Why don’t I see ya’ll doing nothin? ~ A Guest Post by Andrea


I would be the first person to tell you that if you want to read  an article about the  benefits of Zen for the Black community, you should read “Being Black” by  @changeangel aka Angel Kyodo Williams.  It’s an amazing book that is well worth the read.

I see no point in trying to re-invent the wheel.  Rather I offer a what could easily be classified as a criticism.  And maybe even some whiny finger-pointing.  I am also going to take my personal observations and experiences, and apply them to Black people in general.  Yeah I know.  Just take what is useful and leave the rest. 

I lived most of my life in misery and fear.  All the people I knew were barely scrapping by.  Constantly on the brink of losing everything.  There was never a question of if something bad would happen, it was only a question of when.  I honestly believed that my problems only plagued me and people who looked like me.  No one else could ever understand.  As I continued to gain more education, I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me and could never understand my pain.  I was numb and depressed.  I didn’t know it.  There was no talking about my pain.  I swallowed it and kept pressing forward.  My depression was masked as anger and a bad attitude. 

I didn’t realize I was stumbling around in a small dark room until someone turned the light on.  And for me that light was Zen.  I realized people are more alike then we are different.  Most people live lives of quiet desperation.  Fear, anger, betrayal, inadequacy, failure, depression, loneliness, longing, and suffering are part of the human condition.  I learned a simple truth that made life very complicated.  It was the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me.  Ready?  Here it is: I and I alone was responsible for my happiness and my suffering. Not my circumstances, not the stuff I have or don’t have.  Not the people in my life or out of it.  Not my God or lack thereof.   I save myself.  I have the answers to all my questions, the solutions to all my problems.   Happiness and suffering don’t just happen to me, I choose them.  That was some transformative shit.  That simple, yet complicated truth saved my life.  Literally.


Buddha by Slick on Garey St., LA Arts District

People who live desperate lives, can’t conceive of such a thing.  At least, I couldn’t.  What good is all that meditation stuff when you are constantly on the verge of catastrophe? Or when you have lost everything and you and your family of five must move into one room in your grandmother’s already crowded apartment?  The answer is that suffering is the mother of Buddhism.  Ending suffering is why that skinny dude went and sat under that tree in the first place.  Yet sitting is contrary to everything Black folks know and believe.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  You dig in and press on.  Carrying all your baggage with you.   

Typically, when  Black folks have problems, we don’t sit and we don’t go to therapy.   Some drink, some use drugs, some sit around hating the world.  But we almost always end up in church.  We’ve learned generation after generation to look up, not in. The church is like going home after a long vacation.  My momma, her mamma, their grand mamma and all them, go to church.  Everybody knows and it doesn’t have to be explained.  And if your next question is ‘knows what?”, that is exactly my point.  People who look like you, care about you, and sometimes gossip about you,  welcome you with open arms.  This home away from home is usually in the middle of  a neighborhood that people move out of as soon as they can.  They are not just in the neighborhood, they are a part of it.  From feeding the hungry to neighborhood legal clinics. 


Banksy’s Injured Buddha, London

I’ve yet to come across a “help the local community,”  “grassroots” type of activity organized by Buddhist.   I am unaware of any Zen centers in a neighborhood where I can guarantee there is a church. So how exactly are my fellow sufferers with no money, nothing but problems and no inkling  of the world outside of their own neighborhood going to discover this trans formative shit called Zen?

Honestly, I don’t know.  I’m about as good of a Buddhist as I was a Christian.   But I think the answer lies somewhere in where we sit.

Buddhist temples are not very inviting.  And they are certainly not filled with folks that look like me.   Often they are set far off.  You don’t just ride past or walk to them.  And, granted I have never been in one, like I said – not too inviting.  But I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more involved than just walking in and sitting.  My perception may be wrong, but it is not unwarranted. 

What I love about Zen is there is no special equipment needed.  Zafus can be expensive on a tight budget.  But you can use a towel or couch pillow or even a chair.   Just sit, count your breathes.  When you stop trying to figure it out, you’ll figure it out. (<——– I love when we talk like that).  We can and do practice anywhere.  We don’t have to restrict ourselves to far off temples.  But because of this we can easily practice in isolation (<— guilty)  or restrict ourselves to more affluent places. 


