Dear Sangha,

I write this month’s message with the recent murder of George Floyd and the racism that caused his death weighing heavily on my conscience. In her book, Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out, Ruth King explains, 

“Racism is a tightly woven thread in our global and social fabric. It lives in the minds and hearts of leaders and is reflected in the institutional policies, laws, and practices that govern the quality of our day-to-day lives. Racism occurs when dominant group culture, whether knowingly or unknowingly, both now and in the past imposes its values and beliefs on other races as the social norm and standard. Racism is difficult to comprehend when we look from the individual identity lens. To understand racism is to examine not only the system, policies, and practices that ensure it but also the forces that resist changing it.” (38)

The journey toward dismantling structural racism in our country will continue to take consistent energy and individual and collective action. I believe that Buddhist teachings and practices can support us on that journey, and as we each examine all of the factors that make up our individual identities, we need to consider how we have been shaped by our racial identity. This is important, in particular for white people who often have the privilege to be able to avoid thinking about our racial identity. Another excerpt from Ruth King:

“When white individuals are not aware of their membership in a white racial group…, when they have not examined what it means to be white with other white people, they are able to maintain themselves as good individuals, therefore maintaining their dominant group status without being aware of or responsible for its collective impact on other races. This is how racism is perpetuated–the privilege of not knowing or caring.” (41) 

For the past several years I’ve used the Sangemon repentance verse as a way to chip away at my own complicity in upholding structural racism. As a white person who grew up in a household and community where we never really talked about race, and who attended schools where I learned a very whitewashed version of history, I’ve been on a long and spiraling journey toward understanding more about the history and experiences of other racial groups in the United States and about the privilege that comes along with being born into a white body. I say “spiraling” because over the years I’ve had multiple moments of insight about the reality of racism in our country. In each of those moments I’ve had a sense of, “now I get it.” Yet weeks or months later, I see, hear, or experience another way that racism manifests in society or in my own words, thoughts, or actions. What I know for certain is that my current understanding of this situation is incomplete, and I need to keep working to uncover my blind spots.

Sangemon starts “I have generated negative karma.” When I speak the words “negative karma” in the context of racism, I consider my actions or inactions that cause systems of racial inequity to continue. For me a concrete manifestation of negative karma might be a particular microaggression I’ve committed or a specific missed opportunity for anti-racist action. When I recognize that “I have generated” this karma, I am pushed to acknowledge my individual role in maintaining our society in its current state. I also need to play a role in its transformation. 

When I consider that the negative karma was “derived from desires, anger, and ignorance,” I look at my own desires, anger, and ignorance but also at what I’ve inherited from my ancestors. When thinking about the karma of racism in particular, I can’t just consider my genealogical ancestors, I need to expand my understanding of lineage to anyone who influenced white conditioning. Although I would prefer not to claim them as ancestors, this even includes white slave owners. Years ago they watered seeds in the storehouse consciousness that have taken root in our society. I have a responsibility to recognize the negative seeds they sowed and to consider how those seeds support the continuation of negative karma on an individual and structural level. It is only by explicitly identifying these seeds in all of their manifestations that I’ll be able to refrain from watering them in the future. 

The second sentence of Sangemon reminds me that “This negative karma was produced from my body, speech, and mind.” This gives me a place to focus my practice. I know that if I can transform how body, speech, and mind show up in a given moment, I can interrupt the production of negative karma. I can generate positive karma instead. I know that the teachings of the Eightfold Path and the Six Perfections provide guidance on how to transform the body, speech, and mind. Reciting Sangemon reminds me of the importance of applying my effort to those trainings. If I am aware of my own racial conditioning and of the social racial conditioning existing as racist policies, I will be able to use my body, speech, and mind toward antiracism.

The final line of Sangemon, “I now repent them all,” is critical. Examining the racialized components of my self has come with a lot of discomfort. To see the harm I’ve blindly committed out of habit energy, to see the way I’m carried along, conditioned by white privilege, is painful. However, in Buddhism repentance is not about feeling guilt. Guilt is, in fact, another manifestation of ego. Repentance is not about asking for absolution from an external source. For me repentance is actually a call to action. The actions I’ve committed in the past are still existing, moving forward as karma, shaping conditions that will arise in the future. I will continue to come face to face again with the manifestations of my personal and our collective past actions, and it’s my responsibility to transform them. This is one aspect of the work of liberating all sentient beings. 

The antiracist work we need to do in the United States requires both self-transformation and collective transformation. Those two are intertwined. Unless I directly address the societal conditions that have created this karma, it will continue to live inside of me. Unless I take responsibility for how this negative karma exists inside me, it will continue to live throughout our society. We are each in a different place on our collective journey toward creating a racially just and equitable society. Each one of us has been shaped by different conditions and has a different story to tell about our racial identity and how that intersects with our other social identity factors. It’s important for all of us to do this work in order to fulfill our Bodhisattva Vows.