At our annual Won Buddhist Study Retreat, every moment can be transformed into a learning experience, and this was made very clear to me by one of this year's students. That day, a student sat in solemn reflection outside the meditation hall. Worried, I approached her. Her eyes, filled with a mixture of gratitude and sadness, looked up to share that this day marked the passing of her grandmother years ago. Such anniversaries have a powerful way of bringing emotions to the surface, and together we allowed ourselves to be enveloped in the comforting embrace of the setting sun.
The next morning we bumped into each other again, this time on our way to breakfast. With a determined look on her face, she stopped me and began to share a disturbing incident from the day before. Two individuals had, without asking anything, touched her hair. To them it may have been simple curiosity, but to her it was a gross invasion of her personal space. Being African American, this was not her first encounter with such insensitivity. Hair in the black community carries history, history, and deep meaning.
His reaction to the incident was not one of anger but determination. She expressed her intention: “I want to educate them on the cultural and historical implications related to this act. It may not be malicious on their part, but ignorance does not excuse offense. She sought advice from her peers, delved deeply into Won Buddhist scriptures, and meticulously prepared her thoughts. I couldn't help but admire his commitment to turning this personal discomfort into a broader lesson for all.
That evening, as the community gathered, she stood up. Capturing everyone's attention with her eloquence, she explained the historical objectification and otherness of black individuals, using touching their hair without consent as a striking example. To touch without asking is to act on a presumption – and these presumptions are often rooted in deep-seated prejudices. Our collective responsibility, she insisted, is to question these prejudices, to understand them and to unlearn them.
It reinforced the idea that while curiosity is natural, it should never come at the expense of the dignity of others. His words were a call to respect individuality, to understand the historical nuances attached to actions, and to always be aware of how our behaviors can affect others.
His words also resonated with the principles of Won Buddhism, transforming a lack of awareness into a moment of profound teaching. His grace in the face of the situation embodied teaching: “transforming a reluctance to teach into a desire to teach well.” She was neither confrontational nor dismissive. She stood firm in her truth, while radiating compassion, recognizing that while some actions stem from ignorance, everyone has the capacity to learn and grow.
After the session, I felt compelled to ask him what his motivation was for addressing this issue. With a look of hope, she said, "If I can stop even one person from unknowingly causing pain to another, then I have made a difference." » Such moments make us reflect on the journey towards self-awareness and the unlimited capacity for growth. It is through these shared experiences and lessons that we can hope to create a world infused with understanding and respect.
After the retreat, I contacted a colleague who is also African American. She informed me that the student had sought advice regarding the incident. My colleague, drawing on her years of wisdom as a retired professor and her personal experiences as a Black woman, shared a perspective that touched me deeply. While providing a listening ear and an empathetic heart to the student, she also imparted an invaluable lesson: the importance of introspection in the face of external adversity.
She explained to the student that while educating others is crucial, moments like these also provide opportunities for personal growth. It's easy to place blame or let external circumstances amplify our pain, but true healing and empowerment comes from introspection. She emphasized that living as a Black woman in the United States, it can be tempting to attribute frustrations solely to societal structures or biases, but that freedom and transformation are only truly realized when we examine ourselves from a different perspective. a critical eye and on our responses to these challenges.
It is easy to view moments of ignorance or insensitivity as simply external problems that must be corrected by others. However, true growth and understanding comes when we also turn inward, examine our answers, and continually learn. It is not about blaming or absolving others of their actions, but rather about realizing the true depth of our interconnectedness and understanding that every moment of conflict is also a potential moment of awakening!
The actions of my student and colleague served as a reminder to me: “turn a reluctance to teach into a desire to teach well.” And above all, always remain willing to learn.