Retreats: “The Buddha Was a Person of Color”

Featured in the Garrison Institute Summer 2012 e-Newsletter

g sharpe 160 Gine Sharpe

An interview with Gina Sharpe

From August 31 to September 2, 2012 the Institute will present “Living in the Light of Divine Sanity: A Retreat for People of Color” with Gina Sharpe.   All who self-identify as people of color are invited to participate in this spiritual community in an environment of ease and support for meditating together, for beginners and experienced meditators alike.  

The retreat is offered at the Institute’s lowest rates to make it as accessible as we can.  Sharpe recently spoke to us about what the retreat teaches, and about whether and how retreats for people of color are different from other retreats.


Garrison Institute (GI):  This is not the first retreat for people of color you’ve taught, right?

Sharpe (S):  No, the first two that I taught were held in 2003 and 2004 at the Garrison Institute.  There is an interview published in Tricycle magazine in 2004 about how these retreats for People of Color were initiated, entitled  “Does Race Matter in the Meditation Hall?”  Basically, the bottom line is that as long as racism exists, there will be a need for such retreats.

GI: In the communities you’re connected with, are there many people of color who meditate?

S:  I assume you mean communities of color.  (I am connected to, and teach in, mainstream communities as well as communities of color).  Yes, of course.  For example, at the New York Insight Meditation center there is a strong community of people of color – 600 strong.

GI: Is that what this retreat in August is about?

S: Retreats for People of Color were initiated to serve certain unmet practice needs of people of color.  There is much literature in the culture available so if your readers are interested, they can find many scholarly studies and treatises about that.  It is probably unnecessary to go deeply into the subject here.  What I will say is that mainstream retreats in our tradition were originated in the white community in the West.  Consequently, when people of color attended such retreats, there was not a feeling of safety in the retreats and indeed, often a feeling of not being welcomed or seen. Although many people of color are deeply interested in the teachings of Theravada Buddhism and have been practicing for many years, there wasn’t a natural practice home for them.  It was not until these [POC] retreats started that they felt they could attend a retreat and see and hear their life experience mirrored or deeply addressed.  I also know that it has mattered deeply to the Vipassana community that we have not had a diverse community -- not only from the standpoint of the dharma getting heard by wide audiences, but also from the standpoint of the community itself including a wide variety of people from different cultures, having a wide variety of life experiences and viewpoints.  It is essential that our community reflect the diversity of the world.  So there has been a concerted movement by the heretofore almost uniformly monocultural and mostly white Centers toward including people of all different cultures in our community.  It is changing, and quite naturally, the change is slow.  That is a very abbreviated description of the reasons for these retreats.

The teachings of the retreat will be primarily the teachings on the Brahma Viharas, or “heavenly abodes.”   Those are Buddhist teachings offering tools for reflection and resources for living sanely.  How can we live in the light of divine sanity rather than under the spell of habit and cultural beliefs that drive separation rather than connection?  The times we’re living through are especially stressful – economically, politically and culturally.  We will investigate what resources we can access right in the midst of our daily lives, to help us to remember to live into a larger dimension, rather than the small body of fear and despair which often drives our hearts and minds.  These deep and precious teachings on the Brahma Viharas encourage and support us to cultivate the heart/mind of kindness, compassion and equanimity.

 GI: So how will the retreat address racial issues?

 S: The teachings implicitly address all of the ways that we separate ourselves from each other, e.g., homophobia, racism, gender bias, and all the ways we see others as separate from us, looking at particulars of difference, that blinds us from the ways in which we are connected, we share human frailty and strength.  And it is not taught any differently than any other classic meditation retreats.  The retreat will include meditation instructions, dharma talks, and reflection.  The only difference is that when we practice with communities of color, participants look around and see a diverse range of people in the meditation hall.  They see themselves and their life experience mirrored in the teachers, and in the ways the teachings are presented.  That allows safety and relaxation that allows practice to penetrate more deeply.

GI: Meditation posits non-separation.  How does a separate meditation retreat for people of color square with the dharma?
S: The Buddha was a person of color.  Allegedly he came from a princely cast; and he was a social radical. He brought people of all castes together in a time when society had very strict rules against such mixing; he had women in his community, which for that particular time in that culture was a radical idea. He did not adhere to the rigid class structure or ideas about who could do what, even though he clearly respected the rules.  Similarly, the issues we address in our modern time are relevant to all people and go beyond the conventional ways in our culture of working with difference.   All efforts to be inclusive square beautifully with the Dharma, where we are recognizing the needs of students and working to meet them.  The Buddha was a great master of working with the needs of each student individually. The suttas (discourses of the Buddha) are full of examples of the Buddha devising ways that would help students understand the teachings and practices from his own understanding of the inclinations and abilities of the individual students.  Addressing an obvious cultural need is no different.

Anyone hearing the teachings of the Four Noble Truths -- that there is suffering, that there is a cause to it, and it can end and there is a path to get there -- anyone in a human body can understand and relate to this very clearly.  The ways in which oppressed people suffer may be different than the ways in which an oppressor class suffers, and yet we’re all human, which points us to the understanding of the human condition.

Some may be offended by the thought of a retreat exclusively for people of color. I’ve been told that it is “a form of segregation.”  Some have also alleged that by creating this separate sacred space for meditation, it encourages people of color to hang on to an identity.  But in fact, people of color have to live that identity every day.  We don’t have to be encouraged to deal with it. Our society forces us to confront it.

The idea that we’re all one is true in the absolute sense, but in our relative world, there are distinctions and differences, whether they are race, color, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation.  This is what is true.  We live through and in these distinctions every day.  The idea that we can transcend and live into an absolute reality of non-distinction without understanding and addressing these issues of difference is spiritually bypassing our humanness.  Both the absolute and relative are important truths that must be understood and attended.

We need to address both dimensions: We must live our ordinary, relative, diurnal lives, and we can also learn to live that daily reality in a less stressful way that deeply understands and trusts absolute reality.  We can learn to live in the light of divine sanity.


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