A look at the history and many facets of our Beyond Fear of Differences program

Since 2017, through the combined efforts and inspiration of the sangha, we have created:

  • Beyond Fear of Differences Planning Committee—a group of 17 Black, Brown and white sangha members working together on uprooting racism and oppression. Membership was equally split between BIAPOC and white people. The group met regularly for about two years, dealing with many challenges that arose in working within a multi-racial group. These challenges demonstrated the urgent need for undoing racism work. The work of this group formed a foundation for ongoing efforts in DEIJ work. The work of this group led to new iterations of our BFOD initiative.
  • A Program Committee with diverse representation to create programming that serves a diverse audience. Through this effort, we’re continuing to develop retreats to address the needs of  BIAPOC and TGNC sangha members, and to bring Buddhist teachers who identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latin American, and People of Color to our sangha.
  • A Communications Committee to review and revise our website, residency applications, print materials, and scholarship policy to encourage diversity and foster equity. 
  • Sliding scale fee structure for all retreats and for residential training—it’s now possible to attend Monastery and Temple programs, as well as residential training at the Monastery, on a give-what-you-can basis. Scholarships for residency at the Temple are also readily available.
  • Sangha Affinity groups that meet regularly via Zoom to sit zazen, do dharma study, hold discussions and support each other’s practice. These groups meet on different schedules—some weekly, some bi-monthly and others monthly. They include:
    • BIAPOC (Black, Indigenous, Asian, People of Color/Culture); 
    • TGNC (Transgender & Non-conforming);
    • LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer)
    • PAD (People of African Descent)
    • ASG (Asian Sangha Gathering) 
  • “What is Whiteness?” affinity group for white people to examine, understand and uproot white supremacy within themselves. This is a monthly online discussion and examination that includes sangha members from across the U.S. and other countries.  
  • Resident “Beyond Fear of Differences” ongoing study groups. The BFOD work has taken several forms for ZMM residents since 2017. Starting in June 2020, this consists of weekly Study Groups on undoing racism & oppression that all ZMM residents participate in.
  • Our first retreat programs for BIAPOC-only sangha members happened at ZCNYC in 2019 with guest instructors Marisela Gomez and Valerie Brown, Buddhist teachers in the Insight tradition.
  • Our first TGNC-only and the first Undoing Patriarchy retreat for men happened in 2021.

We also continue to offer Women-only retreats, as we have for several years.

  • In 2020, we held a program to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our second program (2021) included a memorial for Black people who had been killed at the hands of police over the past year, a short film by sangha members on the impact of gentrification of the Brooklyn neighborhood where  ZCNYC is located, and, a few nights before, a panel discussion by Black women practicing in our sangha called “Brave Together.”
  • We held our first Transgender Day of Remembrance in 2020, memorializing transgender victims of hate crimes and honoring the history and legacy of the transgender rights movement. This has now become an annual event, and in 2021 expanded to include a program on Resilience done in collaboration with the BIAPOC Visioning Committee.
  • Members of our Earth Initiative environmental work are actively looking at how to bring the BFOD focus into their work on climate action. As of spring 2021, they are at work on an event to share this with the sangha. 
  • “Noble Path talks” are a new opportunity for sangha members from diverse identity groups, backgrounds and experiences to share their practice and wisdom with the sangha.
  • April 2022 launched a DEIJ fund to provide stipends, travel funds and financial support to enable those from historically excluded  groups to practice in residence at Zen Mountain Monastery and the Temple. This supplements our present scholarship program which is already in place but does not have provisions for travel or stipend. In addition, people may now donate specifically to this fund to help support these efforts.
  • In Spring 2021, we formed the Temple Advisory Council, a new body to help shape and guide practice and training at the Zen Center of New York City. The TAC strives for membership that is 40% from historically underrepresented groups, a deliberate effort to diversify leadership within the sangha. In addition, the TAC is actively working to support DEIJ within the city sangha, spearheading such efforts as having meditation instruction provided in Spanish.
  • We’re in the process of creating a Sangha Advisory Council, an evolving body of the MRO leadership specifically intended to center the voices of historically marginalized groups in decision making, program development and other training matters.
  • In 2022, the Board of Directors (BoD) Nominating Committee (a subcommittee of the BoD) was developed to create transparency and Sangha inclusion in the BoD selection process, as well as ensure diversity in race, gender identity, LGBTQ / TGNC identification, age, monastic or lay, ZCNYC representation, or other geographic representation.
  • In May 2022, the two public restrooms in the main building were renovated and reopened as All Gender Multi-Stall Restrooms. This is part of a planned vision to make the Monastery more accessible and welcoming to a broad range of gender identities. Additional steps will include adding an All Gender Changing Room with lockers in the main building, as well as All Gender Facilities at the Sangha House.

Since 2016, here are some of the ways monastics, teachers, and the white sangha and the cis-gendered sangha have been deepening their understanding of racism and gender discrimination:

  • All monastics and teachers participated in an “Undoing Racism” weekend training by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
  • Our abbot has been working with a DEIJ coach and anti-racism educator, so that he has support and expertise to help him guide our community more effectively.
  • Board members and senior students who identified as white participated in two day-long workshops on undoing racism; those who identified as cis-gender participated in an evening Trans-Competency training. New board members are strongly encouraged to seek out such training on their own.
  • Trans-Competency trainings have also been offered for our sangha at large.
  • All sangha members who participated in our last two intensive training periods (Fall Ango 2020 and Spring Ango 2021) have been invited to take up BFOD work as part of their dharma study and training. Depending on how someone identifies, this may look very different. In the case of BIAPOC sangha members, this may take the form of healing and community building within affinity groups. In the case of white sangha members, this may take the form of self-directed anti-racist education and participation in the “What is Whiteness?” affinity group.
  • All practitioners requesting to become formal training students are asked to actively engage in undoing racism, both within the MRO and beyond, as an integrated part of the Zen training. Additionally, students being considered for receiving the Bodhisattva Precepts, Board of Directors membership, or senior student training are all expected to be involved in undoing racism study and practice. 

