Surrounded by multicolored files, papers and calendars, Venerable Ji Ru sits in an office in Augusta, Missouri. He wears a light-brown traditional Buddhist robe, and his bald head shines in the incandescent light. Miniature statues of the Buddha sit on top of a cupboard behind him.
Ru, the chairman and abbot of Mid-America Buddhist Association, has been a Buddhist monk since 1980. He was born in Malaysia and was introduced to Buddhist teaching in Thailand.
He came to the U.S. in 1993, in part to spread the message of peace and nonviolence. Ru had witnessed firsthand the effects of gun violence and racism in America when he was at a Buddhist center in Chicago. “(The) monk is very sensitive to war and killing because we teach no killing to our disciples and followers,” Ru says.
That shared message extends to Columbia’s Buddhist community. The principles of harmony and nonviolence have been particularly relevant as America grapples with the ongoing murders and police brutality against Black people. In particular, the group, or sangha, at Show Me Dharma has taken strides to confront the pain of racism.
“When George Floyd was murdered, the teachers met,” says Rose Metro, a teacher at Show Me Dharma.
“And we decided that it was important for us not only to make a statement, but to make commitments for the future in terms of what we wanted to do.”
On June 26, 2020, a month after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Show Me Dharma released a statement. Written and signed by Show Me Dharma teachers and board members, the statement urged members of the local Buddhist community, a predominantly white group, to educate themselves about racism.
“It is our responsibility, as practitioners of Buddhism, to examine the ways in which we may have caused harm due to the delusions of racism in all its forms, including white privilege and white supremacy, which are endemic to our culture, whether that harm was conscious, unconscious, or structural,” the statement reads.
A white-washed practice
The history of the American Buddhist community is not without its own problems. Buddhism in the U.S. has been unofficially segregated by race, Metro says. The traditions were brought to the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s. A movement grew, spurred mostly by white men who created their own factions and practices rather than integrating with existing temples and sanghas.
“They formed communities that felt comfortable to them,” Metro says. “And those were not necessarily comfortable spaces for the diversity of people who exist in the U.S.” It’s a tension point Show Me Dharma is working to ease today.
Sitting to reflect
Metro says Buddhism has answers to some of the painful questions raised in society
today about racism and equity.
“I think the Buddha really provides some wonderful tools for dealing with issues of identity and difference,” Metro says. According to the Buddha, ignorance is one of the three poisons that afflict all people who are not yet enlightened. “I see racism as a
form of ignorance,” Metro says.
The main practice in Buddhism is meditation, or as the community calls it: “time spent on the cushion.” Metro compares the process of meditation to the slowing of a fan’s blades. “When the fan is running, you can’t see the individual blades; it’s just a blur,” she says. “But if you slow the fan down, you can see its true nature, what it really is. I think meditation allows us to do that;
to slow down that blur of the mind.” This mindful observation and contemplation can help practitioners examine racism’s psychological foundation. “What the Buddha would guide us to do is to notice our reactions, become conscious of them and then react in a more skillful way,” Metro says.
Karma is another concept Metro links to racism. Karma means that people are accountable for their actions and responsible for carrying out their intentions mindfully.
Metro says that when white people first learn about systemic racism, a lot of guilt and shame can emerge. The Buddha said it’s important to balance compassion with equanimity. “Equanimity is ‘I’m going to try to take the wisest and most skillful actions I can to address racism,’” Metro says. “‘But, I also can’t control every aspect of that process, right? I’m going to make mistakes.’”
Show Me Dharma, which was founded in 1993 by Ginny Morgan, launched a book club to discuss Larry Yang’s book Awakening Together: the Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community, as well as foster revelations around racism, white privilege and how to mindfully address it. The group has also tried to join sessions led by Buddhist teachers of color through Zoom, Metro says. But it is a task that has proven to be difficult.
“We also have realized that the rela- tively small number of teachers of color who exist across the U.S. are extremely in demand right now,” she says. “We also don’t want to put extra burden on them.”
With these efforts, mid-Missouri Buddhists are working to help unroot racism and bring more compassion.
As Ru says from Augusta: “We need to live in harmony. We need to live in peace. We are interdependent on each other.”
*Clarification: A quote from the original article has been replaced to clarify Metro's intended meaning.