How colour blinds: A Burmese-Canadian-Buddhist on the many tones of belongingness.

How colour blinds: A Burmese-Canadian-Buddhist on the many tones of belongingness. February 9, 2016

Today I am very happy to share the work of a dear friend and colleague, Lynette Monteiro. This continues our series of expanding perspectives on race and diversity in American Buddhism alongside Secundra Beasley’s “Among the Sangha…“, “Crossing the Great Divides in U.S. Buddhism” by Mushim (Patricia) Ikeda, last Wednesday’s (forthcoming) book excerpt from Lama Choyin Rangdrol, “African American Buddhism…” an interview discussing emerging voices in the Western Buddhist world, the Tibetan Feminist Collective, and two excellent academic pieces that started things off: “Race Matters…” and “The Dukkha of Racism…”.

As mentioned last time, this has been an overwhelmingly positive and educational experience for me and, I hope, for readers and I am grateful foremost to those who have offered their wisdom and experience through writing here. If you would like to add to the conversation, have a blog of your own, or links to further resources, please add them in the comments section.


The issue of identity and identifying in the context of race and the experience of racism is interesting;  at times fascinating and supportive, at times a curiousity and sometimes almost anachronistic, and at times divisive and isolating. I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my writings that I was born in Burma and left when I was 11 years old to reside in Montreal, Quebec. Montreal in mid-60’s was likely one of the more challenging places for an immigrant to Canada as the Québécois identity had begun both to emerge from a political agenda that promoted purity of blood and, through the Quiet Revolution of secularization to find its nationalist leanings which culminated in the October Crisis of 1970. I mention this backdrop because the issue of experiencing racism in Buddhist communities though important can become a rarefied concept without an understanding of the social-political-psychological cauldron that contains an individual’s experience. As an immigrant child in Quebec, there were countless incidents in my interactions with both English and French individuals. Simply put, as an Asian immigrant I learned there was no pleasing anyone and that shaped my understanding of psychological segregation and marginalization.


Of course, that which the mind inclines towards – in this case awareness of separation and marginalization – creates that mind state and a world view. It was not surprising then that one of my first forays into research was to investigate the process of acculturation. John W. Berry was one of the leaders in delineating the process as a fourfold system of Integration, Assimilation, Isolation, and Marginalization. Although I don’t think Berry considered the system as progressively linear he did offer a process of overlapping states of belongingness with the subtle assumption that being Integrated (having a balance commitment to one’s culture of origin and the dominant culture) was the pinnacle with Assimilation (fully absorbed into the dominant culture) being a desirable state depending on the socio-cultural tenor of one’s environment. Being overly familiar with the latter two, I was interested in how we as the psychologically homeless navigated to become Integrated despite my suspicions that I had, for safety’s sake, become quite assimilated into Canadian culture (inasmuch as one could say it was Canadian being in Quebec at the time of the Parti Québécois or that one can assimilate given the differences in colour and psychology).


In the context of differentiation by race, colour, or creed (read: belief systems that include socialization), the categories of Integrated and Assimilated are important because they form the edge in often well meaning efforts at creating a sense of inclusion. Subtly, I see the efforts to be “more inclusive” – a concept that immediately is hierarchical with an authority of beneficence – arise from the ideas that isolation and marginalization are undesirable, requiring correction. While this is quite accurate if we look at the outcomes of hatred and oppressive strategies in the world and, in my case, the residues from post-colonialism in Burma, there are nuances that point to creating safety rather than inclusion as equals. My father’s colleagues, all government officials as he was in the Burmese government of U Nu, presented as well-assimilated into the British civil service mentality and training, speaking in unaccented, polished English, wearing traditional Burmese longyis, and never once revealing their Buddhist practice leanings. They were the epitome of integration in the guise of assimilation.


By the time I found Buddhist sanghas in the West I had become defiantly antagonistic at any hint of cultural co-opting. Suffice to say the Buddhism I met in Canada and through American writings was a far star from the Buddhism of my Buddhist grandmother. In these communities, I found a strange brew of attempts at inclusion without any consideration that belongingness is a variegated experience and profoundly individual. To believe I am disenfranchised simply because I’m different in culture and colour is perhaps the ultimate in condescension and only serves to drive the roots of ignorance deeper rather than excavating them.


