-isms and the need to belong

“The desire to…the identity to belong is based on fear, and inclusion and exclusion. The aspiration to awaken is prepared to negotiate all of those boundaries.”

I was particularly struck by Ajahn Thanasanti’s words in this conversation with Gina Sharpe because of my own strong desire to be inclusive, which is then reflected in a corresponding aversion to any sense of exclusion and perhaps paradoxically, if unchecked, results in the same! Sadly, I sense a lot of “clubby” behavior, particularly online.

As personalities, we have preferences to be sure. We are going to be more compatible with some than others. We may want to follow back, we may not. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about unskillful behavior which derives its strength from making others feel wrong, or less of whatever it is that we’re identifying with. And it’s surprising to see in communities of people that have ostensibly dedicated themselves to practicing right thought, right speech, right action–that is, a path of awakening.

While I am not trying to call any particular individuals or organizations out, I also know it’s not helpful to speak entirely in general terms. I therefore offer some public conversations which are reflective of some of these exclusive tendencies. A particularly worrying example to me was an attempt at (racially-charged) humor, which went south fast, in a certain online spiritual magazine. Then there was a jump-to-the-defense response (see the comments) to criticism of the cost and lack of diversity associated with a conference in July. From many different folks, there were cries of elitism (edit: new link brought to my attention; again, check out the comments) and lack of transparency in response to the Maha Teacher’s Council in June (which I was blissfully ignorant of while hanging offline in Nova Scotia). And recently I’ve also seen some discussions, for example, around a “Buddhist chattering class”, where concerns about intention and authenticity are not always handled in the most respectful way.

An article (and presumably, the accompanying retreat) in the Fall 2011 Tricycle by Rita Gross explores how deeply ingrained is the behavior which separates: traditionalists vs. progressives, old-timers vs. next generation, practitioners vs. academics, bodhisattva vs. arahant ideals, and really you-name-it sectarianism in a religiously diverse world. Can we take a look at this and what role we play in bolstering these fearful tendencies of exclusion?

We can create all kinds of problems in this way, can’t we? ‘I’m a Theravada Buddhist; therefore I can’t learn from those Tibetan Buddhists or those Zen Buddhists.’ It’s very easy for us to become sectarian in this way because, if something is different from what we’re used to, we suspect it of not being as good as or as pure as what we’ve devoted ourselves to…But I think the problem is not so much in ‘shopping’ as in attaching to a teacher or tradition to the point where you have to exclude all others. That makes for a sect, a sectarian mind, with which people cannot recognise wisdom or learn from anything unless it’s in the exact words and conventions that they are used to. That keeps us very limited, narrow and frightened. People become afraid to listen to another teacher because it might cause doubt to arise in their minds, or they might feel that they are not being a loyal student of their particular tradition. The Buddhist Path is to develop wisdom, and loyalty and devotion help in that. But if they are ends in themselves, then they are obstacles.

‘Wisdom’ in this sense means using wisdom in our practice of meditation. How do we do that? How do we use wisdom? By recognising our own particular forms of pride, conceit, and the attachments we have to our views and opinions, to the material world, to the tradition and the teacher, and to the friends we have. Now this doesn’t mean that we think we shouldn’t attach, or that we should get rid of all these. That’s not wise either, because wisdom is the ability to observe attachment and understand it and let go – rather than attach to ideas that we shouldn’t be attached to anything.–Ajahn Sumedho

I’m heavy on the links and the quotes today, but I suppose I figure they speak for themselves. I’ve just read How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service. It was a tender and poignant book about learning how to be in the world in service, in a way which honors our fundamental unity. In it, a story of a member of the National Guard is recounted (my emphasis). I think it’s instructive.

We were standing at attention, just a bunch of ordinary guys called up for this situation: a major demonstration in Washington against the war in Vietnam. Our job was to protect the Pentagon, which was a ludicrous idea to most of us—about as ludicrous but not as funny as this group of people over to a side who were doing this magical ritual in which they were going to levitate the Pentagon. They had chants and dances and they were into it and having a great time. I liked it. One guy actually yelled, “I saw it rise, I swear.” It was hard not to laugh, even feel a part of it. I was rooting for it to rise too—why not? But I couldn’t really be a part of it, at least at that moment. And it wasn’t any easier because of how the rest of the demonstrators were treating us.

Anyhow, this girl approached me and placed this flower in my rifle. She didn’t even look me in the eye. I might have been anyone. Then she stepped back, and everyone applauded and congratulated her, and she looked pretty pleased with herself. And they had this “Make Love, Not War” poster, but it didn’t feel like love to me. It was like I wasn’t even there. But of course I was. Turned out there was a picture to prove it. Right on the front page of the paper, with me standing there looking like a stiff and her all angelic. The Associated Press got hold of it and it went out all over the world. I felt used. Thing is, I’d been coming around to feeling the war was wrong. But that experience just pushed me back. There was nothing among those people in front of me that felt like they were inviting me in. If anything, quite the contrary.

