Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Home

March 28, 2004 – Colors of Compassion Retreat

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb37-dharma1On March 28th, at the end of the three-month winter retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha offered a three-day retreat called Colors of Compassion, for people of color. Three hundred retreatants gathered to practice mindfulness, listen to teachings, and share with one another the experiences of joy and suffering that come from being a person of color.  

This section begins with a powerful talk by Thay, given on the last day of the retreat. Following is a story of a courageous couple who escaped Vietnam as boat people, exemplifying Thay’s famous poem, Call Me By My True Names. Also included is an interview with Sister Chau Nghiem, the organizer and registrar of the Colors of Compassion retreat, and a selection of stories and poems of insight offered by retreatants. 

mb37-dharma2There are white people who live in the United States but still do not feel that they have a home here. They want to leave because they don’t feel comfortable with the economic, political, and military policies of this country. In Vietnam it’s the same. There are those who have Vietnamese nationality but who do not feel that Vietnam is their true home They do not feel loved or understood, and they do not feel that they have a future there, so they want to leave their country.

Who amongst us has a true home? Who feels comfortable in their country? After posing this question to the retreatants for contemplation, I responded. I said: “I have a home, and I feel very comfortable in my home.” Some people were surprised at my response, because they know that for the last thirty-eight years I have not been allowed to return to Vietnam to visit, to teach, or to meet my old friends and disciples. But although I have not been able to go back to Vietnam, I am not in pain, I do not suffer, because I have found my true home.

My true home is not in France where Plum Village practice center is located. My true home is not in the United States. My true home cannot be described in terms of geographic location or in terms of culture. It is too simplistic to say I am Vietnamese. In terms of nationality and culture, I can see very clearly a number of national and cultural elements in me –– Indonesian, Malaysian, Mongolian, and others. There is no separate nationality called Vietnamese; the Vietnamese culture is made up of other cultural elements.


There are elements of Chinese, French, and Indian culture in me. You cannot take these out of me. If you remove them, I will not be the person who is sitting here. In me there are also cultural elements from Africa, and beautiful elements of Native American culture in me. In my room I hang a dream catcher so I can contemplate my dreams just for fun.

I have a home that no one can take away, and I feel very comfortable in that home. In my true home there is no discrimination, no hatred, because I have the desire and the capacity to embrace everybody, every race, and I have the aspiration, the dream to love and help all peoples and all species. I do not feel there is anyone who is my enemy. Even if they are pirates, terrorists, communists, or anti-communists, I do not have enemies. That is why in my true home I feel very comfortable.

I heard the story of a young Japanese American man who went into a café. While he was drinking his coffee he heard two young men talking in Vietnamese and crying. The young Japanese American man asked them in English: “Why are you crying?” The Vietnamese men said: “We cannot go back to our country, our homeland. The government there will not allow us to go back.” The Japanese American man got upset and said: “This is not worth crying over. Even though you are in exile and cannot go back to your country, you still have a country, a place where you belong. But I do not have a country to go back to.

“I was born and raised in the United States, and culturally I am American. But I feel uncomfortable because Americans do not truly accept me; they see me as foreigner. So I went to Japan and tried to make it my home. But when I arrived the Japanese people told me that the way I speak and behave are not Japanese and I was not accepted as a Japanese person. So, even though I have an American passport and even though I can go to Japan, I do not have a home. But you do have a home.”

Like the Japanese American in the story, there are many young Asian Americans who have been born and raised in the United States, who are American in their way of thinking and acting, and they want to be seen as true Americans, immersed in this culture. But other Americans do not accept them as Americans because their skin color is yellow. They feel sad and want to go back to Japan, Korea, or Vietnam to find their home. They think: If it’s not in America, my home has to be somewhere else. But they don’t fit in with the culture of their ancestral country either. Other Asians call them “Bananas” because though their skin is yellow, inside they are white, completely American. This also happens to African Americans who go to Africa but aren’t accepted there.

