Syria: The March of Hate

Like many, I am aghast and struck by disbelief at the torturous and heinous destruction of Syria as the unconscionable slaughter and displacement of its people continues unabated. What was initially an internal revolutionary conflict against a despotic leader is now an insane slugging match between powerful nations and militia groups in their bitter struggle for dominance. It seems that “victory” will only be when all Syria’s citizens are dead, disappeared or rendered stateless; when its cities, homes, and infrastructure are completely flattened with nothing but dust remaining. That we, and the powerful global institutions meant to preserve civilization are paralyzed by this display of ceaseless barbarity is a terrible indictment of us as humans.

It’s not easy to know how to respond, particularly as an individual, but I appreciate that some on facebook still call us to bear witness. This deeply moving piece from the UK Sunday Times, published today (March 18th, 2018), appeared on my news feed. I wanted to share it on so we can get the measure of a country destroyed by greed, hatred, and ignorance as told by a regular young man who lived through its impact and is here to tell his story. We should take note that his story could be ours. That Syria could happen to any country at any time, especially in our era of extreme division, hate, and environmental destruction.

We increasingly stand only a hairs breadth away from political insanity, inhumane brutality, and wanton destruction. These days, despotic, unstable, psychopathic leaders could lead us into a nuclear holocaust, an interminable war, and for sure, can use their unfettered power to delay and reverse vital means to halt global warming which now threatens to collapse the very foundations of our human civilization. As we hurtle toward a profoundly uncertain future, we should take Syria as a warning.

The uprising on the streets of Damascus was initially exacerbated by an extreme drought due to the impact of our warming biosphere. By 2010, the drought had killed 80 percent of the country’s cattle due to 60 precent of its fertile land being lost. In Syria, we see how quickly societies can collapse when a population is undercut through dwindling resources, then is pushed up against each other by a dictatorial regime through the deliberate manipulation of false divisions for political ends. What is happening in Syria is a window into what can happen anywhere if the conditions are such that normal checks and balances and sane democratic governance is dismantled.

We may be able to donate towards those within Syria and we may be able to help refugees who are fleeing; we may choose to lobby politicians and humanitarian organizations, but we won’t be able to rescue Syria from the deadly grip of a war industry in collusion with autocrats who protect themselves at the expense of everyone else. However, what we can do is to deeply understand and enact our evolutionary task, which is succinctly summed up here by the Buddha, Hate is never overcome by hate, only through love is hate overcome. This is the eternal law.

Let us not harbour hatred. Instead, let us do what we can to challenge and overcome division, autocracy, brutish violence, and immoral acts, while engendering and building a relational field imbibed with intention, speech and action informed by authenticity, care for one another, kindness, generosity, and wise contemplation.
Thanissara

How the war in Syria destroyed my childhood idyll
in Eastern Ghouta


As the bombs rain down on the rebel-held area on the edge of Damascus, Steve Ali remembers the idyllic summers he and his friends spent there as children — and how their young lives were torn apart by Syria’s civil war.

In Syria, we don’t say, “Once upon a time …” We say, “There was and there wasn’t a long time ago …” So that is how I shall start my story here.

There was and there wasn’t a long time ago a boy called Mustafa who had a friend called Mahmoud. The most exciting challenge in Mustafa’s life was to climb the tallest oak tree in a field owned by Mahmoud’s family in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta. The field was by the Barada river that ran all the way from Western Ghouta and across Damascus to Eastern Ghouta. From the top of this oak Mustafa felt like he could see the whole world. He loved to ride the bendy branches as the howling wind rocked them back and forth.

Mahmoud’s father would scold Mustafa. “Get down, you monkey! You’ll hurt yourself if you fall, son,” he’d shout, but Mustafa did not fall.

Mustafa and Mahmoud and their friends Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad were a tight summer crew. They played football in the long, wide field, through the emerald plants and the dark red soil. They chased each other through the trees. They planted vegetables, fed the farm animals, swam in the river and found adventures in the woods until the sun went down. Then they pulled aubergines and potatoes from the field and cooked them over an open fire under the moonlight. Then they rode back to the house on their bicycles.

