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the colour of zen

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Sitting in meditation at the monastery recently, I noticed not one face ‘of colour.’ Everyone appeared to be caucasian; the nearest exception was a man of Mexican heritage. Men and women of all ages were represented. Later, when people shared their experiences, I observed a preponderance of college-student, professional, educated, and affluent voices.

I’ve been puzzled by this phenomenon for years, especially in the USA where the ethnic mix is more obvious than here in Canada. Having sat retreats at 6 centres in 3 countries, I’ve only once seen someone in a wheelchair. Seems as if Western Buddhism appeals mostly to white middle-class able-bodied persons. Assuming reasonably that the doors are open to all, I wonder why people from other realms are not attracted to the practice?

A quick Internet search shows centers offering activities and retreats for various subgroups, from women only, gay and lesbians, single parents, to people of color, those in prison, in recovery, and and and. What is with these distinctions, these separations? If one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is to help us to recognize and let go of dualities, then we ought to come together as one sangha (community) instead of perpetuating this othering along such lines as ethnicity, gender, money, and education.

When preferences are cast aside,
the Way stands clear and undisguised.

From Hsin-hsin Ming (“verses of the faith mind”), one of the earliest and most influential Zen writings dating back to 6th century China. Often referred to as the first Zen poem, it consists of 146 unrhymed four-character lines.



22 responses »

  1. Thanks for this, Peter.
    It reminds me how my mind loves to categorize, to itemize, to trivialize.
    I forget that fragmentation is an illusion – a construct of my mind. I forget that there is only the whole and that segments are slivers that imperfectly reflect the whole. And that in the end, there is no whole.
    And in the meantime, I can sit.

    • malcolm: you’re reminding me that “One” is itself a construct, a delusion. As these lines from the 6th century poem “Faith in mind” (Richard Clarke translation) tell us:

      Although all dualities come from the One,
      do not be attached even to this One.

  2. Can we “sit” other than we live?

    I notice what you have observed in almost every aspect of my life – even online where it need not matter much. I have a friend on facebook who is aboriginal. We worked together at one time and really enjoy each other. She is one of a few only aboriginal friends but if you look at her friends list – wow! a whole community of aboriginal friends and not too many caucasian friends.

    I think diversity is a purposeful act. And, yes I think it is worth striving for… but as yet it doesn’t come easy.

    My most diverse community is Twitter. My least diverse community is my home community of Mayne Island. It is skewed heavily towards caucasian people who are retired with enough resources to have purchased island property.

    What will it take to create the right elements to bring a diverse community together to “sit?” Can we “sit” other than how we live? Hummmmm

    • Regarding your last question, Terrill. As in society at large, we rely on hand-built bridges to link disparate groups. For example (and it wasn’t my idea initially!), I’ve been leading a weekly 30-minute meditation group with residents of a psycho-social care facility. These are what used to be called ‘mental patients’ who’re also getting old. They live in a secure building. Each week 8 to 10 of them eagerly await my arrival; they delight in hearing the bell ring and easily manage to seize involuntary movements and speaking of nonsense words.

      As it says in the Four Bodhisattva Vows: “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.”

  3. It is fascinating to note what draws people to a common ground.

    The same retreat may have attracted a very different group of people years ago. The need to belong? or the desire to stand out?

  4. An interesting observation, recalling my training weekends I can’t remember there being different colours in any perspective.

    Although I was by far the youngest at age 25 at the time. Actually the same holds for my training in T’ai Chi and Cheng Hsin. Almost everyone is middle-aged and middle-classed.

    Does it have to do with how “outsiders” perceive Zen? I still don’t have a good answer to this actually. Maybe there just isn’t an answer to it, it’s just the way the world works. We all have our own ways to go through life and for middle-aged middle-classed caucasians it might be Zen.

    What a strange world, now you got me thinking. Food for another blogpost some time next week.

    Greets, Christiaan

    • Good points, Christiaan. Maybe the practice only appeals to the social groups you mention … because I truly believe that the gates to the dharma (Buddha’s teachings) are wide open.

      And yet, and yet …where are the homeless white people, for instance? at the monastery where i trained, for instance, we have a policy that money shall not be an bstacle to attending retreats; sunday morning and weekday evening sessions of meditation (with talks by a teacher) are offered free of charge and in a downtown location.

