Friday, 1 July 2016

Interfaith: My 'peace' of the puzzle

Me: "I do interfaith work"

Friend: "Oh wow... What is that?"

Saturday Night Live confused maya rudolph huh snl

As the world becomes seemingly more destructive, disparate and disconnected, it can be easy for a person to feel disheartened - to feel fear, hopelessness and helplessness. But helpless, I believe, we are not.

I truly believe that in order for the world to change or transform, to shift towards peace and harmony away from indignity and cruelty, it needs to inevitably shake up (like the event of Brexit in the UK). This "shaking up" we are experiencing is the painstaking effects of the deepest historical causes. And it's what we do now, while experiencing this change, that lays the foundation for our future. This is karma (cause and effect) in a nutshell.

It's easy to blame society for our societal problems. But who makes up society? It's us, me and you, individuals. And if we want society to change, surely we have to change (or take action towards change) concurrently, individually and collectively.

Towards the end of last year, I was introduced to the world of 'interfaith'. I was asked to attend an interfaith youth conference in Castel Gandolfo, southeast of Rome and the town of the Pope's summer residence, organised by Religions for Peace Europe, a platform for a network of organisations to facilitate multi-religious and interfaith cooperation, as a representative of my international Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai International (SGI). The theme of the week-long conference was "From Fear to Trust".


At the time, I didn't really understand the significance of going. Having grown up in a multiculturally diverse town and as a practising Buddhist, I assumed I was already "doing interfaith".  Most of my friends are Muslim, I went to church for a while.

But I went. I absorbed. I struggled. I pushed myself. I even cried here and there. And mostly importantly I learned. I struggled not only to understand and treasure the person in front of me and everything that came with that person (be it faith or culture), but to also truly know and be proud of myself at the same time. The dialogues I was engaging in enabled me to turn the focus back on myself introspectively. I can now see that dialogue is a two way process of discovery. As a result of this conference, my view of the macro-world and my micro-responsibility as a citizen of this world transformed. 

Me presenting my "Buddhism" table to my new interfaith friends
(Castel Gandolfo, Italy, October 2015)

Interfaith activities are opportunities to listen, embrace differences and explore similarities. Whether you have a religion or not, you must believe in/have faith in something. There must be something you stand up for, something that makes your heart race and your mind tick. I believe that we all believe in wanting to live in a peaceful world (even if you don't think it's possible at this point in time).

Faith isn't always about religion. It can be a belief in the potential of human beings to act and change at the deepest of levels.

With the way the world is going, it's growing more easy to feel different to the person next to you. Dialogue is a crucial tool to tackle this. 

From this year onwards, I am making it my mission to study other religions around the world and engage in dialogue with the people around me. It need not be difficult; I want to discard my preconceptions and open my heart to everyone.

I recently watched the following video, which explores the importance of Turkey, a place of both Asia and Europe in one, in sharing common consciousness in our hearts and encourages us to have an inner dialogue, to ask ourselves: "Am I prejudiced towards so and so...?"

I recommend you do the same:

"The dialogue with Islam [or any religion...] need not be a debate over religious doctrines. We can start by discussing the mutual problems that we all face as human beings. We can discuss culture as education. Or we can discuss the imperatives for achieving world peace from a humanitarian standpoint. People all over the world share the same desire for peace and cultural development." (SGI President Ikeda in Europe - Vol. 1, p. 189)

This is the starting point. This is the goal of sincere dialogue. This is faith that your heart can be a peaceful place first and foremost, followed by the land around you. So I challenge you to have 1 meaningful and sincere dialogue a day, in your fullest humanity, and see how much your heart (and your environment) changes...

Let's create a new history.

Friday, 24 June 2016

REMAINing hopeful

As I sit on the bus to work, I can't ignore the thick layer of grief in the air. The sun is shining, a time when Brits usually rejoice this rarity! Yet I see no smiles this morning, only fearful looks and confused eyes glued to the ground below.

At the moment, most of us may feel powerless. A huge change is afoot, a Farage-driven change that the majority of our country's people has voted for. It's incredible that a country who, on the majority, voted in our Prime Minister has gone completely against what he was pushing and towards the opposition's policy on the EU.

I can't stand the negativity - so this is my push for positivity.

My mentor Daisaku Ikeda, president of the lay Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai International, says that "peace is an endless endeavour".

