On Saturday, January 5th, ZCNYC held its first retreat just for people of color: Healing the Wounds of Racism with Valerie Brown and Marisela Gomez. This program was the result of changes in the Programming Committee that brought people of color from the Beyond Fear of Differences Planning Group into the decision-making process around programming. With their help promoting this program—even with a cold rainy day—turnout was excellent, indicating a clear need for these programs going forward.
Here are some reflections from sangha members who participated in the retreat.
Joshin Del Valle
It was an auspicious beginning: I was outside standing under the scaffolding by the front doors of the Temple on the Saturday morning of the retreat. This was the first only PoC retreat the temple had ever offered so I really wanted it to be a success. I knew that about 30 people had registered, but I also know New Yorkers, anything can change at any time. The only thing that would count is how many people actually walked through the door willing to commit an entire Saturday to healing the wounds of racism in community with other people of color. When I saw a green cab, then an Uber, then women of color come hurrying down the street toward the temple, some looking for a the building number, others checking their google maps as they neared me, my heart lifted. I had never seen so many people of color walk through the doors of the temple in one single day.
We were offering something to our community and there was a hunger for it—the dharma to PoC with PoC about PoC lives. Later, during the retreat, Valerie offered a story from her life that was a turning moment for me. She told about how she was stopped by a police officer, her life threatened for no other reason than that she is a black woman in a space where a black woman was not expected to be. She then said how she relied upon her breath to de-escalate the situation, to see the vulnerable child inside the grown police officer and how in doing so “breathing saved her life.” She did not dwell on the moral wrongness of the situation—she should not have had to find a way through the confrontation—it should never have happened. We all knew that—another powerful part about a PoC-centered retreat is not having to explain the ground on which we stand. But what was pivotal for me, was that she answered the question never quite answered by others: how does Buddhism help us respond to racism? How is it really healing? We practiced healing practices all day, but Valerie and Marisela showed us that when we give ourselves the space to be Buddhas, we can change a moment and thereby, change the world.
Starting in 2012, the United States began another relentless cycle of violence toward black lives. Beginning with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, and continuing with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and the murders of the nine members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, the racialized violence was everywhere. Many people of color sought spaces to reflect on and cope with the psychological impact of these developments.
For far too long for me, this space had not been the Zen Center of New York City (Fire Lotus). Despite having been a sangha member at Fire Lotus for over a decade, I have led a somewhat nomadic sangha lifestyle, traveling around New York City (and beyond) searching for refuge where I could be in community with people who understood the impact of continual cycles of racism, oppression, and violence on people of color when it all gets to be just too much.
But there comes a time when it is no longer okay for one’s sangha ‘home’ to not be that source of refuge. So, when the conversations began to take place within the Mountains and Rivers Order (MRO) around diversity at the Temple, Fire Lotus sangha members of color like myself understood that it was important for the Temple to be a place that would understand that, sometimes, the only safe space for working through the realities of living as a person of color in the United States is among other people of color. In one of my nomadic travels that landed me at Blue Cliff Monastery for a retreat for people of color, I met Valerie Brown and Marisela Gomez for the first time. The experience of being in retreat led by teachers of color was transformative.
So when the opportunity came for sangha members of color to engage on diversifying programming at Fire Lotus, I jumped at the chance to have Valerie and Marisela lead a retreat there for people of color. We built it—and they came. They came from a few blocks away right in their own Brooklyn neighborhood. They came from all over the northeast—some as far away as Baltimore and Philadelphia to take part in this historic first people of color retreat at Fire Lotus. The registration completely filled in the days before the retreat. There was an obvious need and a hunger.
But it was what happened when we were taking part in the retreat that was even more transformative. As we all settled in for what we thought would be a go-go-go, activity-packed retreat that would by 5pm provide us with all of the answers of how to heal the wounds of racism—we took a nap. Literally. We took a nap as Valerie sang to us. And we did walking meditation outside around the Brooklyn neighborhood that surrounds Fire Lotus. And we mediated inside. And we took time out to acknowledge and honor our ancestors. And we saw ourselves in the stories Valerie and Marisela related about aspects of their lives as women of color in their dharma talks.
In this retreat, they were teaching us how survive racism and heal from its daily assaults not by giving us a list of how-tos, but by teaching us how to take care of ourselves. In a world where people of color must run a perpetual race daily trying to make up ground from centuries of institutionalized racism and oppression while still battling contemporary forms in the present, the ability for people of color to rest becomes an elusive privilege. So, in that room together, we engaged in political resistance via the act of rest and self-care.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde
Healing the Wounds of Racism
It was not so long ago
This is why I do remember it
All of it and every single part of it
Is a glorious love show
Now, I was just born into it
Being granted, and thus expecting
Unending love to just this be
The essence of breath, of sight, of sound
The constitution of all here … me
Now, meanness is childish nonsense
Attempting to live divisiveness
Not you, not ours, just mine
Suffering beyond suffering
Hell bent is the task of this time
No, it was not long ago
So we retreat and unbind
And just because
Love does cross every line
I experienced our “Healing The Wounds of Racism” POC Retreat as wonderful Dharma practice. I look forward to very many more such experiences.