LA. Art by El Mac & RETNA. Photo by Robyn Franckowiak.

We can cultivate compassion on a cushion, but we need to go further.  I think if Buddhism was all about sitting in caves and keeping your own counsel, then there would be no Buddhist.  Siddhartha  would have just been some half-dressed weirdo  who abandoned his family and sat under a tree.  Stop being selfish with your Dharma.

[Andrea is a Vegetarian Buddhist, who has made a mess of her life and is slowly picking up the pieces.  She thinks it sucks that she is responsible for her own happiness.  She loves yoga, running (turtle speed), writing, cursing and crochet. She lives in Central Florida with her 5 crazy dogs.   Because she is not nearly as interesting in person, you can find her on twitter @grumpyzen. ]


19 thoughts on “Why don’t I see ya’ll doing nothin? ~ A Guest Post by Andrea

  1. Yup! Thanks, Andrea, for the foot up the ass. My non-Buddhist partner is forever reminding me how bougie I sound when I go on about Dogen and Bodhisattva Vows and the relative and the absolute, etc. And yet, the practice itself is so simple and so accessible – as close as your own breath – to anyone willing to try it. For the record, there are some great Zen teachers out there living and practicing among the poorest of the poor. Jana Drakka comes immediately to mind, though there are others. The late Issan Dorsey created a zendo, and later an AIDS hospice, in the middle of the Castro, back when the word “gay ghetto” still meant something. Kobutsu Malone spent the bulk of his time working with prisoners, primarily on death row. AnShin Thomas lives as a wandering mendicant and shares his life with the homeless. But these folks are too few and too far between. So what are we going to do about it?

  2. This was excellent! I totally empathize the realization of being completely responsible for my life and situation, that I am not a victim unless I accept that role. But I hear you also about the Buddhist community in general not always being as welcoming as it should be. But it’s getting better.mettaRichard

  3. @jmcleod76 Sorry. I was down with a fever all day. That’s just it, I don’t know what to do. I need to learn more, especially amongst my peers, as I am still a bit of a mess. Prisoners are a “captive audience.” How do we reach those who have no time and nothing but problems?

  4. @newzdude76 Hey how are you? I have never had an individual Buddhist make me feel unwelcome. It just feels like we are a bit of a secret society amongst the poor. (Unless we are in prison)

  5. Thanks to Ms. Grumpy Zen for her post. I think that what she is bringing up in this post is a sticky widget when it comes to many sanghas on how to address overt and not so overt racism in their own ranks.Many fall back on the axiom that if they build it, they will come (whoever *they* may be) but it needs to go deeper. It needs to be an active engagement with communities that may benefit from some inclusion.My own basic thoughts are the following:1) Be accomodating to difference (cultural, racial, mental or behavioral). 2) Stay approachable. Our lay-ordained recieved permission to not wear robes as it may not be as accpetable in our area and would lead to a lack of access. Robes are robes. Practice is practice,3) Stay cheap or offer alternatives to payment.4) Stay local. Set up local siting groups that can have the same (or close) level of teaching and guidance as at a main center.5) Active outreach. This is not evangelizing. Remain open to new members by letting those communities know that you offer something. 6) Don’t shy from the tough shit. Diversity will lead to tough conversation. Remember one simple rule “This isn’t about your comfort, you egotistical dipshit, this is about making others feel welcome.”7) We all walk the path of freedom, suck it up and say hi.My own sangha, of which I am a member (albeit, not a consistent one) rarely has anyone of the non-white, non-middle class variety sitting with us. Rapid City is almost 50 percent Native American and yet no Native Americans sit with us. Many would assume lack of interest. I assume a lack of trying.But there is a lesson to be learned from what my sangha does. They remain grassroots. They found a group of people interesting in Zen Buddhism 20+ years ago and kept it alive sitting in different member’s homes until we made an agreement with a local yoga studio to use their space on off-hours.Bottom line is that if the establishment ain’t working for you then sometimes you need to hit the streets.Cheers,John

  6. Jack ,I think you set an excellent framework. I’m going to copy and paste it into my do something file. I am going to mull it over and maybe expand on it a bit. If only for myself. I’ve never been big on pointing fingers from my high house. I should reach out myself. I think, like always, the distance seems far greater than it is. What I am suggesting can be scary. The people, the neighborhoods (from affluence to poverty): can intimidate. And it far easier for all of us to just stay in our respective corners.

