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Decolonize Enlightenment

By Belinda Griswold

But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.

– Dogen

Practicing the Buddhadharma is simple, not easy, as the old saying goes. Part of the “not easy” side of the equation is learning to trust our own understanding of the awakening process, both as individual practitioners and as communities of awakening.

For me, the biggest, bloodiest, gnarliest barrier to self-trust is what’s drily called patriarchy, and its many legacies of abuse, objectification and lack-of-confidence-in-all-things-female, myself included.

In contemporary Buddhist communities, convert and immigrant alike, patriarchy is the rule – with very few exceptions. The teachers are men. The statues are men. The language is male. The learning structures are (generally) heady, focused on “emptiness” and often implicitly anti-embodiment. The sex scandals and abuse (in more and less subtle forms) that go along with these forms are really not surprising, as tragic as they are for all involved. Even those communities that try mightily for egalitarianism end up smelling an awful lot like hierarchy.

All this colonization. All this is not news.

What’s interesting and fresh to me these days, as I emerge from a traditional hierarchical Tibetan Buddhist sangha, is what the decolonization journey can look like. And especially, how do we decolonize enlightenment?

How does our birthright of natural wakefulness, Buddha-nature, embodied wisdom/compassion inseparable come clear to us both within and without the patriarchal structures and human foibles of Buddhist institutions? How do we glean the goodness from our patriarchal traditions, while at the same time nourishing a growing, and powerful, trust in our own journey?

Buddhanature is a given. It is THE given in the genuine Dharma.

But learning to trust ourselves isn’t part of the traditional Buddhist curriculum, and for many women, and maybe men too, we can go on practicing for years, following the forms, never learning to listen to our own wisdom, always wondering why we aren’t “getting it,” always looking for wisdom, or turning away in discouragement.

The power and truth of the Dharma runs through the twin rivers of relative reality/insanity/oppression/confusion, and the pure stream of fresh understanding and connection that can arise at any time. When we sit down on the cushion, breathe deeply when the baby cries, get up early to get to the picket line, lock ourselves down to stop the pipeline bulldozers – when we feel and see into the radiant interdependence of all that is, we are home, if we can trust ourselves.

But here’s the rub: we are (mostly) confused! Those moments are few and far between for most of us. They feel like luck or happy chance. Suffering and discontent bring us to the Dharma. What brought me to the Dharma most deeply was seeing that despite my and others’ deep motivations for deep, nourishing, lasting social change, we kept creating destructive, oppressive structures in most of the good work we do. How painful.

So, we need to work on getting unconfused on a relative level. Most of us are blown mightily about by the winds of our own personal and crazy cultural karma, without even knowing. So, we need the forms, and teachers, to help us see this insane conditioning, and to see what may lie beyond it. That’s the power of the tradition and of lineage.

Thus, we find ourselves as student and teacher: one who asks, learns, receives, and one who gives. There’s a good reason for that. We need our teachers. As someone who has gone through deep disillusionment about the very human foibles of Buddhist institutions and the most beloved of teachers, I still know this.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know we need help when we come to the path. That’s the essence of interdependence: depending on our teachers to help point us in the right direction, to help us see our own big fat blind spots, our own arrogance, ignorance and self-hatred. Training well and hard is the foundation of engaging this interdependence of learning.

But this interdependence can become a kind of dependence that turns in on itself in terrible ways, and especially for women, as I have learned the very hard way.

So at a certain point, we have to grow up. If we don’t, there’s the grave danger of infantilizing ourselves, deifying our teachers and the forms, and creating/fueling oppressive structures both within ourselves and within our community of practice.

There’s also the larger, social danger – seen everywhere today – that our communities become islands of self-involved peace seekers, never bringing the radical social and political change that is the beautiful, powerful promise of the Dharma.

So decolonizing enlightenment means both full engagement with traditional forms, full processing of our own patterns and craziness, and then what Vajrayana teacher Patrick Sweeney calls “the great switcheroo.” We train hard to tame our minds, and then we realize that all is the great field of Bodhi, and there is nothing we have to strive for or work for or try to become. It’s already here.

That means pulling back the projections from our teachers and the tradition. It means learning to listen, in a very deep way, to our own voices. It means creating new, egalitarian forms that will encourage this very process throughout the sangha and our activist communities. It means bringing this radical wisdom into all that we do to transform late-state-crazy-capitalism.

Is there a way to do this within Buddhist institutions? I don’t know. My own lineage is filled with stories of guys (of course) who had to leave the monasteries to really get it. The confines and rules and forms of the monastery were only helpful to a certain point. Then you have to light out.

But honestly, at this point in history and in the ecological and human crisis that threatens all of life, I don’t think we have time (or the interest) to spend our 20 years training and then head out for the hills for the realization that goes beyond “shoulds.” It’s time to join hands to create these opportunities within our sanghas and activist communities. That is the great challenge of our time. As the incredibly iconoclastic and amazing 17th Karmapa has said, now is the time to manifest all practice on behalf of the Earth.

So, let’s do that together. What could be more worthwhile?

