Dismantling systems that prevent full representation
For years, I’ve wanted to teach in a dharma context. My motivation for this has been simple: I love to teach. I love to learn, and sharing the things I’m learning helps me to keep learning. I love to help folks connect with their own curiosity. And I love sharing practice with others.
Within dharma communities, I am often met with resistance when I express this longing to teach. It comes in many forms, and is an excellent way to explore how culturally dominant groups enact gatekeeping within smaller communities. This piece is not to demonise or vilify, but to illuminate, because when we address gatekeeping in smaller group settings, we can explore how to address it in the broader cultural context. Understanding how patterns of gatekeeping are perpetrated also prevents us from enacting them on others. While gatekeeping has been used against me, I don’t consider it an act of equality to shift power dynamics so folks from marginalised groups can become gatekeepers.
The most prevalent form of gatekeeping I’ve encountered in dharma communities is what I call ‘credentialing’. To unpack what this is, we first must get on the same ground as to what a credential is. According to a dictionary definition, a credential is:
a qualification, achievement, personal quality, or aspect of a person’s background, typically when used to indicate that they are suitable for something.
What makes a person suitable for something can vary and come in many forms, from formal training qualifications to personal experience to their social or business network. It’s about knowing whether or not someone has the capacity for a role, and there are so many things that can point to that and many ways to find out if someone has the right credentials. But what I am calling ‘credentialing’ is when we limit what counts as a qualification and limit who gets to decide who is qualified.
In Western dharma communities, there is a lot of elitism. This elitism is generally maintained through a dominant group dynamic that is reflective of the dynamics we see in the wider society. That is to say, most of the gatekeepers in Western dharma communities tend to be cis-male, white, heterosexual, and middle or upper-middle class. ‘Credentialing’ is a result of this elitism, as the dominant group determines what counts as a valid qualification for certain kinds of participation within their community—as teachers, leaders and guides.
I am a well-rounded dharma student with a decade-long practice. I’m primarily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, but I have also studied many Zen teachings. I don’t ‘pick and choose’, but explore different ways the teachings have been presented as part of my practice, in order keep from slipping into a fundamentalist attitude or sense of ‘rightness’. Being a dharma practitioner does not reduce the risk of thinking one particular Buddhist path is better than another, so exploring different sects is a way for me to maintain humility, although there is no question that I have a very particular path and commitment.
Despite my years of practice and how essential and all-encompassing it is in my life, credentialing has kept me from participating in dharma communities as I would like. When I enter a dharma community I haven’t practiced with before, I am expected to start back at the most basic levels of instruction.
There is nothing wrong with revisiting the basics. The foundation of our practice is worthy of ongoing contemplation, but it’s frustrating that the merit of that foundation is dismissed simply because it was built within a different community. It would be a bit like getting credits at one University and not being able to transfer them to another. Or imagine if you were studying art, and had been studying it for years, but when you switched to a new teacher they insisted you start back at shapes and colours and not create art to the level you are trained just because you didn’t train with them.
It’s very uncomfortable to be in the position of defending one's qualifications, especially in a dharma community where stating your credentials on your own terms can be dismissed as ‘ego-clinging’. I don’t want to come across as arrogant, which puts me in a bind when I know I cannot control how someone will take it if I share with them the depth of my practice.
I also don’t want to piggy-back on the weight of the teachers I’ve studied with. Name dropping makes me extremely uncomfortable, and yet it is a form of credentialing that is often taken as proof of someone’s qualifications. It’s like how folks think naming a friend they have from a marginalised community validates or speaks to how ‘woke’ they are. My teachers have no bearing on the fruit of my practice and where I am on the path of liberation. All the name of a teacher can tell anyone might be the particular Buddhist influence of someone’s practice, and which concepts they might be familiar with. Name dropping tells us nothing about how that individual is applying the teachings in their life, just who they happen to know.
A common justification for why different dharma communities have the credentialing they do is that it helps to gauge where folks are at and ensure that the people are in roles that are a good fit—where they can be of benefit and not cause harm. On the surface this seems like very sensible reasoning, but in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as more folks come forward and name sexual misconduct and abuse perpetrated in all communities, dharma communities included, this reasoning has no weight. When people in positions of power, at the head of these communities, have not been held accountable until now, it’s a clear sign that gatekeeping has actually contributed to the problem.
Within professional spaces, like the tech industry, there are conversations happening around representation and what that looks like. Awareness of who gets to decide what counts as a qualification is helping companies see how ideas from the dominant culture keep unrepresented folks from applying for and getting jobs and staying within an organisation. Dharma communities are no less subject to the dominant culture, which equates leadership with white, often male, presumed heterosexual embodiments.
I commonly practice within the Shambhala community because of who my teacher is, but my participation has always been as an outlier. I held a both/and mentality regarding the founder, Chögyam Trungpa. His teachings are brilliant and profound, but what does it mean for someone seemingly so realised to act in such outrageous and damaging ways? I have certainly benefited from what he taught, but I am also aware that he was carrying a lot of unprocessed trauma. Besides having sexual relationships with many of his students, which was a breach of responsibility for a figure of such authority, he also drank himself to death.
I went through the five training levels they offer, and the Ridgen Weekend, but wasn’t comfortable going further. I felt no connection to the Sakyong, and wasn’t interested in doing any of the courses that required me to take vows with him. I questioned the imperial structure of the organisation, as history gives us no examples of enlightened kings, but I was still happy to participate in the Shambhala centres on a local level. I have made friends in this community, folks I think of as family, and it has supported my practice in various ways.
In the wake of the disclosure of the Sakyong’s misconduct, I have watched my dear friends struggling with the pain of both/and. Of their teacher being the person who may have saved their life also being the cause of immense suffering. Of their teacher being yet another example of the damage caused by cultural conditioning and unchecked trauma. Of a community rocked yet again, not even for the second time, but for the third, as yet another leader has abused their position.
It’s painful, and I am doing what I can to show up for the grief, anger, and disappointment as folks process the impact of sexual misconduct in not just this community, but multiple dharma communities throughout the west. As I said, this is part of the larger #MeToo movement and there is not a single community that isn’t seeing the effects of this in some form or another.
Not all the effects are traumatic, however. One effect has been an opening. The gatekeeping is in check as leadership groups dissolve, as the communities within the communities, on a grassroots level, reckon with the aftershocks in their local centres. As the very notion of what leadership looks like is questioned.
I don’t doubt that the colour of my skin contributes to some of the access I have in dharma spaces, but for the first time ever I am hearing folks ask for my expertise from my experience of being a gender-queer woman in the world. I am being listened to not in spite of my otherness, but because of my otherness. It’s only a small shift, but it’s been noticeable. The combination of sexism and ageism that kept me from stepping into a teaching role is being reckoned with, making it possible for me to do the thing I love.
Space is opening up as folks step down, as those who so often are able to step easily into leadership roles are being held accountable and called into doing the deep work of examining how they have perpetuated systems of inequality. As that space opens, folks in queer bodies, or Black bodies, or trans bodies, or disabled bodies, have chances to move into positions previously denied to them because of the limited idea of what counts as a credential and the blindness we all carry of how race, ability and gender factor into a person’s ability to perform a particular role. As people who are marginalised are given more opportunities in dharma communities, we can learn how to measure the merit of a person’s practice from the ground they walk on, and not by the limited ideas of what counts according to a gatekeeping culture.
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