Lessons & Reflections from Radical Dharma

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 For the Evolution of the Work That Reconnects

By Aravinda Ananda

“It’s an important entryway into the potential for healing when we start to recognize we are all participating unless we’re interrupting.” –Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams

What a time to be alive!  So many skeletons are coming out of the systems of oppression closets and being made more visible in the public arena, which has been mostly silent for centuries in order to maintain power.

I have served on the co-facilitation team for the first three Earth Leadership Cohorts – an East Coast immersion in the Work That Reconnects for young adults. These extraordinary young folks who are connected to the movements for liberation in multiple activist realms have been my teachers. They have helped reveal to me how oblivious I had been to how systems of oppression play out in workshop spaces, and how they are embedded within some of the framing and mechanics of the Work itself.

In the first cohort we ran, there was only one participant of color, who withdrew after the first meeting. The pain of losing this friend in the cohort was a wake-up call to white participants and facilitators about how difficult it can be for people of color to be in what are frequently white dominant workshop spaces. This event, along with other feedback (the second cohort issued a very clear request that oppression be clearly named at the very start of a group’s time together and an anti-oppression lens become part of the framing of the Work), led me to the conviction that I could no longer facilitate this work without growing in my own awareness of systems of oppression, and how some elements of the work itself, and how it is shared, needed to evolve. I think this is something with which any of us who choose to facilitate this work need to grapple.

So when I discovered that the early September, 2016 Work That Reconnects facilitators gathering on Whidbey Island would focus on de-colonizing the theory and practice of the work, I breathed a sigh of relief with gratitude for this opportunity to learn together.

My relief ended after that initial sigh and I was plunged into turmoil, grappling with many new insights and how to integrate them, as well as how to share them. Following the Whidbey gathering, I struggled with how to talk about so many messy and complex things. I think it is good that I was able to sit with it some before jumping into implementation. And yet, this Journal issue was about to be published and I so wanted to share some of my learning and growth with others. And yet, I knew not how to speak about it with any clarity. All I knew was that the call was strong for facilitators of this beautiful work, and the work itself, to evolve.

And then, the community rose up to support me. Shea Riester, a participant in the first cohort sent me the book Radical Dharma: Talking radical-dharmasmRace, Love, and Liberation by Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Lama Rod Owens, with contributions from Jasmine Syedullah, PhD. This extraordinary jewel of a book explores the authors’ journey – three queer POC dharma teachers and practitioners – in inviting the American Buddhist community to explore how racism and other forms of oppression are showing up within their community, and to transform that.  Ah, the breath of relief arose again: other communities are doing this, and perhaps their path can provide a little bit of clarity for the rest of us amidst this chaos.

The authors’ self-proclaimed intent with Radical Dharma was to “ignite a much-needed conversation about the legacy of racial and structural injustice, both in self-identified dharma communities and in the United States, to move its people, together, toward healing and liberation.” I offer this reflection with the ardent desire that such an exploration further advance within the Work That Reconnects community. This conversation has begun in numerous places, in different communities of inquiry from Whidbey Island to Boston, from the Bay Area to Montreal, within the pages of Chapter 12 of the latest edition of Coming Back to Life, and who knows where else.

The inquiry has begun, so the question now is how will the conversation continue, and what beyond words will be done to advance this evolution? To start, it is becoming clear that this is the work of a community. Through community conversation it may be possible to, as the authors state, “create the conditions for creative solutions to emerge from the collective.”

Rev. angel Kyodo williams defines radical dharma as a third way, “a third space as-yet-unknown that is neither the path of solely inward-looking liberation nor the pursuit of an externalized social liberation.” It is both personal and collective liberation as the two are intertwined. The authors state that Radical Dharma “emerges now as a collaborative response to a collective call from the American Buddhist community for new ways to talk about the presence of white supremacy in [their] centers, practices, and lives.” What will be the response of the Work That Reconnects community? Will a Radical Dharma equivalent emerge for us?

A factor complicating this evolution is how white dominant the community of Work That Reconnects practitioners is. The authors describe “whiteness” as a social ego, and those who identify as such cannot see outside of this identity construct without intentional intervention. This causes white people to perpetuate white superiority. I must ask, “Is white supremacy not one of the biggest mind-made weapons and systems of power-over that Shambala warriors are called to go into the corridors of power and dismantle?” While one would think it would come intuitively to Work That Reconnects facilitators that they can’t skip over the suffering of white supremacy, it happens all the time because that is how white supremacy conditions folks (particularly white folks) to behave. We are all called to the front lines, and not only on behalf of others’ liberation, but also because our collective liberation is intertwined.

The systems and structure of white supremacy and other forms of oppression are reproduced everywhere – that includes Work That Reconnects spaces. As the authors state, “the necessary bias that the system requires in order to be perpetuated” has permeated Buddhist sanghas and it also permeates Work That Reconnects workshops and other spaces. It is time to interrupt this business as usual.

