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Nov 08
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Diving into Diversity

miksang photo by Charles Blackhall

miksang photo by Charles Blackhall

COLUMN: Enlightened Society Celebrates Diversity
Announcing a new series of online talks by Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown

article by Amanda Hester, Shambhala Times Regional Correspondent

For a long while now the Diversity Awareness Working Group has been active within Shambhala. This is a group of committed, experienced and informed community members and teachers who are working to bring about a change in the attitudes, policies, and atmospheres within Shambhala, to facilitate greater inclusiveness, tolerance, awareness, and diversity, in our centers, groups, and programs. A short while ago this group approached Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown to do a brief online talk on the subject of diversity.

Acharya Simmer-Brown has been part of Naropa University’s decades’ long commitment to diversity, participating in trainings and conversations over the years on how to develop an inclusive, diverse community. She has particularly been contemplating how important this work is to the long-range goal of creating enlightened society. She was delighted to be approached. After doing the first talk she was so moved, she describes a “yearning to do something about privilege that was so strong” that she went back to the group and asked if she could do another accompanying talk on that issue. These two talks are now available through groups and centers, to be viewed and discussed in a series of small or large gatherings. They are accompanied by study questions, and include various exercises, to bring forth meaningful thought, discussion, and reflection. The working group has put together an excellent manual on how to lead these events, and all of this is currently available across the mandala. A third talk, completing the series, is planned.

This is a first step in terms of getting a greater contemplation and discussion going around the issues of discrimination and privilege that are pervasive in our culture, in the world, and in our centers, groups, and communities within Shambhala. Acharya Simmer-Brown says, “We are so ripe and ready for this conversation in Shambhala. It is something we’ve needed to talk about for a long time.”

This series of talks and discussion groups should be viewed as a pebble being tossed into the lake of our community, empowering us all to add our own ripples and offerings. Feeling empowered and courageous enough to offer our own inspirations around this, in our own ways, is already opening up a little space in our community for greater inclusivity. This is not something that we can wait to have done for us, it is work that we ourselves, each of us, needs to do individually and collectively.

The intention behind this series of talks is to start bringing about a change that is organic and from within. If the personal contemplation isn’t there, then whatever else we might do, it all just becomes advertising and tokenism. Finding the elements of practice within the whole thing is imperative, and as these issues are not only personal, but also very much societal, practicing and engaging in these contemplations and discussions within a group setting is also very important.
Diversity Exploration Group 1
Now is the time for us to really dive into this within Shambhala. Acharya Simmer-Brown describes how discrimination and privilege lead to internalized oppression, which is rampant in society today. This is “a very special sort of doubting ones basic goodness.” It is essential that we start exploring these issues now. Because as we increasingly proclaim and teach on basic worthiness, if there is any unconscious subtext, if we are inadvertently creating and sending out mixed messages within our culture and communities, if joining Shambhala means in any way becoming “just like us,” that will become extremely Orwellian and problematic.

This series of talks begins an initial inquiry. Most often discrimination comes from doubt and insecurity. We might feel like we don’t have a diverse enough group of friends or acquaintances, that we don’t know how to behave, how to even the scales, or that we’re just so white and privileged as a community, or that we are all getting so old, or whatever the narrative is, when diversity of any sort enters into this mind-set, it can get pounced upon, overly embraced and adulated. Objectification comes in many different forms.

Engaging with issues of discrimination and privilege challenges us to not only relate to ourselves as human beings, but to also relate to everyone else as human beings. It challenges us to see and relate to people beyond their various categories, to become genuinely curious and open to others and their experiences. It is extremely important that this is something we actively try to do with equanimity, so that it doesn’t just become some practice that we remember and then put on when we come across a perceived ‘other’ or minority.