An endless endeavour to feel hope when you feel hopeless. An endless endeavour to encourage the person in front of you to smile when you're crying inside. An endless endeavour to have the courage to even believe that the world can change and that you are part of that change when it feels like everything around us in regressing to the dark ages.

I believe that we have a choice

We have a choice of what we want to feel in our hearts. We have a choice about how we speak to people today - will we impart hope and courage at school and work? Or will we join the scaremongers and drown in self-pity?

We have a choice

We can advance together with optimism and hope, united with our European friends around us, surely, regardless of a political vote. 

We have a choice. 

I truly believe in my heart that in order for the world to change, the 'nastiness' needs to be exposed. And this morning was part of that exposure. Things will inevitably be shaken up and uncomfortable before they change.

This morning I stumbled upon a publication called The New Humanism for World Peace published by the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, which describes the beginnings of Shakyamuni Buddha's seeking to understand the nature of the suffering world around him, in a time of great upheaval:
In a world so full of conflict, how should peace and co-existence be brought about? The impetus of Shakyamuni’s denouncing of his royal heritage and searching for the truth within his deeper consciousness came from the shock and fear he felt at the sight of violence [...] 
Shakyamuni’s meditation took him into the deepest sections of humanity’s consciousness, and first sought a peaceful world without the sufferings of conflict, sickness, birth and death, but in his broad quest found that such a blissful world does not exist anywhere. He then sought to find the answer to what makes people antagonistic towards one another. At that moment, he perceived that “the arrow of earthly desires” was embedded in the depths of humanity’s consciousness,
“Then I saw a barb here, hard to see, nestling in the heart."
“Affected by this barb, one runs in all directions. Having pulled that barb out, one does not run, nor sink.” 

In a 1993 speech at Harvard University, Soka Gakkai International (SGI) President Daisaku Ikeda explains this further (in the same text):
“The following quote is illustrative: ‘I perceived a single, invisible arrow piercing the hearts of the people.’ The ‘arrow’ symbolizes a prejudicial mindset, an unreasoning emphasis on individual differences. India at that time was going through transition and upheaval. To Shakyamuni’s penetrating gaze, it was clear that the underlying cause of the conflict was attachment to distinctions, to ethnic, national, and other differences.”

How was he able to pull out the “arrow of earthly desires”? He became awakened to the great expanse of life, the inner cosmos, that exists in the depths of all people's lives. He deeply believed in his potential, and the potential of others, to also be awakened to his and pull out their arrow.

Everything in this blog is a representation of my beliefs and my beliefs only and in no way do I intend to represent the views of all Buddhists around the world.

For me personally, today's events urges me to deepen the Buddhist philosophy by which I live my life and encourages others to deepen their faith (religious or not) in whatever they believe in. It urges me to study history, to have the courage talk to friends and strangers about the fundamentals of life, to renew my vow that I will see a peaceful society - and do all I can to lay the foundations - in my lifetime.

For the sake of our children, their children and beyond, I believe that how we conduct ourselves from now on is vital. We will experience setbacks in life - and this is one of them - but life is long. 

What is YOUR vision of the future? And what role will YOU play in the endless endeavour to bring it to fruition?

Peace isn't easy. No-one ever said it was. Peace is hard work! So we've got work to do.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

"Are you more black or white?"

This was my reaction after seeing my last post on Buddhism spread across the Internet, just with a bit less fur and a few less whiskers:

I presume that it was received well because people can relate to my experience, which has encouraged me to write more - so thank you! I suppose the next "big" part of my identity is my ethnicity. I'm half Jamaican, a quarter German and a quarter English. I'm mixed race.

The first time I really started to think about being mixed race - recognising my ethnicity - was when I watched Rabbit Proof Fence around the age of 13 (I grew up with a film fanatic of a father):

I didn't grow up in a Jamaican household. I don't even feel like I grew up in a British household. I definitely didn't grow up in a German household. I can't really associate a "culture" to my upbringing; it was neutral. I had the odd jerk chicken and rice dish, but then I ate chicken dippers and fish and chips too. How far do cultural practices reinforce one's ethnicity? Do I have to eat rice and peas and speak patios to "be" Jamaican?

This blog is not intended to cause any harm or offence to any readers, but to only reflect the writer's personal experiences and introspective observations.

