, and then we go a little bit further and we ask ourselves, how do I benefit from this system?

We also have to look at our intentions. Many of us feel the impulse to be a do-gooder—invested and engaged in helping others with their dukkha. Santikaro Bhikkhu writes about the do-gooders saying, “Often, they are overly concerned with the dukkha of others to the degree that they fail to look within and see the dukkha that is inside them, too.”

When we separate, we are in this dance of my dukkha and your dukkha—all one, and yet not. Where do we find ourselves in this dance?

Suzuki Roshi spoke about how realizing that “things are one” is a very sympathetic understanding, but treating things one by one, each in a different way with full care—that’s the practice. So when we find ourselves slipping into You know, it’s all one, man, we need to stop and ask, who are we serving? Who am I serving by finding safety and solace in oneness?

In that same lecture, Suzuki Roshi said:

It is comparatively easy to realize things are one. It is comparatively easy, or easy to accept, you know … So even though you realize things are one, that is a very—kindergarten understanding.

Unless you get through the idea of emptiness, you are not Buddhist … You can see whole universe in a small flower. If you say, “Oh, this is sunflower which doesn’t really exist” [laughing], that is not our zazen practice.

—August 12, 1971, Zen Mountain Center

How do we take a step back and find the self that is at ease, not by “peacing out” or sticking our head in the sand, but by connecting with the one that is at ease within and amidst the dis-ease, the unease, the unrest? How do we develop that capacity to stay with the human experience, which may not be my particular human experience in this moment, unless we open our heart and let in the cries of the world? The seed of ease and awakeness, we’re taught, resides in all of us, but that’s not to say that we don’t feel outrage, that we don’t take a stand, that we don’t call things out, that we don’t show up amidst conflict, that we don’t put our bodies into places of protest.

There’s an image in Zen of the “board-carrying fellow.” You can imagine the visual. It’s like a cartoon: the person carrying the board looks to one side, and as they do, they swing the board, and then they look the other way and swing the board, and they just can’t see anything on the other side of the board.

Suzuki Roshi said that almost everyone is carrying a big board and cannot see the other side. That goes for me, that goes for you. How do we acknowledge that? There’s a big board that we’re carrying—you can call it privilege, you can call it partial understanding, you can call it not knowing, maybe even not wanting to know because sometimes knowing is frightening. So how, when we feel the fear, feel the outrage in response to the suffering of the world, how do we make space for that part of us that is shouting, No, this is not all right—this has to stop? How do we not smooth over that and say, Oh, no—as a good Buddhist, I should be at peace? That’s bullshit. I think every one of us knows it.

When we talk about discovering ease, it’s not that we’re whitewashing away the blemishes, the fears, the so-called “afflictive emotions.” We study the self because we’re studying the seed of ease that can be nurtured within dis-ease. We learn through practice how to trust that we can develop our capacity to be with suffering. That is our number one goal as bodhisattvas—to be able to hear the cries of the world, like Avalokiteshvara with a thousand arms and hands and implements to help suffering beings. It starts by acknowledging suffering.

It’s easy to lose ourselves in dukkha if we’re not able, in our practice, to allow for the full range of our experience. If we’re not able to develop the capacity of this heart to expand, to include everything, we can feel that. We can feel when our heart is constricted. When our stomach is constricted, when our throat feels constricted, we can feel it. We can pay attention to it. Our vow is to stay upright, amidst it, and not turn away.

In the “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” we hear,

Move and you are trapped;
miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.
Turning away and touching are both wrong,
for it is like a massive fire.

But inevitably, we do turn away. How do we return to the present moment as part of our practice of developing this spaciousness within our heart?

Gil Fronsdal, in a dharma talk many years ago, said this:

The present moment is trustable—if you are present for it … If you are not present, if you are worrying about the future or preoccupied about the past, then maybe the present is not so trustable. When we are really in the present moment, then we say that “It responds to the inquiring impulse.” If we are present for this wonderful interconnected reality of our present experience, then the inquiring impulse is present and what responds is trustable, even in the midst of great difficulty.

Especially in the midst of great difficulty, the way to cultivate trust in our spaciousness, our capacity, is to put it into practice—to allow, to breathe, to notice the struggle, to take it in without judgment and without self-criticism. This is our practice. How do we nourish the space for our practice?

When Kishizawa Ian, Suzuki Roshi’s second teacher, was a young monk, he was sitting in meditation on a rainy day and heard the sound of a distant waterfall. And then he heard the additional sound of someone striking the han, a wooden board used to signal the start or end of something at the temple.

Kishizawa Ian went to his teacher and asked, “What is the place where the sound of the rain, the waterfall, and the han meet?”

His teacher replied, “True eternity still flows.”

So Kishizawa Ian asked, “What is this true eternity that still flows?”

His teacher said, “It is like a bright mirror, permanently smooth.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The bright mirror, perfectly smooth, reflecting all without discrimination. How lovely, how beautiful.

Kishizawa Ian then asked, “Is there anything beyond this?”

“Yes,” his teacher responded.

“What is beyond this?”

His teacher said, “Break the mirror. Come, and I’ll meet you.”