Relating to diversity can begin just by relating to our own community’s cocoon around its homogeneity, or our excessive caution with how we let Shambhala out into the world, or how we manifest within it. Acharya Simmer-Brown offers, “A lot of people are looking for safe cocooned communities. There are gated communities, and then there are cocooned communities, and Shambhala can be like this. Over time we can begin to over identify and cocoon ourselves with so many things. There are the Shambhala levels, all the various forms, we can become cocooned by the programs we’ve done, and the practices we’ve done. I am curious to see what happens when we drop all of that and step out into the larger world.”

She continues, saying, “We have to be willing to bring some kind of vitality and freshness to the whole situation, and we have to be willing to work together on it. Diversity is one of the key issues. A lot of people have begun working on, and talking about, the environment, but no one really wants to do that same work with diversity. It is hard work. It is extremely painful work, challenging work. There is always more to learn. And you can work on it for a long time and only make the slightest amount of progress. It is not going to be easy in Shambhala,” she says. “But this is work that we really need to do, because of the harm that’s caused by not doing it.”

Acharya Judith Simmer Brown wants to invite conversation partners, “not just to join me but also to join others in their centers, and even work with the diversity groups in their centers, and with their Shastris, and begin to relate to societal dukha (suffering). If we could begin to discuss and contemplate these things together, I think that will be very beneficial.”

The Shastris have been asked to lead these discussions at their centers, but anyone who feels inspired should go to their center and make a request. Any seasoned practitioner or teacher is able and encouraged to lead a discussion around these talks, so please encourage your group or center to put on such an event. The inspiration can come from anywhere.

For more information, or if you have any questions about the Diversity Awareness Working Group, please contact the Group chair, Shastri Charlene Leung: [email protected]

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6 responses to “ Diving into Diversity ”
  1. Shastri Charlene Leung
    Nov 23, 2013

    Dear Ellen,

    Concerns for accessibility are still part of the Diversity Working Group but a separate group on Accessibility & Disability was formed. Much progress especially with general awareness of accessibility issues as well as close captioning on the Shambhala.org website was made under the leadership Mr. Hamish Maclaren, the original chairperson. Currently, Mr Stefan Carmien is the chairperson.

    Charlene Leung

  2. Shastri Charlene Leung
    Nov 23, 2013

    As the Dorje Dradul said in Shambhala: the Sacred Path of the Warrior, “The Shambhala teachings are founded on the premise that there is basic human wisdom that can help to solve the world’s problems. This wisdom does not belong to any one culture or religion, nor does it come only from the West or the East.”

    The Shambhala Aspirations on Diversity, Accessibility and Compassionate Conduct, the seminal document of the Diversity Working Group, adopted by the Sakyong’s Council in 2005, aspires that “our Shambhala Centers welcome the human wisdom of all people regardless of religion, spiritual tradition or teachers, path of practice, opinions, class, nationality, culture, ethnicity, race, language, age, gender, sexual orientation, or physical, perceptual or mental abilities.”

    Manifesting the “premise” of the Vidyadhara’s “Shambhala teachings” and the “Shambhala Aspirations” of the Sakyong’s Council, as excerpted above, are without a doubt difficult to accomplish. They both describe personal and social journeys in a world of complex differences, conflicts, and personal-societal-cultural habitual patterns, or cocoons. It would be naïve for any of us to believe otherwise, yet equally naïve, as practitioners, to deny the premise of “basic human wisdom,” or goodness, that connects us all to each other. And therein lies the challenge – how to uncover “the way things are” for us, and for other, in a way that respects differences and honors common ground.

    I believe our challenge is to not only acknowledge our rich cultural, social, and personal differences, but to actively explore these differences so we can appreciate and welcome them. In doing so, we discover our shared humanity, our basic goodness which is the ground of good human society. How we find our basic humanity, which is more fundamental than our cultural differences, must come from within our own communities. I have co-hosted the Acharya’s talks at several Northern California Shambhala Centers and find they not only raise challenging issues but provide an opportunity for open, heart-felt discussion. Each time I co-facilitated the talks the compassion in the group was palpable.

