EAST BAY MEDITATION CENTER TIMELINE
2001: A group incorporated as a religious nonprofit organization under the name of “East Bay Dharma Center.”
2005: The group officially changed their name to the “East Bay Meditation Center.”
2006: A new board renamed as the Leadership Sangha assumed the leadership of the organization and adopted a new mission statement, declaring that EBMC was “founded in a celebration of diversity.”
2006 (October): The first program of meditation for People of Color was held.
2006 (December): The first sitting group for Communities of Color was held.
2007 (January): The East Bay Meditation Center officially opened its doors with an Opening Celebration event on January 20, a date that deliberately coincided with the national celebration of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
2007: EBMC invited the East Bay LGBT group to sit at the center.
2012 (October): EBMC moved to its current location in downtown Oakland.
Since the late 1990s, a number of teachers and participants, predominantly from the American Insight Community, had begun to discuss the need to create a meditation center for the East Bay, the Eastern region of the San Francisco Bay Area. The East Bay consists of a number of cities of which Oakland is the largest, and, in general, is a more diverse, working-class and affordable area to live in than San Francisco. This center would be tailored specifically for the diverse and multicultural populations of the East Bay and would provide an alternative to the predominantly white, middle-class convert sitting groups that characterized the Insight and Zen communities of the Bay Area in Northern California (Gleig 2014).
In 2001, the group incorporated as a nonprofit organization under the name of the “East Bay Dharma Center” and would undergo several shifts in membership before summer, 2006 when there were only four people left on the committee: Charlie Johnson, Larry Yang, Spring Washam and David Foecke. Charlie Johnson is an Insight and Yoga teacher who has served on the board of directors at both Spirit Rock Meditation Center and EBMC. Larry Yang is an Insight teacher who has made a significant contribution to bringing diversity and multicultural awareness and training to the Insight community. Spring Washam is an Insight teacher who is well known for bringing mindfulness to minority populations. David Foecke is an Insight practitioner who was instrumental in developing EBMC’s generosity-based economics (gift economics system). In March, 2007, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, a Zen-trained Buddhist teacher and diversity facilitator, and Kitsy Schoen, an Insight teacher, joined the founding members. These six figures were known as the original “core teachers” at EBMC (Gleig 2014 and East Bay Meditation Center n.d.).
According to Yang, the fact that three of the four founding members (Johnson, Washam and himself) were people of color made a significant difference in creating a center that did not merely reproduce the same race and class dynamics of the overwhelmingly white, middle-class Insight groups of the Bay area. Rather than impose a structure on the community, they asked local communities what they wanted from the center and in response held their first Person of Color meditation class in October, 2006. After finding a suitable location in a storefront in downtown Oakland, they held their first sitting group for Communities of Color in December of the same year (Gleig 2014).
EBMC officially opened its doors with an opening celebration event that included a blessing ceremony and community welcome onJanuary 20, 2007. Shortly afterward, they invited the pre-existing East Bay LGBTQI group to sit at the center. EBMC has since added a number of population specific sitting and mindful movement groups. These include an EBMC teenage sangha, an “Every Body Every Mind” group for people with chronic illness and disabilities, a People of Color yoga group, and a recovery and dharma sangha. In addition to this, the EBMC has developed a robust calendar of events that include such things as family practice classes and workshops on nonviolent conflict reconciliation. The attendance at these events grew rapidly, with often a fifty to sixty percent waiting list for daylong programs. In order to accommodate such high demand, in 2012, EBMC relocated to a much larger space in downtown Oakland.
EBMC states its mission as “to foster liberation, personal and interpersonal healing, social action, and inclusive community building.” This points to its equal commitment to Buddhist teachings, particularly drawn from the Western mindfulness lineage that has developed from Theravada Buddhism, and also to liberatory social justice teachings inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Audre Lorde, Grace Lee Boggs, and socially-engaged Buddhist teachings of the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. In terms of its Buddhist influences, most of the teachers and the founding members of EBMC have been trained in the American Insight or Vipassana movement. This is a form of Buddhism modernism that further modernized the initial reformation of Theravada Buddhism that occurred in the nineteenth century under both Western and Asian modernizers during colonialism. The Insight tradition privileges the practices of vipassana and metta, loving-kindness meditation, and draws mostly on the early teachings of the Buddha as recorded in the Pali Canon. However, it is also a nonsectarian and generally pluralistic stream of Buddhism that draws on certain Mahayana teachings, particularly those on compassion. EBMC also has other Buddhist and spiritual influences through teachers from different lineages. Mushim Patricia Ikeda, for example, is the only core teacher at EBMC who was primarily trained in the Korean Zen Buddhist sect, thus emphasizing the Path of the Bodhisattva, which is prominently featured in the Mahayana lineage. Other teachers have training in yoga and other spiritual lineages and bring these influences to the center. In addition, EBMC teachers often draw on the literature of popular Western Buddhist teachers, such as Jack Kornfield and Pema Chödrön .
