Dreams of Freedom: Responding to Charleston
If physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children and their white brothers from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Just a week ago, last Wednesday night, as many of us were gathered here in the beautiful zendo here to hear a talk by our friend Genzan, across the country a group of people in Charleston, South Carolina, were also gathering to practice in their spiritual tradition. Members of the Mother Emanuel AME church came together that night for their weekly bible study group.
Their pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a dynamic young man, just 41 years old, the father of two small children. Rev. Pinckney had the honor of being the youngest African American to be elected as a South Carolina state legislator (at the age of 23), and he had served as a state senator for the past 15 years.
He was accompanied by a group of 8 other church members. The youngest was 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, who just last year graduated with a degree in business administration; the elder of the group was Susie Lance, a longtime church member, 87 years old.
That night they had a visitor — a young white man came to join them. They welcomed him wholeheartedly as was their practice. The young man engaged them in a conversation, and then somewhere in the course of that evening he pulled out a gun and shot and killed each one of them. He told them that he had to do it because he believed black people were “raping our women,” were “taking over.” Later on this young man told police that he almost did not carry out the act because, as he said, everyone was so nice to him.
But he did.
And now nine beautiful human beings are no longer with us; families have lost their fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters; and a community is devastated.
How it is possible for such suffering to exist, and how can we respond?
This past week, we’ve seen families of the victims and the citizens of Charleston respond with extraordinary grace, compassion, and unity. It feels impossible to know what to say… words feel very inadequate. At the end of this talk, we will hold a memorial service to honor the lives of these nine people. In Zen Buddhism, this service is a way to invite all beings into our practice, to be with grief, and to remember that we are not separate from anyone or anything. The elements of the ritual itself can help to heal and to bring together disowned aspects of our lives. That is far more powerful than any words I can say tonight.
I want to offer one way we can be with this tragedy, using the Four Noble Truths as a way to understand suffering. This is the essential teaching of the Buddha, the medicine he offered us as a way to find freedom from suffering. Whenever I am facing a situation in my own life that is painful, I return to this teaching and I believe it holds up in these times of collective pain and suffering as well.
FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
The First Noble Truth: There is suffering in life
The gift of this truth is that it teaches us how to simply be with the immense pain of what happened in Charleston. It’s about not turning away, and letting ourselves and others fully feel all the emotions that arise … including unspeakable grief, anger, disbelief.
When we have a practice to come home to, we understand how to be in relationship with these intense thoughts and emotions from a place of stability and spaciousness.
There is a great healing quality inherent in allowing things to be as they are and not moving quickly to change or fix them, or moving into denial. So the beginning point is creating space to breathe into the reality of whatever is here for us, right now, in this moment. To look this suffering directly in the eye, not turn away.
The Second Noble Truth: Suffering has a cause
The second noble truth invites us to go deeper to look at the causes and conditions in which something comes to be. When we look at what happened last Wednesday night, we’ve heard people cite how easy it is to get a gun and the lack of mental health care. Those are likely factors in the Charleston massacre. And yet there is a way in which we are dancing around something else that is at the very heart of this.
I believe it is essential for us to call this for what it is. This was not simply the act of one very disturbed young man. It has its roots in racial violence and distortions and inequities that have been part of the fabric of our country since its inception.
This massacre happened at a church that has historically served as a place of resistance and liberation for the Black community. This church has an incredible history from its founding in 1816 – you can learn more about it here. That the murders happened at Mother Emanuel AME is no coincidence The killings were perpetrated by a young man who was consumed with the ideology of white supremacy. He took it to the extreme, but the beliefs he held may be surprisingly familiar to most of us.
A couple of months ago, a group of Buddhist leaders were invited to a meeting at the White House. Afterwards, a number of them stood together outside with a sign that said, “The Karma of slavery is heavy, I vow to work for racial justice.”
This karma can be very hard for us to look at, but I believe we – and I am particularly talking to those of us who are white — absolutely need to look at it with unflinching honesty if we are to understand the cause of this suffering and move toward healing. We need to be willing to see how we are part of the causes and conditions, and not separate from them.
