Way-Seeking Mind – Guest Editor Kenji Liu
As a teen, my first explicit encounter with Buddhism was in an independent bookstore on Philadelphia’s South Street. The stern, grey, hardcover of Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind came back with me to central New Jersey where I muddled through its pages. I sat on my room’s hardwood floor and tried to figure out what he meant by holding oneself upright and relaxed, what I was supposed to do with my half-open eyes. My parents, being very Roman Catholic, would have been of little assistance if I had asked. But living in the middle of a suburb, feeling alone and full of teenaged ennui, there seemed to be something about meditation that fit.
Years later in California, when I sat my first ten-day meditation retreat in the tradition of S. N. Goenka, I came back to this initial seed of practice. As an aspiring young anti-racist activist, I also sought to understand how dhamma (dharma) and social justice could co-exist and even nurture each other. This proved essential and fortifying when I later began participating in mostly white convert sanghas, by providing a strong foundation from which to “recognize,” try to “accept,” “investigate,” and practice “non-duality” when encountering overt or subtle racism, sexism, and other issues.
In the 2000s, I joined Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement (BASE) program for youth activists led by Diana Winston, and later co-led a BASE group for anti-racist activists mentored by Mushim Ikeda. I also guest edited an issue of Turning Wheel in its original paper incarnation on “Building Alliances to Address Racism.”
As time went on I continually studied dhamma (mostly Theravadan), the writings of socially engaged Buddhists in Asia, and other essential frameworks of thought—intersectional oppressions (Sherover-Marcuse), marxisms, feminisms, critical race studies, queer theory, postcolonial theory, and more. I saw how compatible these intellectual perspectives are with dhamma in many ways. I sought to practice dhamma within the context of larger social and intellectual movements.
I also learned that Buddhism has a long history of politics, both reactionary and progressive, wherever it goes—that it is a changing cultural and historical product. As such it is not inherently progressive or radical—witness Zen Buddhism being yoked to Japanese imperialism, patriarchy and abuse within many traditions, or as I heard once, that there is not a single democratic Buddhist country (one can certainly debate if Myanmar is democratic despite recent events).
From personal experience I saw that the need to transmit dhamma through human beings also means that dhamma teachers are almost always influenced by culture, class, race, gender, and everything else that makes us interesting. I learned about the immense variety of practices in the world called Buddhism, and recognized my own sit-centric (or cushion-centric) prejudices. I became less Buddhist-identified and more interested in living a kind, mindful, and just life with a strong radar for fighting systemic oppression in all forms.
An important insight I remind myself of regularly is that although Buddhism is about ending suffering, it is a mistake to think that it espouses passivity, or that its expression “looks” a certain (peaceful) way. Stories abound in many lineages of master teachers intervening against different forms of delusion by what could be considered to be violent means—ranging from harsh words to physical action—in order to cut through ignorance or prevent greater harm. There are Buddhist martial arts traditions whose practitioners are just as comfortable with meditation as they are with a lethal weapon. There are deities and manifestations of boddhisattvas whose fearsome appearance or wielding of swords is not simply a metaphor. Sometimes direct action and incisiveness is necessary, and its experience may not match the peaceful pop culture appropriation often marketed to us.
Today, I am happy to return to Buddhist Peace Fellowship as a Guest Editor and Senior Writer for Turning Wheel Media. I look forward to doing what I love here—social and cultural commentary—with the special flavor that dhamma practice provides. May my time here stimulate reflection, constructive dialogue, insight, kindness, and a fierce commitment to ending all forms of personal, interpersonal, and systemic suffering.