EBMC is firmly committed to social justice and radical inclusion. It shares many of the aims of socially engaged Buddhism, which seeks to apply Buddhist principles and practices to end suffering that is due to unjust social conditions and it has strong ties with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. In terms of how this is expressed in beliefs and actions, EBMC is marked by an investigation of how foundational Buddhist teachings and practices can be applied to contemporary issues of diversity, inclusion and social justice. For instance, EBMC has embraced the concept of universal access and has worked toward disability consciousness and accommodations across its organizational structure to the extent that resources allow (Ikeda 2014a, 2014b, 2014c, 2014d).
EBMC holds weekly sitting meditation groups, which are predominantly focused on Vipassana meditation. It also holds mindful movement weekly groups such as “ABC (All Bodies Centering) Yoga,” Yoga for People of Color, and “Qi Gong for People” a group that practices the Chinese contemplative exercise of Qi Gong. Each group is distinct but to get an idea of a typical group format, a glance at the structure of the Alphabet Sangha, the LGBTQI group, is useful. The Alphabet Sangha is a drop-in group, which meets once a week, every Tuesday evening, for an hour and a half. It begins with an icebreaker and community-building activity in which attendees are invited to discuss a dharma related question in small groups. This is followed by a forty-minute meditation, usually but not exclusively vipassana, and then there is a short tea break and chance to chat with fellow practitioners. The evening concludes with a dharma talk given by the teacher of the group, which might be part of a longer series of talks or might be a stand-alone talk specifically tailored to the evening. These dharma talks tend to address foundational teachings, such as a component of the Eightfold Path. Teachers must be LGBTQI-identified or must co-teach with an LGBTQI-identified teacher. The sangha has a number of regular teachers who are located in the Bay Area such as Joan Doyle, Shahara Godfrey, and Anushka Fernandopulle and also invites visiting teachers such as Arinna Weisman. The evening ends with sangha announcements and a dana talk by one of the many volunteers who come early to set the group space up. It consists of a mix of regular attendees and also a constant influx of new members (Gleig 2012).
Alongside the weekly drop-in sitting groups, EBMC runs many other daylong retreats and workshops and evening classes requiring registration. Mention should be made of the long-term one-year programs designed to meet the needs of and support the development of more experienced practitioners. Larry Yang has run several “Commit2Dharma” (C2D) programs and Mushim Patricia Ikeda has led several Practice in Transformative Action programs. These longer programs offer more in-depth trainings and include aspects such as the study of primary Buddhist literature in the case of C2D, and training in secular mindfulness for social justice activists and change agents. Beginning in January 2015, EBMC will offer a six-month training for white allies, White Allies Active and Awakening (WAAA). WAA is designed to build the awareness and skills of white Dharma practitioners toward the creation of a truly inclusive sangha at EBMC. Finally, mention should also be made of the peer run “Deep Refuge” groups that center around shared issues and identity and aim to build up stronger sanghas within the wider EBMC sangha.
In addition to the various Buddhist and meditation rituals and practices offered at EBMC, attention should also be drawn to its list of diversity practices. These are detailed on its website and are considered as foundational as its Buddhist practices. In fact, when EBMC opened, members placed an LGBTQI rainbow flag up on the wall before assembling the altar. This was to symbolize its commitment to diversity at the onset rather than merely attending to it retrospectively as a type of “tick off the diversity checklist” or “foods and festivals” addition. This commitment to diversity and inclusion has led to the interpretation, extension and innovation of classical Buddhist practices to apply to situations of racism, classism, homophobia and other forms of social oppression. For example, Larry Yang has developed a specific list of diversity mind trainings, which draw on the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh to apply practices of mindfulness to specific incidents of discrimination and injustice (Yang 2004). In addition, at community-building events, participants are invited to state preferred pronouns for themselves, along with their names, on name tags in order to facilitate respectful interactions and to raise consciousness around a non-binary gender model.
The EBMC has created an organization and leadership structure that fully reflects its commitment to diversity and radical inclusion, an intentional commitment to include people who have been historically marginalized and oppressed. As stated on its website, EBMC operates with “transparent democratic governance, generosity-based economics, and environmental sustainability.” In terms of its transparent democratic governance, it has a board of directors called the Leadership Sangha committee (presently consisting of seven members) that is collectively approved and reflects a diverse population of teachers and practitioners. A core requirement of all EBMC teachers is that they have a sufficient understanding of and commitment to diversity. EBMC collaborates with other local and national centers, but it has no formal ties with any other organizations. There are strong links, however, between individual teachers and centers in the Bay Area. For example, Larry Yang and Spring Washam are members of the Teachers Council at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and Mushim Patricia Ikeda has served as a visiting teacher and diversity consultant for the San Francisco Zen Center. She also is a former board member of both San Francisco Zen Center and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Charlie Johnson, one of EBMC’s founding teachers, has served on the board of Spirit Rock.
Furthermore, in keeping with its commitment to diversity and inclusion, the EBMC has developed a list of diversity practices such as tracking, reserving space for and advertising events to specific underrepresented communities (particularly People of Color, who have been historically marginalized in U.S. Buddhist convert communities). Input from the wider EBMC Sangha is regularly invited through evaluation forms, community meetings, and interactive social media. Anyone can propose to teach a class or workshop at EBMC, through an application process that asks applicants to demonstrate how what they plan to present will be made relevant to the interests and needs of a diverse, multicultural audience (Personal communication with Patricia Mushim Ikeda, 2014) .