What often gets in the way of looking at this is a sense of shame and guilt that arises. We need to understand that our intention to do this work has to be rooted in something deeper than guilt.
This work is actually about mutual liberation, what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called an “inescapable network of mutuality.” Those of us who happen to be white are caught in the same net of interdependence as those whose lives were taken in the Charleston massacre. We experience a different side of the equation, but our humanity is greatly diminished by this dis-ease of racism and white supremacy. That’s why it’s imperative for us to look at it, call it out, see it in ourselves and in the world we live in, and find ways to heal from it, collectively. It’s not about guilt. It’s about healing, and freedom, and love.
In 1970, Wendell Berry wrote an essay called The Hidden Wound. In it he said,
[Racism] involves an emotional dynamic that has disordered the heart both of the society as a whole and of every person in the society. I want to know, as fully and exactly as I can, what the wound is and how much I am suffering from it. And I want to be cured; I want to be free of the wound myself, and I do not want to pass it on to my children.
The Third Noble Truth: Freedom from suffering is possible
This is the truth of liberation… that there is a way out of this. With this third noble truth, the Buddha offers us a ray of hope, but not hope in a cheap sense. We can only arrive at this truth if we have started engaging in the hard work of the first two truths. Sharon Salzberg uses the phrase “Real Happiness” to distinguish between the kind of superficial happiness that gets marketed to us every day, and the quality of true happiness that is the fruit of awareness.
We need to be careful of two tendencies that can take us into a spiritual bypass and lead us toward the ‘cheap’ version of hope.
1) focusing on the present moment at the expense of honoring the reality of history, and the karma generated by history
2) focusing on ‘oneness’ at the expense of honoring that we all have a very different experience of the world
The Fourth Noble Truth: The Eightfold path is the way to freedom from suffering
In this truth, the Buddha goes into great detail about what is required for us to realize freedom from suffering. This is called the Eightfold Path, and traditionally it is organized into three groupings:
Moral Conduct / Sila
Mental Discipline / Samadhi
Wisdom / Prajna
The word “Right” should be understood not in the sense of “correct” but rather as implying a more thorough understanding of something. Sometimes the words “Complete” or “Whole” are used instead of “Right.” Another thing that is true about the Eightfold Path is that none of the paths exist in isolation to the others — they work in a synergetic way.
It can take a whole lifetime, and more, to study and practice with the eight spokes of this truth. Right now, I want to focus on two of them, View and Action.
As we look at the Charleston massacres, what is a whole view? How can we see clearly? What gets in the way of our capacity to see clearly?
If we look deeply at what happened last week, one of the things we can see the discrepancy in police response to crime. Consider Eric Garner, the Black man who almost a year ago was confronted by police on Staten Island, NY. His crime? He was selling loose cigarettes out on the street. Police put him in a chokehold, and he died because he could not breathe. This was not an isolated incident… a study from Pro Publica that showed young Black men are 21 times more likely to die at the hands of the police than their white counterparts.
And then look at what unfolded last week in South Carolina — the perpetrator was taken into custody and given a bulletproof vest. There was also a report that the local police who apprehended him ordered him a meal from Burger King before turning him over to the FBI.
This is evidence of something that is called white supremacy. This term may seem shocking and not one that we’d want to describe ourselves with… but it’s important to understand that white supremacy is not just about men who white sheets and burn crosses. It refers to the whole ecosystem that we live in… it permeates every bit of our psyche in ways that we are usually unconscious of. It’s the way our society is constructed, from the beginning of this country’s history…
This project of undoing white supremacy begins with acknowledging it. Are we willing to go there? Can we be with our own discomfort so that we can lean into this conversation? Can we see the connections between things?
This is where some awareness of our history will help us, and understanding how the karma of that history has a long tail that stretches all the way into this present moment. It’s important to recognize that we have a kind of origin myth about our country that emphasizes the noble aspirations of our founding fathers, but that leaves out at least two crucial factors:
1) The U.S. was established through military conquest and the genocide and displacement of indigenous people, and seizure of their homelands. Before Columbus landed on this continent, there were between 9 and 18 million indigenous people here. After the European invasion that followed, that number when down to about 250,000.