This is not to say that white people have found their home and feel comfortable in the United States. Just like Vietnamese people in Vietnam, many people do not feel comfortable in their own country and want to go elsewhere. Very few among us have found their true home. Even though we have nationality, we have citizenship, and a passport that allows us to go anywhere in the world, we still do not have a home.

Life Is Our True Home 

In the Colors of Compassion retreat we have learned and practiced to be in contact with our true home, the true home that cannot be described by geographical area, culture, or race.

Every time we listen to the sound of the bell in Deer Park or in Plum Village, we silently recite this poem: “I listen, I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” Where is our true home that we come back to? Our true home is life, our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place without discrimination, the place without hatred. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret. Our true home is not the past; it is not the object of our regrets, our yearning, our longing, or remorse. Our true home is not the future; it is not the object of our worries or fear. Our true home lies right in the present moment. If we can practice according to the teaching of the Buddha and return to the here and now, then the energy of mindfulness will help us to establish our true home in the present moment.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the Pure Land lies in the present moment; nirvana and liberation lie in the present moment. All of our spiritual and blood ancestors are here if we know how to come back to the present moment. My true home is the Pure Land, my true home is true life, so I do not suffer or seek, I do not run after anything anymore. I very much want all of you who have come here for the retreat, whether your color is black, white, brown, or yellow, to also be able to practice the teaching of the Buddha in order to come back to the present moment, penetrate that moment and discover your true home. I have found my true home. I do not seek, I do not worry, I do not suffer anymore. I have happiness, and I want all of my friends, students, and disciples to be able to reach your true home and stop trying to find it in space, time, culture, territory, nationality, or race.

The Buddha offers us wonderful practices so we can end our worries, our suffering, our seeking, our regrets, and so we can be in contact with the wonders of life right in the present moment. When we have the mind of nondiscrimination, we can open our arms to embrace all people and all species and everybody can become the object of our love. When we can do this, we have a true home that no one can take away from us. Even if they occupy our country or put us in prison, our true home is still ours, and they can never take it away. I speak these words to the young people, to those of you who feel that you have never had a home. I speak these words to the parents who feel that the old country is no longer your home but that the new country is not yet your home. Perhaps you can grasp this practice so you can find your true home and help your children find their true home. This is what I wish for you.

Civilization Is Openness and Tolerance 

If you have only one way of thinking, one way of behaving, then you are confined to the limits of your culture. With your habitual way of thinking, you imprison yourself and you cannot understand the suffering, the difficulties, the dreams of people of other races or other nationalities. You have a view about freedom, about happiness, about the future, and you want to force that view upon other cultures, other nations, other groups of people, and you create suffering for them. You think that everybody has to follow a certain economic model, a certain way of thinking, and only then are they civilized. When you think in this way, you have tied yourself up with a rope, and you cause danger and suffering for yourself and others.

We need to learn to let go and be open to other ways of thinking and behaving. We should not think of ourselves as superior in terms of race, science, or ideology. We have to practice to open our hearts, to learn about other cultures and other ways of thinking and behaving, so we can establish communication with people of other nations. If you were born and raised in the United States you should not let the American culture imprison you. Try to learn about the country your parents and ancestors came from. This will help you develop good communication with your parents and your ancestors; otherwise you may be cut off from the cultural stream that is one of your deepest roots.

Do not think that the culture and education you received growing up in the United States is superior; this is narrow-minded. We have to open our hearts to learn about the cultures of Asians, Africans, Europeans, and others. Europeans think and behave differently than Americans, even though many Americans have European ancestors. When we have a stubborn attitude, caught in the values, culture, and way of thinking of our own civilization, we are narrow-minded and isolated. The United States right now is isolated politically and militarily, and in the way Americans think and respond to violence and terrorism. It is not the same as the way Europeans think and respond. We need to listen to the Europeans and to people of other nations. We need to learn to let go of the view that our way of reacting and behaving is the best. When we are able to practice the Buddha’s teaching and come back to the present moment, we are in contact with our true home. Then we are not narrow-minded, we are not discriminating, and our hearts are open to embrace all races, all cultures.

