by Joe Loizzo
Usually, as summer nears, I would be sitting down to write something to celebrate our recent graduates in our Contemplative Psychotherapy and other programs. But it feels impossible to celebrate anything after watching the gut-wrenching murder of George Floyd on videotape.
As the coronavirus ravages the U.S., disproportionally impacting our black, brown and indigenous communities and revealing the unconscionable health disparities and financial inequities that expose our nation’s structural racism, we see the culture of white supremacy doubling down in the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, George Floyd and in the incendiary tweets of our president.
But as our black, brown, and indigenous leaders have taught us, this crushing onslaught is anything but new. Watching George Floyd’s life be coldly snuffed out by a seemingly average white policeman is witnessing the reenactment of centuries of cold-blooded oppression against the black and indigenous people of this land, the repetition of a collective trauma as sadistic and psychopathic as any genocide in human history.
Each of George Floyd’s ignored pleas would be enough to shatter any triumphalist fantasy of our nation as the last best hope of humankind or the global refuge of freedom—as in any sense truly “great.” Just as the root causes of the new coronavirus lie in centuries of violent exploitation of the earth and its life by a European colonial culture meant to enrich white men like me, so the root causes of these murders and the protests that have followed lies in centuries of systematic genocidal oppression and exploitation of black and indigenous people by the most insidious and extreme form of that global culture, right here in the U.S.
This is why people like me can’t simply stay “neutral” or “impartial” — because our given social location of privilege and power alone makes us complicit parts of the system of oppression, especially when we are locked into that position by the blinders of denial. This complicity holds true regardless of how much we have suffered personally in other ways, how little we consciously identify as being “white,” or how sincerely we have upheld or worked to realize the values of social justice.
What this complicity means is that in “doing nothing” or “not taking sides” we are by default choosing not to remove our blinders of denial, not to see that accepting the privileges of being white in our social system without actively working to dismantle the racial violence structured into it IS taking sides and IS enough to make us complicit in that violence. In other words, by simply living as white while people of color are systematically harmed, we are acting to perpetuate the system that harms them, and siding with the legacy of oppression, even as we believe we reject it.
This is why people like me can’t simply stay “neutral” or “impartial”
Especially after witnessing George Floyd’s last minutes, I can no longer live with the benefits of being seen and treated as white without using whatever privilege and power my position affords me to disrupt and dismantle the immoral social contract that created it—that centuries-long knee on the neck of black, brown and indigenous America.
So, as we honor the hard work and healing accomplishments of our graduates this year, it is with a strong sense of heartbreak and urgency about the world we share. And it is also with a call to action for us as individuals and as a community to join in solidarity with our black, brown, and indigenous community members and friends by marshaling everything we can—including everything we’ve learned together about the causality of suffering and of healing—to work to transform our violently racist society into a life-saving field of compassionate awakening for all, especially for oppressed and marginalized communities.
While this is clearly a mission greater than any one life, we know that all collective change reflects concerted individual change. Simply listening to the voices of our black, brown, indigenous, and Asian community members and friends, we hear that there are lifetimes of work for each of us to do. Inspired by the members of our Inclusion Committee, I believe that work can and must begin in our own hearts, minds, and lives; and that it then must go on to leverage our social location, including the wisdom and healing arts we have received from the Nalanda tradition, to put ourselves, our families, our work, and our networks at the service of radical, structural change in our collective way of being and life.
To those of you who think such progressive social change has little to do with spirituality, especially the non-violent, psychological wisdom of Buddhism, I respectfully ask you to think again. Shakyamuni was not just a psychological genius but a social genius too. He knew that personal healing required a healing social space within the racist caste system of ancient India. And he knew that transforming India’s militant society would require a collective transformation by a “homeless community” (biksu-samgha) of oppressed and marginalized individuals of all races, classes, genders and religions. His greatest social legacy was creating and shaping that self-sustaining community as a refuge for all who need a safe social space to heal, learn, and change. The subsequent history of India and Buddhist Asia proved the wisdom of this non-violent activism.
In fact, the triumph of the Buddha’s non-violent, inclusive community in India and Asia stands as a powerful demonstration of the truth of his radical faith in our human potential for unbiased wisdom and compassion. By harnessing the contemplative tools of intersubjective self-inquiry, systematic calming of mind and brain, and cultivating a spontaneously loving heart, Shakyamuni’s healing method effectively turned Asia’s collective intelligence and striving away from violent “me-you,” “us-them” segregation, and toward a non-violent culture of all-of-us against our common inner enemies—the segregative delusion and destructive greed and hate that poisons all human individuals and societies, especially the white colonial culture that killed so many millions of non-white people around the world, including George Floyd.
Shakyamuni was not just a psychological genius but a social genius too. He knew that personal healing required a healing social space within the racist caste system of ancient India.
So, if we want to avoid psychologizing, scientizing, commodifying and de-politicizing the non-violent liberative culture of Buddhism, we must follow leaders like Rev angel Kyodo williams, Jasmine Syedullah, Lama Rod Owens, Sebene Selassie, Ruth King, and Larry Yang in opening a practical dialogue between Buddhist and Western approaches to social transformation. In fact, this dialogue began well before us, when Dr. Martin Luther King studied Gandhi’s modern Hindu version of Buddhist social resistance, alongside his fellow activists, Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton, the Vietnamese Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hahn, the Jewish theologian-activist Abraham Joshua Heschel and eventually the Black Muslim activist Malcolm X.
Given the tragic losses and setbacks of the last days, months, and years, there appears to be little hope of structural anti-racist change in our time. This may be another reason why now is the time for us—as individuals and as a community—to follow our leaders of color in adapting the Buddhist legacy of non-violent resistance to help sustain our anti-racist work today. To be real, our transformation of ourselves must be part of a larger transformation of society, while any larger social change must be grounded in intimate personal change within ourselves. So, we all need to work harder and more broadly now, even as we plant seeds for this essential work to continue down through the generations.
For my part, as one who received the Nalanda tradition of concerted inner-outer change as part of my privilege, I have begun giving up any notion of “my contemplative practice” or its “fruits” as ”my personal practice” or “my fruition.” Instead, I’ve committed to make every meditation, and every waking thought, word, and act as much as possible “ours,” dedicated especially to help those oppressed to find safety, abundance, compassion, and full awakening. Beyond this, I’ve committed to work closely with our Inclusion Committee to continue to weave education and training in diversity, equity and inclusivity into all our Nalanda Institute faculty and programs, in the hopes of fostering a learning community that is truly inclusive and growing outwards towards collective liberation and awakening.
To you, our amazing graduates and beloved community members, and to all who may read this, I ask you please to join me and do all you can to make a difference not just for yourself and your loved ones but for our entire multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-gendered and multi-abled community. May the Buddha’s 2500-year legacy of slowly transforming precolonial Asia inspire us to persist through our collective suffering, and to tirelessly work until we awaken our whole rainbow planet.