I went to a school (a girls' school) that has predominantly Pakistani and Indian students. By the time I was in Year 10 (about 15 years old for the international readers), I found myself having mostly Asian friends. And, with this, I tended to be heavily questioned by my peers - who were not Asian - about my "reasons" for doing so. I was expected have reasons...

Why do you always hang around with Asians?
It's like you want to be Asian...

There was an implicit inference that I should hang out with my own. But who is that? Black people? White people? Jamaican-German-English people?

I have recently taken a double Honours module at university called Subject to Culture: Individuality and Identity, a seminar-based module designed to allow to critically assess their factors that contribute to our values, identities and sense of 'self'. Are we unique, different to others and autonomous? Or are our identities, on the other hand, shaped and moulded by a number of different cultural and social forces to which we must comply? Simply, whether our behaviour and thought processes are subject to culture.

One of the seminars concentrated on the "White Subject", looking at Richard Dyer's essays on whiteness. Dyer, a self-identified white man himself, explores the significance of using the term "white", which suggests that white is not a race but is instead a given and universal state of the human race. In other words, when we say coloured people, we do not mean white people; we mean non-white people. One is visible and the other is invisible.

Professor Richard Dyer

Dyer thus argues that being white is an invisible racial position, a position against which other ethnicities are examined and othered. White is granted. White is a position of power. Looking at representations of white people by whites in Western visual culture, whites, according to Dyer, are symbolised as pure, good and knowledgeable, which comes to form the cultural construction of whiteness as a racial category. Along with that, all of the symbolism associated with blackness becomes associated with “blacks” as a race. Also explored is the binary oppositions of one race and another when understanding race, i.e. whiteness vs. blackness, and the constructed normality of whiteness makes whiteness the privileged side of the opposition. 

It is Dyer's pursuit to make us see whiteness as strange rather than a benchmark for what is normal; to bring "white culture" into our consciousness rather than in comparison with other ethnicities. To see white as a colour.

Heavy stuff, huh? I wanted to use this opportunity in university to explore my racial position, my mixed-raceness and in fact explore whether such a thing actually exists. 

In this book, Dyer reflects on his own whiteness by referring to his childhood memories and adolescent experiences. In school, Dyer - who knew at this point that he was homosexual - found himself wanting to befriending one of few black boys in his school and being envious of his Jewish friend and his ethnicity. These friends were, too, part of an oppressed minority. He felt "at home" with this Jewish friend. 

Now, I've never really looked deep into the reasons for why I made friends with my Asian peers easily, but Dyer really did get me thinking. I don't fit into the "white box" or the "black box" and neither do my Asian friends. I felt that I didn't have to live up to any racial stereotypes around these friends. I didn't have to randomly speak patios to assert my blackness on others, for instance. I didn't place myself on the racial scale of blackness to whiteness. I found my own racial position. I could be me. 

At an Asian-themed birthday party.

One thing that has always grated me is being asked whether I'm more black or more white. I am asked as if it is something you can quantify and calculate. It would seem that people are referring to my behaviour. Do I act more black or more white? Why do I have to be one or the other? Either I'm "too white" or "not black enough". To this day, I have no idea what either of those comments mean. 

It would seem that I am defined by others in such purist and exclusive terms that I must be one ethnicity or the other, and not both. This demonstrates Dyer's ideas of races being binary opposites. If I am not black (if I do not "act black"), then I must be white ("act white"), and vice versa. It is as if my identity is being measured by virtue of being half black. According to Dyer, whiteness is invisible, it's not something you pick up on. But in my experience, being half black almost illuminates my white side. Being mixed race allows that invisibility of whiteness to become visible.

When speaking to my black peers, they see my afro hair and my non-white complexion. They see black. They suggest that mixed race people, by virtue of having "black blood", should be black, should act black. Well, tell me: how do you be or act black?

Looking at whiteness and blackness (in their binary opposite states), it is as if race - being white or being black - is just as performative as gender. Despite the colour of our skin, it seems to me that our behaviour creates our race. Race is constituted by that very behaviour. In my case, in order to be black - to identify with black people - I had/have to act a certain way. To me, race is an "act". Blackness and whiteness are not natural, but are a learned performance of identity.

I think Suki Ali, a mixed race researcher in Mixed Race Studies, is correct when saying that children don't see colour. It was as I grew up that I realised that I did not fit into either the whiteness or blackness categories. And I think that's okay. I've had to find my place, find my own racial position away from the pressure or expectations of others. And for that, I am grateful to have attended the school I went to.