Tomb37-dharma4 be civilized means to be open-minded, to offer space to others to live according to their views. Civilization is opening our arms to embrace all races, all people, all species; it is not thinking that our race or our culture is superior to all others. If young people can open their hearts wide to learn about their own and other cultures, they will begin to have rich insights. They can help those who are still isolated and caught in their own culture to come together with those from other cultures. This will allow understanding and acceptance to grow, remove boundaries, and heal conflicts.

Speaking to Young People 

If you have a great aspiration to learn about other cultures, to go to other countries and to help people accept and understand each other, you have a very great ideal. With that ideal you will not get stuck in despair, blaming others for your difficulties; instead your life will be very meaningful. I am sharing these words with the young people. Many young people have no path and don’t know what to do with their life each day. So they turn to drugs or alcohol and waste their lives. This is such a pity, because each young person can become a great bodhisattva, a great enlightened being whose deepest desire is to help people and bring together those who are separated by hatred or cultural difference.

Dear Sangha, I don’t want to be narrow-minded. I don’t say that Vietnamese culture is the best. Vietnam has many good things, but also many negative things. Buddhism has many good things, but also many negative things. One shortcoming of Buddhism is that we just talk, talk, talk about Buddhism but we do not practice. We can talk beautifully about nonself but we have a big sense of self, a huge ego.


I have the capacity to see the good and beautiful things in other cultures and spiritual traditions. My true home is vast, immense. And my two arms can embrace all nations and all religions. I do not hate, I do not have any enemies, even the terrorists and those who wage war on terrorism. I only love them. I just want the opportunity to come close to them, listen to them, and help them to let go of their wrong perceptions, hatred, and violence. I do not hate dictators, communists, or anti-communists. I want to come close to them, help them understand, and let go of the views they are caught in.

There is no hatred in my true home; therefore I have happiness. Even though there is discrimination, violence, and craving in life, I use these things as nourishment for my practice. It is just like a garden: wherever there are flowers there has to be garbage. If you leave flowers for five or ten days they will become garbage. An intelligent gardener will collect all the garbage to make compost and so bring forth an abundance of fruits and flowers. It is not a matter of not having garbage, it is a matter of knowing how to transform garbage into flowers.

Surrounding us are many wonders: the blue sky, the white clouds, the blossoming flowers, the singing birds, the majestic mountains, the flowing rivers, countless animals and birds, the sunlight, the fog, the snow; innumerable wonders of life. The Kingdom of God is here in the present moment, but because we have hatred and discrimination we are not able to be in touch with the wonders of life.

The Buddha teaches us not to be foolish, not to run after the objects of desire: riches, fame, power, sensual pleasure. There are people who have a lot of money, power, fame, and sex, but they suffer endlessly; some even commit suicide. When we listen to the Buddha and come back to the present moment to be in touch with the wonders of life, we become rich, we become free—free from objects of craving—and we have the opportunity to recognize our wonderful true home. If we have found our true home then we will have enough love and understanding to help transform and heal the wounds caused by violence, hatred, and discrimination.

No Enemies 

When I ask: “Do you have a home yet?” you might say: “Not yet. But with this teaching and this practice I can have my home.” It’s true. The teaching of the Buddha is the teaching of dwelling peacefully and joyfully in the present moment. If we know how to come back to the present moment and generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then we will be in touch with the wonders of life. We will have happiness immediately. We will have insights. We will no longer discriminate, no longer be narrow-minded. And we can open our arms to embrace all species, all peoples, and we have no enemies. To have no enemies is a wonderful thing. When we have no enemy, no reproach, no blaming, then our mind is light like a cloud. I have no discrimination or hatred, so my mind is light and I have great happiness. I want you to be able to practice like that so that you have your true home, so that you do not accuse and judge the people who have caused you suffering. Do not look at them as your enemies, but see them as people who need understanding and compassion, so that you can help them. That is the bodhisattva’s way of looking.

