July 15, 2009
Written by C.N.
Earlier this month, my family and I attended the annual Family Retreat at the Deer Park Monastery. The monastery was founded by the well-known but sometimes controversial Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn and is set in the hills and desert just outside of Escondido, California. Some of our friends in the Los Angeles have attended this retreat for yours and this was the second year that we attended.
Overall, we really enjoyed the retreat and its nature-centered activities and sessions of relaxed meditation and discussions on being mindful in our daily lives, geared towards adults, children, and both together. We also enjoy being able to camp with other families (dorms are also available) and socializing with like-minded friends and newly-made friends. It’s a nice and much more relaxed change of pace from the more traditional and strict Vipassana Meditation Center that we also participate in.
Modern Buddhism seems to be an increasingly popular and multicultural practice among many Americans and around the world, particularly forms related to the less formal Mahayana version (as opposed to the stricter monastic Theravada version). As a reflection of such, this retreat was truly a multicultural and multiracial event — of the 120-150 or so people in attendance (from babies to grandparents), about 40% were Asian/Asian American, 40% were White, and the rest were African American, Latino, and other races/ethnicities.
With this in mind, it was truly gratifying to see everyone interacting with each other in a very mindful, mutually-respectful, and genuinely peaceful way throughout the event, in contrast to some of the sad examples of racial hostility that still exists in other parts of American society. Within this environment, I and my family felt very comfortable and refreshed and certainly, this is one of the main reasons why we plan on attending in future years.
At the same time, there were a couple of incidents that again highlighted for me the nature of racial differences that still pervade American society, even within the confines of a insulated and “conscious” environment like this. Both of these incidents are not significant or upsetting enough for me to stop attending — it’s only because I am a sociologist that I focus on them.
The first involved a group of families visiting from Viet Nam (as distinguished from Vietnamese American), about 20 individuals in all. For the most part, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the attendees and in fact, as a Vietnamese American, I was very pleased to see them participating in the retreat (although I regret that because of my lack of fluency in Vietnamese that I couldn’t really personally communicate with them).
Unfortunately, their “foreignness” became apparent at the end of each day’s events.
Each day’s activities generally concluded around 9pm, after which attendees would prepare to go to sleep, either in their tents in the campground area or in the dorm area. At 9:30pm, the guidelines called for “noble silence” when everyone is expected to stay quiet for the night.
For whatever reason, this group of Vietnamese families did not understand these guidelines or chose to ignore them because each night, almost everyone could hear them staying up and being quite loud in both the dorm and tent areas. This involved not just talking, but often included shouting, yelling, and arguing very loudly and disruptively well into the night.
Needless to say, this made getting a good night’s sleep rather difficult for many of us. The other part of these incidents were that even though many of us talked to the monks about this situation, for whatever reasons, it continued every night until the end of the retreat.
This leads me to wonder whether the monks (who were about 80% Vietnamese American and the rest were White) felt shy in confronting the Vietnamese group, perhaps fearful that they (and perhaps by implication, the rest of us as attendees) were being too harsh or authoritarian towards them as foreigners visiting the U.S. Symbolized by Barack Obama as our President, these days many Americans are more mindful not to come across as judgmental and “superior” towards others around the world.
But on the other hand, the Vietnamese group’s behavior may have reinforced the notion of them as loud and crude foreigners and “outsiders” to the rest of the attendees. As such, failing to confront their behavior could have caused more harm than good in terms of helping to bridge social divisions and dispel lingering cultural stereotypes toward non-Whites and/or foreigners.
For me personally, this is a complicated issue that highlights some of the ironies and contradictions involved in being Asian American, as I wrote about earlier in regards to a similar incident in an airport security line — standing up for and defending Asians in racial solidarity, but also being embarrassed and even annoyed by their “foreignness” as an American myself.
In contrast, the second “racial” incident at the retreat does not involve much ambiguity at all.
Specifically, during the retreat, families were assigned to different “service meditation” work groups, helping the monks with different tasks involved with running the retreat, such as cleaning bathrooms, setting up the meditation hall, etc. Our family was assigned to one of three teams who helped to clean up, wash, and dry plates, pots, and utensils after one meal each day.
My family and I actually enjoyed this work as it allowed us to give something back to, or at least directly help in the mundane, behind-the-scenes operation of the retreat — a sense of ownership perhaps. We also felt a sense of community in working as a team within not just our family, but with the other families in our group, each of us doing our part to contribute to the larger purpose and becoming closer to each other in the process.
However, after the last meal (lunch) on the last day of the retreat, there were no teams assigned to clean up afterward and instead, the monks asked for volunteers to stay a little bit to wash dishes, etc. Our family was not in a rush to leave so we joined in the effort.
As it turned out, of the 15 or so people who stayed to help clean up, all but one was a person of color — there was just one White person who helped in the cleanup.
In particular, I took notice of one young White couple who came to the morning activities (apparently on the last day of the retreat, the monastery invites those from the surrounding community to come in and participate in a group walk and lunch). During lunch, this couple actually raised their hands when the monks asked for volunteers to stay and clean up, but for whatever reasons, just walked away and left once they finished their lunch.
I hate to say it, but the actions of this particular couple and the White attendees present at this last lunch seem to be a microcosm of the White-privileged notion that service work should be left to people of color and that unless they are specifically assigned to do so, many Whites seem to think that they are “above” such “demeaning” work and physical labor.
These two incidents go to show that even at an event that shows us the peace, harmony, and mindfulness that exists in American society and among people from all kinds of backgrounds, in many ways, American society is still quite racialized, even if most of us may be completely oblivious to such dynamics.