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Interfaith Voices: Karma and race and white privilege

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A Buddhist teaching that most people know about is karma. This generally refers to the universal principle of cause and effect. The traditional teaching on karma urges us as individuals to be aware of how our actions bring about future consequences. But we are not just individuals. If we combine cause and effect with the truth of interdependence that runs through all of life and living systems, we arrive at an inevitable insight: karma is a collective phenomenon.

We are all a living cloth, a community of action and consequence, based on our overt rules and unspoken agreements. So, what’s going on now is a consequence of all past collective actions. As a Buddhist practitioner, it is my spiritual work to wake up to how my life has been shaped by this past and guides my actions.

In our country we are undergoing another round of white awakening to the on-going trauma that results from our collective agreements. Even if we, as whites, are “liberals.” we still have a lot of waking up to do as members of this society.

Assumptions and attitudes about race are inculcated early in life by our families and communities, our school system and versions of history that we’re taught, have been written into our laws, our economic system and woven into the fabric of life in this country, and are once again front and center in our political divide. Race was a verbal designation adopted in the 17th century as an extension and justification for colonial domination.

When asked by his disciple about what distinguishes us as noble or base, the Buddha said, “In human bodies in themselves, nothing distinctive can be found. Distinction among human beings is purely verbal designation.” In other words, what distinguishes us as noble or base are our thoughts, words and deeds, not our occupation, caste, race, or gender.

If we are white we need to recognize how we are privileged by this system. If we are a person of color, we know well how we are steadily disserved, often deeply harmed, by this same system. Buddhist ethics proceed from introspection to action. To look within and to look without. Our actions go beyond the “right” and “left” of the dominant political discourse that we’re all caught in. My spiritual work is inside out and outside in. I have a vow to wake up to my own blind spots, my own shadow and biases as they shape my actions. Racial awareness is one layer of what I as a Buddhist practitioner look much more deeply into in my own personal history and as a member of a privileged group.

As a human being I value being aware and not turning away as a basic practice toward healing the racial wounds that run deep and continue to create harm. This spiritual work has consequences — knowing ourselves and being open to knowing each other as we look deeply into our own scars that blind us to the sufferings of others, the limits placed on others, and the gifts and beauty of others.

The poetry of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” inspires me. I say “poetry” because this brief phrase expresses the intensity of a whole world of white denial. We can all identify with wanting to matter, with wanting to have a place in this world that is respected and allowed. Yet people of color are still struggling even for basic safety. It’s my spiritual responsibility to learn about and speak out about the mental and physical structures that limit property, wealth and safety for all bodies.

Abby Terris is senior teacher of the Sangha Jewel Zen Center in Corvallis. She has been practicing Zen Buddhism for 45 years and teaching it for nearly 20. She also co-leads Buddhist retreats at Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie and at ZenWest-Empty Field Zendo in Eugene. She is a psychotherapist in private practice in Corvallis and mother of two grown daughters.


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