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May 23
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The Rough Edges of Basic Goodness

Contemplating inclusiveness, social difference, and our organization’s prevailing culture

by Michaela McCormick

The Portland Shambhala Center’s Listening Team, led by Mark Douglass, met recently to review the latest round of its interviews of a wide variety of our past and present members to learn the ways in which they participate in the Center’s activities and what encourages and discourages their participation. Our attention went to our organization’s prevailing culture, and its difficulty in embracing the many social differences among us.

In many ways, our recognition of the basic goodness of us all makes us accepting of different ways of being. We do not overtly challenge each other’s behavior. But those of us who represent different ways of being, due to our race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, age, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, physical, mental, or perceptual characteristics, or a variety of other less visible identities outside the dominant culture, often feel the pain of exclusion and censor what we say or do for fear of further rejection.

Some of us, particularly the vast majority of people of color who have tried to find a place among us, have given up and left.  Others have found a niche in groups like Queer Dharma and Young Meditators, but find other events or gatherings unwelcoming.  Still others who can’t afford our programs and/or are put off by a Generosity Policy that requires them to set themselves apart as “exceptions” to full fee paying participants–they just don’t come.

This habit of broad exclusion is not our fault. We, as Shambhalians, did not invent the social biases that blind us to the myriad of ways that we communicate our expectations of how people should behave at our Center. We inherited our prejudices from the broader culture we all grew up in. And there is much to honor in the gentleness, warmth, and generosity with which we receive those who come to us. We are truly basically good, and we have the best of intentions. But while we are not to blame for our mostly subtle betrayals of universal acceptance, we are responsible for correcting them.

You may ask, “Why bother?  Isn’t our invitation to rediscover your basic goodness clear and inclusive?”  My response to that is a memory of a story I heard about our Sakyong meeting with a group of gang members in Chicago a couple of years ago, in which he asked them about their experience of being human, of their own basic goodness. After long moments of silence, and just before the Sakyong was about to leave, a young man in the back of the room said he had never felt like anything other than an animal.

As wise and willing to listen as the Sakyong was, and is, his question was asking that young man something he was not ready to address. It was not relevant to him, at least not in a language that he could relate to. As far as I know, the conversation went no further that day. Gang members in the inner city of Chicago suffer at an entirely different level. Theirs is not just suffering perpetrated by ego-fueled habitual patterns, but real material pain and systemic oppression. There is a whole spectrum of suffering and pain that most of us in Shambhala, most of the time, are privileged to be protected from. That spectrum of pain is much closer than we recognize, embodied in those who come to us from outside the mainstream of privilege.

In their book, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, the Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, PhD say, “… we’ve all acquiesced to minding our own business. And that’s not liberation.” As part of our highly individualistic society, many of us have allowed our spiritual practice to be grounded in that same narrow pursuit of personal liberation. Yet, the Sakyong continually exhorts us to turn our attention outward, to discover what we each have inherently to offer the world.  In a time of renewed bigotry, scapegoating of the “other,” and deepening social and economic inequality, how can we use our commitment to creating enlightened society to make our message of basic goodness relevant to those outside our cocoon of privilege?

This post first appeared as a blog entry on the website of the Portland Shambhala Center.

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2 responses to “ The Rough Edges of Basic Goodness ”
  1. Paula Mosman
    May 26, 2017

    Michaela….Thank you for this so well expressed article about what I feel is a sad and great obstacle to the growth of this community. I just wrote a response to another article that for me misses these truths. I have become isolated from the sangha by age age and poverty after over 15 years of working for the sangha. Thank you specifically for pointing out how the generosity policy pushes people away. I have met many young people recently that I wanted to introduce to the sangha but didn’t because for all the reasons you spoke of I didn’t feel the sangha was truly ready to accept them. Don’t get me wrong, I love these teachings and there are wonderful well intentioned people in it with much to offer. However, as you pointed out there is a lot of inherited cultural bias that the sangha must learn to recognize and get past if it is to become accessible to everyone who is not only ready for what Shambhala has to offer but has much to bring to it. Thank you.

  2. Linda V. Lewis
    May 26, 2017

    An insightful article. Thank you.

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