Mahmoud’s older brother Karim was a teacher and sometimes he would manage to gather the scattered children into the house to teach them maths. He had kind, twinkly eyes and a warm heart and stealthy means to make the children laugh as they learnt that “numbers are important”. After lessons the whole family would sit in their large living room full of treasures, on a beautiful Persian rug that Mustafa thought looked like Aladdin’s flying carpet. They would share a picnic of traditional Syrian dishes made by Mahmoud’s adoring mother.

When the children were tired of running outside on the long summer days, they’d visit Samer, whose father was a master craftsman. Sometimes he would take the boys to his workshop in Hazeh where he taught them how to make wooden clocks. Each child had a role in the production line and at breaktime Samer’s mother would reward the little workers with sandwiches and a huge kettle of tea.

Ahmad wouldn’t come to the workshop. He was too shy. He preferred to work in his father’s florist’s, more excited by flowers than people. He would lecture Mustafa about orchids with a spark in his eye and a passion in his quiet little voice. Mustafa loved watching his friend leave his awkwardness to one side whenever he was able to be an authority on orchids.

Amer and Rami were brothers. The children were sometimes invited to their father’s factory in Hamoryah where he produced generators and electrical products. The boys fiddled with the machines and tools and broke them as often as they learnt how to get them going.

Little Ziad, the last of the gang, was from Douma. His dad had a convenience shop on the corner in the main square where he chatted and chain-smoked. Mustafa always warned him the smoking was very bad for his health and he always promised to quit but never did.

Many blissful summers in Eastern Ghouta and peaceful school years in Damascus passed. Mustafa and his friends laughed and argued, played and studied, and grew tall — even little Ziad. Eventually the crew split up to travel to different universities. The idyllic years of their childhood grew into their first days of adulthood. Then the war began. It was and it wasn’t a long time ago … the kind of slaughter that belonged in a savage ancient myth. Except this time it definitely was — and it was happening now. It was happening to me and everyone I’d ever loved.

None of us living in Damascus knew what was happening in the country at first. We lived under the relentless brainwashing machine of national television, where we were told that the rumours of torture and killing were lies to turn people against the government. We couldn’t imagine life being any other way than it had been when we were riding bicycles in the woods.

But soon everyone could smell the blood. The sickeningly dry and suffocating smell of burning flesh made it hard to breathe. As the conflict intensified, we all had to be identified as either a loyal supporter of the regime or the enemy. For them or against them. Damascus was turned into one massive fortress, crawling with army officers, with checkpoints on every street. Walls were painted with the regime’s flag and propaganda. Veiled figures walked the streets at night writing revolutionary phrases on walls. The regime responded by threatening to knock the walls of people’s houses down if they couldn’t keep them clean.

From my room at night I could hear the peal of cannons. My house would tremble as I watched the bombs like shooting stars in the distance. A walk to see friends would turn into a battlefield, running through bullets from armed soldiers and rebels, like something out of Mad Max. Bombings, explosions, assassinations and arbitrary arrests became the norm.

I was a student, so immune to being called up to shoot and gas Syrians my own age and younger. But soon young men my age were randomly pulled off university campuses and forced into uniform with a gun in their back and a threat to kill or be killed. So on March 13, 2013, I packed as lightly as possible, dressed as discreetly as I could and left my home for the last time.

I set off with the intention of passing through about 20 military checkpoints, including one known as the checkpoint of death. My ID card was torn, which would have signalled disloyalty and meant certain death. I slipped it into a clear plastic folder, masking the tear, and showed my passport instead wherever I could. At each checkpoint I was waved through, my heart beating in my mouth — until the final one.

An enormous, bald, armed man with huge bushy beard and a face from hell approached me and asked for my ID. He stared at the torn document for a long time and I knew my time was up. I was going to be taken away. I knew not where, except that I would not return. After what seemed like a short lifetime, he handed it back to me wordlessly and walked away. I have no idea why, to this day. I didn’t look back. Not long afterwards, I was in Turkey. I felt born again, but I had no idea how far away peace would be for me.