We can all have this way of looking: when we are able to look in this way, we can call ourselves the children of the Buddha. To call ourselves children of the Buddha, we need to have the eyes of the Buddha, the eyes of compassion, the eyes of love. “Looking at life with the eyes of compassion” is a phrase from the Lotus Sutra. We use the eyes of compassion to look at all people and see that they are all our loved ones. We can help Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, anyone. Nobody is our enemy.

What Is Your True Name? 

Now I want to ask you a second question: “What is your true name?” Tell me. What name do you feel most comfortable with, most happy with? What are your true names? I have written a poem on this contemplation called “Please Call Me By My True Names.”

mb37-dharma6This poem was based on a real event. There was an eleven-year-old girl escaping from Vietnam with her family and other people. She was raped by a pirate, right on her boat. Her father tried to intervene, but the pirate threw her father into the sea. After the child was raped she jumped into the ocean to commit suicide. We received the news of this event one day in our Buddhist Association office in Paris. It was so upsetting to me that it kept me from sleeping; I felt anger, blame, despair. But if we are practitioners we cannot let blame and despair drown us; we have to practice walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and deep looking.

That evening in sitting meditation I saw myself being born as a baby boy into a very poor fishing family on the coast of Thailand. My father was a fisherman. He had never gone to the temple, he had never received any Buddhist teaching or any education. The politicians, educators, and social workers in Thailand never helped my father. My mother was also illiterate, and she did not know how to raise children. My father’s family had been poor fishermen for many generations —my great grandfather and my grandfather had been fishermen too. And when I turned thirteen I became a fisherman. I had never gone to school, I had never heard of the Buddhadharma, I had never felt loved or understood, and I lived in chronic poverty, persisting from one generation to the next.

Then one day another young fisherman said to me: “Let’s go out onto the ocean. There are boat people who pass near here and they often carry gold and jewelry, sometimes even money. Just one trip and we can be free from this poverty.” I accepted the invitation. I thought: We only need to take away a little bit of their jewelry, it won’t do any harm, and then we can be free from this poverty. So I became a pirate. The first time I went out I did not even know that I had become a pirate. But once out on the ocean, I saw the other pirates raping young women on the boats. I had never touched a young woman, I had never even thought about holding hands or going out with a young woman. But on the boat there was a very beautiful young woman, and there was no policeman to forbid me, and I saw other people doing it, and I asked myself: Why shouldn’t I try it too? This may be my chance to try the body of a young woman. So I did it.

If you were there on the boat and you had a gun, you could shoot me. But shooting me would not help me. Nobody ever taught me how to love, how to understand, how to see the suffering of others. My father and mother were not taught this either. I didn’t know what was wholesome and what was unwholesome, I didn’t understand cause and effect. I was living in the dark. If you had a gun, you could shoot me, and I would die. But you wouldn’t be able to help me at all.

As I continued sitting, I saw hundreds of babies being born that night along the coast of Thailand under the same circumstances, many of them baby boys. If the politicians and cultural ministers could look deeply, they would see that within twenty years those babies would become pirates. When I was able to see that, I understood. When I put myself in the situation of being born in a family that was uneducated and poor from one generation to the next, I saw that I would not be able to avoid becoming a pirate. When I saw that, my hatred, my resentment, my reproach vanished, and I felt that I could love that pirate.

When I saw those babies being born and growing up with no help, I knew that I had to do something so that they would not become pirates. The energy of a bodhisattva arose in my mind, the energy of love. I did not suffer anymore, but I had a lot of compassion and I could embrace not only the eleven-year-old child who was raped, but also the pirate.

