Anti-racism and the dharma: next steps

July 26, 2021

The greed, hatred and delusion of racism

Looking closely at today’s political, economic and environmental dynamics, you’re bound to find evidence of race, racism and racialization.  ‘If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.’  Boom!  There it is. Told to a young staffer in 1960 by a politician who became a U.S. President, a simple, tragic truth is revealed.  Wealth is transferred by engineering the wretched human inclination to feel better than; power is protected by lies that divide people, keeping them from making common cause.

Still roaring and gnashing their bloodied teeth today, racialization and racism, codified as laws designed to protect great wealth, are the fruits of the 17th-century creation of lifelong and heritable human enslavement based on color.  Interwoven in a triple plague with patriarchy and extractive capitalism, and baked into our institutions through law, policy and culture, these dynamics play out in every arena.  With canny power to morph and parry remedy, this triple plague throws up a vanishingly few winners along with many who ignorantly glory in their fabricated superiority, while heedlessly trampling and destroying massive numbers of people and the Earth herself.  These combined plagues shroud the truth and thwart our ability to see clearly.

The pain and suffering caused by racism require us to understand why our response as Buddhists – both secular and traditional – has been inadequate. We also need to think through how we can begin to bring dharmic insights more effectively into the struggle for a multi-racial, just society.

Where is the dharma?

I wonder at the dharma having such a low profile in today’s movements to alleviate suffering. The dharma has ethical gifts and powers that other practices lack; don’t we need it to cut through this most pernicious of illusions?

The dharma’s language, values and ways of seeing the world seem missing from Western culture in general and from anti-racism and other social change efforts in particular. Those of Judeo-Christian religions are ubiquitous throughout Western justice movements, contributing invaluable concepts like mercy, love and fairness.  But where are the understandings of contingency and of the perils of personality views?  Where is the bedrock commitment to non-harming?  Where are the bodhisattva vows, Manjushri’s swords, Quan Yins and other dharma-infused metaphors to help us see more clearly and stay our anti-racist course against great odds and over the long haul?  Where are the tools and know-how for embracing life and letting go of reactivity, for celebrating release from illusion and for aligning a deep commitment to harmlessness with how we see, choose, act, interact, work, focus our energies, pay attention and concentrate?  What is there to take refuge in without the brahma viharas and the parami?  How can our movements succeed without the practical skills the dharma offers?

There have been some important efforts by Buddhists in the U.S. to bring dharmic insights to anti-racist work. For example, several meditation centers, including the East Bay Meditation Center and the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, have developed programs and groups specifically focused on confronting racism. And angel Kyodo williams, an African American Zen teacher, has become a key figure in integrating Buddhism with engaged social action and anti-racism.

Yet, in my experience, even among my most engaged dharma friends, dharma concepts, tools and metaphors are often MIA when we’re discussing the scourge of our inheritance of White hegemony.  Except for grounding meditations at the start of  meetings, the discourse among my compatriots diligently working to free themselves, their organizations and communities from this malignant ignorance, even in the sangha, reflects mostly Christian and social justice tropes and ways of seeing.  Why is this?

A few causes seem to be at work hindering the spread of dharmic expressions, metaphors and skills in the wider activist community. For those conditioned by Western culture, dharmic ways of seeing feel deeply counter-intuitive.  How can we translate the dharma to the wider community, using language that makes sense today? For example, sometimes we see our anti-racist allies trapped by dualistic formulations, but it’s hard to imagine how to effectively share emptiness perspectives that would free the terms of the discussion.  Or, how do we, knowing as we do that habitual ways of thinking may be most easily interrupted in the gap between feeling tone and craving, contribute this practical strategic advice to the planning session effectively?

Another hindrance may be that our traditions lack the idea that our teachers should articulate dharmic ethics to the general public.  Some teachers draw great crowds, but few act as public thinkers, pushing discourse towards justice.  Few seek to be quoted by journalists, publish editorials in the mainstream press, or get booked on cable news shows. By keeping discussion of dharmic ethics for the sangha, and tied to ancient Eastern metaphors, they fail to influence the wider culture and they fail to teach us the skills we need to bring the dharma into our activist communities.  By keeping ethics on the down-low in programs like MBSR and other mindfulness-based curricula, these thin edges of the dharma’s wedge are of limited help in social change settings.

Many teachers do good works, and take part in social change themselves, especially within the wider dharma community, but, unlike other religious movements  in the U.S., there is little precedent for Buddhist  leaders showing up on the front lines. Many clergy are on the streets in the US, leading or in allyship with the movement for Black lives. Where is the Western dharma presence?  The moral leadership on the front lines of social justice are predominantly those of the ministers, rabbis, imams and activists.  The beauty and power of the dharma’s ethical practices mostly remain in the sanghas, invisible and unavailable to the wider, suffering world.

Finally, Buddhist practice  in the U.S. and other western countries is meditation-centric, and the dharma is thus viewed by many practitioners as a means or path to individual self-development and stress management, rather than an essential perspective needed to challenge social ills like racism. It is not surprising that in a society based on competition, consumerism, and hierarchical institutions that the dharma has been shaped in ways which conform to the basic elements of a capitalist society.

This leaves a yawning vacuum in the social discourse for those of us who love the dharma and know how much good it would do in the wider world.  Traditionally, most teaching has been limited to self-selecting audiences.  Many talks seem aimed at helping us know what the dharma is, and imply that personal awakening is our goal.  Cultivating clear understanding of the teachings is undeniably essential, as is developing our own skillful means.  But I believe that we can take our learnings and use them in our efforts to alleviate the suffering we see all around us, not just by behaving well, but by expressing our contributions in dharmic terms.

It takes a village

How can we, as secular Buddhists, get there from here?  With apologies to Margaret Mead, I believe we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed dharma practitioners can change the world.  I would like to see if a place to start might be using anti-racism as the key theme for a methodical study of the dharma, and using the dharma as the lens through which we learn and apply anti-racism.  By studying in this way perhaps we would begin to discern new ways and develop new skills to bring the dharma to our wider anti-racist communities, as well as bring an important voice to our sanghas.  Maybe we’ll even influence some teachers to start teaching differently and to different audiences.

It might take at least a little village to discern what precisely anti-racism dharma study would look like.  If you’d like to work together to figure out how to go forward with an anti-racism dharma-skills-building group, or if you’re just curious, please leave a comment or contact me, Jewel Wheeler,



One Reply to “Anti-racism and the dharma: next steps”


Much to respect ~~ and open sincerely to ~~ in the piercing clarity of this essay. May the beautiful Buddhist bubble be popped, and its clean air infuse the collective responsibility and shared work of healing the wounding wrapped in humanity’s DNA.

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