I walked across countries where Syrians were not welcome and there were no rights for refugees. I crossed seas in dinghies and I slept rough. I avoided arrest from ruthless police, dealt with unscrupulous, terrifying smugglers and nearly died of exposure. After three years, I finally arrived in the Calais Jungle refugee camp, where I lived for a year. By night I worked as a firefighter. It was a very flammable place, in every way. The French police tear-gassed and intimidated the traumatised population and threatened to bulldoze our shelters to the ground. Eventually they did.

I tried every possible death-defying way to get to London until one of them worked. I was sofa surfing while waiting for asylum. Then a friend asked me to do a panel show podcast called Global Pillage with some stand-up comedians who were doing a refugee season for TimePeace, an app that connects refugees with local people. Deborah, the host of the show, said she and her husband, Tom, were going away and needed a cat-sitter. I agreed immediately.

When they returned, we all stayed up for hours chatting, drinking tea and stroking Toast, their cat, in front of the fire. It was the loveliest night I’d had in a long time. Like something I would have done in Syria before the war. It felt … normal.

Afterwards, Deborah said that if I left it was clear that Toast would leave with me, so I should stay on in their spare room. I feel very lucky and grateful in every way to have met them. The sense of family we’ve developed and the calm stability that I have being there has meant I’ve found some of my old self. I’ve unpacked in more ways than one and made my bedroom my own space, like it was in Damascus. I haven’t had any room except a shelter in a refugee camp from the age of 20 to 25, so I love this one.

I make silver jewellery, so I got a desk from Freecycle and began collecting tools. As soon as I got my papers, I started selling my jewellery and called my company Road from Damascus, because I had my epiphany coming the other way.

Being granted asylum is like becoming a person again. Life is getting better and normality is returning. Recently, I was offered a job as an interpreter for a news agency. I speak Arabic, Turkish and English, and this is quite well-paid work for someone who loves languages. For the first time in years, I have an appetite for the future.

I wake up. My phone reminds me it is 1,808 days exactly since I left Damascus. Numbers matter. Karim taught me that, but now I understand what that means in a way perhaps he didn’t. I go to work at the news agency and I am distracted because it is my best friend’s 26th birthday, but he only lived 21 of them. Our university was bombed just after I escaped. We spoke the night before he was killed. He was making plans to join me.

I sit behind a desk, going through videos and reports. They come through thick and fast from Eastern Ghouta. The region is being bombed and devastated. I need to prepare for a report for the 6pm news on national American television. I interpret a speech from a man they call “The Tiger” — Brigadier Suheil Salman al-Hassan, commander of the government’s Tiger Forces. He is leading the attacks on Eastern Ghouta. I translate his words into English but they stick to the roof of my mouth. He says: “I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire. You won’t find a rescuer. And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.”

I feel sick. Furious, devastated, sad, battered and broken. How much longer will this last? How much longer do my people have to suffer?

I can’t see the screens any more. My mind blocks the carnage with all the summers with Mahmoud, Samer, Ahmad, Amer, Rami and little Ziad. I can hear their laughter, feel the softness of the magic carpet, taste the roasted aubergines and smell the orchids. Every colour is vivid. A hundred images in a second, as if their lives are flashing before my eyes.

I realise my tea is cold. And I am numb. I have forgotten where I am. And remembered where I’ll never be again.

Mahmoud died in an airstrike when a bomb fell on the house with the big Persian rug that we had picnicked on so many times. His father was killed beside him.

Mahmoud’s older brother Karim, who taught us to love maths, came home to find his loved ones dead and his kind eyes stopped twinkling when he buried them and four more of his siblings. Not long afterwards, Karim’s warm heart stopped beating. He was shot in the head by a sniper.

Samer left his house full of wooden clocks one day and went to a protest to call time on Assad’s regime. He was arrested and so badly beaten by the police he was unrecognisable. When his father went to the police station to try to get his son back, he was arrested too. Neither of them has been seen again.

About a year after that, Samer’s mother who had made us so many sandwiches and big pots of tea was killed in an explosion alongside her seven-year-old daughter.

Shy Ahmad got on a bus to go to university one day. It was stopped at a checkpoint. They ripped his student card out of his hand and forced him into the military. Ahmad was killed in a battle and thrown into a large ditch with many other young, violently conscripted men. A young soldier who knew Ahmad recognised him while trying to cover his body with some soil. He contacted his family to let them know. There were no orchids on his grave.