When you address me as “Venerable Nhat Hanh,” I answer “yes,” but when you call the name of the child who was raped, I also answer “yes.” And if you call the name of the pirate, I would also answer “yes.” Because they are also me. If I had been born in that area under those circumstances I would also have become the pirate. I am the young girl who is raped by the pirate, but I am also the pirate that rapes the child. And so I could embrace both of them, in order to help not only that young girl but also the pirate. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my two legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am also the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. Those poor children in Uganda do not need bombs, they need food to eat. But here in America I live by producing bombs and guns. And if we want others to buy guns and bombs, then we have to create wars. If you call the name of the child in Uganda, I answer “yes.” And if you call the name of those who produce the bombs and guns I also answer “yes.” When I am able to see that I am those people, my hatred is no longer there, and I am determined to live in a way that I can help the victims, and I can also help those who create the wars and destruction.

So, when people call us African Americans, we answer, “yes.” When they call us Africans we answer,“yes.” When they call us Americans, we also answer “yes.” When people call the names of those who are discriminated against, we answer “yes.” And when they call the names of those who are discriminating, we also answer,“yes”—because all of them are us. Within us are the victims of discrimination as well as the perpetrators of discrimination. When we know that we are all victims of ignorance, violence, and hatred, then we can love ourselves and also love others. We have to practice in such a way that we free ourselves from thinking and feeling that injustice has been done to us, that we are inferior, that we are without value. The teaching of the Buddha can help us to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination that can free us from our inferiority complex. Only when we are free can we help others in the same situation, as well as those who discriminate and exploit. We do not look at them as our enemies anymore, but we see that they need our help because they are also victims of ignorance and of the narrow-minded aspects of their traditions.

In 1966 I gave a Dharma talk at a church in Minneapolis, and afterward I was very tired. I walked slowly in meditation back to my room so I could enjoy the cold, fragrant night air and be nourished and healed. While I was walking, taking each step in freedom, a car came up from behind and, braking loudly, stopped very close to me. The driver opened the door, looked at me and shouted: This is America, this is not China. Then he drove away. Maybe he had thought, This is a Chinese person who dares to walk in freedom in America, and he could not bear it. This is America, only white people can live here. And Chinese people, how dare you come here and how dare you walk with such freedom? You have no right to walk in this way. This is America, this is not China. That is discrimination against nationality, against race. But I was not angry—that was the good thing about it—I thought it was funny. I thought: If he would just pause for a moment, I would tell him, “I agree with you one hundred percent, this is America, this is not China: why do you have to shout at me?”

We know that the seed of discrimination lies in all of us. Once in New York a black woman shouted at me, even though I am also a person of color—only a different color. But because I wore a brown robe and I walked in freedom, she could not bear it. So don’t say it is only white people who discriminate. The oppressed and the oppressors are inside all of us, and our practice is to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination.

So when somebody calls me Nhat Hanh, I answer “yes”; when you call me Bush, I answer “yes”—because Bush is also my name. If you call me Saddam Hussein I will answer “yes”—because I am all of them. I don’t want Mr. Bush to suffer; I don’t want Saddam Hussein to suffer. I want everyone to be happy and free because they are my beloved ones. Right now, living the life of a bodhisattva, I have no enemies because I have no discrimination.

I want all the practitioners who come to Deer Park to practice so you can have this mind of nondiscrimination, so you can rebuild your life and become free. In this way you can help young people, whatever their color, to reach this freedom. Then they will be able to help build their community, and help everyone around them.

Please Call Me By My True Names 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am also the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

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Our Racism is a Crying Baby

Larry Ward Interviews Sister Chau Nghiem

June 20, 2004 at the New Hamlet, Plum Village


Sr. Chau Nghiem, can you give us a glimpse into what it was like being a person of African American and European American descent, prior to coming to Buddhist practice and monastic life?

It’s been at the center of my searching all my life. I have always tried to understand who I am, because from a young age I felt that there were conflicting parts of me. My life has been very complex and very rich because of this.

