Demonstrations, Intrinsic Bias, and Zen Practice

The Abbot’s Letter

June 2020

A letter from the Abbot of Kannon Do, Les Kaye about Demonstrations, Intrinsic Bias, and Zen Practice.

The anger, frustration, and sense of helplessness over the years of continued mistreatment, subjugation, and wanton killing of African-Americans reached a boiling point with the death at the hands of police of George Floyd in Minneapolis. People around the world of all races and nations are finally expressing outrage against the persistent cruelty aimed at the black population that has been allowed to continue for generations.

As Buddhists, we instinctively feel solidarity with the protestors and share concern for abuse of power, bias, and racism prevalent in the U.S. for too long. And as Zen students, we can agree that our first response must be a renewed commitment to explore the working of our own minds so that we might discover our own delusions and karmic habits, including intrinsic bias that we may not recognize. The best way to show solidarity in responding to acts of cruelty is to continue to commit to the work of eliminating unconscious racism we ourselves may be holding.

The need for that work is universal. Lehigh University is currently conducting a research project on bias reduction and police-public interactions.    A member of the team, adjunct professor and retired police Sargent Wade Haubert, made the following observation:

Every single person in this country has grown up in some environment where they ultimately have bias. It doesn’t mean that it is bad, that you are a bigot. Let’s just all acknowledge, we have some stereotypes.

Police departments in New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, several other cities, and the state of Michigan are now, or soon will be, conducting workshops and trainings on intrinsic bias for their officers to help them understand that such views can be held unconsciously. This is encouraging news, a creative vision arising out of the destructive events of the past months and years. It is a welcome, long overdue first step that hopefully will lead to broader attitudes in police policies and actions.

We should acknowledge police departments that take such actions to raise the awareness of their officers. Every Zen Center in a city whose police department has implemented such consciousness-raising programs should express its appreciation to the police chief. This is our Buddhist tradition: extending a warm hand and appealing to the heart.

There are other hopeful signs that institutions may be developing a new outlook. The principal of a high school in San Jose recently announced that the school will form a task force on race, equity, and inclusion by training teachers and faculty on issues of inequality.

Cruelty and bias and racism will not end soon, despite our best efforts. Over the centuries, the teachings of the Buddha and of Christ have moved millions towards compassion and attitudes of generosity and kindness. But their words and their examples have not put an end to cruelty and injustice. They will continue throughout our lifetimes and beyond. As committed Buddhists, our work is to continue to discover and express ways to respond unselfishly to the paradox of human nature.

I dream of visitors from the African-American community finding our zendo while we are in zazen and exclaiming, “Stop sitting around and do something!” I wake up feeling that we could do more to reach out, that there is something we should be doing. So the question is: what comes after zazen and the inspiring words? After enlightenment, what’s our next move? Are there ways that we can extend the reach of practice to provide practical help to those who are suffering in the world beyond the zendo?

At Kannon Do, we are continuing to explore questions of how we can best reach out. Our next board meeting will consider financial support to agencies in a local African-American community that provide help with food, housing, jobs, and emotional support. And we are planning to ask our African-American acquaintances to share their experiences and stories so that we may better appreciate the difficulties and challenges of living a life subject to racial discrimination, where equality continues to be beyond reach.

We hope that the current protests will lead to lasting social change. But when they are over, when life returns to a sense of normalcy, we have to follow-up in quiet, undramatic ways that will help create and strengthen trusting, supportive bonds between all of us.


Les Kaye Calligraphy Signature

Les Kaye
Abbot of Kannon Do