2) During the colonial period the U.S. was only able to grow, economically, because of slave labor from Africa. As agriculture and industry began to grow, there was a tremendous labor shortage. It was enslaved Africans who provided the labor force that made the growth of the United States possible. In total, slavery was legal in this country for 246 years. At the time of the Civil War, more than 4 million African Americans were enslaved, 13 percent of the country’s total population. Justification for slavery relied on denying the humanity of Black people and their entitlement to equal rights.
In one form or another, the karma from this history has wound its way into our current institutions, from the economy to housing to education to criminal justice, and more. In hundreds of ways large and small the deck has been stacked against Black people and other people of color for centuries. To this day, the median net worth of a U.S. white household is $141,000. The median net worth of a black household? Just $11,000. [Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/]
This is not to say that some white people don’t struggle — they do — or that some Black people don’t transcend these struggles — they do. But it is to say that the playing field is not level and has not been for a very very very long time.
In some ways, our situation is similar to the Buddha as he was growing up in an environment in which his father shielded him from sickness, old age, and death. When he went out into the world and witnessed for himself these realities, he began his path toward waking up. Most of us, too, have had the privilege of being ignorant of certain realities. As part of the practice of not turning away, it’s essential for us to recognize that the very foundation of this country is built on the premise of white supremacy and it continues to this day.
When we sit with the pain and this more complete view of the Charleston massacre, we can ask what is required, especially of us as white people? It is primarily our responsibility to acknowledge racism, to learn from history, to see how we are complicit, and to be in solidarity with people of color to untangle this knot of racism and oppression.
I want to suggest one very simple place we can start, a way of bringing together Right View and Right Action… and that is to practice deeply listening to people of color. Listening without defensiveness, listening before we jump to try to fix the problem, or to reassure them and us that it’s okay because we are really ‘all one,’ or that things are so much better than they were 50 years ago.
Allow someone else to share their experience with you and realize that you have no idea what they’ve been going through, and learn from what you hear. This is most certainly not an end point, but it is a starting point for understanding how to respond in a more skillful way.
These are the words of Claudia Rankine, a poet and professor at Pomona College:
Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.
It occurs to me that collective healing from social diseases such as racism is really the same process as what our personal relationships need go through in order to be whole. Healing happens when we can honestly share the full spectrum of our emotional truths with each other, including (and especially) the more difficult ones such as anger. And this requires humility, courageous conversations, accountability, forgiveness, and above all, love. That is how we move through to a deeper level of intimacy and respect for one other, and this is how we can understand the path to skillful and loving action.
DREAMS OF FREEDOM
Finally, I want to end this talk by raising up how important it is for us to hold a vision and dream about freedom, about freedom from the suffering generated by racism and white supremacy.
Harriet Tubman, who was one of the most successful conductors of the Underground Railroad and who helped thousands of slaves make their way to freedom in the 1800s.
When Harriet was 11 years old, she was struck in the head by a metal weight – the overseer of the plantation where she was at was trying to hit a black man who was running away but hit Harriet instead. She suffered a huge gash to her forehead, and by some miracle she survived. The wound left her with a traumatic brain injury and she sometimes had an urge to sleep in the middle of the day, in the middle of whatever activity she was engaged in. During these sleep states, she was gifted with prophetic dreams.
In one particular dream, she could vividly see President Lincoln signing an order to free al slaves – this was three years before this actually happened with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. At the time of the dream, she was staying in the home of a minister in New York, and she came downstairs and proclaimed to everyone in the house, “My people are free! My people are free!” The minister tried to calm her down and cautioned her that they wouldn’t see emancipation in their lifetime, but Harriet was absolutely sure of the veracity of her dream.
So my invitation for all of us is how can we hold this dream of freedom together, and know its truth way down in our bones, know that it already exists… even as we recognize that we have much work to do.
Our practice gives us the gift of liberation, right here and right now, and wisdom will help guide us in understanding how to arrive there, together.
July 6 2015 UPDATE
Another way that you can respond is to contribute to a fund set up to help re-build Black churches that have been burned down by arsonists in the weeks since the Charleston massacre. The “Rebuild the Churches Fund” has been established to collect donations from all over the world for the rebuilding of these churches.
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