Ten days ago, I rolled over in my bed to turn off the alarm and immediately swooned with terror: an incredible wave of dizziness followed even the tiniest movements and I wretched with nausea, falling to the floor each time I tried to stand up. Somehow managing to get dressed, I saw the world swimming in kaleidoscopic waves of rotation, feeling as if the worse hangover I ever suffered had been multiplied by dozens. I was horrified. I have had close friends with brain tumors (one, Elisabeth Targ, died from one) and I was afraid this might be my fate. It wasn’t until Wednesday (just 2 days ago) that the outer world stopped spinning. Before that, I’d spent more than 6 hours in the emergency room in Reykjavík and while there underwent several neurological exams, a CT scan, and the sickening transfer in wheelchairs from one end of the hospital to another for different testing stations. It was finally diagnosed as vestibular neuritis, an inflammation of nerves in the inner ear, completely disturbing my sense of balance and rendering me a tottering mass of wobbling insecurety which might have looked comical from the outside, but which has been incredibly alarming now for over a week and whose remnants have not completely faded. Prednisone helps but my run of that drug is about to end and, as things, “get better” I have had some time to reflect on my own condition and its parallels to the world “out there”.When W. B. Yeats wrote his prophetic poem, The Second Coming in 1919, the dominant metaphor for a world out of whack was the gyre’s failure to hold the balance. His world, he knew, had fallen off some stable center, teetering at the edge of horrors unimaginable to most at the time in those years just after the First World War but before the Great Depression and the Second World War. Nothing was right in that world, all looked dangerously tilted

Yet being off-balance has its own momentum, and there are many who perversely would actually take advantage of it for their own uses. With the IPCC report giving us all 12 years to avert what is likely to be an even greater global collapse into instability, it is with deep trepidation that I consider the world out there from my safe little recovery spot way out here in the early winter gatherings of Iceland.
How many of us are walking around already “off balanced” by the constant rush of dire news about the climate or the rise of outright fascist movements all around the world? During this recovery time I have been helping my daughter catch up on missed schoolwork brought about by her own ER trip last week (for a ruptured appendix) and this thought of a world off balance became clearer with each moment we reflected on history together. As my daughter writes her paper on WW2, I saw in her eyes the glimmers of recognition that “things like that are happening all over again”. It’s an odd feeling. To feel so off-kilter that one strains to convince oneself the inner world is not that experienced “out there” and yet, as my return to normalcy is gently transitioning, it seems the world “out there” is, in fact, no more stable, no steadier than that neurologically challenged one inside my inner ear. It is very sad.

I wonder what shifts my children will see in their lifetimes, what enormously off balanced manifestations of the environment will be in the news. Of course, we know what’s coming. Killer storms. Mass floods. Record heat-waves, millions of displaced people fleeing parched landscapes and unstable governmental responses. Armed troops, barbed wire, enormous human misery. Where will they go, and what will they do? Billionaires are buying property in New Zealand, I hear, building “bunkers” to store their “wealth” and isolate themselves from the pitchforks and torches of those restless millions “yearning to breathe free”. From the relatively stable confines of my bed, I wonder, what has happened out there? How can the entire system be so pushed off center that the histrionic posturing of a carnival barker-in-Chief are taken seriously while the “Resistance” ™ refuses to engage in even the most anodyne disruptions of normalcy necessary to shock the sensibilities of the masses towards recognition that things have to change now, or we are all doomed?

It is a moral duty to restore the balance we have lost. Moral because our effort to restore a healthy equilibrium must include what we call Nature for it is the only thing which sustains us and we are now at the point where it is threatened with irreparable damage. We may imagine that our vast technological triumphs and the plastic, steel, aluminum, iron and cement cages (cities) we inhabit provide us enough to survive but the very the air we breathe is being threatened worldwide led, in part, by the newly elected supporter of fascism Juan Bolsonaro.

