by Linda Robinson -
Special to the SGN
Arinna Weisman has studied Vipassana Meditation for 30 years. She has been teaching since 1988 in the lineage of the great Burmese master U Bha Khin and was empowered to teach by Ruth Denison. Arinna is the founding teacher of Insight Meditation Center of the Pioneer Valley in East Hampton, MA, and is the co-author of A Beginner's Guide to Insight Meditation. Her teaching is infused with her political activism and commitment to building multicultural spiritual communities.
I asked Weisman to tell us what drew her to the dharma in her life and how she developed an interest in her most recent focus to explore the relationship between the dharma and race, privilege, and other social inequities.
Weisman said, 'Growing up in apartheid South Africa inside a politically active family was both an inspiration and a challenge. My dharma practice is an unfolding of the fruition from that inspiration and challenge. I lived in a house where people like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Helen Suzman came to organize an end to apartheid. I was touched by their commitment and energy and felt the living reality of what it's like to be part of a movement with a vision. I've never doubted the possibility of a small group of people coming together and making a difference. I have total faith in that. As a Queer woman, I stand on the shoulders of all the people who have come before me, who have created the conditions for the movement we have now: Gay/straight alliances in the schools, Gay marriage, and non-discrimination laws. It's amazing what's happened in 25-30 years and a huge reflection of our capacity to transform oppression. This inspiration has led me to find ways of building freedom in social and cultural contexts.
'The other motivation for healing and transformation came from the sexual abuse I experienced as a young child and the silence surrounding it. I wanted to find a way to live with the legacy of that pain. Although my parents had
courageously given their lives to end apartheid on a structural and cultural level, they were also wounded personally, which created a legacy of trauma in our family. And so I believe the ways we work politically need to include personal, spiritual, and psychological explorations and practices.
'In a detailed map called the Eight-fold Path, the Buddha specifically outlined a practice of personal transformation. In 1979 I attended a retreat with dharma teacher Ruth Denison and found the practice of mindfulness (or presence) and loving kindness to be profoundly insightful and freeing. Over these years of practice my heart has continued to open, and the beautiful qualities of mind, such as wisdom, patience, renunciation, truthfulness, and compassion have matured. I am profoundly grateful for having come upon this practice of freedom.
'Although we can be deeply committed to this personal practice we can still act out behaviors that are harmful if we don't include in our individual spiritual practices an inquiry into our social and cultural conditioning. For example, many Theravada and Tibetan monks with strong meditation practices are sexist and homophobic. The Dalai Lama does not believe Gay sex is in accordance with the Buddha's teachings.
'As meditators it is therefore important to challenge the ways we think about freedom or transformation. And as political activists we need to include the personal, spiritual, and psychological spheres. We can't leave anything out. This has led me to integrate theories of social oppression with the Buddha's teachings of delusion and ignorance.'
I asked Weisman how she sees the sangha (Buddhist practitioners) in the Puget Sound area taking hold of this call to freedom and addressing the challenges she has mentioned.
Weisman said, 'Two expressions of oppression are the inequity in access to resources and also the negative beliefs and ideology that hold this in place. Perhaps even more painful is that these patterns of oppression are not openly acknowledged. For example, there is a group of white men taking the University of California to court to fight its affirmative action plan, because they believe there is no such thing as racism.
'The misunderstanding of these white men is characteristic of all privileged groups. That is, when we find ourselves in a privileged position, we don't see our privilege and the impact of our behaviors on the target groups. Some of us find ourselves in a privileged position by being white, upper-middle-class or wealthy, heterosexual, formally educated, able-bodied, middle-aged, men, gendered, and citizens. And some of us find ourselves in the target positions of being people of color, poor, Queer, informally educated, differently-abled, non-gendered, and immigrants.
'Once we learn more about what it means to be privileged, we become more conscious of the impact of our negative behaviors in our relationships and can take responsibility for them. For example, I have a friend who comes from a poor family. Before my education around privilege, I found myself judging her for not wanting to see foreign movies with English subtitles. Reading quickly was a challenge for her. She didn't have the option to learn to read as a child. As a middle-class person, my negative judgments that she was personally deficient made her responsible for the inequities of the class system. When I don't acknowledge my place of privilege I assume my experience is like everyone else's and discount the experience of the targeted person. And that is very painful.
'Almost everyone has experienced both being privileged and being targeted. Even if you are a middle-class heterosexual white male, you have been oppressed as a young child by adults. It's important to acknowledge that experience as well.
'An example I experienced in the target position was when I lent my car to a friend who has access to more money. She put a lot of miles on my car. For her, it wasn't a big deal. That's just the way she was looking at the world, coming from a place with a lot of resources. For me, it was a big deal because it meant I lost my low-mileage credit with my car insurance. It's just not having that awareness. Naming the impact of our location in our relationships brings the conditions for caring, equity and balance.'
I told Weisman I was impressed with her work. Living in such a diverse society, we have got to address our denial of privilege and oppression before we can truly address a shift toward equality and empathy for each other.
Weisman replied, 'Exactly. Otherwise we keep reproducing the same old relationships. For example, as white people, when we come into a situation where we are new to a group with people of color, we often dominate the conversation unknowingly, expecting to be heard and listened to. Of course we do! We'd have to be dead not to! It's our conditioning. And until we're aware of it, and see it over and over, it doesn't transform. That's why there are monastics, who are great meditators, and totally sexist. They are not seeing their own behavior. By inquiring into all fields of life we develop the capacity to see where our hearts and minds are defended and shut down. We have the choice to enter into a relationship of respect and dignity with ourselves and with each other across our differences and with all of life.
'Many people are saying the planet is in jeopardy. And unless we work in all these areas, unless we make these connections, it will be difficult to save ourselves. I've heard some senior teachers say, 'Well if the world comes to an end, that's the karma of the earth.' But it's also our karma to save it! We at the Lotus Sisters have experienced the amazing transformative capacities of our own hearts and minds through the practices of the Buddha's teachings of mindfulness and loving kindness. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., we believe that 'unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.'
The vision of the Lotus Sisters is to aspire to be a vibrant, evolving, awakening queer rainbow women's sangha.
Their mission: We are guided by the dharma, rooted in our individual and interdependent growth. As we strive to create a multicultural, anti-racist practice, we are committed to transforming ourselves, our relationships, our sangha, our community, and our cultures.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lotussisters.org for a full schedule.
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