This articleAnālayo, B. Confronting Racism with Mindfulness. Mindfulness 11, 2283–2297 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01432-4 by Bhikkhu Anālayo (a foremost scholar of early Buddhist literature) examines Buddhist teachings and modern scientific research on mindfulness in order to recommend ways in which mindfulness may be relevant to anti-racist practice for Buddhists and non-Buddhists. He suggests that while the scientific literature already recognizes mindfulness as having some benefit in regard to reducing the intensity of suffering experienced by victims of racial discrimination and helping people become aware of unconscious biases, a potentially fruitful avenue for research would be the application of mindfulness to systemic racism, and specifically, its potential for helping white people become aware of how their racial behaviors perpetuate harm. He frames this as an application of “external mindfulness” (an aspect of mindfulness often overlooked in contemporary Buddhist practice as well as in scientific research), and concludes the article by suggesting that white Buddhist practitioners regard diversity work as central to their practice of the path. [What follows is a brief summary of the article with just a few contextual comments in brackets.]
The article begins by briefly examining historical precedents for racism in Europe. It next considers some definitions of racism and then compares Indian concepts of caste with modern Euro-American concepts of race. Anālayo notes that while there are important differences between the concepts, there is enough similarity to make the Buddhist critique of the Indian caste system relevant to modern Euro-American racism. He mentions that while the word for caste (varṇa) means “color,” and Western scholars have often framed this in terms of racial discrimination on the part of a lighter skinned immigrant population against a darker indigenous population, ancient Indian attitudes towards skin color were ambivalent. [There is colorism (discrimination based on skin tone) today in India, but it is not directly related to caste-based discrimination. Historians debate what role skin color may have played in the ancient Indian concept of caste and how it changed over time and place. Most agree that present day colorism is strongly influenced by European racial ideas and attitudes promulgated during the colonial period.]
Anālayo points out that at the time of the Buddha, the caste system was in a process of formation and contestation; brahmins were struggling to establish their superiority based on birth. Anālayo cites passages from Buddhist discourses showing brahmins asserting this birth-based superiority, especially in regard to spiritual purity. Skin color is mentioned in a couple of these passages. [However, birth appears to be the primary concern even when color is mentioned.] Anālayo demonstrates how the Buddha in the discourses uses various arguments against the idea that superiority (in regard to spiritual qualities or other abilities) can be the result of birth. For the Buddha it is conduct that determines a persons spiritual (and other) qualities. Anālayo underscores the fact that entry into the Buddhist monastic order involved renunciation of caste identity and other markers of social status. He holds up the Buddha’s outspokenness against the caste system as an invitation for contemporary Buddhists to confront racial oppression.
Anālayo then discusses the Vāseṭṭha sutta (one of the most important discourses for the Buddha’s teachings on caste) at greater length. Among other things, he points out that the Buddha explains the class of brahmins as the result of social evolution rather than as part of a natural order (as in the Vedas). Noting how the Buddha attends to the sutta’s namesake, Vāseṭṭha and his friend, Bhāradvāja’s experiences of caste based discrimination, Anālayo turns to consider how mindfulness might be a tool to combat racial oppression.
The next section of the article (“Racial Oppression and Mindfulness”) cites scientific literature examining the ways mindfulness may protect victims of racial discrimination from further emotional suffering by: increasing resilience, reducing intensity and duration of emotional experience, increasing agency, reducing anxiety, reducing suicidal ideation, and allowing separation of the experience of discrimination from concepts of self-worth and thus mitigate symptoms of depression. Anālayo notes that these researchers do not intend these findings to suggest that victims should bear the burden of racism by learning to cope better with discrimination. The next sections of the article focus on the role mindfulness might play in preventing racist behavior in the first place.
He considers how mindfulness may help [perpetrators of racism] in regard to becoming aware of racial bias and overcoming ignorance (or denial) of systemic racism. Anālayo suggests that although it has not been a focus of mindfulness research, the concept of external mindfulness [mindfulness focused on external factors, rather than one’s own mental-emotional-physical states] may be helpful here, and “emerges naturally when teaching mindfulness to confront racial oppression.” He suggests that external mindfulness can be applied to white privilege in order to enhance awareness in white people not only of how they relate to racial difference, but of the harmful impact of actions informed by white privilege. [The idea seems to be that the two applications of mindfulness, to internal states and the external social sphere go hand in hand such that awareness in regard to impact of actions on others facilitates internal awareness of the biases and cognitive-emotional patterns that fuel such actions, and vice versa, so that harmful social patterns can be identified and relinquished.]
In the final section of the article, Anālayo examines how diversity work figures into the Buddhist path. He first notes how white supremacy can be understood in light of the Buddha’s teaching that conceit in regard to familial social position is an obstacle on the path. He then discusses how white supremacy relates to the cultivation of the path. I’ll quote this discussion at length as it may be most relevant for readers:
“In early Buddhist thought, such progress requires cultivating the eightfold path, which can be adjusted to the present task. Out of the eight factors of this path, three are of particular relevance for cultivating the entire path. These are right view, right effort, and right mindfulness (MN 117, MĀ 189, Up 6080; Anālayo 2019b). Right view provides the overall orien- tation. For the present purpose, an aspect of particular relevance would be the need to recognize that good and bad deeds have results. Although the original import of this aspect of right view refers to karma, it can be taken to reflect ‘the need to take responsibility for one’s actions’ (Anālayo 2019a, p. 67).
Based on such taking responsibility, right mindfulness continuously monitors to detect the impact of superiority conceit and the activation of racial bias. Such monitoring has right effort as its support, ensuring that action is taken on the spot to counter superiority conceit and bias.
Equipped in this way, the right intention for the absence of harm can come to percolate all aspects of daily life in the form of communications, general activities, and being at work (corresponding to right speech, action, and livelihood), ensuring that none of these situations results in anything that people of color may experience as harmful or disrespectful. Diminishing harm and undermining conceit in this and other ways will facilitate mental collectedness, leading to right concentration.
In this way, diversity work, rather than being perhaps at times seen by some as an annoying duty to which white Buddhists have to assent in order to be politically correct, can come to be right at the heart of their path of practice. The chief tool to work against the grain of superiority conceit in this way is none other than mindfulness, in its internal and external dimensions.”