Seriously. An admirer of fascism has been elected President in Brazil and he is advocating even more “development” of the rainforests which give us more than 20% of the oxygen we need to live. This is beyond crazy. Where are the cries for UN intervention to stop this rapacious insanity and instead restore the planet so that we all have enough oxygen to survive? I know, this sounds outmoded (“UN intervention”?) but how did we get so far that our planetary life-giving essentials are treated as commodities to be traded in for the short-term profits of a few? Many will answer that that’s been capitalism all along (and agreeing I’ll happily support its overthrow) but still, we no longer wince at the extremities advocated by and spoken of by “world leaders”, chalking it up to yet another piece in the gradualist onslaught of vertigo we are all suffering. There’s no prednisone for this illness. There are no tests needed to confirm that something is terribly wrong in our sense of balance and that this is dangerous not only for us, but for the whole teetering planet.

I’m scared.

This week I had to stop everything, tell myself repeatedly (and audibly) that “nothing is moving”, and basically re-learn how to walk stably on the earth, trusting its solidity to hold me up and support me. And yet, “out there” there is an even greater loss of balance, a lopsided world that appears no less unstable than that little world of mine was last week which caused me to collapse, crawling on the floor in panic, realizing I needed to get to an emergency room immediately. Where is our planet’ s Emergency Room? Who will see us there, test us, proscribe the large does of corrective medicine and remind us to check in a few weeks from now as recovery times vary and could take from 4 weeks to 6 months? Who will tell us that something has happened, and we must get back upright, finding a more properly positioned way of standing in the world, one that keeps the incredibly fragile balance of all creation working so that all of us can live? As I slowly recover my inner balance, I am struck that a larger unhinging is occurring outside me. And we are running out of time. Literally.

Because unless we right ourselves soon, very soon, the falls that we will suffer collectively, will topple civilizations. Maybe even “civilization” itself.

José M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet, Buddhist priest, and political writer living in Hafnarfjorður, Iceland, known for its elves, “hidden people” and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano´s Journal, The Galway Review, Dissident Voice, Former People: A Journal of Bangs and Whimpers, North Star, and Op-Ed News, among others. He can be reached at tirado.jm@gmail.com.


bell hooks on Racism in the Sangha

bell hooks´article on Racism in the Sangha is here reprinted in its entirety:

Waking up to Racism
bell hooks

Buddhists in the United States include fifth-generation Americans of Chinese and Japanese heritage, second-generation Korean-Americans, recent immigrants from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia and their American children, along with converts from European, African, and Latino backgrounds. As with other groups, Buddhists with common cultural and sectarian orientations have tended to stick together. With the end of the melting pot ideal, issues that once addressed racial and cultural diversity have been redefined in the political terms of multiculturalism. As this special section on Dharma, Diversity, and Race suggests, the views of Buddhists from different races and traditions reflect the society at large.

For some time now I have been writing fragments of a book, Buddha Belly, about the meaning of Buddhism in my life, about the Buddha I have been carrying in my belly for more than twenty years now. These writings are often funny, witty takes on my experience as a black female with Buddhism. I have been lucky because Buddhism has come to me from so many different directions that even when I was not seeking, I was always found. That thought, too, makes me laugh, because many of my religious white comrades are obsessed with seeking. When I was young, talking Buddhism all the time with them, I was always amazed and sometimes envious that longing to seek meant to them taking a trip, backpacking to Tibet, joining this community somewhere on the other side of the planet, finding that special teacher. Inwardly, I was a bit ashamed that I could never gather the courage to share that I had no intention of going anywhere—that to go places was about time and money and a will to travel that simply was not in me. The time I needed to study and write, and the journey to blessedness, to enlightenment, well, that could take place anywhere, or so the confinement and limitations of my circumstances made it essential for me to believe.

