Black Lives Matter

I’ve been pretty out of the loop for the last four years. In the monastery there was no newspaper,  and no access to the internet, so I couldn’t read blogs, facebook, or email. Maybe what I’m about to write has already been said, and if so, I apologize for being redundant.

I was not prepared for the amount of rage and grief that came over me today as I read the reports of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson officer Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. This kind of rage and grief is particularly intense to feel because there is no target or object I can blame; whereas in the 1960’s, we could name a particular racist law, policy, or person, what confronts us today is a widespread, diffuse system of institutionalized racism. Our economic and political system is built upon and maintained by the exploitation of people of color; Jim Crow is officially over but what has taken its place is arguably more powerful because it’s harder to actually see, name, and crucially, to end. As I read the reports of protests in countries around the United States, I wish I could be there.

It’s weird to be reading these news reports across the ocean, in Japan— one of the most racially homogeneous countries in the world, with its own problems of discrimination and attitudes of racial purity. There’s a caste system in Japan which was basically arbitrarily created several centuries ago. The “buraku” people, poor villagers who historically worked as butchers or undertakers, are still subject to discrimination at work or when attempting to wed “outside” their caste. Japan is a psychologically closed country, and nationality is always linked with race here. There’s no notion of “immigrants” or “immigration” like in the United States; there are only tourists and foreigners. A lot of my “practice” in the last fears has been silencing (or “dealing with”) my own feelings of anger when I experience or see xenophobia and discrimination. 

My views on race and racism have changed somewhat because of my experiences in Japan. I’ve seen that racism and discrimination are things all people do to each other. The “buraku” people are Japanese. They’re just as Japanese as non-buraku Japanese, but they are victims of ethnic discrimination and violence. Whereas in college I used to believe that all of the world’s problems would be resolved if we overthrew white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I don’t really think that’s true any more. Last week I watched “V for Vendetta” (okay, not a radical political manifesto, but still) and had to wonder, “What happens after they blow up the Parliament? Is it any better then?” I think no amount of political revolution is going to change things for the better without a radical change in consciousness— without everyone working on their own greed, hatred, and delusion.   

But I also know working with my own emotions is not enough. Last year or even a few months ago, this would have been enough for me, but now it’s not. I don’t think the practice of uprooting greed, hatred, and delusion are in any way at conflict with seeing and naming racist oppression and working to overthrow oppressive systems. 

Lots of white people seem to react negatively to the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” The fear is that saying “Black Lives Matter” implies that either a) white lives don’t matter or b) black lives matter more than white lives, and since we’re all just one human race, why can’t we all just get along? 

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it ignores the reality that race exists, racism exists, and that people of color are subjected to racist violence and oppression in a way that white people simply are not. White lives do matter because all lives matter. White people hurt, and suffer. I suppose you can also argue that white people are also hurt by capitalism and racism. But the suffering of white people is not the suffering of being subjected to violent, racist oppression. That’s the crucial difference. The suffering of white people on a day to day level within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is not the same suffering as being shot six times by a cop, or being the mother of a teenage son who has been shot six times by a cop and then has to deal with the reality of her son’s killer not being prosecuted.

While there is no hierarchy of suffering (all people suffer, and all suffering is valid) it’s useful to see and name suffering that is caused specifically by racist exploitation and violence. There is one human race, but there is the socially constructed category of race that effects all of us in different ways. Seeing and naming this difference of experience is crucial. 

At Zen monasteries in Japan, the policy is to give everyone the same food regardless of personal preference. Dogen Zenji talked pretty explicitly about “going along with the community,” and so everyone is treated “the same” and given the same portions. However, all bodies are different. Some people can eat a lot, and some people can’t. Some people have allergies, and it’s not fair to assume everyone can eat the same things. So a proverb developed at Nisodo, “byodo soku sabetsu nari” (I might be butchering that Japanese) which means “equality becomes discrimination.” As tenzo, you have to take into account how everyone is different; it’s not fair to say “we’re all one human race, so everyone has to eat the same food.” I’ve noticed that monastery culture, which places a heavy value on conformity, is gradually starting to allow for individual difference. To do otherwise is inhumane. 

As a white person I have the privilege of not feeling threatened by white cops when I walk down the street. I probably won’t get shot by a white cop any time in my life. In a society where white people chose to believe that race doesn’t exist, just saying the words “white people,” “black people,” “people of color,” and “racism” in public has power. When I say “black lives matter,” this is a very, very, very small step towards redressing this imbalance and acknowledging difference and privilege.

But just saying “black lives matter” isn’t enough. I want to challenge racism not only on an interpersonal level but institutionally as well. I don’t know how to do this, especially when I’m across an ocean, in a society that is incredibly skilled at conformity and racial homogeneity. But I can no longer wage a war within myself between Buddhist practice and a love of justice. The rage and sadness I and many others feel is compelling because it points to how we are fundamentally not different from other human beings. On a deeper level than I can see, I am not different from any other person in the world, and these feelings of rage and sadness exist because there is a wound that needs to be healed. Moving towards liberation has to include seeing clearly and cutting off delusions, and responding to the suffering of others. Not all delusion is racial injustice, but all racial injustice— and complacency with racial injustice— is delusion. 


  1. Well said, Gesshin. You`re a talented writer.

  2. really thoughtful entry. I am truly enjoying your blog...thank you!


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