Buddhist Centre Features

Reflecting on Racism with James Baldwin

On Sun, 7 June, 2020 - 15:51
viveka's picture

Dear Sangha friends,

I wanted to offer you a podcast to listen to in these times.

Listen to the podcast on ‘Nothing Is Fixed’ by James Baldwin’

Paramananda and I met on May 25 to record a conversation for The Buddhist Centre Online. At the time George Floyd had not yet died an unjust death in an encounter with police. Another black man Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting while jogging in Georgia was in the news. Our conversation began with a poem from James Baldwin and opened to reflections about the relevance and purpose of meditation in the times we are in - pandemic, the highlighting of anti-black systemic racism in the disproportionate covid-19 impact  and recent murders of black people in the U.S.

George Floyd.
Breonna Taylor.
Ahmaud Arbery.
Sean Reed.
Tony McDade.

The actual list of names of black people whose deaths link to the toxin of racism is much, much grievously longer. It is a unacceptably growing number of African descended peoples that started in 1619. 1619  the first year enslaved African were shipped and sold to colonialists undertaking the settling and seizing of territories that were home to Native Americans.

If you are not clear about the story of any of the black names above, I ask you to do your work to learn their stories. To bear witness. To understand the show of solidarity and moral conscience showing itself in large numbers of people turning up to declare that black lives matter and that we do not want to live in a world of policing that terrorizes black people and communities. This is a moral call and action and a call I resonate with as a dharma practitioner rooted in the first precept fo non-violence and love.  A call that community building is where our nation’s collective energy and resources should be directed, and not to an increasing project of criminalization and surveillance and othering of non-white bodies.

Please practice deep, deep empathy about why there may be such an intense response manifesting in protests across this country. Please work hard to see the unjust systems at play in this country that lead to such disparate impacts on black people, black communities. Please resist being distracted into superficial narratives about looting (property loss is not comparable to the persistent, unchecked loss of black lives). I ask you, what is the main story here, the story we should be concerned about? 

Please consider how concern can translate to action - and practice being active. Our practice is inclusive of acts of body, speech and mind. I’m not prescribing what that action should be. I am asking for Buddhists to not reduce the wonderful treasure of dharma to merely its contemplative gifts. In the podcast we ask, “What is the purpose of meditation?”

A final thought, we are now entering pride month. 51 years ago, LGBTQ patrons at the Stonewall Inn, led by people of color - specifically trans women of color - rose up against police brutality. This is not a new struggle. I leave you with the James Baldwin poem.

With love,



For Nothing Is Fixed

For nothing is fixed,
forever, forever, forever,
it is not fixed;
the earth is always shifting,
the light is always changing,
the sea does not cease to grind down rock.
Generations do not cease to be born,
and we are responsible to them
because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails,
lovers cling to each other,
and children cling to us.
The moment we cease to hold each other,
the moment we break faith with one another,
the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

James Baldwin


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Parts of this conversation fall short of meeting our community guidelines around positive, empathetic and harmonious speech, and ways of relating to others online. We’ve decided to keep the conversation here because it also contains some helpful discussion and exemplification of Buddhist practice in this regard.

The Triratna Buddhist Order and Community is committed to fostering diversity as a practical aspiration in our presentation of the Dharma online, and at our Buddhist Centres around the world.


Dharmavadana's picture

Thank you for sharing your experience, Verdon. I am very sorry that you have experienced such pain. I hope you continue to feel welcome at your sangha, and at every sangha, as you absolutely should.

Singhashri's picture

Thank you for telling us a bit about your experience being Black in America. I know it’s not even close to the whole story. I look forward to meeting you one day and practicing together. I am also American, queer and Latinx and have struggled at times in this Order and movement with the sexism and racism. I’ve been living in the UK for the past 8 years and the white fragility is, as you say, palpable. 

With love and solidarity,


yashobodhi's picture

Thank you for sharing your experience with us in this thread, Verdonkdharma. I hear you loud and clear, and your words resonate. Your voice needs to be heard and this community benefits from it.

MichaelThompson's picture

I’d like to give gratitude and thanks to all those who have sought to promote harmony and understanding through this discussion, which has been on my mind for days.

If we can assume that all of us here want to make the world a better place, especially as a Buddhist Sangha, let’s do our best to exemplify that sort of communication. The sort where we attempt to respond to the best in each other.

There are real problems of inequality, oppression and racism in our world. They need to be challenged urgently. But how? In my experience much seems clear but there is much to be uncertain about, including my own views and assumptions and how I use my energy for good. 

I’ve noticed how I can decide what ‘the truth’ is and then seek to confirm my own views. It’s only through my friends in the Sangha and others that I have seen what it really takes to honestly, rationally, emotionally try to hold the complexity of the world. It’s hard because I want the clarity to act, but it’s taught me to be careful too. Maybe it’s because of my privilege that I can afford be careful.

Still if I can offer anything it seems reasonable to ask others to be careful with each other too. Some people in our world thrive and capitalize on division, and maybe I can assume that most people here do not want those people at the helm.