I was born in Chicago and grew up in a large, Christian, lay residential community. My mother is African American and my father is European American. Tthere were other African Americans in the community, as well as Indians and Asians, but it was mainly European Americans. The neighborhood surrounding us on the north side of Chicago was very diverse.

When I was eight or nine, I would squeeze the bridge of my nose a lot, hoping it would become skinny like a white person’s, because somewhere I got the message that my nose was too flat. Also, my brother and I met my dad’s parents for the first time when I was nine, after my parents had divorced. It was only after my parents divorced that we were allowed to come visit them in Houston. And they had an African American maid. So that was a very stark message and it stuck with me.

But from age eight to twelve we also lived in Kenya. It was very good to live outside of the United States, which has unique racial practices. It was wonderful to live in an African country, to go to school with many African children, and to grow up in an environment where people lived simply and close to the land. Visiting the homes of my Kenyan friends, I learned some of their native language and culture. Near our home, there were always women in their beautiful, colorful kangas, selling things in the market. Something deep in me was nourished.

I went back to Chicago for junior high, and was bussed to a racially diverse school on the South Side. I had Latina, Polish, Asian, and black friends. But being different racially wasn’t something we talked about or were really aware of, I think because we hadn’t started dating yet. It all gets complicated when you think, Who am I going to date? Race wasn’t on my mind, and I didn’t see myself as a person of color or as a person of a certain race.

But when I started high school, we moved to Atlanta. I lived with my dad and his fiancée, who were both white, in an all-black neighborhood. I attended a mostly white school. So suddenly, I was out of the lay residential community that I’d grown up in all my life which had been a cushion between me and the world I now found myself in. It began to get really hard, with no other racial groups but whites and blacks, and all this Southern history embedded in the culture.

It became clear that I didn’t fit with the black folks. I’d grown up in different parts of the world, but mostly with white people, so I didn’t talk like a black person. I didn’t have the same mindset or family background. I could dance! I could always dance, but otherwise I didn’t fit in. There were other kids who were biracial: black and white, and we all had to try really hard to prove that we were black. It was very painful.


I think not growing up with my mom also made me feel like something was missing. My parents divorced when I was seven and my brother and I lived with my dad. We only visited my mom and her relatives for two weeks every summer so I never really lived with black people. I was hungry for something they had that I felt was my inheritance, but that was somehow foreign to me.

Around that time I started to read a lot of African American authors. My dad always had us listen to many kinds of music, but especially to soul music and R&B. This cultural connection to my ancestors spoke to me on a very deep level, and helped me make sense of things.

In high school it became clear that I did belong to a certain color, and that was black. I took that on, and said, “I have a white father, but I am black, because that’s what society says I am.” So I dated mostly black men and checked the African American box on official forms. But I knew that the boxes I checked and the messages I was receiving did not fully describe who I was.

In my junior year of high school, I wanted to spend a year abroad as an exchange student and I chose Brazil. I wanted to experience being in a society where the lines of racial discrimination were less rigidly drawn and where people interact with other races with more humanity and ease. The African Diaspora became the focus of my academic interests. I learned capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. My master’s thesis in university was on capoeira as emancipation practice for African American young people. A major concern of mine as a teenager and young adult was to understand and help to change the suffering caused by racism that I experienced and witnessed around me.

What was the purpose of the People of Color Retreat?

For me it was to embrace people of color, to reach out and say, “Hey, you! We want you to feel like this is your space, too.” It was motivated by a deep wish to help people feel at ease. Like our other retreats which focus on a group of people with a common life experience (i.e., police officers, congresspeople, children, artists, psychotherapists, etc.), we wanted to provided one more condition to help people feel safe and bring mindfulness into their lives. Sometimes you have to open lots of doors; this was just opening one more door. Also many of the monastic brothers and sisters felt that in order to be complete as a community, we needed to reach out to a wider group of people, to include a missing element in our Sangha.

