Level One for People of Color
By Ivette Guillermo, Elaine Yuen and Steve McGahee
In January 2009, the Philadelphia Shambhala Center conducted a Shambhala Training Level One for people of color. Some asked, Why do this? Why separate, why make note of difference? Isn’t Shambhala Training already unbiased and open to everyone?
The reality for people of color is that they do not always feel welcome. This perception comes in ways that may be subtle and unseen by others. Our intention was to create an environment in which diversity as well as difference could be appreciated and encouraged, in which it would feel safe to explore goodness in our experience, and in which we could uncover who we are genuinely, undiluted, unconfused, and, in particular, uncluttered by our habitual patterns of relating to the majority culture.
We conducted a full-length Level One with interviews on Saturday and Sunday and a staff comprised entirely of people of color. As a special addition to the program, Saturday morning featured a contemplation developed by Thich Nhat Hahn reflecting on our ancestors as well as those who harmed us. The result was a sparky and varied conversation. Some talked about racial profiling and trying to uncover their identity, especially if their ancestors were slaves. Others described the effort of holding a sense of self-dignity when the way their group is stereotyped brings embarrassment. Still others mentioned the anxiety of wanting to connect with people without having to diffuse their expressiveness and the challenge of relating with the rawness of feeling different and therefore separated. Yet others commented they never taught their children they were different.
The Philadelphia Shambhala Center was successful in attracting a number of participants who had read about Buddhism, but had never found a community or an actual teacher to help them practice. There was a striking mix of students, including four African American men, two African American women, three Latina women, and one Asian man, a Thai who had grown up with Buddhism. People varied in ages from college through middle-age.
Our goal was to host a people of color program in which we were giving a specific message: In this space you don’t have to acculturate, you can express genuinely who you are; everyone is welcome in their particular way of expressing themselves; you can honor yourself, your ancestors and your culture. We attempted to create a space where uniqueness is supported, not diluted, and in which we could face others with openness and fearlessness. As a result, participants were able to explore deeply their experience of basic goodness, cultivating a sense of themselves as warriors in an especially gentle cradle of kindness.