Amer and Rami’s father’s generator factory was stormed by the regime. Everyone working there was arrested and the place was looted. Their father was accused of having connections with terrorists and put on trial. All his possessions and property were taken and he was sent to the notorious military prison of Sednaya, where later he was executed.

In response Amer and Rami joined the rebel forces. Amer got shot in one of the vicious battles during the siege. Rami saw his brother go down, ran directly into the line of fire to try to save him and was instantly shot dead.

Little Ziad, barely grown up at 20, tried to flee Syria with his family, who left their convenience store and everything they knew behind, but he was detained at a border. His father went back for him and paid someone he knew to get his son out. They took his money and sent him Ziad’s dead body. Soon after, Ziad’s father had his last cigarette and died of a heart attack.

And then there is me, Mustafa, nicknamed Steve by my Syrian friends, which is easier for my English ones. The only one left who can remember the tallest oak tree in the field in Ein Tarma in Eastern Ghouta.

I walk back to the desk and see a post from Hassan Akkad, a friend from Damascus who is now in London. “A few years from now, there will be a huge Hollywood film about Syria. It will tell the true story of the systematic torture and rape Assad’s troops used against millions of peaceful protestors to shut down the revolution. A film we will watch, weep and then say, ‘Never again’.”

It was and it is and it’s happening now — and every day nobody stops it. I feel as if I have climbed to the top of the oak tree again and I can see the whole of Ghouta from here. I can hear Mahmoud’s father’s voice in my head, warning me to be careful, but I am the lucky one. I did not fall.
Mustafa “Steve” Ali 

With appreciation to Nicholas Sebley for posting this article from The Times on facebook.

Donate: Preemptive Love Coalition:
Syria Crisis, Help Ghouta Families Survive

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Decolonizing Sangha Space

I wrote this article below that went on to be shortened, edited, and published in BuddhaDharma Spring 2018 edition where it is called Dismantling the Master’s House. Some friends have been using this longer piece as a guide for their work on race dynamics in their Sangha. They wanted to share it around more widely, so first I thought to blog it so they have it online.  I also thought that as this original version has more nuance and is a practice piece, it may be of interest to others. Thanissara.

Since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, some 500+ years ago, American society, built on the genocide of First Nation People and Trans Atlantic slave trade, has systematically advanced white, Euro-centric culture and economic entitlement at inordinate cost to people of color. Privileging “whiteness” generated a system that has been internalized by everyone. It manoeuvres us all along the scales of “good” self/people (privileged), and “bad” self/people (oppressed) generating a complex value system rooted in a grievous falsehood; that one racial group has more rights and worth than another. The Buddha clearly rejected this premise of racial superiority by ordaining all castes equally. In doing so, he demonstrated that equity and freedom is not just an internal realization, but also integral to the structure he constructed as essential for awakening, which is the Sangha.

Over the last decade or so, white, male led Sanghas, particularly in the U.S., have recognized the need to diversify, mostly as a result of outside pressure. To date, this has been happening while maintaining white centrality, partly due to first generation Western Buddhist teachers being white. However, we are now in a process that requires a far deeper exploration of how our contemporary Sanghas unwittingly replicate oppressive systems to the detriment of the Buddha’s original intention. As the toxic karmic results from a Euro-centric colonial past intensify around the world, it is becoming clear that for Buddhism to having meaning, it needs to empower a non-racist Sangha space as a ground for authentic awakening. This requires entering the curriculum of de-centralizing white supremacy. As this is a challenging process, reading this piece may be uncomfortable. If so, I invite entering this territory as a mindfulness and inquiry practice.
Notice how it lands in the body, and what thoughts and reactions arise as defences and judgments are activated
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Essentially, we are called to a journey that requires “Leaving the Master’s House,” a term, familiar to African Americans that was coined by Caribbean-American writer and Civil Rights activist Audre Lorde. It’s a term we as white people should now consider. It describes perfectly the construct of systemic power, which is further defined by bell hooks as imperialist, white, supremacist, capitalist Patriarchy. This power paradigm is woven into the institutions that shape society, the economies we live within, opportunities afforded or not, and the quality, and even length of life. In essence, it forms the very core of how we experience ourselves.
What privileges to you get from being in the “Master’s House?” How have you colluded with power for fear of being alienated from the Master’s House?

