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June 1, 2022

Pride, Prejudice, and Practice

Buddhism, like its sibling South Asian traditions of Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, is famously tolerant of difference. Subverting the caste system and being one of the first teachers of his time to ordain women, the Buddha offered no judgment about sexual orientation or gender expression other than the ethical precept against sexual misconduct. Implied in the Buddha’s acceptance of women and people of all castes into the monastic community is a truth of culture as important then as now: representation matters.

Representation in spiritual and community spaces like Spirit Rock opens the door of the Dharma. When we enter a space, an organization, or a community, we see who is there—and who is not—instinctively seeking safety, connection, and refuge. For members of marginalized and oppressed social groups, this instinct is responding to very real histories of physical and emotional violence in unwelcoming communities. To engage effectively with the practices of mindfulness, lovingkindness, and contemplative inquiry, there must first be a foundation of safety and belonging.

When a person enters a community and sees others like them, they consciously or unconsciously know that this might be a safe enough space for them too. For members of dominant or mainstream social groups this is often unconscious, with feelings of safety and security perceived as normal. With mindfulness, these feelings can be seen clearly and understood as a privilege conditioned by membership in a dominant group, and not universal. Members of marginalized groups are often more conscious of this process because accurately reading a space has mattered deeply for their safety. 

Representation is the most direct message of safety a person can receive, far more effective than just words or intentions of welcome. Representation makes it possible to feel like you belong: “Someone like me is here. I can be here too.” We know that the Buddha worked hard to make his community welcoming for all, developing teachings and practices specifically in response to caste prejudice. He categorically affirmed the ability of people of any gender to practice and awaken to freedom. The Therīgathā, the section of the Pāli canon which preserves the poems of the elder bhikkhunī, makes this clear in poem after poem of fully awakened women. 

These ancient poems also affirm the power of representation, describing women going specifically to a woman teacher for guidance. A poem attributed to a nun named Uttamā describes her struggling in practice, then turning to an elder nun, Pāṭācāra, for guidance:

Four or five times
I left my cell.
I had no peace of mind,
no control over my mind.

I went to a nun
I thought I could trust.
She taught me the Dharma,
the elements of body and mind,
the nature of perception,
and earth, water, fire, and wind.

I heard what she said
and sat cross-legged
seven days full
of joy.

When, on the eighth
I stretched my feet out,
the great dark was torn apart.

(Therīgathā 3.2, tr. Murcott)

Uttamā’s enlightening experience is inseparable from the institution of the nun’s community and inspiring teachers like Pāṭācāra and her peer Dhammadinnā, the namesake of Dhamma Dena, the center Arinna Weisman guides in Joshua Tree.

In the generous and intimate interview that grounds our Dharma offerings this Pride month, Arinna reflects on working to unpack unconscious privilege and the power of visibility for members of marginalized groups such as LGBTQIA+: “The nature of ignorance is that all privileged locations are based in ignorance, and so we don’t discern them, and we keep acting them out. Until we acknowledge that the refuge of Saṅgha—creating communities that are on the path, sustaining them, and building them—needs to include the relational field and how it works, then all those people who are privileged and have access to power and resources are going to keep making decisions that aren’t inclusive.” 

Bringing mindfulness to all aspects of identity and social location/position becomes one of the most liberating inquiries we undertake on the path, and fundamental to the health of the spiritual community. 

Gratitude to all those whose work toward full acceptance, rights, and safety for LGBTQIA+ and people of every background and life expression. May our world grow in tolerance and kindness for all beings everywhere.

 
May 1, 2022 - Community, Visibility, Lineage: Arinna Weisman in Conversation with Noliwe Alexander

All privileged locations are based in ignorance, and so we don’t discern them, and we keep acting them out. Until we acknowledge that the refuge of Saṅgha—creating communities that are on the path, sustaining them, and building them—needs to include the relational field and how it works, then all those people who are privileged and have access to power and resources are going to keep making decisions that aren’t inclusive.

Read Full Article

 
March 21, 2021 - Bringing Equanimity to the Experience of Impermanence and Dukkha

Understanding the truth of impermanence supports the practice of equanimity and cultivating equanimity strengthens our understanding of impermanence. We are often conditioned to want things to be different from how they are. Whenever we find ourselves thinking that things would be better if they were different, we are in our egos or separate selves. This creates suffering. This meditation is an invitation to explore first bringing compassion to the experience of dukkha, then opening to equanimity as space and acceptance of how things are in the present moment.

 
August 30, 2021 - Understanding Identity with the Five Aggregates

The Buddha speaks to the impact of greed, hatred, and ignorance—that these have such capacity for harm. Learning about who this somebody is, this identity, if you will, can really support us in this understanding. Often we just hear that the self is empty, that we need to let go of this self. This can have a sense that what we’re aiming for with our practice is to just transcend the realities of our existence, that it’s all empty. We can bring our identities and our ways of being into that investigation. Not in order to avoid them, or overcome them, or to accentuate them, but in order to be more present.

 
September 24, 2021 - Bringing Tenderness to the Hindrances

When any of the hindrances arise, there might be this inclination to slam on the brakes and say “No, I don’t like this. This doesn’t belong in my practice.” As we slam on the brakes we spin out and lose control. We lose the plot in our practice. The invitation is to bring a sense of tenderness—some nourishment, some kindness when we see these arise in our experience. To begin to bring some gentleness, some compassion. We’re falling into the flow to see how we can move with this, how we can allow it to be a portal of wisdom.

 
February 11, 2020 - The Four Noble Truths and Mindfulness of Death

There are many different reasons we come into this practice. But for most of us, suffering is one of the key components that brings us here. Physical pain, mental suffering, pain in the body, difficult emotions. For me, hearing the first Noble Truth for the first time resonated deep inside—that there is suffering, that this is a universal condition, that I wasn’t alone in my suffering. That there is a cause—that this can be understood. That there is the potential to open to peace, to realize an end of suffering. And that the Buddha offered this path of practice that leads to the very end. Something deep inside of me resonated with that. I couldn’t explain it. But it was a calling to a deeper happiness, a deeper peace.

John is teaching Rainbow Sangha, June 29

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