Pushing Past Tokenism

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Apr 14, 2016

This weekend I will be joining a group of LGBTQ people from around the country at a monastery-turned-retreat-center in Garrison, New York, for three days of silence. At the retreat, called "Waking Up Free, Whole, and Fabulous: Healing Within and In the World," about 80 of us will alternate between sitting and walking meditation, with meals and sleep in between. One of our four teachers will be La Sarmiento, a queer, transgender person of Filipino descent who uses the pronoun "they." Along with guiding us through our silence, Sarmiento will give us an hour long talk about Buddhist philosophy. They will probably use their ukulele to punctuate their teachings.

As you might imagine, it’s rare to find a trans, queer teacher of color in the overwhelmingly White, cisgender and straight world of mindfulness. For work, Sarmiento manages retreats and helps lead the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW). Founded by the author, psychotherapist and spiritual leader Tara Brach, IMCW combines Eastern philosophy with Western psychology. Sarmiento is also noted for making spaces for LGBTQ people and people of color to practice among their own communities. I met up with Sarmiento at their Washington, D.C., home before my silent retreat to talk about race and gender dynamics in mindfulness. 

Were you religious growing up?

I was raised Catholic and totally hated it the entire time I was growing up. It just didn’t resonate for me at all, at any level. The biggest part was I had to wear a dress to church. [Laughs.] I kind of went through the motions until I went to college and stopped going to mass. In my 20s I just kind of rejected all forms of spirituality and religion. u2028

Tell me about how you found Buddhism. u2028

When I was around 34, I had a really bad breakup. I realized that the common denominator in all my failed serial monogamous relationships was me. I needed to stop that pattern and take some time to just be with myself. Taking that year and a half was just a powerful opportunity to come back and recognize that I really liked my own company.

How did you start practicing?

A dear friend told me about Tara Brach’s classes in 1998, a year after the breakup. I went pretty regularly for seven years. I always joke about how the first time I went [to a class], I was the only other person of color there besides the Buddha sitting next to Tara. This was par for the course though. I was used to being a token because the college I went to was predominantly White. 

When did you get more involved in Brach’s IMCW?

I was part of IMCW’s board for about a year and a half, between 2005 and 2006. That was really painful because that [dovetailed with] one of the incarnations of [a] diversity committee and their explorations around the fact that they were a dominant-culture sangha. ["Sangha" is Sanskrit for "community."] This was the very beginnings into any exploration of diversity within Western, American, Buddhist convert sanghas.

You’ve worked with and led people-of-color and LGBTQ sanghas and retreats for about a decade. Why are they important?

The first gatherings of folks of color to get together and have a retreat were in the early ’90s. Larry Yang often describes it this way: To create spaces for folks that are either people of color or queer folks is important because when our teachers came back from Asia, they didn’t immediately go to the already established Asian Buddhist communities [here]. [Those groups] didn’t resonate with them culturally, so they created what was going to work best for them.

Do you remember your first POC retreat?

Yeah my first POC sit was at Insight Meditation Society in 2007. It was amazing. I got there and [was like], “Oh my God, like there are no White people here.” Because it was on the East Coast, it was mostly African-American, with some Latino folks and some Asian folks. There were teachers that reflected me.

In the beginning of our conversation you mentioned that you didn’t mind being a token initially. Do you remember when you stopped feeling comfortable being the only person of color in the room?u2028

It was soon after the [LGBTQ and POC] sanghas started because I was getting a lot of pushback from dominant-culture friends of mine from IMCW. They would say things like: “Why do you need to separate yourselves out? We’re all one.” Or people would show me their arms [and say] “Well I’m about as dark as you are; I’m a person of color.”  Or they’d say, "I don’t see color. When I look at you, I just see La." So that was pretty hard. As I was beginning to accept my own identity and really own that, it just got harder and harder to engage. So there was a very volatile period for me within IMCW itself.u2028 And then I got to the point where I realized, "La it took 40-something years to get where you are. Give these White people a break." The kicker is that you just gotta keep finding openheartedness and compassion and kindness to support yourself and take care of yourself in the midst of ignorance, unconsciousness and oppression.

What’s kept you involved with the community all of these years?

There have been so many times that I’ve wanted to leave the sangha. People have said, "Just do your own thing." [But] I’m a really loyal person and Tara is my teacher and my mentor and a good friend. There is an interesting multi-dimensional relationship that we have. We’ve stuck in there with each other and learned so much about the importance of a committed, respectful, loving relationship, for people to be able to call each other on things, to be really honest and vulnerable. It’s just been a really huge part of my practice of learning to stay, learning to tolerate discomfort and hanging in there with folks who want to wake up but just don’t quite have it yet.

Do you think there are neocolonial elements in U.S. Buddhism?u2028

[Yes], especially [as someone] coming from a colonized country. Mindfulness has become this trendy thing; there’s a real strong effort to make it secularized. People here take the science of it with no mention of where this comes from because it might freak out the Christians or whatever. For me, it’s just so disrespectful. It’s another way I see this country appropriating and taking yet again something that wasn’t theirs and profiting on all different levels from that. I get angry and sad about it.

What do you think is the biggest barrier to dominant-culture sanghas being more welcoming for people of color and queer people?

I think it’s this belief that diversity means having more of us just be there. To me it’s always been about the consciousness that the sangha has, the energy that people feel, [if] it feels safe enough, feels welcoming enough, and feels like folks can take responsibility for things that they say or do.u2028

Here is an analogy I use a lot. Say a dominant-culture sangha or organization is having a dinner party and they decide they want to invite some new guests. The guests say, “Oh that’s great! Can we bring our own food? And we’ve got music and we like to dance after we have dinner.” The dominant-culture sangha is like, “No, we’ve already ordered the food and we just need you to come to the table and eat our food. We don’t need your music, we don’t need you bringing food that smells different or looks different.” u2028

Another barrier is just getting that you have to listen and have the humility to put aside any ideas of how you think the world is because that’s what usually will get people in trouble. When people say, "Inside we’re all the same, so all this other stuff shouldn’t matter," it’s just a lot of blindness.

You also lead teen retreats. Have you seen a different relationship among the youth to the issues of race, gender and privilege?

They totally get it. When I come out as gender non-conforming—the first question is, "What pronouns do you use, La?" And they get so mad when other adults mess it up.

In terms of race dynamics, when we talk about them within the teen retreat organization, [we say,] "The kids are fine. The adults need more of that education or consciousness raising." When I’m with them there is this feeling of "Wow, there is so much hope that change and consciousness will happen."