Being acculturated as white is to have continual affirmation that we are the norm and people of color are not. The dissonance between insider norm and invisible outsider is fuelled by a lack of awareness of how privileging whiteness wounds. The fact is violence underwrites racism and the social and economic engineering that enables it. The politics of segregation has so successfully alienated us from each other that instead of authentic and meaningful relationship, we settle for “normalizing” stereotypes that continually rip at our collective soul. The first thing we have to understand is that racial prejudice is not normal; it is learnt. This learning is accompanied by an emotional searing that has to do with fear of the other. For people of color in a dominant white society, this learning comes early, cuts deeply, and usually devastates the sense of worth and belonging. For whites there is also a learning, the fear of losing centrality. Violence projected from fear fuels and shapes implicit bias; the unconscious narratives, emotions, defences, and assumptions that shape our shared cultural space.
A true story: A woman sent her manuscript to 50 publishers, but has no response. She sends the exact same cover letter and ms in a male name. Seventeen publishers respond enthusiastically. How does this example apply to our own implicit bias, on the spectrum of privileged and marginalized, within our “imperialist, white, supremacist, capitalist Patriarchy?”

When I first saw a black man, I was about four years old. It was in the 1960’s when Jamaican and Asian Indian immigrants were fast arriving into West London where my family lived. I was with my mother in the waiting room of a doctor’s surgery. I stood in front of him, close up. I didn’t feel fear, only curiosity. I noticed his fingernails bitten right down, and his nervous stress. At about six years of age, when an Asian Indian family moved into our street, there were disapproving mutterings from parents, aunts and uncles. Something was wrong. “They have so many people crammed into that house.” One night I woke up screaming from a nightmare where I was caught in that house chased by a fierce bull I couldn’t escape. The perception of “them” as dangerous was lodged in my emergent heart by adult fear. I don’t know the source of my fear, but that my unconscious deposited fear in the house of the “other” is potent to understand.

When white centrality is threatened, people of color easily become receptacles of projected mistrust, alongside a whole range of complex reactions, from hatred and suspicion, to patronization and guilt. Being continually on the receiving end of such shadow energies means people of color experience their realities flattened and their stories, struggles and cultures, invisible.
How and when did you first experience racism? What resonance does that early learning have in your life?

Fear perpetuates racism and activates violence, like the predatory killings of African Americans by police, the ubiquitous acts of racial profiling, and ongoing theft of native lands. The abhorrence felt by witnesses, not directly threatened, often freezes into silence. A silence that is treacherously complicit. The struggle for many people of color is to break through that silence. This is easier done collectively. However, when movements like #Blacklivesmatter are turned into All Lives Matter it alleviates whites from having to speak out, while attempting to silence the black community and uphold the status quo. In Buddhist practice, while silent introspection is encouraged, it can inadvertently alienate those who struggle to find an inner cohesion that depends on collective truths being named. Truths like racism is real, it is violent, and it’s being perpetuated all the time.
As we practice with this truth, how have you experienced being complicit through silence? What is it like to speak out?

Naming uncomfortable racist truths in a predominately white space often provokes defensiveness; it requires a collective effort, which is why increased awareness in white Sanghas is vital. What I learnt in my two decades of work in South Africa is that engaging white fear is complex. Centuries of colonialism normalizes a schizoid dissonance that is devastating. For whites, that norm thinly veils the fear of being engulfed by black Africa, of not surviving. Although the context is different in the U.S., it’s similar in that racism emerges from a perceived threat to the separate identity of white entitlement. Paranoia and irrational racist beliefs are the currency of white belonging. A belonging that also injures whites. It shames empathy, distorts trust, and wounds sensitivity.
As you read this, notice how this lands in your body, what feelings and thoughts are activated?