    The Diversity Working Group (DWG) put together extensive user guides for these two talks to help facilitators create an environment conducive for potentially difficult conversations. Currently, the DWG aspiration is that these discussions occur especially among members in all three pillars of Shambhala society. From high-level leadership to new students, conversations about diversity and privilege will lead us to understanding how we ultimately can be more inclusive of each other. The answer to how is Yes! Saying yes to exploring how we unconsciously treat those we view as other is a beginning.

    In the past four years I have been Chairperson of the DWG, we have become more focused on looking beyond the personal to the organizational systems of privilege and oppression that are within and without Shambhala. Beyond personal awareness of differences (which of course is the place to start), we look at how hierarchies of advantage and disadvantage around difference are organizationally reinforced. How does not having diversity awareness in our Shambhala culture reinforce a lack of diversity? How can Shambhala, represented by leaders, teachers, instructors, kasung, and community members, move towards including the wisdom of more diverse people? The DWG work has included incorporating diversity awareness in leadership gatherings and teacher/instructor trainings. We also support local Shambhala Centers in developing diversity awareness programming. A diversity awareness group on the Shambhala Network is being launched.

    As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche writes in the Treatise on Enlightened Society, “Enlightened society is not an attempt to highlight the culture’s positive aspects and ignore the negative. Rather, the totality is illuminated. Thus, by definition, an enlightened society has the ability to comprehend the full spectrum of human activity….Recognizing the nature of all to be primordial, unstained and complete, we vow to create good human society.”

    If your are interested in being involved or have questions please email me.

    Shastri Charlene Leung
    [email protected]

  3. Robert Pressnall
    Nov 21, 2013

    A response to Charles Marrow’s post –

    Amanda Hester’s article, “Diving into Diversity”, based on her interview with Achara Judith Simmer-Brown and her viewing of AJSB’s recorded talk, “Enlightened Society Celebrates Diversity”, was recently critiqued by Charles Marrow: “This goal of Shambhala International to increase the sense of inclusion and diversity may be difficult to accomplish.” I agree with Charles that “inclusion and diversity” are “difficult to accomplish,” but on the other hand their opposites – exclusion and monocultural prejudice – have resulted in much human suffering and I don’t see a way out of our taking some responsibility and using the skillful means of dharma to work with that suffering and its causes.

    Charles comments further on Amanda’s article: “It reads to me as a generic philosophy of feel good humanism and, perhaps does not acknowledge a valid sense of one’s own culture, values, symbolism and sense of place in the world.” As a member of the Diversity Working Group, I would ask Charles if he has listened to Acharya Simmer-Brown’s talk(s) or has taken part in a discussion following those talks. My own experience is that the Acharya’s open and honest inquiry into differences and common ground sound nothing like “…feel good humanism” that “does not acknowledge a valid sense of one’s own culture…” As with other practices, diversity work begins by exploring one’s personal diversity as well as the diversity of other people in the room, and it expands from there. I’ve found in every group that my personal assumptions of difference are challenged but workable when brought to the skillful means of dharma.

    It is true that Mr. Marrow’s “read” is a common view of “diversity work” – that it is driven by fix-it, feel-good solutions while failing to explore and respect real differences between peoples. Or, conversely, it’s driven by blame and guilt. These views and others arise in every discussion on diversity I’ve witnessed. However, greater awareness through what arises, no matter how uncomfortable, can lead to uncovering common ground, or common groundlessness and, hopefully, the shared inspiration to look further.

    Charles describes his personal experiences of being a Canadian relating to Japanese Culture and Cree Native culture, as well as the divisions and separation within our sangha between “Shambhala Buddhist philosophy” and “Vajradhatu traditions.” He gives personal examples of how diverse individuals in diverse groups inevitably struggle with “underlying tension,” “non-negotiable barriers,” and hitting “brick walls,” despite good intentions and much time and energy expended. I also find this to be true. Encountering sensitive diversity issues in a “safe environment” or the “real world” and the vulnerability and confusion that can arise between my self and other is challenging and long term but ultimately a satisfying journey that sharpens my practice and my bond with humanity.

