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If You Hang Around Buddhists, You're Gonna Get Your Hair Cut.

Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation by [Williams, angel Kyodo, Owens, Lama Rod, Syedullah, Jasmine]

My dad used to say that all the time. When he said if you hang around the barber shop, you're gonna get your hair cut, he meant that the company you keep can influence your actions. Mostly he was warning me about drinking, but I'm extending this maxim to positive influences in my life too, like Buddha.

My dad literally got his hair cut once a week as a career Marine. And I tend to keep my hair short too, shaving on 4 & 9 days (that's any day that ends with a 4 or 9, like the 14th, the 19th, the 24th, etc.) And when we take precepts, our teacher ask if they can cut the first lock of our hair but admonish that only Buddha can cut the last lock, which I'm pretty sure is not in reference to anything that will grow on the top of this head.

I think when our teachers say that only Buddha can cut the last lock they mean we're on a path of perpetual cutting away- and one thing that is happening at Tassjara right now is the cutting away of white ignorance around white privilege. Angel Kyodo Williams, author of Radical Dharma and Being Black, is there cutting the first locks- but only white people, with a lot of help from Buddha, will be able to cut the last locks.

She advises that we study our white history. Just reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of The United States would be a good start. Did you know that more black people and more native americans fought for the british then for the revolution? They figured they'd get a better deal with the british. The british did outlaw slavery in 1772 (not really effective until 1833) while America did not until 1865 (while Jim Crow laws suppressed black liberation until 1965). The more I read, the harder it is for me wax nostalgically about history.

And I think that's what awakening is about. Continuous unveiling of constructs which obstruct liberation.

Having Angel come to Tassajara to co-lead a retreat with Green Gulch abbess Fu has been a breath of fresh air and timely for me. I've been at Tassajara for about 3 years now and relatively sheltered from much of the political unrest. I return to Green Gulch this fall. They've been actively engaging with white privilege and racial division as the summer theme. I'm excited to return and pick this work up again. I'm grateful our leadership is taking up a clear position on the issue and not trying to hide behind some spiritual bypassing apolitical stance. Besides, politics stop where people begin.

People like Upali, who was the barber for Shakyamuni's royal family 2500 years ago in India. The story goes, as the Buddha was ordaining his family members, he ordained Upali first to make a point and make it easier for Upali to have faith in his own Buddha nature and to bring some humility to the royal family.

So when people, usually white males, push back against our initiative to provide this education in a dharma context, this story helps. We're just continuing that work. We can't be liberated until all beings are liberated, and as long as western zen centers remain predominantly white, we need to focus on the conventional liberation. There's a reason we practice in monasteries- they meet the human hierarchy of needs- food, shelter, warmth-and right now people of color are sorely under represented because these spaces are still very white and full of white myths.  Just to be clear, I am not proselytizing or wanting to force people of color to convert to Buddhism or leave their own religions and cultures but I want to address the myths and values that are making people feel unwelcome or out of place or worse.

Some of the white myths I encounter (again, usually when talking with white men) are: "Hey! I'm not privileged, I grew up poor and in the ghetto, living side by side with people of color."

I think the most alarming thing here is that when these men see people of color, they often like to offer that information, like, "Hey, I grew up in the hood." This sharing operates on the premise that they think that black=ghetto.

My second problem with this myth is that if it were true, if you grew up in the "ghetto" why aren't you seeing that what your white friends can get away with your black friends can't. I've never lived in the ghetto, but I did grow up in culturally diverse space, due to my father's enlistment in the Marine Corps. So, having close friends who are people of color, what I saw was they were afraid on a daily basis of things I never feared, like walking to the corner store. My friends were afraid of being stopped by police and wrapped up in something that would be inflated, exaggerated, and pursued at the highest level of the law. I witnessed this over and over. At the current time, I've got a white friend who carries a fire arm and deals drugs and has never been arrested, while last year one of my students, who dabbled in illicit activities is dead. Found shot and burned in a car. This year I found that one of my friends, who had been out of contact for 3 years, is serving a 10 year sentence for something I don't think a white person would be prosecuted so harshly for. He is an army veteran and took jukai.

These white myths say things like "I'm a color too" and there is such a thing a reverse racism. Semantically, yes, white people could be judged by the color of their skin- and you know what happens? Their feelings get hurt.

Historical racism toward black people and people of color ends in bloodshed or threat to life or severe imbalance of wealth.

I could go on and on and apologize for the soap box.

Actually, no I don't.

As americans, we live on stolen lands that was cleared and settled by stolen people.

Finally, when I see white men shiver when they hear Black Lives Matter and shout back All Life Matters, I offer this metaphor.

It's like your friend coming up to you and saying my dog died yesterday or my dog is dying right now and you shouting "My dog died when I was kid!"

Like Angel said in class- it's true as an imigrant nation we all pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. But do you consider who made the boot straps? Were the people who made the boot straps paid? And who's land do the boots stand on?


  1. yeah that's a good point your father makes !

    i would just be wary of getting too bound up in other peoples agendas though, your student being shot and killed and your friend being jailed for then years are by far the major issues!


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