Martine Taikai Palmiter

Congressman John Lewis just died and his life and his courage are being spoken everywhere. Even my 92 year old mother was telling me about how powerful one person’s life could be. I have been teaching and living with the koan of race and gender for the past two years and it informs me. My koan is Will racism and sexism ever cease being? The Buddha and many zen masters, spoke of buddhanature being our birthright, just in the form we are. Just in the way the buddhadharma expresses itself in all beings, sentient and nonsentient. However, there was suffering in this absence, in this invisibility of women in my own spiritual practice tradition. That suffering led to deeper looking.

When I first came to an awareness of our zen ancestors and noticed the absence of females in stories and teachings, I looked harder and found them. They are there in full force, just hidden from most of the stories and ancestral lineage charts. More and more evidence is showing up that there were women zen master who had hundreds of followers, both men and women, and In China, Japan, Korea, and India. This wonderful discovery then led to me starting a dharma discussion group, called the Tea Ladies, on women in zen practice.

Every time we met: Asking What is This? What is happening right now? Who am I? This led our discussions on dharma beyond femaleness, and onto other Ways of Being. This led me to my new consciousness of how is my zen practice looking at black and brown bodies, bodies who are hard of hearing, or differently-abled, or nonbinary, and my world opened up and opened up to more Awareness of Zen Practice. More spaciousness of practice. I saw again more suffering. The Buddha came to teach about human suffering and the end to suffering. So again I asked What is this?

Black Lives Matters teachers brought more light to my awareness of suffering, And I became aware of a large blockage in my practice. I understood the suffering of race in America from a distance. “It’s wrong, it’s a system of oppression, it needs to change.”  I always understood that discrimination and racism were bad for people and society, I had “heard” of the pain and suffering—I stayed intellectually detached. Feelings of Race and harm did not affect me. I committed in my Vows to perceive delusions and to see Truth, and to save all beings.

I saw—what we are all now seeing– there were two Americas—a White one and one for the rest of America. Besides my class privilege, I learned to SEE the System of Racism really for the FIRST TIME.

I began to see how American education systems fail Black and Brown Americans, and fail also with substandard health care, and with an economy that has white households worth 10 times that of black households, with more Black unemployment, and the mass incarceration of Brown and Black people, poor housing and food, and how climate crisis hits Black communities more. And now, coming into awareness: Blacks die twice the rate of whites in COVID. Latinos even more. The Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers offers a Way. A way of seeing and being: Not Knowing and Bearing Witness takes us to a place…of understanding and compassion. And after a while…right action comes out of it.

John Lewis was inspired by Reverend Jim Lawson who studied nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi. In John’s memoir, he wrote that he believed in redemptive suffering as a way to touch and change ourselves and those around us. He said it unleashes a force beyond ourselves, a force that is right and morale and is the basics of human consciousness. He wrote that it “opens us” and touches our hearts and makes us feel compassion where we need to have it. Redemptive suffering is at the heart of nonviolent protest….

I now know that racism now touches my heart in a new way. I know that I have been very comfortable in my white neighborhood and with white friends, white organizations, doing good–and have not cared to look so deeply —to see or hear most intimately, the racial trauma and harm of our brothers and sisters. And I realize now that I benefited from whiteness economically, socially, in my career, and education and health, and my children benefited…… I was still Separate —Not intimate to the suffering around me. What a Zen awakening!

My daughter said to me, “Well what are you doing about Black Lives Matter, Mom? Will you give some money or join a protest?” I answered straight from my heart, not sure where it came from , “I will conduct a workshop on Waking Up to Whiteness.” And I did this month and will do again next month, not knowing where to start, and will continue to do so until I can continue to turn my heart and other hearts toward really seeing.

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