Bodhicitta is the mind of enlightenment. It not merely the wish to help all sentient beings attain enlightenment, it is the firm decision to take every single one of them to that state.
This is obviously as inclusive as it gets. EVERYBODY is included in bodhicitta and the corresponding Bodhisattva vow. And the bodhisattva vow is taken by every practicing Mahayana Buddhist.
Buddhists are humans and therefore generally haven’t been able to integrate Bodhicitta in their lives, so the Tibetan Buddhist tradition advises starting with meditating on equanimity.
Equanimity is the start to Bodhicitta, and it doesn’t require any sort of faith, so it is a great practice for anybody who wants to face up to racism or prejudice in their own mind.
Meditating on equanimity starts with visualizing a friend, a stranger and an enemy. Observe the difference in how you feel about them. In my morning meditations, I often settle for visualizing someone who has recently hurt or offended me. If I can feel friendly towards them, I’m off to a good start of the day.
The aim of this practice is not indifference, but equal good will towards all three.
Racism has been much in the news lately. In the Netherlands we have been faced, again, with the consequences of the UN advice to change our pre-Christmas Sinterklaas-celebrations. The Dutch are used to feeling that they aren’t racist. This is an irrational feeling, as study after study shows that people of color or a non-default heritage have a harder time getting interviewed for jobs – let alone getting them.
I have also heard stories of office culture where calling people of Indonesian descent ‘peanut’ is accepted as normal. This is done without any sense that it might be derogatory. I hope, for an English language audience, that it is obvious that this sort of thing is not in fact innocent.
As I understand it, psychologically, racism centers on two things: prejudice and tribal thinking.
Prejudice: we organize our world into categories and anybody who doesn’t fit into those default boxes will have a harder time, simply because people won’t know how to respond. A Muslim manager, a female engineer, a classical musician with working class background: they will have a hard time fitting in. This affects even the people in those categories.
A woman who has, somehow, managed to become an engineer is not in fact all that more likely to help female colleagues than a male one. In order to survive psychologically, she is likely to have had to take on the culture of the group she has entered. At the same time she is of course a role model to other women and by helping redefine the role of engineer in more gender-neutral terms, she does have an impact on future generations.
Tribal thinking: us verses them. When a black man helps win a football game, he is ‘us’, so he will be applauded. When an otherwise similar black man gets shot by a white police officer, he is suddenly ‘them’. When he is in the ‘us’ category, we are likely to defend him, cry foul when he is obstructed by the opposing party etc. When he is ‘them’, even getting killed for wearing a hoody is not likely to get more than a shrug.
These two mechanisms interact. When a neighborhood vigilante shot an unarmed black neighborhood kid in the US a few years ago, my Facebook timeline filled up with responses from both sides.
I was most taken aback by the black kid who said that the kid who got shot should not have worn a hoody, or had gold implanted in his teeth. He was conditioned to know that as a black kid, you simply can’t afford every fashion choice. He was conditioned to such an extent, that he would defend the guy who killed one of his own for no good reason. After all, merely the wearing of a hoody is not good enough excuse to kill anybody. This ought to be common sense.
So – these are deep conditionings we are dealing with. Prejudice – as a way of discriminating between categories – helps us navigate the world. Tribal thinking has kept us safe by our campfires ever since human beings had the knowledge of fire.
What do we do with that in a world where we need every possible human resource to survive without destroying our own planet or each other? We hebben die vrouwelijke ingenieur en de moslim manager nodig.
There are all kinds of answers and we cannot afford to ignore a single one. However, there is only one I have any expertise on: meditation.
If we want to apply the bodhicitta meditation to racism, we will need to be able to face up to the discomfort of facing up to our conditionings, our fears, our entitlement.
Here is my proposed meditation to soften our prejudices:
Imagine three examples of categories of people. Start with a white male, then two out of the following:
- A woman
- A transgender (male, female, other)
- A gay person
- A black person
- A Muslim
- A Jew
- An Asian
- Native American
- An aboriginal
- Some category that jumps out at you
Include at least one category of people that you are uncomfortable with, or have trouble relating to.
So imagine those three people and focus on them one at a time. Notice what kind of emotions, feelings and thoughts come up. You may even notice a bodily response.
At first try and notice this response without any sort of judgement. Don’t strengthen it by justifying it, nor try and fight it by opposing it. Just sit with it for as long as you can endure to. And yes, this can be uncomfortable.
To deepen the meditation, you can try and imagine these people’s lives. What is it like to grow up as a white male, a female, a Jew, a Muslim etc? Try and be as realistic as you can. Be curious.
If you do this meditation several times, make sure to mix up the genders – except that white male. So imagine a black Muslim woman, not just a Muslim man. Do you think her perspective is heard?
BTW – I have had complaints that comments weren’t showing up on my blog. I know. It’s a technical thing. As a temporary solution I have installed a default theme for this blog – when I have the time I will find a more permanent fix.