Rev. angel: I think there’s awareness in the way that there’s awareness of racism in general in this country. People turn a blind eye, or if they’re a little more progressive they give lip service to it. But there’s rare embodiment of the actions and practices that would shift it.
Hopefully we’re making our way. First of all, it’s not just white folks’ problem. Some of it has to be people of color making their way in and, I use this term lightly, “demanding” something different. But people have to have access first to start demanding something different. I think that’s at the root of people’s fear about having people of color come in—that they’re going to want some things to change. I always say, “They will, and they should, and that’s a good thing.” Things are the way they are because they’re oriented towards a particular group and that will no longer be the group. That’s positive. And at the other end of the spectrum, and this is really how New Dharma Meditation Center came about, people of color will stop waiting for white people to do things differently and start doing their own things.
The MOON: Is there a Zen approach to racism?
Rev. angel: I don’t think so. Zen grew up in homogenous cultures. I don’t think racism is an issue it dealt with. Besides, there’s no “self” in Zen teaching. Only a self is one race or another. That might be the Zen approach to racism: there’s no self. This identity you’re defending isn’t ultimately real.
The MOON: You call on change agents to embody the change they wish to see in the world. But must we be silent until we’ve mastered that? People often tell me that Jesus or the Dalai Lama wouldn’t protest against war or injustice, and to some extent I think they’re right. But what do we do until we are enlightened beings?
Rev. angel: I always tell people, “We’re already Buddhas; we’re trying to be Bodhisattvas.” Bodhisattvas’ jobs are to be here in the world and confront the realities that exist, not ignore them. This escapist frame on the teachings that says if you were really an enlightened being you wouldn’t pay attention to the world’s problems is ridiculous. The fact is, if you were an enlightened being you wouldn’t care if a Mack truck were about to hit you. You don’t have a self, so who cares? Why be concerned about anything at all? But the reality is that we are here in this world and we respond as Avalokiteshvara does to the cries of the world. That’s compassion. When you really feel into other people’s experiences there doesn’t seem to me to be to be any other path.
In Buddhism there are two views: absolute view and relative view. In the absolute view, there’s nothing to do. It’s all going to be as it is. But in the relative view, there is suffering being perpetuated and we can and should respond to the world that’s in front of us. We don’t respond to the degree that we perpetuate suffering in ourselves; that would undermine the whole point. But it’s not the best we can do to say that if you were really enlightened you wouldn’t do anything; you wouldn’t even care. We don’t let people go hungry because we take the absolute view that “Things are as they are.” We feed people because that’s what’s in front of us right now.
So I completely disagree that the Dalai Lama would ignore suffering because he’s enlightened. He has been a strong voice calling for the sovereignty of Tibet. He’s also a political, temporal leader as much as a spiritual leader, so he takes up issues that have to marry both. And still, his conditions are not our conditions. Tibet’s conditions are not our conditions. We meet our conditions.
We can get into lots of ways to avoid issues; but what we know is that, at the heart of these teachings—which don’t even have to be the teachings of the Buddha, but the teachings of the heart—in the heart we know that some of the ways we are doing things are wrong. They’re out of alignment and harmony with life itself. It doesn’t even matter if some guy said so. If we treat any group of people as diminished and entitled to less access merely because of their birth, we don’t need extensive teachings to figure out that it’s wrong. We certainly don’t need to try to warp those teachings to justify leaving the status quo in place—especially if we’re of the class that benefits by leaving the status quo in place. You never hear people who are oppressed or underserved taking that stance.
The MOON: In your talks, you’ve associated social problems with spiritual loss. How can political, economic and social issues be related to and perhaps redressed by spirituality?
Rev. angel: Living in the illusion of disconnect is the source of all social ills. That we can permit ourselves the kinds of social inequities that exist today is absolutely and directly connected to a spiritual break in which we deify money and the accumulation of things over our fundamental connection to other human beings and nature. In our country, in particular, the construct that has allowed particular peoples to be framed as less than human is a severe spiritual disconnect that has gone on for millennia. This conveniently allows us to put them at our service, as a commodity, something to be used and traded on. That disconnect has expressed itself throughout our relationship to the planet, as well. We commodify resources—all resources—to the benefit of a particular group of people. A huge amount of social inequity is the result of this disconnect.
When we disconnect ourselves from the fundamental worth of other human beings—when we allow ourselves to be in fundamental disconnect with the natural world and believe that the natural world is ours to have dominion over rather than something that we’re part of and have stewardship for—those are disconnects from Source, from our universal collective wisdom and intelligence. Disconnecting ourselves from Source intelligence is what allows us—in our own minds, anyway—to start making things up. What gets made up does not serve our universal intelligence anymore.
The MOON: How does realizing our mistake redress the issue? When we spiritually understand that we’re wrong; that we’ve made something up; that we’ve forgotten who we are and who everyone else is and that, in truth, we can’t harm the earth or another without harming ourselves, how does that make things right?