We cannot separate the will of so many white comrades to journey in search of spiritual nourishment to the “third world” from the history of cultural imperialism and colonialism that has created a context where such journeying is seen as appropriate, acceptable, an expression of freedom and right. Nor does it surprise me that black people, and other people of color who have grown up in the midst of racial apartheid and racist domination, often feel the need to stay home, to stay in our place. Often we feel we have no right to move into a world that belongs to someone else seeking to discover treasures—not even if they are spiritual gems. It is important to recognize and interrogate these two positions without the judgment of good and bad. We can hold the reality that imperialism paved the way for white folks seeking to go anywhere in the world and claim ownership, to walk on many paths, simultaneously with the understanding that much of what has been found there—in that initial violent colonialism, continuing neo-colonialism, and journeying rooted in compassion and good will—gives life as much it takes and has taken life away. We can hold the understanding that enlightenment as an expression of spiritual devotion and practice is not bound by time and space even as we recognize the necessity of cultural borrowing, hybridity, and the mixing of traditions, lifestyles, and practices. We can understand racism within the circles of Buddhism in the United States if we surrender our attachment to binary, either/or thinking, if we let go the need to “own” any position as better, right, more correct.

To many of my white comrades who accepted their interest in Buddhism as “natural,” my engagement always made me suspect, the object of spectacle, someone to be interrogated. “And why are you interested in Zen? And where did you first become interested? And who do you follow?” These questions are usually asked of anyone new to Buddhism, but what a person of color hears, whether it’s intended or not, is that we are being singled out. These interrogations presuppose that I—and not they—am the other, that there is no ancestral connection between me or other people of color and the cultures in which they search to find Buddhist truth. This is the cultural arrogance that white supremacy allows. No wonder, then, that many black people, people of color, have felt that they cannot maintain a connection with their race and culture of origin and walk a Buddhist path. To some of them, choosing such a path in this country has been synonymous with choosing whiteness, with remaining silent about racism for fear of being dismissed, for fear of bringing in issues that are not really important. Often the disillusionment people of color feel is a response to idealized assumptions that spiritual communities will be places where the racism encountered in everyday life will have disappeared. Why do we think working at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore (which I did) will be any freer of racial tension and hostilities than working at Macy’s? While some of us hear the dilemmas of the rare individual black person who has lived in a Buddhist community, who has studied with teachers, who has served, most folks refuse to write about these experiences. Many people of color have retreated from communities into a monastic culture within. When the openness is there, they will speak their experiences. Often white people share the assumption that simply following a spiritual path means that they have let go of racism: coming out of radical movements—civil rights, war resistance—in the sixties and seventies and going on to form Buddhist communities, they often see themselves as liberal and marginalized, proudly identifying with the oppressed. They are so attached to the image of themselves as nonracists that they refuse to see their own racism or the ways in which Buddhist communities may reflect racial hierarchies. This is made more problematic where the emphasis in the predominantly white communities is on letting go of the self.

I am often asked when talking about racism in Buddhist circles to be specific, give examples. In part, this longing emerges from the reluctance of white people in power to accept, and see clearly by opening their eyes, that white supremacy informs the shaping of Buddhist communities, individual interactions, publications, etc. That reluctance can only be transformed in spiritual practice, not by proof. There is never enough proof. We see the absence of people of color in predominantly white Buddhist circles. We hear the silence of those voices. What will it take for the individuals in those circles to seek an understanding of that absence, which comes from within?

To understand that absence there has to be a concrete understanding of how racism works, of how white supremacy shapes personal interactions. Progressive whites who have no difficulty challenging institutionalized racism may have no clue about challenging the day-to-day xenophobia and racism inside everyone. When people of color are reluctant to enter predominantly white Buddhist settings it is not out of fear of some overt racist exclusion, it is usually in response to more subtle manifestations of white supremacy. Even to speak or write for a Buddhist publication where white people are in power evokes the concern, and sometimes the fear, that one’s words, thoughts, and being may be distorted, presented in the way that speaks only to the need of white readers. It is no simple matter to find a space within Buddhist circles where compassion has surfaced with an intensity that overshadows racial injustice and racial hierarchy. Recently, I wanted to join in a retreat with Pema Chodron. I grappled with the concern of whether or not the white comrades there would turn me into an object and distract my attention, or whether even my own hyperawarness of being the “only” or “among the few” people of color would distract me. Finally, I overcame these concerns, only to find all the places were taken. It did make me laugh. I had wasted so much time thinking about the question of race, that I had lost the moment. This is always a challenge when one’s life is lived in spiritual practice. How to be attentive to the things of the world, the unjust systems of domination, like racism, white supremacy, colonialism, without losing one’s sense of direction, without losing one’s way.