How did we get here?

Let’s start with the fact that Zen Buddhism, like almost all of the major world religions today, emerged and evolved in the midst of several very patriarchal cultures. Originating from within the patriarchal and caste systems of ancient India, Buddhism traveled to China and then Japan, which were also  very patriarchal cultures. 

Fast forward to mid-20th century in the United States, where Japanese Zen landed in the midst of a culture in which patriarchy is inextricably bound up with capitalism and white supremacy. 

While the heart of the Dharma does not teach male superiority, or white body supremacy, these social conditions and structures have formed the context in which the dharma has been taught, practiced and handed down. These forces, energies, and biases have influenced and shaped the way teachings are communicated, as well as the forms and structures of training. This has caused harm and excluded people. 

As a community, the MRO recognizes  that if we want to create a sangha – and world – where the Buddha’s teachings are actually embodied in how we live, train and practice together, we have to examine the systems – both Buddhist and societal – that perpetuate bias and oppression, and then adjust, create new training methods and structures that help us fulfill this commitment, ever greater equity, diversity and inclusion.  

What makes this so compelling and powerful  is that the spiritual basis for this work is integral to the teachings and practices of Buddhism itself.  However we may appear and  identify, the work of diversity, equity and inclusion when engaged as Buddhist practice, is a deep study into the suffering and liberation of the self. It is heart-mind-body work that we need to do together.

A Brief History of DEIJ Work in the MRO: What happened before 2017?

Daido Roshi, our founding abbot, was a bold visionary and devoted Zen teacher who dedicated himself to establishing a place of Zen practice and training. He grew up Italian Catholic in New Jersey in the 1930’s and 40’s, and while he had progressive views on many things, he was also comfortable within, and utilized, many of the hierarchical structures of Japanese Zen. In founding the Monastery he employed a very top-down leadership style, and employed that as both a teacher and administrator. He passed away in 2009 after nearly 30 years of shaping and leading the MRO. As the next generation of teachers stepped in to lead the MRO, the importance of anti-bias work emerged as a prominent focus at the Zen Center of New York City, where Shugen Roshi was abbot.

In the mid-2000s, Shugen Roshi initiated a series of periodic informal evening discussions around issues of race and gender in the context of the Dharma. In 2011 this evolved into a group of about a dozen sangha members (about ¼ identified as Black, Latinx, or People of Color) committed to working together with Shugen Roshi to engage this work more rigorously and see where it would lead. The vision was to utilize the group to develop individual understanding and transformation, to develop skills in multi-racial dialogue, and to work toward bringing these to the larger sangha. 

In 2013 the group launched a 9-month course for the 35 multi-racial members of the sangha to do anti-bias work, which was ambitious in its attempt to go deeply into  undoing bias based in  racism, gender, and sexual orientation. In 2014 and 2015, the ZCNYC formed a People of Color affinity group and an LGBTQ+ affinity group, respectively. In 2016, after moving back to the Monastery, Shugen Roshi initiated an effort to bring this work and his vision of The Beyond Fear of Differences initiative to the sangha upstate. 

Fast forward to 2017, the year in which one of our Black sangha members submitted a diversity proposal to MRO leadership, Board and teachers. At this point the BFOD planning group was just being formed, and our city sangha had just initiated the “What is Whiteness?” anti-oppression group for white-identified sangha wanting to study and uproot white supremacy. During the fall of that year, the BFOD Planning Committee was created to help make decisions and guide our aspiration to be a truly diverse, inclusive and equitable community. 

Along similar lines in 2013, we began addressing the male-dominated culture infused within traditional Zen Buddhist forms and liturgy. To honor women and those who identify as non-binary within our practice and sangha in the Mountains and Rivers Order, we created new liturgy and altars to honor our Women ancestors and gender fluidity. An altar for Mahapajapati, who sought and received ordination as the first nun in the sangha of the Buddha, was placed in the front of the zendo at the Monastery to honor all the women ancestors, including those whose identities have been omitted from the historical record.

On the Monastery main altar, statues of a gender fluid of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, and female Prajna Paramita, an embodiment of wisdom also known as the “Mother of All Buddhas,” were added, and four images of other female ancestors were also added to the ancestor’s altars in the Monastery’s Buddha Hall and at Fire Lotus Temple. During our regular Sunday Program at both the Monastery and the Temple, a liturgical chant of the Women Ancestors, beginning with Mahapajapati until most recently with Jiyu Kennett, has been incorporated into the service. The full chant is recited every other Sunday, in alternation with the traditional  Ancestral Lineage (which is predominantly male), and an abbreviated version is recited on Sundays when the traditional lineage is chanted.

Since the inception of the BFOD planning committee, we have been actively making changes to our structures, our policies, our programs, our facilities, our communications, how we train and practice together so that we can create a culture where everyone feels welcome, regardless of their identity, and feels supported to train, practice and realize their buddha nature. You can see the list above to have a look at how these changes are taking shape.