      • I’m going out on a limb here with an idea. Don’t hold it against me please:

        At the center I trained all trainings cost money. Even if just a small fee for what you get in return. That alone will deter people from attending.

        But on the other hand. Because I’m in a financially safe situation at the moment (and didn’t have to work weekends) I was able to train in Zen. Also, I have 25 minutes a day I can spare to “just sit”. I’m looking for stillness there.

        People who constantly need to worry about where money will come from somehow don’t seem to be attracted to calmness in this way. They feed on their own stress and need it to stay sharp. Identifying themselves with it even. Loosing stress about money, and perhaps even stress itself leaves them with less to complain about. And complaining is what they love doing. Wanting sympathy from others.

        Now some guy comes along claiming they don’t need to stress, just sit down and calm down and things will work out. Or at least become clearer. But is offering a possible solution and they don’t want that, it would sever them from what they think identifies them. What’s more, they are to preoccupied with this misery that they can not (or will not) investigate ways of getting rid of it. Every second not spent on stressing out causes them more stress actually.

        As said, I’m going out on a limb here. My idea in a nutshell:

        “People who identify themselves with their stress and misery will not practice Zen in fear of losing their identity.”

        Looking forward to your reactions

        (ps. it’s hard to convey ideas in words…but ideas like this is what I blog about: “Thoughts from a Zen mind in a Wester World”)

        • Risky business, this “going out on a limb.” You may slip and fall, the branch may break, or someone may reach up and pull you down to earth.

          A friend by name of “H” wrote in reply to your comment, asking to remain anonymous. She and I have volunteered in end-of-life care for years, she’s raised two well-adjusted children and now works as a senior banking officer. Herewith her salient points:

          “My heart goes out to every homeless person or other marginalized person who not only has to cope with the challenges life gives them but also the attitudes that ChristiaanH and others perpetuate about them and their circumstances.

          His comment reminds me of the time I was in the legal aid office. The intake worker was being rude … as I asked questions regarding the forms he was asking me to sign. I was not deterred and carried on getting the information … with his response becoming harsher and nastier with every question.

          As I left the office (not being my “best self”) I said to him, “Beware your pretty little life can change in a minute.” Maybe that’s the one thing I would like to say to Christiaan: let’s hope your life stays “pretty” and you never have to face homelessness because with those attitudes you might not be a good fit with the ones out on the street.”

          • A follow-up from “H” to her reaction on Christiaan’s comment:

            I know how I/we seem predisposed to label, judge, categorize, and separate everything … this doesn’t stop me working towards eliminating these labels … which brings me full circle to my emotional reaction to Christiaan’s comments. Do his comments bring to mind my short comings in finding the beauty, love and oneness of everyone and everything.

            I extend loving kindness to him and all who share similar views. May we all see the benefits of dropping judgements and look for ways to support each other on this short journey.

            • I really struck a chord there. Let me say again, I’m not out to hurt anyone, just to spark a discussion. And it sure did that.

              As soon as you start labelling “good” you automatically create “not good” as well.

              I wonder what the attitude is exactly that I seem to perpetuate. From personal experience with several people in not-so-fortunate circumstance a common theme was always “Life is against me”. Without exception they were constantly complaining about their situation. It was a part of their identity they did not want to loose.

              On a very practical level: I know a woman who is in debt and can’t make ends meet. She spends money on useless things though. (four winter jackets, loads of clothing and shoes) Forgetting all priorities to paying of debt.
              I gave her a very simple advice (again, highly practical) “Write down every cent you spend, keep track of it all.” Because I was sure that this would show her where she could reduce her spendings and debt.
              I got flamed…
              She thought keeping track was completely silly. But she couldn’t tell me exactly how much came in and went out. Not even to within 100 Euro’s.

              I don’t have a lot of experience with “marginalized” people and of course that will colour my vision. And agreeing with Fiona, you can not know people without walking in their shoes.

              It’s easy for me to call down from my tower and tell people how to do things. Much easier than it would be from “down there”. It does however provide a perspective from a distance. Some people are so deep in their own stress that they can’t take a step back and take a good look at what should be done.