As I heard recently ‘Conversation is all we have’

With metta to you all..


Upayadhi's picture

Dear all,

I have been listening again to Viveka’s talk given in 2016 about “Courageous Conversations about Race.”

I have attached the full transcript to my comment here, and added a stand alone post on the Order threads. The link to the video is here: https://vimeo.com/179392338

I do hope participants and readers of this thread might take a moment to listen to her with our 2020 ears, even if we heard it the first time. (Viveka has given me her permission to share the transcript of her talk here).

BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) in our Movement have, on many occasions, over many years, in many places and in many ways, already told us what to do in order to help make our sangha more inclusive, often in the form of humble, reasonable suggestions and requests. Were we listening deeply, and taking action?

I would like to offer, from a personal perspective, that I don’t see it as all up to the BIPOC in our Order and Movement to fix the largely unconscious and uninformed racism embedded in our dominant culture, institutions, processes, habits, perceptions, views, psyches and nervous systems.

To my friends who are socialized as white: let’s take care to not further exhaust our friends who are socialized as BIPOC with a problem that over and over we have failed to own. This would only be further exploitation, with our demands to help us make us feel better about ourselves. As if race is a “person of color problem,” as if white people are not also racialized. It’s on us. I would like to see us be accountable to them, and frankly worthy of them, while also not getting too ensnared in white savior traps or even in trying to be “good white people,” another pitfall in the journey in my experience. We can hold each other close, as Baldwin said in his poem, through to the other side of all that. Viveka has called for courageous conversations about race. In other talks she often quotes David Whyte: “There is no self that will survive a real conversation.”

I would like to see white people and the institutions of our Movement do more heavy lifting. Because right now it feels waaaay off balance. We can do this with the support and collaboration and guidance of BIPOC, of course, but only if they wish and have any energy left for us.

Bhante’s version of the tantric precepts seem especially relevant here.

And if needed, following the example of other Buddhist sanghas with predominantly white convert populations, we may actually need to be willing to pay professionals to support us in this process, versus count on the unpaid labor of our BIPOC friends. This, too, is long haul restorative work, and it often requires (re)allocating all kinds of resources. It was never meant to be resolved in a podcast.  

I dream of a Buddhist community that one day will be worthy of the remarkable BIPOC in our Movement and Order. Let’s get to work - with great love, curiosity, humility and forbearance!


PS. In sharing privately my thoughts with Viveka, she responded that “something that made a deep impression on [her] from a white anti-racism trainer was the trainer saying that doing this type of work calls for really loving white people. For white people to cultivate coming to this work from a place of love towards each other. To continue loving each other through the work of facing the history of white supremacy. Honoring in each other a genuine wish for purifying and healing that legacy (a paraphrase but that was the essence).” (ps. she is ok with me sharing this here)

Singhashri's picture

Dear sister in the dharma,

Thank you for reminding us of Viveka’s heartfelt requests four years ago. Reading back over her talk I felt humbled and also ashamed that I have not done more to address racism within our sangha over these past four years. I have to work hard not to give into the voice that says I am not being a good enough ally and simply commit to starting now. 

It reminds me of when people come to me who have been meditating for decades and they feel ashamed that they are only now learning how to turn towards the difficult aspects of their experience and meet them with love. I encourage them to honour the whole of themselves and their journey, to not judge past versions of themselves harshly for not being ready yet, to simply use the energy and resolve in that moment to dig deeper and commit now to the path of further integration and insight.

I am so excited about the journey ahead and the many spiritual friends I have been in touch with over the past few weeks who are also on this journey with us. There is so much work to do, so let’s get started! I’m up for the heavy lifting and looking forward to the freedom that comes from engaging so deeply with this work.

With love and in solidarity,


Upayadhi's picture

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dhammarati's picture

In her convention talk in 2016, Courageous Conversations about Race, Viveka said it was a ’vulnerable act’ to give that talk in an Order context. I imagine it feels much the same to post a thread like this, and I wanted to start off by appreciating Viveka for carrying on this ‘courageous conversation’.

I know some concerns have been raised about the post being too ‘political’ but, for something so close to the heart, I wanted to respond more personally than that. At the core of my practice as a Buddhist is a human response, a wish to respond to suffering, not just in the abstract, but to the specific forms that suffering takes in my life and the lives of others.

I’d understand Viveka’s post as a request that I, that we, reflect more deeply on the specific, shocking, suffering that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is drawing attention to; to reflect more deeply on how we can respond to that, ‘to practice deep, deep empathy about why there may be such an intense response manifesting in protests across this country’; and ‘to consider how concern can translate into action’.

It’s someting that I feel an ethical responsibility for, not a political one, and I appreciate that Viveka’s post is careful ‘not to prescribe what that action should be’. 

I don’t know how to respond most skilfully, and I’m happy to start with the request to reflect more deeply. A group of order members of colour wrote in another forum to say that each of them had ‘been deeply impacted by racial discrimination and violence…’ and that they ‘would ask therefore that when talking about race that we start from a position of being open to others’ experiences and to what we don’t know.’

