Ironically, after all that business about wanting to be a keeper of tradition, I broke with the tradition—pretty much as a result of a rift with my teacher, which I saw as part of a larger rift in some of the ways Buddhist practice is manifesting in the West. I started a community called the New Dharma Community. Its focus was attending to the needs of people of color practicing the dharma. Also at its core was a widening of the dharma to include other practices, such as yoga.
Although we were rooted in Zen Buddhist practices, we thought of ourselves as a new tradition because of our social justice lens and also because of our receptivity to other practices, as well as Earth-based, indigenous sensibilities. We had an underlying and over-riding sense of the wisdom of all traditions, which is what New Dharma was seeking to express, even in its name.
What was up for me at the time was racial imbalance in how the dharma was being presented, so I started a meditation center that had people of color at its heart. We didn’t exclude white folks, but our focus was on meeting the needs of people of color as practitioners of the dharma.
The MOON: What kinds of needs are we talking about?
Rev. angel: Primarily making the teachings relevant to the lives and concerns of people of color. Even the activities we chose to incorporate were more reflective of the people we were serving.
Take sharing a meal, for example. We wove the more traditional Zen way of sharing a meal in silence with a practice that lets people be in a more familiar cultural milieu—chatting, even talking smack. [Laughs]
We also tried to distill Buddhism’s forms down to what is essential, so that people didn’t get tripped up by practices that are foreign to us culturally. In other words, we try not to let forms become a barrier to practice. For example, at one point we just practiced zazen: sitting meditation. There was no other form. Then we rediscovered, as I’m sure many people have, that having a bell serves a need, so we brought the bell back. “Oh, bowing serves a need.” We brought bowing back. “Chanting serves a need.” We brought it back. But other forms we let go because their absence didn’t seem to offend the teaching.
The idea is not to worry about forms; we’re here to offer the teachings, one of which says, “Self-liberate even the antidote.” That means “Free yourself from even the thing that has freed you,” because the teachings aren’t the thing itself. They’re just a construct; they’re made up. We are the living teaching. We are the dharma. Formal teachings are a guidepost back to our own heart, the original construction we’re all born with, but which gets obscured by causes and conditions. The Ten Commandments and the Pure Precepts and everything else are guidelines to help get us back to the truth of our own heart; the truth of our own selves, of who we truly are. That’s freedom.
The New Dharma Meditation Center also had a social change component because the experience of people of color is that they’re often most subject to the social inequities. In serving their needs, getting at the root cause of those inequities occupies a front row seat for us.
However, after a while we realized that a meditation center in and of itself wasn’t going to change the world, so when we had the opportunity to move into a larger space we became the Center for Urban Peace, which was another attempt at getting to the root of what we were about. A little while later we coined the phrase “transformative social change” and the Center became that. It was a way of naming what we were really after in our practice. We weren’t after Enlightenment so that we could end up in Nirvana. We were practicing for the purpose of addressing the root causes of social injustice in a way that is transformative of the entire construct: it changes me, and it changes you. It applies the Buddhist teachings to getting us out of the “us vs. them” paradigm.
The only way the world is going to change the way we want it to, is for us to show up in that same way. If we want sustainability in the world, we have to live in sustainable ways. If we want peace in the world, we have to live in peaceful ways. If we want justice in the world, we have to be just in all our dealings. So we slowly evolved a model of “being the change we wish to see” in as many forms as we could tackle. And we keep taking on more.
Once we got pretty clear of what practices helped us sustain transformative changes in our own lives, we began to extend those practices to other social change activists. So, for example, the “27 Days of Transformative Change” is something we first tried among ourselves.
Given that we’re not monks living in monasteries, but lay people living in the world, we found that sustaining an ongoing, intense practice schedule is not really effective—because human beings adapt. If there’s too much going on, practice just becomes one of the other things in our lives. We do it, but we do it perfunctorily, by rote. Alternating more intense periods of practice with periods of integration became the more effective alternative. That’s the “27 Days of Transformative Change” concept. It gives us a beginning, a middle, and an end to our intense practice periods. We thought, “Wow, this is great! Other people should try this.” So we began offering it to other people, particularly social change agents.
You see, we’re this really small group of committed people who are out to change the world. The leverage point for us is supporting other people who are trying to change the world. If we impact them, we can impact how the world is changed. So we focus on meeting the spiritual needs of social change activists. We try to figure out the forms and practices that will support them in being effective for the long haul.
The MOON: This all sounds great for participants. But how do you see it affecting “the way change is done” in the world?
Rev. angel: By slowly and methodically introducing practices that are accessible and culturally appropriate to social justice activists, while also injecting the notion that change needs to be done differently in order to be sustainable—in much the way non-violence was brought into the civil rights movement in this country and then subsequently was adopted by other movements.
We’re developing our practices so that they speak to people who are engaged in social change. Many people who talk about meditation emphasize its benefits at creating calm and managing stress. We acknowledge those benefits, but we focus more on its ability to make activists more effective—how they owe it to the work they believe in to be embodiments of sustainability, ease, and clear-mindedness. That’s the frame we bring to meditation, a frame of justice.
A few years ago we conducted fearlessYOGA teacher training. We registered as a school so that we could roll out a form of yoga that doesn’t focus on perfect bodies or cost $16/class. We think of yoga as a daily practice. We have a long-term mission to roll out yoga teachers who are committed to bringing yoga into communities that are under-served. We’ve offered scholarships so that people can be trained; scholarships that don’t just cover the tuition but also what you’re giving up in order to come to class. We sought out scholarship money for an African-American male so that he could afford to not go to his job for a month because we feel that it is so important to have black men as yoga teachers. It trashes the stereotypical image of who we’ve been told does yoga—and particularly, who teaches yoga.
We think of fearlessYOGA as the Tupperware of yoga; it’s so accessible that people call their friends over and offer it in their homes. It has a very long-reaching impact because we’re training teachers who will start teacher-trainings in their own communities. It’s a big vision of yoga teaching practice through a frame that’s utterly different from the mainstream.
The MOON: What’s the importance of yoga to supporting agents of social change?