    Charles concludes that, despite discussions on diversity in Shambhala for years, “…it is unclear to me what progress has been made.” I almost agree, in that the progress of “kindness” or “compassion”, or the “understanding” of habitual patterns or personal-cultural cocoons and unearned systems of societal privilege and oppression, are not easily measured even when strongly felt. When I consider diversity in Shambhala, I also wonder where we are going and what we will look like in fifty or a hundred years, but at the moment I’m more interested in the open questions: Is creating enlightened society possible? What does diversity have to do with it? How do we exclude others? And I regularly fall back on the Sakyong’s words: “Society begins with two,” which seems a good and ever-present place to start.

    – Robert Pressnall

  4. Rita Ashworth
    Nov 9, 2013

    Charles on the whole agree….but we also need new art forms…myself not so much looking to the East any more…disengaging from that. And also too diversity is diversity is diversity…things erupt in ones consciousness, awareness that take us from organisational methods. I feel enlightened society may come more now from erruptions of this sort than organisation. These erruptions also seem to be occurring in western conventional society too now and I think they should be nurtured and not contained.

  5. Ellen Berger
    Nov 8, 2013

    This is excellant. But I am also wondering is Accessibility has been dropped as a committee, or if it is simply seperate?

  6. Charles Marrow
    Nov 8, 2013

    Greetings –

    This goal of Shambhala International to increase the sense of inclusion and diversity may be difficult to accomplish. It reads to me as a generic philosophy of feel good humanism and, perhaps does not acknowledge a valid sense of ones own culture, values, symbolism and sense of place in the world. In short, you cannot be all things to all people. It also has been discussed within Shambhala International off and on for many years and it is unclear to me what progress has been made.

    I can easily think of some personal examples regarding cultural and social inclusion. I live in Edmonton which is a largish multicultural city in the smallish multicultural country of Canada. I have a long term and current interest in Japanese Culture, largely through practicing the tea ceremony. In interacting with with well educated and liberal Japanese, both in Edmonton and also in trips to Japan, there is a strong sense that we both want a sense of acceptance and working towards a common goal. For example, offering a beautiful tea ceremony.

    Within this there is an underlying tension in spite of being interested in each others culture, i.e. the Japanese sometimes want to be relaxed and informal like North Americans and the North Americans are attracted to the strong sense of tradition and deep culture of Japan. However, both sides are going to come to a non-negotiable barrier that varies with individual and circumstances.

    For example, I have a close Japanese friend who is very fluent in English. She will often be speaking and sending emails in near perfect English, then occassionally she will ‘lose it’ and her English will go to barely comprehensible pidgin English. This confused me to begin with. Eventually, as I saw this pattern, I concluded she went to pidgin English when she felt she was losing her sense of Japanese-ness and / or she was stressed out when the topic of conversation had some built in disagreement between us.

    From my side, especially while visiting Japan, there were issues / trigger points regarding domestic customs. For example, there is a keen sense of detail in Japanese households have about which shoes or slippers you wear or do not wear in given areas of the house. Eventhough I know the basics of these customs there were times when I just got it “wrong” and was told, in no uncertain terms, that this was the case. So in these two fairly simple examples between a Japanese and a Canadian (me), both sides are going to kind of hit a brick wall where you are not able or willing to compromise or adapt further.

    In Alberta Canada, with its diversity, I could also call forth examples of interaction with Cree Native acquaintances where I might like to visit one of them on the nearby reserve but do not have the time or energy to get in to the feel of that aboriginal culture to a degree they would be comfortable or I would be comfortable socializing in each others homes.

    For Shambhala International, much more importantly, there is the long term overhanging issue of division within the sangha in the sense of separation between those following the Shambhala Buddhist philosophy and those of us that feel our place is in the atmosphere and culture of the Vajradhatu traditions. I do not know if it is useful to try to explicitly approach this topic as it has been with us for so long. For myself, the energy I have to address this issue is much less than five or ten years ago.

    Those are my thoughts,
    Charles Marrow

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