This project features work by students in the University of Toronto undergraduate course, Histories of Buddhist Meditation, held online during the winter semester of 2021. This course surveys historical, cultural, and textual contexts for Buddhist meditative and contemplative practices and techniques, with a special focus on the role if race in the history of Buddhist meditation in North America. We examine how Buddhist meditation practices including mindfulness have been shaped by, and even contributed to, forces like colonialism, orientalism, capitalism, and white supremacy in the last hundred years or so in North America.
We set the foundations for the semester with “Unit 0,” a 12-hour Coursera mini-course online covering some basics of Anti-racism and intersectionality. Students got an overview on how to critically discuss “whiteness” and concepts of White privilege, how to distinguish between being not racist and being anti-racist, and how to define systemic and institutional racism.
After that first unit, we started with the first important case study of the semester. The course is built around two recent important books by prominent American Buddhist teachers, Lama Rod Owens and Ruth King. We begin the course with Love and Rage by Lama Rod Owens, a Buddhist practitioner and teacher who identifies as Black, queer, and fat, writes in an intimate and honest way about how he’s worked with his own anger and pain, using a range of Buddhist philosophical ideas and meditation practices. He explains these practices in detail in the book, and he offers them to his readers as practical tools for self-understanding and transformation.
Our last book of the semester is Ruth King’s Mindful of Race. This is an important guide to understanding and addressing racial injustice and its effects, with a focus on how mindfulness or meditation can help us see and heal the suffering of racism. Like Lama Rod Owens’ book, this is an engaging and honest exploration of the application of mindfulness and other Buddhist practices to anti-racism work.
In the weeks in between our experiences with the works of these two influential Black Buddhist leaders, we read sections from a series of books on how Buddhist meditation practices were transformed as they moved into North America, and how forces like colonialism, orientalism, capitalism, modernity, and white supremacy shaped the development of Buddhism in North America. Some of our readings trace how mindfulness was channeled into so-called “scientific” psychology and medicine, which was then largely marketed to affluent white people. Other readings will talk about how, as one author says, Buddhist thought and practice, and in particular mindfulness, might actually be able to “dismantle the poisonous reality of whiteness”. We learn about how some postmodern and postcolonial forms of North American Buddhism are embracing pluralism and diversity and how they’re unearthing the voices of individuals and communities who’ve been historically marginalized or oppressed. We learn about how the contemporary mindfulness movement has diverted our attention away from systemic drivers of racism, sexism, or poverty, and we also hear from influential Buddhist teachers today, like Lama Rod Owens and Ruth King, who are carefully and powerfully reorienting Buddhist practices like mindfulness toward social justice.
The materials and topics of this course are difficult, and the assignments for this course were designed to help students navigate some of this in a way that’s helpful and supportive.
Speaking Out and Listening In
Two major assignments for this course are focused around the theme “Speaking Out and Listening In.” In one part of this project, students, conducted four conversations with two different people – in two cases mainly listening, and in two cases mainly speaking. This work is similar to a central practice of socially engaged Zen Buddhism, called Bearing Witness – in other contexts it’s also called Deep Listening. In a session of Deep Listening, students practice actively witnessing their thoughts and emotions while maintaining focused attention on what they’re hearing from the other person.
In a recent 2020 article from the NeuroLeadership Institute, the authors explain that, “deep listening means responding, at most, by restating what we hear to confirm that we understand or asking open-ended questions motivated solely by empathy and compassion. It means not assuming we know how someone feels, and not filtering the speaker’s experience through the lens of our own experiences. In the end, it means quieting internal judgments so we can be more fully open.”
This practice also shares features with an important Indigenous practice (read a bit about that here or here) where it is sometimes called a “listening circle.” Other teachers talk about Embodied Listening – you can also read about this in a Mindful magazine essay or watch an Embodied Listening video. You can also check out the Listen First project, which has a concise list of tips for engaging in the practice as well as a longer guide.
Before they begin their conversations, students studied these sources, as well as the book chapter “Dismantling Privilege with Mindful Listening” by Beth Berila, from her book, Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy, and they watched a webinar on this topic by Beth Berila. They then analyzed their experiences in the context of these sources.
A final component of the “Speaking Out and Listening In” is the group art project featured on this site, where students anonymously shared a secret, inspired by the online project at postsecret.com. Their art will also be installed as a mural on campus.