These requests are coming from people I know well, and trust deeply, with whom I’m working to create a spiritual community. I want to take their experience, and their requests, seriously.

I also appreciated Maitrisara’s post which raised some questions about how we might respond as a community. Paraphrasing her a little, she was asking how we as a Sangha can have a creative conversation about ‘how to resond to suffering that stems from prejudice?’; how we explore our own prejudices and conditioning? how our conditioning creates a lens through which we perceive and respond to others? what greater diversity in our own Sangha might be possible; and how would that come about? 

I think Maitirsara is right that these questions now have more energy, and I hope that we can carry on the courageous conversation in ways that ‘can translate into action’.

Prabhakari's picture

Thank you for this, Dhammarati


Upayadhi's picture

I have also been listening again to Vimalasara’s talk given in 2016: “Reflecting on Diversity in Bhante’s New Society”

I have attached the full transcript to my comment here, and added a stand alone post the Order threads. The link to the video is here: https://vimeo.com/179392295

I do hope participants and readers of this thread might take a moment to listen to her anew, even if we heard it the first time.

Through a very personal testimony, Vimalasara described ways in which whiteness, blackness and white privilege have operated in her own life. And she spoke of the opportunity before us to wake up from delusion through the work of undoing racism and the racialized self, pointing to the gifts that the Dharma offers in this urgent undertaking.

Please note: this post is of my own initiative, Vimalasara has not asked me to post this, but she has granted me permission to do so. 

She has asked me to include the following note: “Please let people know that there will be a panel of BAME/BIPOC OMs and TFO mitras exploring and working with racism in our community (open to everyone in Triratna) on July 25th - 5pm UK time. It will be sponsored by the International BIPOC/BAME Teaching Kula, Buddhafield and thebuddhistcentre.com”

Dayamudra's picture

Vimalasara- I am deeply moved by the personal story you share and the many ways the 3 jewels have transformed your life. One of the joys of spiritual friendship is seeing people transform in real time, and seeing how you live the Bodhisattva vow and the wisdom you embody gives me courage. 

The karma of colonialism is heavy and we see it ripening in the dehumanization of Black and brown bodies on our streets. Your invitation is clear and loving. I feel lucky to be walking this path with you. 

Thank you for posting, Upayadhi.

Racism does not magically disappear in our spiritual community. We have to know it to let go of it. I have been told in the Sangha: “I have nothing in common with you: you’re black and you’re a lesbian.” But yet, we’re told what we have in common is the centrality of Going For Refuge. When I bring up the issue of diversity, I’m often told “we’re all human beings.” Yes, we are all human beings. But my experience in this form, is different from many of yours.

Satyavasini's picture

I support and applaud Viveka’s passionate call to turn towards the suffering of a peoples and to look to the deeper, more complex issues that underlie that suffering. These, I think point to necessary components in compassionate action which in turn points to the nature of being human.  In a recent BBC interview, the Dalai Lama said “When we face some tragic situation, it reveals deeper human values of compassion.  Usually people don’t think about these deeper human values, but when they see [people] suffering the response comes automatically.”  I think he means that compassion is a natural response in humans but is usually overlaid with the ordinary, sometimes reactionary mental states associated with day to day existence.  If we allow ourselves to truly see the suffering and the roots of suffering, as difficult as that may be, then we will respond in a spontaneous out pouring of compassion; therein lies our humanity.  Be well.

prasadachitta's picture

Hello Sangha,

Some on this thread have invoked the “facts” as either not being considered or as supportive of their view. I want to share an article posted on a site that features geeky statisticians.  When it comes to crunching numbers I trust information these geeks put out. If you want to have a more detailed statistical understanding of how the racial aspect of police outcomes is measured then read it.  Basically the system is acutely racially biased and only if you look at the evidence in very limited and obviously deceptive ways will statistical analysis not show this. This regards the USA.


Let’s cultivate love


dharmashalin's picture

I appreciate Dhammarati’s call for empathy, which I echo. My concern is that the call for empathy could be read as solely with empathising with those calling for action, not with those expressing reservation or concern.  Can we acknowledge the emotional immediacy and strength of blacklivesmatters without denying the depth of feeling and values of those expressing other views?

Thinking about all this I’ve been remembering a phrase from my NVC (non-violent communication) training; ‘Empathise then educate.’

In my own life I know how hard this can be to do, but I do know that it’s a key to effective conversation.  I also know that the more concerned I feel about a subject the harder I find it to empathise with differing positions. So I can understand the strength with which some of you express your opinions. However I find that the pieces that proceed from empathy are the most likely to result in me changing my mind or becoming more open to a different perspective.

Karunamitra's picture

Hi Viveka

Thank you so much for this, Viveka. You inspire hope and James Baldwin was a shining light, an inspiration.

Keep spreading the message of love and compassion. Just know when someone tries to take you down for being political, it means they have no argument. Strive on.

in the Dharma