The world we live in a dominated by racial ideology, organised by racial categories. I feel as if I, a mixed race girl living in the early 21st century, have an important mission in this life. After attending the premiere of Pratibha Parmar’s feature-length documentary film Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, I wrote a reflexive article about Alice Walker. Every now and then, I think about Alice Walker's experiences in the age of "liberation" in the American South. I think about her courage as a black woman to marry and have a child with a white man at a time when segregation was lawful. I think about her courage.

In honour of Alice Walker.

Being mixed race is not only a mixture of two heritages but a symbol of cultural mixing and a symbol of change. A symbol that the treatment of race has come a long way but still has a long way to go. Maybe that's just my liberal voice speaking, but I am not afraid to speak my truth. I am not afraid to be me.

"In my work and in myself I reflect black people, women and men, as I reflect others. One day even the most self-protective ones will look into the mirror I provide and not be afraid." - Alice Walker

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

‘Coming out’ as a Buddhist

When first getting to know someone, the following typically comes up in conversation (in brackets are the usual responses I receive):

Name: Gabrielle Westhead (Gabriel? Gabriella? Okay, Gabby it is)
Year of birth: 1993 (you don’t look a day over 14!)
Hometown: Slough (I'm sorry to hear that)
Current occupation: Student at Oxford Brookes University (Wow, you go to Oxford?)
Ethnicity: Mixed White and Black Caribbean (AFRO! Can I touch your hair?)

I have come to involuntarily bow my head down at this point.

And lastly:
Religious views: Nichiren Buddhist...

Now, the last one comes as a bit of a shock – or at least a surprise – to some. People I meet generally associate being British with being Christian or being mixed raced with being atheist, having no religious beliefs at all. But, nevertheless, I am a Buddhist. I practise Buddhism. Specifically, I practise the philosophy and ideals of the Buddhism of Nichiren Daishonin, a Buddhist monk who lived in 13th-century Japan. Practising a philosophy means that Buddhism is part and parcel of who I am and how I live my life.

I'm what we Nichiren Buddhists call a "fortune baby", a baby born to a woman who practises and I, in turn, inherit my mother's "good fortune". Growing up, I went to various Buddhist activities for young people and really felt part of a big family - but never felt that Buddhism was my religion. At around the age of 15 (I say that's the age when you start living your own life), I started to explore religion. I went to a Baptist church with my best friend at the time for at least a year. I learned about Islam through my friends at school. But neither religion gelled with me.

Just as I was starting my GCSEs, I began getting bullied in my all girls' school (over a boy, believe it or not) and this went on for 2 years. It was painful, particularly because it was inflicted by people I had been friends with for many years, but I was determined not to be defeated or to retaliate. I was determined to change this situation, no matter how long it took. This is when I decided to take Buddhism seriously. It was the perfect opportunity to see if it worked for me. Friends kept asking me how I was coping. I wanted to sing the praises of Buddhism, but fear was holding me back.

Like some Christians, telling people I’m a Buddhist, that I practise Buddhism, feels like I’m "coming out". It's as if I'm publicly declaring a long-held secret, and once out I feel more 'like me’. But why? That’s the big question. Responses to my Buddhist "declaration" vary from person to person, from place to place, from country to country. I tend to get one of five reactions though:

  1. Oh, so you meditate… Teach me! (And they always start to hum)
  2. Wait, you’re not Asian… Are you?
  3. Wait, you’re not a monk… Are you?
  4. You worship the Buddha statue, right?
  5. And my personal favourite: So what animal will you come back as when you’re reincarnated? I want to be a fly.

Buddhism, and its many representations in popular culture and even in the classroom, can be steeped in stereotypes and peaked in prejudice. Yes, some Buddhists meditate. Yes, some Buddhists live in monasteries and are monks. Yes, some Buddhists pray to the statue of Buddha. But not all Buddhists. I practise Buddhism within a Buddhist organisation called Soka Gakkai International (SGI). I chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, not meditate. Soka Gakkai, literally meaning "Society for the Creation of Value", is a worldwide network of lay Buddhists dedicated to a common vision of a better world through the empowerment of the individual and the promotion of peace, culture and education. A just, sustainable and peaceful world.