Who attended the People of Color Retreat? What were we like and where were we from?

The first night in the front of the Dharma hall, looking at the sea of colored faces, I could have cried. It was so beautiful! Mainly we were from the United States, many of us coming for the first time to this practice, and many who were new to Buddhism. Many were also from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender communities. The two biggest racial groups were African American and Asian American,  although most people had quite a mixture in their backgrounds. There were also Latinos and Native Americans, and a few European Americans.

Why has it taken so long to introduce this practice to people of color?

Actually, I think a majority of Buddhists in the United States are people of color: they’re Korean Buddhists and Chinese Buddhists and Japanese Buddhists. They are mostly in insular communities that are preserving a tradition.

Another aspect of Buddhism is influencing mainstream American society. When we become Buddhist practitioners it’s difficult not to reflect in our Sanghas whatever racial blindness we carry. If we live in a white neighborhood with white schools and primarily white work environments, of course our Sanghas will reflect that. There are also economic obstacles. But the number of practitioners of color is definitely growing. A hundred people attended the African American Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock in 2002. This year at Deer Park there were almost three hundred.

What was the biggest challenge in the organization and development of the retreat?

For me the biggest challenge was defining the terms of inclusiveness. How do you handle requests from people who aren’t of color but who want to come? How do you design a Dharma discussion where people of color feel at ease, and also include our forty white monastics? At first we felt the retreat should be for people of color only, but Thay suggested that while priority could be given to people of color, European Americans could still come if there was space.


When we began to reach our maximum capacity, I had to turn away white people. Some felt that they were being discriminated against and were hurt. The monastery is usually open to everyone, so being a person of color and having to explain to a white person that they can’t attend was quite painful. I told one person he couldn’t come because we had to save the last spaces for people of color and he said, “Well, white is a color!” I wrote him and said, “White is a color, but white is not the color that is undergoing racial oppression in this country.” I sent him some concrete statistics on the racial discrimination happening here. Several other cases were not easy to resolve. How do you determine who is white or of color anyway? Some people look white but have ancestors of color; who are we to say they are not people of color? These difficulties illustrate how people of color often spend so much time thinking and worrying about what white people feel and think. It’s not a helpful habit energy to always see ourselves through the eyes of white people. In the end, retreatants were happy that the majority of people were of color and asked that future retreats have the same ratio.


There was so much karma coming at me at the registration desk! It was difficult to feel like I was taking sides but at the same time trying to offer people of color the safe and supportive environment they needed. I don’t know how to be fair and compassionate all the time.

Next time there should be at least three people to help with registration, for greater collective insight into such situations.

For me just to talk about “them” and “us” and “white people” and “people of color” is painful. Since becoming a nun, I don’t think about my European and European American brothers and sisters as white, I just see them as my brothers and sisters. But in this retreat full of people of color, I felt an incredible joy and glory in myself being a person of color; it was profound and healing. I had never been around that many people of color practicing mindfulness.

How has the practice been helpful to people in dealing with their suffering?

It was so important for people to hear that Thay understood and shared their difficulties. In his orientation, he talked about his struggle for peace in Vietnam, his connection to Dr. King, and his own experience of being discriminated against. He told of being detained at the Seattle airport in the 1960s when he was on tour speaking out against the war in Vietnam. Because he did not have a transit visa, immigration officials seized his passport and locked him in a room with big “Wanted” posters on every wall. Thay was telling us, “I’ve been there. I’ve been through what you have experienced.” And people felt, Ah! Okay. I’m not going to be preached at by someone who doesn’t know where I’m coming from. Here’s someone who has been where I am and has reached a very beautiful place in spiritual life. So I don’t have to be stuck.

Usually when we have a transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thay puts the incense on the Buddha altar and gives the second stick of incense to a monastic to put on the ancestor altar. But at this ceremony, Thay offered incense to both altars. I think people really felt embraced and honored by Thay.