  7. @grumpyzen let me tell you that I feel very uncomfortable in temples, zendos, etc. I also go to extreme lengths to ensure that I don't unintentionally offend other attendees. I think part of my issue is self-image, after all these years I still don't feel like I "belong" in a Buddhist community. Before visiting a temple, I contact the organization first, tell them I am a newcomer (even though I am not) and ask for any information concerning liturgy or practice that may be helpful even when I researched it all before hand. I rarely talk to people there and am just overall self-conscious about my presence.   I even spent weeks planning a visit to a Denver temple and when I arrived, I chickened out actually right across the street. Why? Because I just don't feel that I belong. I can only image that this issue is compounded by being a PoC walking into a primarily white sangha.   At times, I feel that it is a confirmation bias and that I bring most of this discomfort on myself.   And again, with the exception of my own local grassroots sangha, I have never been greeted at the door in a temple. Never provided with the least amount of welcome or grace. Perhaps I am not approachable, I don't really know. But I do know that the only thing that kept me regularly sitting with my sangha here was that I was greeted and felt welcomed despite the fact that no-one knew me and I was new to group practice.

  8. I get it. I have a very similar issue with temples. Much easier to start with little local sanghas right? I have been telling myself I’m going to visit the Kwan Um School of Zen’s local meeting group since this was originally posted and I have yet to do so. I always have an excuse. Its in another town over, 35-40min drive. What am I going to do there? Chanting? What Chanting? I don’t know nothing ’bout no chanting. I can barely meditate without falling asleep. Odds are, based on the neighborhood, I’ll be the only Black person. That feeling of “not belonging” is powerful stuff. My feeling of “not belonging” is also coupled by a bit of “unworthiness” to go out into the communities. I don’t know the proper terms. I don’t know what a proper practice consists of. I just know that when you sit, you save yourself one breath at a time. But I think we all have to leave our comfort zones, risk rejection, extend our hand and say “Hello and welcome” The trick is, that we all have to get off our respective porches.

  9. I think Kwan Um may be one of the most approachable and probably a good fit. Chanting was a big concern for me too. I sat through most of the chanting services without moving a lip or making a sound until I fet comfortable. And now I really enjoy the chanting part of the service.   I've posted before about what borught me back to a sangha and it was a tough transition into that world. As far as little local sanghas are concerned, with all the resources we can garner online to supplement, I think they are all one really needs.   Again, thanks for the post and good luck. Maybe you can post again with a follow-up on how you felt welcomed at the Kwan Um center.    

  10. I have been going on and on for years about some of the issues you bring up in your post, Andrea. My own sangha, which is a fairly large Zen community, has made some strides, but it’s damned slow – and even having been the president of the board with two or three others who are cued in on issues around class, race, and community activism on board, it’s still been difficult to move beyond small measures. I continue to long for more grassroots action, and from experiences sitting with a local college Zen group, have felt the power of smaller groups that develop within particular communities with their own particular flavors and rhythms, inspired by the traditional forms and teachings. In fact, I have started – along with a few other board members – to promote a vision of sangha that you might call spoke and hub – like a wheel. Specifically, you have these larger dharma centers that both are communities in themselves, and act as support and resources for grassroots groups spread out amongst the larger community. Part of this vision includes online “sanghas,” where teachings, resources, and support can also be offered. One of the problems, I think, is that too many convert Buddhists are tied to the idea that “sangha” really means a group of people within a single building in a single location (or 2-3 locations). So, what happens is that most of the time and energy gets bogged down in keeping expensive properties or rent paid for, maintaining X number of classes and retreats going onsite to help pay for the above, and generally doing what’s necessary to support the group of people right in front of their faces. Everything else ends up being secondary. Now, I have no idea if the efforts I and the few others desire to make will actually flower in our particular sangha, but the way I see it, there are a whole lot of structural shifts that need to be made in convert Buddhist sanghas in order to bring about more grassroots activity and development. And at the same time, these same “established” sanghas need to be more receptive to groups that develop on their own, and might desire the support of a teacher or Zen center. Sorry for the long comment – lots of wheels turning in my mind.