I like to think I am not racist because I’m a meditator and have superior liberal views. That is until one day at a supermarket when an elderly Zulu man was struggling to free a shopping basket. He finally wrenched it free from the pile of metal just as I walked past. I took it, like the white Madam erroneously assuming he was a worker rather than a fellow shopper. An everyday incident easily shrugged off was a moment of shattering. My nice Buddhist veneer had not managed to halt the insidious inevitability of internalizing a basic racist assumption.
In what ways does your “niceness” and patronization deflect from internalized racist assumptions? How does that feel?

The humble journey for whites involves seeing the layers of internalized prejudice that defend against the obvious. The obvious being that we live in a deeply inequitable narrative where white skin is always seen as more worthy than black, brown, yellow, and red skin. Beneath the surface of skin there is a grievous injury to the collective soul of cultures buried and diminished through the pervasive favoring of a white Euro-centric world view that lionizes the frontier, independent, rational sense of self learnt through our history and educational systems.

How then, can cultures that have a vastly different way of knowing and being find traction? Especially when such knowing has equal, if not more value than the abstractions of Western civilization. For example, the wisdom of First Nation People who understand land is inseparable from our bodies, community, and spirituality,  as is the cosmos, and unseen elemental forces that humans need to be in ritual relationship with to maintain harmony. Or when, as I experienced in rural African communities, the correct response to a problem is not from the smartest, quickest, individual, but from a slower group discussion where everyone feels involved, comfortable, and included in the response. The point is to belong to each other, not to be the most right.
How does racial cultural arrogance, oppression, conditioning operate within you? How do you notice it operating in society?

Sangha processes laid out by the Buddha mirror the practice of group consensus and wise ways of knowing embodied by Elder Cultures. Our ability to access Buddhism is due solely to centuries of Asian transmission undertaken with care, dedication and sacrifice, which we don’t often respect. In its journey across continents, Buddhism undergoes adaptation; the same is true as it enters the West. We, however, are undertaking this at speed, and not always with care. This complex territory is not the focus of this article, but where it intersects is in our tendency to promote a rational Euro-centric view as superior, and therefore dominant, without much thought to the consequence. This keeps us in comfortable in the “Master’s House” where, alongside internalized racial prejudice, we assume a norm that becomes standardized in the forms, views and practices we feel represent a truer Buddhism. While this makes sense for a Western secular society, it may not for cultures that inhabit a felt-sense, relational experience of self rather than an overly individuated, idealized and abstracted one.
How do you feel having the norms of “our way of doing things” challenged? What, in your sangha, is assumed as unquestioned “tradition” that is in fact only several decades in the making?

In the 1980’s I trained as Buddhist nun in of the Forest School of Ajahn Chah in the UK. We were renovating an old Victorian house, which became the first Western monastery of that lineage. Some monks thought a large inverted V shaped beam in the structure at the center of the house was unnecessary. That is until they began to take it out, nearly bringing the whole roof down. When we prematurely pull out the bits and pieces we don’t like about Buddhism, we are likely doing a disservice for those who are already struggling to land into an eviscerated, soulless, overly cognitive Western paradigm. In the same way, as we approach deconstructing the norm of internalized racist oppression and white privilege, we tend to come from a place that is too fast, not careful enough. It’s true we need to challenge, but we tend to do so by overly politicizing and positioning, by being on script with political correctness, rather than moving into the place we really need to stay – the raw, lonely wound at the heart of the disembodied abstractions and the crazy-making splits inherent within the colonial world view we inherited and perpetuate.
How is it to be with our inner wounded emptiness, and not rescue, patronize, or manipulate, those less powerful (or more powerful) to make us comfortable?

Lorde’s statement, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” is a Zen Koan. How do we deconstruct our racially conditioned self when we only see through its limited prism? Perhaps begin with “I don’t know.” That is, of Zen, not the “I don’t know” as an excuse, but as a willingness to unlearn our colonized conditioning in order to hear something else. Sometimes when we leap to be white allies, we do so from confused motives. We need to feel better about ourselves. We want our Buddhist niceness, our very intelligent diagnostic, and our brave willingness to challenge authority to quickly alleviate an uncomfortable strain. When we shift quickly from insecurity to expedient solutions, strategies, and quick fixes, we land up perpetuating the root problem. We want the “other” to feel comfortable so we can be comfortable. Often we do this by asking people of color (or other marginalized groups) to settle for compromise rather than the radical realignment we know needs to happen. We want a diversity that populates our white world, our Buddhist institutions, and our hallowed practice paths, without too much impact.