In the United States there are many black people, and people of color engaged with Buddhism who do not have visibility or voice. Contrary to a certain cultural arrogance that enjoys calling attention to—in a trivializing way—the quantifiable presence of black people in Nichiren Shoshu, there are many black people who identify with diverse traditions, walk on various paths, who practice in silence, who rely on the monastic culture within. It is a challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to accept that not seeing something does not mean it does not exist. Clearly, the time has come for more people of color in the United States to move out of the shadows of silence and speak about the nature of their spiritual practice. That silence is often imposed, a response to fears that one might not know enough, that we will be looked down upon, especially by whites. I have always been reluctant to speak about Buddhism, for fear I will mispronounce words, not have all the details and information that will prove me a dharma voyeur and not a card-carrying Buddhist. Surely it is often racism that allows white comrades to feel so comfortable with their “control” and “ownership” of Buddhist thought and practice in the United States. They have much to learn, then, from those people of color who embrace humility in practice and relinquish the ego’s need to be recognized. Rarely have I heard or read any really prominent white person engaged with Buddhism discuss any fear of being arrogant when speaking about the subject, grappling with issues of ownership, or authenticity, posing the question, “Will the real Buddhist please stand up?” I am quick to say, “I am not a ‘real’ Buddhist.” It has been useful to meditate on the subject of being a real Buddhist. In those moments of contemplation and quiet, the awareness surfaces that so many people of color fear not being worthy in ways that escape the attention of our white comrades. This fear of not being worthy is not always a response to the reality of subjugation. It also has to do with the practice of humility, not being presumptuous, not assuming rights and/or the experience of being in awe. I am always reminded of that spirit of awe when I contemplate the passage in the biblical Book of Psalms where the seeker marvels at the wisdom of the teacher, completely open to the possibility that “such knowledge is high, I cannot attain to it.”

Lately, I often playfully want to ask the “real Buddhists to please stand up.” Studying different traditions, I learned early on that “real” Buddhists have teachers they know and name, have studied specific paths, done translations, can speak with authority. Certainly there is always a need for experience and knowledge rooted in traditions, but it is not a spiritual given that these are the places where peace, union, and spiritual awareness are found. What am I to make of the fact that every journey I start that is to lead me to a face-to-face encounter with a teacher is interrupted, short-circuited? Each time I have set out in the direction of Thich Nhat Hanh, who teaches and guides my heart, something happens. Often my teachers have no faces, no bodies I can touch with my eyes or hands, no skin color I can see, no race. This absence may keep me on the path, for it is an absence that does not preclude contact, connection, transmission—even though there are times when I wonder, Am I never to be a “real” Buddhist? And what of all those white men, those writers—Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and many others—who may never have and will never feel the need to ask that question, including some who can find their way to “legitimate” Buddhism even in death? Then there are all the nonwhite people, many Asians from various ethnic groups with long traditions of Buddhist practice, who are angry, who want to counter the hegemony of whiteness with their own insistence on received right, authority, realness. How to separate the need to dismantle racism and white supremacy in Buddhist circles from the desire to construct more diverse hierarchies of domination? That is a challenge only profound spiritual practice can help us meet.

Pirates Fail to Take Helm

My article on CounterPunch this morning focuses on both the Pirates´ failure (this time around) and promising success (tripling its MPs) while ruminating about coalition politics and what it means for Iceland´s future::

Pirates Fail to Take the Helm: Iceland’s Pirate Party Gains Mileage But not Enough to Steady Ship Alone