People also felt moved by the sense of community. For many, there aren’t other people of color they can share these concerns with in their local communities. Here we nourished each other, shared our common ancestry, and our desire to transform. We invited everyone to put an object connecting them to their ancestors on the ancestors’ altar. Someone brought a bag of rice, someone brought a book about slavery. Someone brought a T-shirt, with a picture of Indian chiefs that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492: the Department of Homeland

Security.” [Laughs.] There was a necklace, a bag of seeds, a doll. People brought pictures of their families, their ancestors, a drum. The last night retreatants shared a song or poem, or talked about their object on the altar. It was a highlight of the retreat: each sharing was so rich and nourishing. We were honoring and healing our blood family in the context of a spiritual family.

How can practitioners help increase access to Buddhist practice for people of color?

I think mainly it’s just to be open and not to feel like we’re doing anything wrong. When we bring up the idea of including more people of color in our Sangha, just to be aware of whatever feelings come up. It might be something comfortable, it might be uncomfortable. We have to be gentle with ourselves.

We need to talk about racism or discrimination like Thay talks about our painful mental formations: it’s a crying baby, and we need to take care of it. We need everybody’s mindfulness and insight because we’ve been running from it for a long time; we have to be careful not to be violent with ourselves, with our language; we need to have compassion for ourselves. Our attitudes about racism and discrimination are a transmission from our family and society. It’s thick, uncomfortable mud, but it can produce a lotus. We need to have a positive outlook.

Thay is so wonderful, setting the context of how we talk about racism in our practice of compassion and understanding. We also need to have curiosity and inquiry, not to assume that we know everything. We’ve been indoctrinated since birth, so we need a sense of spaciousness around our perceptions, being open to changing. We need to look into ourselves and to ask, “When did I start to identify as a person of a certain color, and how has that influenced my life? How do I act from that, in helpful and unhelpful ways?”

The history of racism in our society is so present, right under the surface; it doesn’t take much for it to come up. There’s little clarity or understanding about it. As a society, I see us going in the wrong direction; we’re becoming more stratified. We need a spiritual perspective on this collective suffering. Shining the light of mindfulness on this area of our lives will bring a lot of benefit. There are skilled people—you’re one of them, Larry—who know how to ask the right questions in a way that helps us to touch honestly the painful and scary feelings, and to see how to transform them.

For me this is totally about transformation and liberation, not about getting even or complaining or blaming.  And it’s collective––we have to heal all of us. My five-year-old nephew is already being affected by racism. Already! He’s five years old, and I can see it. And I don’t want kids to have to live with that reality. This is about healing all of us, being compassionate with ourselves, and being willing to go where it’s not easy or comfortable.

What is emerging as next steps?

There is a five-day retreat for people of color planned at Deer Park in September 2005. The exact dates will be on our Website soon. The folks at Spirit Rock have asked Thay to lead an event in the Bay Area. People are excited, saying, “Come over here! Do some of that for us!”

There is this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. Parallax Press is publishing a book this fall called, Dharma, Color, and Culture. There are plans to set up a self-sustaining endowment fund to help more people of color and other underrepresented groups to attend Thay’s retreats. We want to find ways to reach out to more young people of color. We are creating an group for people to dialogue about increasing diversity in our Sanghas (e-mail inclusivesangha-subscribe@yahoogroups.com to join in!). Trained people could come to local Sanghas or to our bigger retreats to lead us in how to unlearn racism and be more inclusive to people of color. I’d love to see our whole Sangha body engaged in a conversation about this.

I talked with a person of color from the UK who thinks it would be extremely helpful to have a similar retreat there. So this feels like a story I heard of an osprey who dove into the ocean for a fish, and picked up a whale. There is a lot of substance here to be worked with personally and collectively and globally. The inspiration of what’s already happened is starting to water positive seeds of healing and transformation in other places. Thank you for your interview.

Wonderful! Thank you, Larry. Thank you very much.


Larry Ward is a Dharma teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina.

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