Everything in this blog is a representation of my beliefs and my beliefs only and in no way do I intend to represent the views of all Buddhists around the world.

SGI was established in 1930s Japan as Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (the Society for Value-Creating Education), a study group of reformist educators. The group, inspired by Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhist teachings, were dedicated to reforming the Japanese pedagogy and opposing the militarist government of the time. They were conscientious objectors. Under the leadership of the current SGI President Daisaku Ikeda, my mentor in life, has emerged as one of the largest and most dynamic Buddhist movements in the world. An international movement to reform society. A socially-engaged Buddhism.

Founding president Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (front row, centre)
with Soka Kyoiku Gakkai members in Fukouka, Kyushu, 1941

While this all sounds heavily political (with a big P), it isn't. SGI members believe that reformation of institutional structures and creation of social change can be achieved by undergoing "human revolution", an inner transformation or a process of bringing forth our full human potentialBy extension (and person by person), we can positively transform the environments we live in. And that's what I did in school.

On a small scale, we manifest the courage, compassion and wisdom (which characterise the innate Buddhahood or Buddha nature we all have) to overcome daily and ongoing personal problems with employment, family relationships, health challenges etc. On a larger scale, the bigger picture, we make practical efforts to bring humanity closer together. The way I see it, to be a world citizen, you must engage in global issues. SGI members can engage in a wide range of community initiatives aimed at achieving constructive change in our individual lives and society. It's a grassroots movement.

Some of the activities we do include:
  • Regular local discussion meetings, where we ask questions, receive encouragement and simply make friends
  • Public educational programs and outreach projects (as a non-governmental organisation)
  • Contribute to our local communities (even directing relief programmes for victims of natural disasters)
  • Participate in interfaith dialogues to build religious cooperation (as someone once said to me, we can't make everyone Buddhist, Christian or Muslim so the only way to achieve world peace is create forging links between us.)

Being an SGI member permeates the way I think about life, my life and the lives of others. It has given me an awareness of human rights. In 1957, the second SGI President, Josei Toda, made a declaration calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons as an "absolute evil" which threaten humanity's right to live. He asked the youth of the Soka Gakkai to take united action towards their abolition. Every year since 1983, Daisaku Ikeda (the current president) writes a peace proposal to offer his perspective on global issues, which he presents to the United Nations - and this includes nuclear abolition.

I am a member of the SGI-UK Youth Peace Committee (YPC), a group of around 20 young people who meet to study these annual peace proposals and plan practical initiatives that support lasting peace. Doing this "on the side" has opened my eyes to the invisible threat of nuclear weapons, a major factor that undermines the dignity of life. We're currently in the middle of planning a public exhibition, a tour of study lectures on this year's proposal and an interfaith activity.

As a nascent Japanese "export" religion under the operation of an international lay body, this draws numbers of non-Japanese members in and demands scholarly analysis in turn. Scholars of new religious movements, like Bryan Wilson, have noted that there's nothing "monkish" about SGI. I simply see it is an extraordinary movement among ordinary people. Having been brought up amongst the warmth and engagement of SGI-UK (the UK branch of SGI), I'm perhaps a little biased. Just a little...

It has become common practice for the media to warrant derogatory connotations and wrongful stereotypes of Buddhists. Fortunately, the co-founder of Scoop, a New Zealand media outlet, picked up on Ikeda's great efforts and requested an interview with him. Things are changing.

What I actually do.

For me, and 12 million other SGI members around the world, Buddhism is about realising your true identity, transforming every obstacle into an opportunity to grow, actively being a world citizen and sharing a common consciousness and concern for world peace. It's nothing recluse, secret or ascetic. It's about being the best you you can be. It's about using Buddhist philosophy in our daily realities. It's about using the "Buddha resources" we already have within. It's about having hope.

I propose that when Buddhism is spoken about, we should say “Buddhism(s)” so as to not offend or generalise. But as a 20-year-old mixed raced girl from Slough, introducing a new vernacular for a world religion might be a tiny bit tricky. So I’ve come to realise that the best way to diffuse such prejudices is to speak up and speak out with my truth.

Perhaps now when I say that I'm off to a "Buddhist meeting" (which is at least once a week), it will seem a little less ominous and stealth-like.

If you want to know more about SGI, please give this short informative video a watch:

I'm out (pun very much intended).