Belinda Griswold is an activist on behalf of Mother Earth, a writer, facilitator of the Work that Reconnects, and practitioner of the Nyingma/Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. She lives in Boulder with her husband, a martial arts fighter, their wild dakini daughter, two pit bulls and an old cat. You reach her at

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Comments (6)

  • Jeff

    Now hold on just a gol’ darned minute. I thought when I got enlightened, it meant I would automatically be politically correct too! Never again have to worry about blurting out a random racist, sexist, or dumb-ugly patriotic remark in mixed company. Always speak such profound Truth that its harmonies would resonate with knowing and shake apart the structures of ignorance. If only!

    But you’re absolutely right, Belinda, our spiritual “awakenings” sometimes have a fairly narrow context, i.e. intrapersonal integration, while historically these tiny events can seem irrelevant or even untrustworthy. How to be enlightened and truly interdependent personally and politically — an elusive goal, but one very much worth pursuing for engaged Buddhists, as you say! I do think that if we practice diligently to bring about social justice and gain from other’s experiences in forums like this it will be most possible. Perhaps, as we learn these things, we will even need to create a new Dharma to encompass our new understanding. Thanks for your essay.

  • lee

    o people & social groups. Reaching for a single apropos word maybe occluded some other apt ways of describing the problem but perhaps it’s best to raise it gently… the problems of entitlement, privilege go straight to the lurking near enemies of ego & self, skulking embarrassed out of the light..

    What clergy knows to give voice to these as a bemused advocate for the unregenerate – but necessary – processes of their own inner, hunter-gatherer, 3 year old child?

    Idealism’s a hazard b/c it lends power to words, but worse to the ego, the pedagogical desire, and the teacher seeking to evince that standard. It’s ever so seductive to set a perfection before ourselves, & in the process of calling attention to it, start wearing it as our own. Or perhaps we may be struggling to do so out from an underlying self abnegation which recoils into vain, insidious pride…

    And then the discussion becomes more about drawing ourselves to the center of things… nothing new under the sun, including playing whack-a-mole with ego’s impulse to grab the mic, take the spotlight..

    A house divided against itself… ?

    Ego & self are happier in the light, & that is where the dissolve under the gentle gaze of self love. Pema Chodron teaches this intuitively, a nonauthoritarian sense, the heart of an insouciant libertine.

    Back to the core: liberation theology is a map to letting go, even letting go of the theology… even our own hopes to evince a standard. Might as well just fall off that cushion& come down to our own level…

    I knew an old weird lady that lived out in the back woods with a huge old pet hog … “Every body’s shit stinks,” she’d laugh right at the kitchen manager’s face (young guy). She’d seen enough to have given up on everything.

    Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

  • Murray Reiss

    This is a great article — very thought provoking. I’d say that the teacher-student relationship is one place to start the work of decolonization. Just as, ideally, a psychotherapist is in supervision to help her deal with issues of transference (clients’ projections on to her) and counter-transference (her projections back on to clients), so too teachers need some one, or some body, that can help them see their own “big fat blind spots, … arrogance, ignorance and self-hatred.” Without that, the teacher-student relationship tends to colonize all available space and rather than being a spiritual friend, the teacher becomes an all-encompassing infallible authority. The teacher stands in for the Christian fundamentalist’s Bible, which, to quote Timothy Beale, “if opened and read rightly would speak directly to me with concrete, divinely authored advice about my life and how to live it.” This may be what we want, at some inarticulate level, but it is not what we need.

  • Simon Jo-Keeling

    If we’re hoping for decolonization, we’re going to have to start calling it out. Lee, I’m afraid I take issue with your characterization of “the lurking near enemies of ego & self” as somehow similar to hunter-gatherers. This is rank, neocolonial racism – exactly the sort of thing Belinda Griswold is trying to get us away from.

    Members of hunter-gatherer groups are not worse humans than members of farming groups. Hunter-gatherer groups have philosophies, rituals, and arts just as intricate and fantastic as those by farmers. Many hunter-gatherer groups have figured out amazing processes for maintaining social equality nonviolently. Farming groups, in general, do more environmental damage and are less socially equal than hunter-gatherers.

    It’s no coincidence that, by the time Europe started enslaving dark-skinned people in the Americas, Asia, and Africa, hunter-gatherers had been destroyed at home. Hatred of colonized others was always more intense against hunter-gatherers than farmers. Racism, therefore, is tied up intimately with prejudices about how to acquire food and other material necessities.

  • Belinda G

    Love reading all these comments – thanks to all for your thoughts. I especially like the idea of decolonizing the student/teacher relationship – really well put in addressing the childlike need many (including myself!) come to our teachers with: just tell me what to think! May this conversation continue, and bring benefit! Belinda

  • Dawn Haney

    This speaks so well to the positions many BPFers hold within our sanghas, with our social justice training that leads us to be suspicious of hierarchy and quick(er) to notice patriarchy, white supremacy, class divisions, needs for language access, etc. But I also think it speaks well to the position that BPF itself currently often holds within the mahasangha, in our current incarnation that is led primarily by students of the dharma who also bring a social justice critique of how the dharma is taught. It’s a tricky thing to navigate, and it’s good to remember that this right here is what learning dharma is all about.

    I’m grateful to finally get a chance to read this article – thanks Belinda for writing it and for being part of leading BPF as we keep turning the wheel.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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