              The current moment to me is an accumulation of all the choices I made in the past and some things I couldn’t choose (like being born here)
              I have sympathy for people who get into trouble because of their environment. I do not however, have sympathy for people who made bad choices and even after trying to help still make bad choices.

              Take the woman in debt I just mentioned. I can not help her, she will not accept what others can do for her, claiming that she can handle it herself. (While she is getting deeper in to debt every month). She continues complaining while she herself can “easily” (a habit change) overcome the problem. It’s her choice, and there always is a choice.

              I actually don’t like the words sympathy and compassion. Although I’m capable of empathy of course I can’t help wanting to yell “wake up and take action!” to some people in stead of feeling sorry for them… They can always count on my support, if they choose to take action. It doesn’t need to be my vision of what they have to do, but it needs to be constructive.

              I’m sorry if I offended someone here.


              • christian – you certainly did raise a lot of discussion….
                offending others…we’re all capable of it/ i sure am…the main thing to remember is what learning can happen, hopefully to the offender and offended…be well

              • dear christiaan, i admire your willingness to explore these sticky issues on this forum. it takes courage. any “offence” was, i believe, un-intentional and thus serves to teach your readers as they practice compassion. that all we CAN do, to practice and to intend to do not harm. may you be happy. peter

                • I just wanted to let you all know that I extend all my positive and happy thoughts towards you today. Enjoy the day everyone, sometimes we unintentionally hurt others. It’s when we don’t realise this that we get into trouble.

                  Be well all

        • “People who identify themselves with their stress and misery will not practice Zen in fear of losing their identity.”

          In my experience people who are ‘up against it’, whether due to poverty, illness, bad luck, abuse, recession or whatever, simply don’t have time or energy to even think about ‘their identity’, they are just trying to survive. They need compassion and understanding and practical support.

          They say you can never really know a person until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes….

          • and the best i can do, most of the time, and if i have the capacity to spare, is to walk and sit alongside the one who’s suffering.

  5. These observations sit very close to my heart, Peter. As an Aboriginal person working in both Aboriginal and mainstream spaces, I too wish we could break down the barriers that categories create. While it’s important to rethink those divisions and let go of the boundaries we put between ourselves and “others”, it’s also important to remember that society is set up to reinforce those racial, gender, class and other categories of difference. So even while we may let go of them on an individual level, it’s important to see how they work to exclude diverse people from practices such as meditation. There are plenty of things that could be done to promote meditation in diverse cultures–I’ve never heard of meditation being offered on a First Nations reserve, for example.

    • Sarah, I confess my ignorance by assuming that First Nations people have their own meditative practices and would not be interested in Buddhist meditation. What do you think?

  6. Further to Christiaan’s last comments about ‘stress, money, and holding on to things’, i’d just like to comment from my experience as a single mother. Money was very much an issue when i was raising my son alone, or the lack of it; plus the lack of time to focus on myself. If we wish to bring meditation into the lives of people experiencing these things, we first need to have some understanding of what they’re going through, and work at their level of need – ie provide babysitters at a retreat, etc.

  7. Thank you Chriatiaan for bringing my attention to what I’d rather avoid.
    How often people have shown me something, tried to help me, and I have rejected them.

    And thank you all for your comments.
    What gifts they are.

    I am reminded of the teacher who suggests that in our walking meditation we imagine daisies springing up behind us in each footstep.
    Can I with equanimity accept a squatted dog turd on the sidewalk with the same delight that I see a flower in someone’s garden, knowing it is no less a perfect part of creation?
    Not yet.
    I’m working on it.

    All your comments remind me to look at those parts of my self – projections, judgments, etc. – I’d rather avoid.
    Perhaps any perceived imperfection is mine: it is not in ‘other’ or the world.
    Perhaps when I completely accept myself as whole and perfect, I will see that the world around me is whole and perfect too.

    Perhaps color and diversity are as illusory as impermanent clouds.

    And in the meantime … ?

    • In the meantime, dear malcolm, we/i return to the breath in this moment and listen to the heart. it knows — even if the intellect claims it can figure out (or google) everything. thank you for your rich observations.


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