When I first moved to New Mexico I attended a meditation group here. They have a people of color program there. This has become popular lately in some Buddhist organizations, to try and attract people of color and people from the LGBT community. And that is all fine, but let me share this with you.
When I had been attending that group for only a short time, a native American man showed up. After the meeting I sought him out, introduced myself to him, and we spent some time talking.
He was going through a very difficult time. He was getting a divorce and was really struggling financially. Poverty in New Mexico can be particularly demeaning, oppressive, and hopeless for native Americans.
He came a couple more times. I always sat next to him just because I liked him. But then he stopped coming. I reflected later that I was the only person in that group, which normally has 30-50 people in attendance, who spoke to him. It also seemed pretty clear to me that he was uncomfortable. Like many of these groups it is mainly older, white, and middle class.
About a year later a young Hispanic woman starting attending that same group. She was a University of New Mexico student from South America. She had a lively personality and inserted herself into the group much more so than my native American friend had.
She was also struggling financially, and at one point she asked the leader of the group if they had a way to help pay for retreats for people who cannot afford them. Now, he could have given her a number of responses, but all he said was, “No.” That was it.
I happen to know this group is financially sound and could have easily helped her out. He could have said, “Well, no, but maybe we should.” This would be in the letter and the spirit of how the Buddha established the monastic Saṇgha. The resources of the Saṇgha are there to support and help the members in their practice. All donations go to the Saṇgha as a whole. Then they can be used to support the individual members as necessary.
He could have also said, “Maybe we should establish a scholarship fund.” He could also have said, “Let’s see if we can get some people to sponsor you.” And so on. There are many things he could have said and considered. But all he said was, “No.”
I know from talking to her later that she was keenly aware that she was the only Hispanic member of the group. This is in a state where nearly half of the population is Hispanic.
This all reminds me of a story that Sharon Salzberg tells. You may know it. It is from her book The Revolutionary Art of Happiness:
We once brought one of our teachers to the United States from India. After he had been here for some time, we asked him for his perspective on our Buddhist practice in America. While he was mostly positive about what he saw, one critical thing stood out. Our teacher said that those practicing here in the West sometimes reminded him of people in a rowboat. They row and row and row with great earnestness and effort, but they neglect to untie the boat from the dock. He said he noticed people striving diligently for powerful meditative experiences – wonderful transcendence, going beyond space, time, body and mind – but not seeming to care so much about how they relate to others in a day-to-day way. How much compassion do they express toward the plumber who is late, or the child who makes a mess? How much kindness? How much presence? The path may lead to many powerful and sublime experiences, but the path begins here with our daily interactions with each other.
So I understand – sort of – the motivation behind special programs for people of color and different sexual preferences. But I think they may miss the point. They may actually act as smoke screens for the underlying problem, and that is the inability to be kind and sensitive to all people, and to be able to go outside our comfort zones and reach out to people who may not look or be like us. This puts the responsibility on each and every one of us, not some nameless, faceless institutions. And that is precisely where the responsibility belongs.
If we cannot do that, most especially if we cannot reach out and support members of our own Buddhist communities, then there is really no point to meditating. The Buddha made this clear. The foundation of the practice is generosity. Generosity is our ability to reach out and help. If we cannot do that, then everything else is pointless.