In the Vietnamese tradition, I found an evangelical fundamentalism that bizarrely negated my own experiences in devotional Buddhism. Over and over, I was asked if I had ever “taken refuge” as if this is the admission process to a special seat in the circle rather than the daily commitment that reminded one of a sacred space infused with kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity particularly when one trips on a precept. When I speak of my grandmother (which I love doing), I still am asked what lineage she came from and when I simply say I’m Burmese I’m asked who my teacher was. (Actually it’s interesting to see the reaction when I say I’m Burmese, as if it’s something ethereal, a domain of the devas; I need to find a way to commodify this!)


In Zen practice, I came face-to-face with one of the near enemies of equanimity: the assumption that labels impart equality. In a group practice, we were asked to stand on one side of the zendo if we “identified” as “a person of colour”. Having heard the term, I recalled a distinct discomfort about it but in the confines of a training program, it was a koan of “you’re screwed either way”. I took my place across the room and watched as each “person of some kind of colour” uncomfortably sidled over and away from the …what? “People of no colour”? Standing there, I felt the same gut-wrenching sense I had in elementary school when the teacher took me and my Chinese friend to the top of the class and asked the class how they could be kind to us. It seemed beyond comprehension that in a setting that professes compassion based on nonduality, there we stood separated by vast regions of ignorance and patronizing concepts (ironically perpetrated by a teacher in the LGBT community).


As I write this, I’m completing a three-week practice period. In the first week, I sat a retreat for 7 days and the second week was a contemplative program. This third week has been a deep soaking in the suttas and long discussions with others, including a 2-hr extravaganza on the politicization of the term “people of colour”. When I entered the first retreat, I was given a form that included a section asking if I “identified as a POC” (a horrid acronym). Reading the sentence gave rise to fizzing feeling tones I have yet to identify other than the sense of unsafeness. Well, this is the edge of practice, isn’t it? So I marked “yes”. Later when I realized we were to be configured into groups for “group meetings” and later “peer groups” (when did vipassana become group therapy, by the way?), I felt anxious. Was I going to be in a group of African-American practitioners, would I fit, how would I fit? Was I going to be in a group of Asians; there were only two or three of us that I had seen and certainly didn’t think rubbernecking was appropriate practice. Maybe they would lump the Asians into one group because there seemed a couple of South Asians…or were they another culture that my unrefined sense could not determine? Was I secretly bigoted because I thought South Asians might look like some other culture?


In the peer group, I shared my ambivalence about coming to the retreat center and the difficulties I had had when I learned the history of its founding. Was I right to feel that in the 1970’s taking the Dhamma out of Burma without acknowledging the duress of the citizens was wrong? How do I address this without cutting off my nose to spite what can be perceived as cultural appropriation? The “people of no colour” shifted uncomfortably – and thanked me for my story about my Buddhist grandmother and thrilled at my being Burmese. On the way back to our seats, the African American woman who had sat beside me, tapped me on my shoulder and said, “That took courage. Good for you. It needs to be said.”


In the contemplative retreat we learned about the nuances of virya – effort – as energy and also courage and heroic. There is Great Drama that is wrapped around this koan of inclusivity and it calls for Wise Effort – a stance of courage and heroism to acknowledge the real cultural obstacles. The intention is good; cetana leads and defines the arc of mind moment practice. However, the skillfulness of the practice is tasted in its outcome. The product of that 2-hour discourse I alluded to earlier was that as individuals whose psychology is formed in cultural cauldrons different from the North American majority, we are not comforted by the strategy of being labeled, or worse being forced to label how we view ourselves. Identity is not a brand. It doesn’t come neatly packaged in a box we tick off. True to the Buddha’s invocation to come and see, I ran the experiment and the outcome did not lead to wholesomeness.


There is no question that we need to investigate our prejudices, systemic processes of isolation and marginalization, and micro-aggressions of caste and culture. However, we cannot accomplish our kind-hearted intentions by not evaluating the impact in the outcome. The intent of inclusion protocols and processes are not about leveling the ground by cutting off our legs. They may well be about cutting off our heads that carry these preconceived notions that belongingness is monolithic and presents in some uniform way – or is even equally desirable.

Lynette MonteiroLynette Monteiro is a psychologist and Buddhist. She has contributed chapters to Lotus Petals in the Snow: Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (Sumeru Press) and Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness (Springer), blogs at 108 Zen Books, and teaches ethics in secular mindfulness at the University of Toronto and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. See more on her publications here.

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