Don’t get me wrong. The focus on diversity, and the cultivation of white allies is vital. At least it has been for me, and for many others. I appreciate the education, dialogue, inquiry and trainings. All of this is, however, is fast hurrying us to a cusp that has the potential to initiate a paradigm shift, which is the decentralizing of power, the dismantling of patriarchal hierarchy, and the decolonization of the mind, heart and body of Sangha. Such a process will transform the styles of practice we’ve deified and are comfortable with. It will also demand something hard, which is a high degree of self-honesty.

To see the conditioning of self is easier through the lens of non-self, which helps us understand that white supremacy is a construct that diminishes everyone. The Buddha articulated his enlightenment as the deconstruction of the house of self. “Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge pole is demolished too.”
What does it mean to you to deconstruct racist, patriarchal processes in the house of Sangha?

In the same way Buddhist male monastic hierarchy cannot authentically shape what a nuns’ community should look like, so white Buddhists are not the ones to dominate the shaping of a decolonized Sangha. This doesn’t mean that white teachers and Sangha members don’t have a vital, collaborative role. Where appropriate, and regardless of race, the weight of experience, realization, wisdom and depth compassion should have influence. There’s a balance here. In the formation of Sangha processes the Buddha taught both consensus and attunement to elders and teachers. But also, length of time in a Sangha, or visibility as a popular or charismatic teacher doesn’t necessarily translate into freedom from racial, sexist, or class bias. On the other hand, appropriate challenge, based in Dharma principles, from a white, male, or female teacher is not always racist or sexist. The giving of feedback, across race and hierarchy can be important for preserving a training or Dharma principle. Often, there is often a core confusion that plays out in dialogue across race. Whites tend to take critique personally while people of color can sometimes interpret it as part of a racist agenda.

While it is optimum to educate around how experience is perceived and interpreted differently due to racial (cultural, gender, class) conditionings, we can’t expect this work to be comfortable. We shouldn’t dread this, or think something has gone wrong because the controlled, peaceful spaces we associate with being faithful Buddhists are dislodged. Instead bewilderment, heightened emotions, indignation, misunderstandings, resentments, blame, and accusations, whether true or not, are signs something is going right. As centuries of injustice and distorted conditioning are unpackaged, how can it be any other way? Why, anyhow, should white patriarchal Sanghas maintain their comfort zones, their controlled calm spaces, when the norm for the marginalized is the experience of struggle as the direct result of those in the Master’s House refusing to give over power.
What does it mean to you to hand over power?

I love the teaching of Ajahn Chah when he said, “True but not right, right but not true.” Wherever we are in the spectrum of this dialogue, when we take fixed positions we miss something essential, which is the territory of the unbiased heart that relinquishes identification with self-view. Ultimately, this is the only space where real freedom lies. Aligned with that, we realize something truly authentic and liberating is happening; the deconstruction of white, patriarchal, hierarchal Buddhism is answering the imperative of the heart that rejects the agony of division.

The root cause of suffering is the heart dividing against its deeper alliance with all beings. When we cease to do this, then our unbroken hearts, attuned to the intelligence of the living Dharma, will hear a way through the tangle of delusion that perpetuates racism. Instead of staying stuck in a separatist, entitled, non-relevant paradigm we can pro-actively make bridges into the post-modern world that is calling us forward.

My experience of decolonized spaces, which for me reflect the Buddha’s original intention, is that while challenging, they are often dynamic, collectively intelligent, emotionally coherent, beautifully creative, deeply healing, and optimum for realizing our innate potential. Together, we have a chance to construct a different kind of Sangha house, one that supports a truly equitable ground for awakening. Without that, we will land up offering only a partial transmission to future generations.
In your wildest, hopeful dreams, what would a decolonized Sangha space feel, look, and be like?
What are some steps toward realizing that dream.

Thanissara, San Francisco, June 22nd, 2016.

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