Tenshin Reb Anderson Roshi comments on the exchange:

When we are at this source, sitting completely still, all buddhas and sentient beings are there with us. Then, because we are alive, this calm mirror experience breaks and clouds of thinking crop up. At this point we don’t have to think, “Now I must be compassionate.” Just being willing to give up great calm and to become involved again in particular thoughts is compassion. In this way we knowingly and willingly re-enter the world of confusion and suffering. (Wind Bell, Volume 19, No. 1, Summer 1985)

How do we let that sink into our bones? How do we knowingly and willingly step out of our serene bubble of calm tranquility? How do we step out of that into the world of confusion and suffering? Do we just throw ourselves in and grab a Molotov cocktail and start? Maybe sometimes we do. And then we confess and we repent, because that’s not going to help. Tenshin Roshi continues:

From this place, compassion is not dualistic; we don’t do it, and we cannot stop it. Our body interacts fearlessly with all forms of suffering. This does not mean that the fear does not exist—or that it does exist. It means that we are open to all varieties of fear, so that the forces around us are balanced. We do not have more friends in heaven than we have in hell. If we have too many friends in heaven and not enough in hell, then there will be fear. So we can look at the community that we live in. Do we know more people in heaven than in hell? If we do, we are not truly calm … Whenever our mind is completely open and we are not controlling what we are exposed to, the body and mind can sit still, in the heart of all suffering beings. That is all we have to do. Everything else will take care of itself.

“Everything else will take care of itself” is a huge statement. Everything else will take care of itself. Oh, how comforting—but it’s a tall order, isn’t it? How do we stay with this present moment without hesitation? How do we open our heart to feel completely what we’re feeling, what the world may be feeling? How do we develop that capacity? How do we water the seed that has the potential to sprout into a giant Banyan tree?

There’s a well-known Lojong slogan: “Don’t be so predictable.” I recently encountered a different translation of the same slogan, one that surprised me. It reads, “Don’t rely on your good nature.” That’s a hard practice, right? I can see the ways in which I rely on what I think of as my good nature. I do it over and over again—it’s a trap. How does it not become just another board that we’re carrying?

We need to ask these questions in a way that is uplifting. It’s not about shaming. How am I participating in a racist system of discrimination that is structural, that has been in place for hundreds of years—and how am I benefiting from the system? How do we ask that question with hope as opposed to sinking into a swamp of inactivity and hopelessness, of “I can’t do anything”?

It’s easy to fall into wanting to help, not finding a way that’s convenient, and then feeling dismay or despondency. How do we make room for that too? How do we welcome the entirety of our experience—not just the parts that we like? We aren’t going to develop an ease if we’re constantly turning away from our dis-ease. Our practice asks something very important of us, which is to allow whatever is arising in this present moment—and not only allow it, but fully engage with it, experience it, notice what is brought up in our bodies and our minds, and welcome it all. Only then can we move forward with wise action that comes out of that acknowledgement. Sometimes you may hear the Zen saying, “Not knowing is most intimate.” Well, let’s be clear. We can’t reside in not knowing as a cop-out. Don’t use “not knowing” to not act.

If we don’t see that not knowing also means not resting in it, then how do we open our heart? How do we open our mind to curiosity, to wonder, to seeing the karmic habit patterns that are ingrained in our body and in our thinking? How do we feel the weight of the board that we carry? We can’t just rely on this sense of ourselves as “good-natured.” Let’s return to the Mary Oliver poem, “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

What is the soft animal of our bodies? The soft animal might be cowering in fear, trying to find a place to hide. The soft animal could be baring its teeth, ready to bite at provocation. The soft animal could be settling down for the night, feeling content and at ease. How do we make room for the soft animal in us rather than what we sometimes do, which is to exile the soft animal if we don’t like what it’s feeling? Oliver says, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine”—this human suffering that connects all of us. It’s right there.

But then there’s the next line: “Meanwhile the world goes on.” The world goes on amidst the virus and the climate and the injustice—all that suffering, all the unknowns, still the world goes on.

How do we hold that in our heart? If we decide to join a protest in our city, or if we don’t—how do we hold it in our heart? How do we stay connected to our own soft animal and what it calls to us, what it loves, what it’s afraid of, what it needs, what it desires, what nourishes it? Maybe there’s a part of us that doesn’t want to hold it—how do we hold that, too?

When we’re at ease, our true nature of open awareness is allowed to come forward. When we’re constricted and frightened, we need to find the ease within the constriction and the fear. We can take that step back—we always can, always, even if it’s just a little bit, even if it’s just planting a tiny seed of a question that asks, how do I accept this fear? How do I turn toward it?

We can start with the feeling of spaciousness of just taking a breath. If that’s not working, maybe we can we can find ease in our sight—we can gaze out to something spacious, like the sky or water, and breathe into that and find a little bit of ease there.

Our best selves are not going to come forward from places of constriction. So we pause and invite a little bit of ease with that constriction before acting. We find compassion, even when it’s hard. This is the challenge of practice, and it lasts our whole lives. Beyond my dukkha, your dukkha.

Doshin Mako Voelkel

Doshin Mako Voelkel

Doshin Mako Voelkel began Zen practice at San Franciso Zen Center after more than a decade of practicing transcendental meditation. In 2002, she left her position teaching philosophy at City College of San Francisco to train at Tassajara, where she stayed for ten years, eventually ordaining as a student of Ryushin Paul Haller. She now serves as head teacher of Austin Zen Center.