  11. First of all… fantastic photos. Thanks for that!For me, the more religions I investigate, the more I see too much man-made: lists, texts, translations, circles of hell, levels of Heaven, robes, symbols, etc. and not enough core “this is what the man/Buddah/God/ (choose your flavor) said. And I find it turns me off. I visited a Zen center once. In the middle of the woods of south Central Jersey, it was beautiful and peaceful. But still seemed filled with all that extra “stuff”. Lots of yoga centers I’ve been to are the same way… “let go of your labels (but call me by my yoga name)”.Yet… that simplicity you speak of is there, in all the religions actually, if one takes the time to dig down and find it. And that is what draws me like a moth to a flame.A sitting practice has been elusive. I’ve found much peace in mindfulness practice – trying to make every moment and choice in my day meditative gives me endless tries (and, sometimes, endless restarts). Amazingly, I’ve seen progress!Thanks for a reflective, interesting post!Gayle

  12. "these same "established" sanghas need to be more receptive to groups that develop on their own, "   Yes. We were lucky to have a larger sangha/zen center in Colorado provide some structure while allowing us to maintain autonomy. Best of both worlds.   "too many convert Buddhists are tied to the idea that "sangha" really means a group of people within a single building in a single location (or 2-3 locations)"   It makes me wonder about the Greater Sangha in an area. We had three small groups (one of each vehicle) and it was difficult for us to plan larger group sessions with each group coming together to practice. I wonder if this wouldn't be possible in larger areas with more resources. Sort of an interfaith meeting of convert, Asian and mixed-sanghas. "board with two or three others who are cued in on issues aroundonestly, class, race, and community activism on board,"   But what to do? What works? We have seen growth in our community but still all white, all upper middle class, all the time. It makes me wonder where we lack and what steps need to be taken for a more inclusive and honestly, better, sangha.   Always love your input Nathan,   John

  13. well, two of the three members (besides me) of our board looking at race and class are Asian-American women. our sangha has gotten a bit more racially diverse over the past few years, in part because we’ve been willing to talk somewhat more openly about how race and class can impact practice. and one thing we’ve done that has helped, for example, single mothers who are struggling to make ends meet is provide child care on the Sundays opposite our children’s practice Sundays. So, during the school year anyway, we have programming for kids. But there are still plenty of issues needing to be addressed.

  14. @ nathan Thank you so much for your insightful comment. I can’t offer much in regards to the inner workings of a Sangha. As you can tell from my post and my comments, I have been avoiding.@jack I think you have to get out there and be a part of the community you are trying to include. Our choices aren’t simply do nothing or evangelize. Sanghas can take part in community events and volunteer at different organizations. Research + reach out. I think the plan you have is a solid one.@gayle Thanks for you comment. Your words always make me say “Well she’s right about that”

  15. Hi Drea,I missed this post the first time around, glad Andy reposted it on Google Plus!I think you point out a good area of potential development for Western Buddhism – taking practice out of the esoteric, “check out this cool new belief system” elitist attitude, and moving the focus into practical, everyday dharma. How *do* we practice bodhicitta or metta in the world, anyway? Is it just by being nice and polite with others, or is there more we can do?I also would like to say that I see a lot of parallels between the reliance on the Christian church in the inner city, and the reliance on the Christian church by many rural whites. Many Southern Christians that I know are well-intentioned good people, but I think the rise of megachurches and the post 9/11 environment has left some people confused. Not all Christians here are fooled though: many are still more traditionally conservative, and see the rise of people like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann as “showboating.”Personally, I was raised with liberal political awareness during the Watergate era, so being a “socially-engaged” Buddhist comes naturally to me. I agree that there isn’t a lot of visibility for Buddhism in the activist community yet. I see it more frequently represented in the Western states, to be honest.Here’s the website of a socially-engaged Buddhist organization in New York:http://www.zenpeacemakers.org/Also, this organization provides unarmed civilian peacekeepers to wartorn areas:http://www.nonviolentpeaceforce.org/Looking forward to having more dialogue with you and other OMCru members about this important issue. I see how “socially-engaged” Buddhist activity could benefit many poor whites as well.Georganne Ross (aka @ruralhybrid on Twitter)

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