So I stayed kind of noncommittal for a while afterwards. A year or so later, I went down to Fort Benning to visit two Army friends who were getting ready to ship out to Vietnam. We hung out at this coffeehouse near the base. Very interesting place. New records, magazines, nice feeling, you could smoke a little out back, and just relax and talk among soldiers away from the base. I found out it was run by some antiwar activists, who had been setting them up at bases all around the country. Very simple idea. Just right. I talked to the guy who ran this one. He said, “Well, these guys are going to be doing the fighting…”

So there was an atmosphere of frank talk among the soldiers. And I heard how most of them really questioned the war, how low morale was out there, how guys were basically ducking and staying low. One guy said, “You know where the real peace movement is? In the foxholes. The guys who are just keeping alive and not diving into this whole mess. That’s what’s going to end this war.” And it’s true. It’s still an unwritten story about Vietnam. That night, at that coffeehouse, was the moment I really decided to become active against the war.

If you want to communicate with someone, if you want to hear and to be heard, you certainly don’t want to make the other person feel invisible. People ask why our communities aren’t more diverse. While I think the answer to that is complex and varied, the most obvious one is that we don’t welcome diversity or, even worse, we deny that racism and sexism and all the rest of it is something we need to take a look at in all their gross and subtle manifestations. It’s not surprising that so many of the examples I chose in the beginning of this post have to do with either 1) race, 2) fees/access, or 3) power/transparency/authenticity. They are obviously related.

I don’t have much more to say about this at the moment other than that I hope to take a look at my own tendencies toward wanting to belong (the pleasure principle is in effect here too) and to how that in turn fosters separateness. As I continue to use social media to connect with others, I would like to make a concerted effort to use it to dialogue with not only those who are my “natural” allies, but also those who may have a different vernacular, or a different background, or a different way of seeing the world. Though some may question my words here or think that raising these issues is divisive and fundamentally dualistic, I assure you that my intention is 1) to recognize the relative truth of these human behaviors, thereby hopefully avoiding my own spiritual bypassing; and 2) to commit to use technology for arguably its best function: to unify.

And I think that’s it for the ditthi (opinion) pieces for a while…Thanks for listening.

Further thoughts

Read Alan Senauke On Race and Buddhism at the Angry Asian Buddhist blog.

Listen to Diverse World, Diverse Sangha, a conversation with Gina Sharpe, Larry Yang and IMS Executive Director Bog Agoglia

Read Emptiness is Blackness by Brannu at Cosmic Echo in addition to his rich comments on my last post here and here

Consider Reflections: Ajahn Sucitto | Spiritual Friendship, Part 1 quoted previously, for a more positive view on belonging.

Celebrate Coming Home: A Mindfulness Retreat for LGBTIQ Communities and the annual People of Color retreats at IMS and Vallecitos Mountain Ranch and elsewhere.

Know about Urban Refuge: A virtual sangha for practitioners of color, allies, and all others interested in promoting racial and cultural diversity in Western Buddhism.

Previous Post
Leave a comment


  1. daso

     /  September 9, 2011

    Yes, yes, and yes. True Dharma.

  2. Thank you for this post. It’s very on topic with my own thoughts and concerns.
    It reminded me that years & years ago I read a friends’ poem that arrested me with the line: “Someone tell Richard Nixon we love him and give him a hug.” It wasn’t just cute, it helped me to affirm my life-long leanings toward inclusion.
    I often see that inclusion gives people real trouble in the political world, as my friends’ poem suggested. These days it’s the Tea Party and the Republicans that some of my friends have a low tolerance for, and not just for their politics but for them as people. I can understand but I want to be done with rejecting people for any reason. How deeply some of my reactionary right-wing friends have touched me on a personal basis.
    Another friend furthered my thinking when he told me of the saying “The best way to defeat your enemy is to make hir your friend.”
    And then another person reminded me that “Whoever is least among you, that’s where you’ll find me.” I realized “least” meant who I felt the least affinity for, not just who is the poorest or most humble.

    • Hi and thank you for sharing this. Partisan politics is certainly one of the worst examples of us vs. them thinking. We do it in much more subtle ways all the time. And on the best way to defeat your enemy angle, I’ll share a story my sister told me. My 11 year-old nephew was given an assignment on the anniversary of 9/11 (9/12) at his school and he interviewed his mother with some questions of his own. One of them was how would you seek revenge on the perpetrators of…and she thought for a brief moment, and responded “I would love them”. When he shared this with his class, people were pretty taken by it. Most everyone else was fomenting anti-this or that sentiment in their responses. Of course hate is not overcome by hatred but with love alone. Peace to you too friend.

  3. Katherine, this has been a topic at school over the past year or so, this need to communicate respectfully with “others,” those who see, speak, understand the world differently. There is a beautiful TED talk also on you tube. 9/11 healing: the mothers who found forgiveness, friendship.

  4. On attachment and sectarianism (deeply ingrained in our psyche – mind/emotions), one reads the following in ‘Cutting Through Spirtual Materialism’, by Chögyam Trungpa: “Nagarguna’s conclusions are summed up in the principle of ‘non-dwelling’, the principle of the Madhyamika school. He said that any philosophical view could be refuted, that one must not dwell upon any answer or description of reality, whether extreme or moderate, including the notion of ‘one mind’. Even to say that non-dwelling is the answer is delusory, for one must not dwell upon non-dwelling. Nagarguna’s way was one of non-philosophy, which was not simply another philosophy at all. He said: ‘The wise should not dwell in the middle either’. (p. 195). Inspiring!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: