Interview in the Buddhist Insight Network Newsletter
Would you tell us what drew you to the dharma in your life and how you developed an interest in your most recent focus to explore the relationship between the dharma and race, privilege, and other social inequities?
Growing up in apartheid South Africa inside a politically active family was both an inspiration and a challenge. My dharma practice is an unfolding of the fruition from that inspiration and challenge. I lived in a house where people like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Helen Suzman came to organize an end to apartheid. I was touched by their commitment and energy and felt the living reality of what it’s like to be part of a movement with a vision.
I’ve never doubted the possibility of a small group of people coming together and making a difference. I have total faith in that. As a queer woman I stand on the shoulders of all the people who have come before me, who have created the conditions for the movement we have now; gay/straight alliances in the schools, gay marriage, and non-discrimination laws. It’s amazing what’s happened in 25-30 years and a huge reflection of our capacity to transform oppression. This inspiration has led me to find ways of building freedom in social and cultural contexts.
The other motivation for healing and transformation came from the sexual abuse
I experienced as a young child and the silence surrounding it. I wanted to find a way to live with the legacy of that pain. I believe the ways we work politically need to include personal, spiritual, and psychological explorations and practices.
Although we can be deeply committed to this personal practice we can still act out behaviors that are harmful if we don’t include in our individual spiritual practices an inquiry into our social and cultural conditioning.
As meditators it is therefore important to challenge the ways we think about freedom or transformation. And as political activists we need to include the personal, spiritual and psychological spheres. We can’t leave anything out. This has led me to integrate theories of social oppression with the Buddha’s teachings of delusion and ignorance.
How do you see the sangha in the Puget Sound area taking hold of this call to freedom and addressing these challenges you have mentioned?
Two expressions of oppression are the inequity in access to resources and also the negative beliefs and ideology that hold this in place. Perhaps even more painful is that these patterns of oppression are not openly acknowledged. When we find ourselves in a privileged position, we don’t see our privilege and the impact of our behaviors on the target groups. Some of us find ourselves in a privileged position by being white, upper middle class or wealthy, heterosexual, formally educated, able-bodied, middle-aged, men, gendered, and citizens. And some of us find ourselves in the target positions of being people of color, poor, queer, informally educated, differently-abled, non-gendered, and immigrants.
Once we learn more about what it means to be privileged we become more conscious of the impact of our negative behaviors in our relationships and can take responsibility for them. For example, I have a friend who comes from a poor family. Before my education around privilege, I found myself judging her for not wanting to see foreign movies with English subtitles. Reading quickly was a challenge for her. She didn’t have the option to learn to read as a child. As a middle class person my negative judgment that she was personally deficient made her responsible for the inequities of the class system. When I don’t acknowledge my place of privilege I assume my experience is like everyone else’s and discount the experience of the targeted person.
I’m so impressed by the importance of the work you are doing, Arinna. Living in such a diverse society, we have got to address our denial of privilege and oppression before we can truly address a shift toward equality and empathy for each other.
Exactly. Otherwise we keep reproducing the same old relationships. For example as white people, when we come into a situation where we are new to a group w/people of color, we often dominate the conversation unknowingly, expecting to be heard and listened to. Of course we do! We’d have to be “dead” not to! It’s our conditioning. And until we’re aware of it, and see it over and over, it doesn’t transform. That’s why there are monastics who are great meditators, and totally sexist. They are not seeing their own behavior. By inquiring into all fields of life we develop the capacity to see where our hearts and minds are defended and shut down. We have the choice to enter into a relationship of respect and dignity with ourselves and with each other across our differences and with all of life.
Many people are saying the planet is in jeopardy. And unless we work in all these areas, unless we make these connections, it will be difficult to save ourselves. I’ve heard some senior teachers say, “Well if the world comes to an end, that’s the karma of the earth.” But it’s also our karma to save it! We at the Lotus Sisters have experienced the amazing transformative capacities of our own hearts and minds through the practices of the Buddha’s teachings of mindfulness and loving kindness. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., “we believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”