As it so happens, Buddhism offers some exquisite gifts for helping to dismantle manomaya, mind-made weapons of oppression, one of which is the invitation to interrogate. Regrettably, “what has gone awry in communities that have been developed and maintained by people who are holding white privilege is a refusal to interrogate certain areas.” The matter is complicated by the fact that the lens of observation needs to be placed outside of the construct – something that is difficult for white people to do who have been conditioned to place the lens of awareness within whiteness.

It might be easy for white people to jump to the conclusion that to get out of the prison of whiteness, we need to bring in the perspective of more people of color. While centering marginalized voices is essential, let us pause before jumping on the oft-heard white inclination to get more brown and black bodies into the seats of white dominant spaces (aka diversity). As Lama Rod Owen noted, what good does that do unless white people have done the inner work so that if black and brown bodies are in mixed race spaces, they are given an equal seat at the table. Until white supremacy is transformed, that will not be the case, and harm will continue.

What most needs our attention is dismantling the conditions that make these spaces unsafe and unwelcoming for people of color – not with the end of getting more bodies of color into seats in the workshop – but because it is a part of the path of liberation itself. Ultimately, the question is not likely to be how do we transform ourselves so that this space is safer for folks of color, or any other marginalized group, but rather simply, how do we daily commit ourselves to the path of radical liberation for all beings in all places?

The authors remind the reader of the Bodhisattva vow – even though personal liberation is attainable, they turn back time and again for the awakening of all. To state it another way, once we’re awakened (not that that process is ever necessarily complete!), let us work until all who are willing are awakened as well!

As we work to awaken together and transform these systems of oppression – race, while being a big one, is only one axis of oppression – let us be mindful of the strong tendency to police ourselves and one another with swift punishment for every misstep. This is not an atmosphere conducive for learning and growth. Rev. angel speaks so persuasively about this, that it is worth quoting at length:

“How do we disrupt this penchant we have for policing each other? Something that I see a lot is a sort of one-upmanship around having all the language right and being on all the fronts, because, if you have that all together, it really shows that you’re a radical. Of course, we want people to learn and to educate, but we also don’t create any room so people that are trying to learn, and I want to say, especially white folks that are trying to learn, to understand how do I come to have a dialogue, to have a vocabulary about this? They cannot get into the conversation because they don’t already know what to say.”

How can we build a common vocabulary about this and have a dialogue together? How do we build a community where mistakes are allowed? This is a tall task, because the ignorance of comments can cause such great harm, and at the same time, the only way we will learn is by trying and making some mistakes along the way. If we as a community are to create a culture of learning, we need to build a way for mistakes to be okay, so that all who are willing, are able to join the conversation.

Caucus groups can be useful for creating space for conversation and learning to proceed, so that people feel safer to express themselves and so that more of the learning happens without marginalized people being subject to the pain of inevitable mistakes. Caucus groups of similar identities, whether it is white people and people of color caucuses, or some other breakdown, can be incredibly useful. There is healing work the white people (or other categories of domination) need to do by themselves as it is not the oppressed’s responsibility to do that work on behalf of the oppressor.

As the authors advise us, “The lotus actually emerges from the mud. So we’re talking about wisdom emerging from the chaos, the ignorance, the suffering because we’re learning to transform this relationship to what is around us.” So, rather than trying to deny any ignorance, let’s embrace it, let’s illuminate it so that we may actually learn. Let’s be willing to fuddle around in the dark and the mud for a while. How else can we truly blossom, lotus that we are?

In closing, the authors name one of humans’ greatest attributes as the “ability to disrupt our programming and form new cognitive connections based on direct experience that then becomes embodied through repetition – practice…” We have the ability, the question is will we use it? It is likely to be the work of lifetimes.

The Work That Reconnects Network is planning to initiate some online community conversations about all of this. Perhaps we will follow a similar format as the authors of Radical Dharma, whereby the first 35-45 minutes are a conversation by two people with some experience in the field and then it is opened up to the larger community for dialogue. Please check the workthatreconnects.org website for details about dates and times. Places for sharing reflections, resources for ongoing learning, and updates about practices will also soon be available. Workshops for white facilitators are being planned. If you are signed up on the website to receive email notices from the Work That Reconnects Network, this is another way to be notified of upcoming opportunities for conversation. If you are willing, join us so we may learn together.

aravinda_a300Aravinda Ananda is a member of the Interhelp Council, helped start a Greater Boston Work That Reconnects community of practice and has been a part of many co-facilitation teams including the Earth Leadership Cohort – an immersion in the Work for young adults and the Community Leadership Cohort – an exploration of communities of practice. Her primary life’s work is helping to transform human-Earth relationships to be mutually enhancing; she is currently finishing a book called Living rEvolution. She seeks to live the rEvolution daily and support others on this path.

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