EBMC operates on a “gift economics” basis, and all programs and events (except fundraising programs) are offered free of charge on a donation basis in order to make the Center accessible to people of all income levels. In Buddhism, gift economics is traditionally known as the practice of dana, a Pali word for the practice of generous giving or offering, which forms one of the parami s or paramita s or perfections (virtue/trainings) in both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism. Participants are invited to make donations at individual events, giving to the Center in one collection box and separately to the teachers in a second box. They are also encouraged to become “Friends of EBMC” and make monthly donations to support the Center. There are currently five part-time staff members and several hundred volunteers who keep EBMC running on a day to day basis.
Finally, EBMC is fully committed to environmental sustainability. This is visible in a range of practices from composting all of the recycled paper hand towels used in the bathrooms, and purchasing compostable eating utensils for events at which foods is served, to using only biodegradable, fragrance free and non-toxic cleaning supplies.
EBMC has faced a number of internal and external challenges since its inception. An ongoing pragmatic challenge for EBMC is maintaining financial health and viability. Operating via gift economics, in which all of the teachings and events at EBMC are offered on a donation basis, can make it difficult for the Center to cover its monthly costs such as rent, insurance, and staff payroll. Most of the people who attend events at EBMC tend to be lower income. EBMC has attempted to meet this challenge by encouraging its community members to become regular monthly donors through the Friends of EBMC program, or by accepting a monthly bill payment system (such as for insurance or Internet service). Other fundraising events include an annual Dharma-thon, a twelve-hour event of continuous dharma practice in Oakland. Participants raise sponsorship funds and organized benefit events with well-known teachers and figures in U.S. Buddhism.
One internal challenge that EBMC has faced is finding teachers who are sufficiently qualified in both Buddhist training and diversity awareness and cultural sensitivity. Historically, the Insight and Zen Buddhist communities have not adopted culturally sensitive training modalities, and this has resulted in both a general lack of awareness in white teachers as well as a lack of participation of minority groups in teaching and leadership roles. Mainly due to the outreach efforts of individual teachers, such as Larry Yang, however, changes are slowly occurring. For example, due to Yang’s efforts, in 2012 the Community Dharma Leaders Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center had a forty percent participation of People of Color and/or LGBTQI identified compared to eight percent the previous training. This is evidence of the wider impact and unique contribution that EBMC is making towards the wider U.S. Buddhist convert communit (Yang 2011, 2012a, 2012b, Ikeda, 2014a).
Another internal challenge for EBMC is that of “diversity tension” situations in which different cultural needs clash or are in direct opposition. An example of this is EBMC’s policy to keep the space fragrance-free to make the center accessible to those suffering from multiple chemical sensitivities and chemical injury. The tension here is that for some practitioners, using fragranced personal products and incense are important aspects of cultural identity and expression. In general, these challenges are seen as further practice opportunities, and an optimistic hermeneutic rooted in secular models (such as restorative justice, conflict resolution) and Buddhist models (such as wise speech) is employed to meet them (Gleig 2012).
An external challenge that EBMC and EBMC teachers have faced is resistance from the wider U.S. Buddhist convert community to support for identity-based groups and to fully engage with issues of diversity. This has resulted in some centers cancelling or refusing to start population-specific retreats or sitting groups. EBMC teachers think this occurs because teachers without diversity awareness believe that honoring cultural difference is at odds with foundational Buddhist teachings, such as the philosophy of anatta (nonself, or no separate and unchanging self) and threatens the unity of the Buddhist sangha. Larry Yang has attributed some of this resistance to an idealistic and conflict-avoidant framing of the spiritual life as “pleasant, peaceful and sublime,” as well as ignorance of the structural suffering generated by race, class and gender inequalities. In response, Yang has developed a hermeneutic of diversity in which he interprets the traditional three refuges or jewels of Buddhism (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) through the lens of multiculturalism and diversity. Yang, in other words, reads diversity as inherent and complementary to foundational Buddhist teachings and history. All of EBMC’s teachers are strong advocates for “Dharma and diversity” as well as a socially-engaged understanding of Dharma practice and study (Gleig 2012; Yang 2011, 2012a, 2012b).
It should be noted, however, that alongside resistance from certain segments of the wider U.S. Buddhist convert population, EBMC has drawn the support of a number of well-known teachers and figures, such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Alice Walker. EBMC’s January, 2015 benefit fundraiser featured a dialogue between noted activist and author, Angela Davis, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. The EBMC community also has strong links with and support from the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and a number of participants have commitments to both communities.
I wish to acknowledge the assistance of Patricia Mushim Ikeda in gathering and interpreting information on East Bay Meditation Center for this profile.
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Gleig, Ann. 2012. “Queering Buddhism or Buddhist De-Queering? Reflecting on Differences amongst Western LGBTQI Buddhists and the Limitations of Liberal Convert Buddhism.” Journal of Theology and Sexuality 18:198-214.
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