Open Access

Beyond Theory: Relating to Dominant Systems and Manifesting Social Alternatives in Dharma Communities

This essay also appears in the issue “Dharma, Degrowth, and Climate Change” (Volume 5, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue

We live in a time of seemingly inexorable devastation and destruction. Carbon emissions and climate change intensifying. Ecosystems ground up by consumerism, ignorance, and greed. Industrial agriculture destroying topsoil and causing vast animal suffering. Marginalized and poor people oppressed and disenfranchised with increasing brutality. Refugee flows growing, together with cruel backlashes. And complex feedback loops through which these and other dynamics reinforce and accelerate one another.

At the same time, Buddhists practice with the teaching that basic goodness or emptiness underlies all phenomena. We work with the view that between the cracks of our torn and troubled societies is enlightened society, and that simple acts of genuine kindness and conversation can transform situations. In this essay I bring the inquiry into dharma, degrowth, and climate change down to the level of practitioners and communities of practitioners. In particular, I explore how it is that different groups hold different degrees of awareness of the harms caused by dominant systems, and how we might recognize these harms as we unravel cocoons that insulate us from the sharp edges of our contemporary situation.

The call for submissions for this issue invites us to prefigure alternative economic models by drawing on the dharma, and Zack Walsh’s article offers “commoning” as model of a dharmic way forward. I appreciate his article. And in this moment I feel impatient with models. Yes, many humans are deeply enmeshed in ideologies and conceptualizations that deny our interdependence and intra-subjectivity: markets, growth as good, nature/culture, patriarchy, white supremacy, more. But models are not at the root of these destructive forms of collective life, nor are better models the primary path out.

Each reader engaging with The Arrow relates intimately with destructive systems, minute by minute—we embody practices by which, for example, we produce, consume, and move from one place to another; and by which we construct relationships of intimacy and exclusion, empowerment and marginalization, privilege and subjection. To me, a distinctive power of meditation, dharma, and sangha in relation to these systemic dynamics is as path to feeling and understanding the fine grain of social practices that shape us as subjects within systems. Unless we bring such awareness into our bodies and energies and emotions as well as our intellects, theorizing is at risk of being mere wheel-spinning. Karl Marx put it pithily: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”1 He was pointing to how our intellect tends to swirl with stories and meanings that arise from and reinforce concrete, embodied practices that make up our world, including practices specific to our locations within unjust and destructive systems.

So how do we use our paths as practitioners to understand how our own life practices enable and challenge systems like those I mentioned at the start? How can we ground work for societal change in embodied knowledge?

Mindfulness and meditation practice do not necessarily build understanding of how our life practices fit within destructive social systems. The realities of the world are painful, including the impacts of capitalism and climate change that are the focus of this issue of The Arrow: pains of oppression and marginalization, poverty and homelessness, colonization and theft of lands, deprivation and starvation, and differential vulnerability to drought, famine, storms, wildfires, and war. Many western dharma practitioners are insulated from direct experience of the worst harms and insults of powerful systems. We’re privileged. And so we often hold a paradoxical kind of knowledge. I see this in myself: I can talk at length about capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, the pathological state of our food systems, consumerism, the degradation of our democracy, and so on. I know about these things. I teach political theory and engage critically with these dynamics as my profession. At the same time, I’m privileged in relation to these systems. I’m advantaged by capitalism. I’m advantaged by white supremacy and patriarchy. I can afford local and sustainable food. I can afford to consume (sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily). I can be granted disproportionate credibility in democratic discussions by virtue of education and language and whiteness and masculinity. Not only do my critiques ring a little hollow because of this, but my awareness of the harms of these systems can stay mainly in my head. Meanwhile, in my body, my habits, my desires, the deep grooves of my conditioning, I’m full of not-knowing. Privilege is a system of not-knowing. I go through my days not-seeing. I know a bunch of propositions about privilege, oppression, and damaging systems, and my identity as a good progressive person has me invoking these propositions, often. Yet as an embodied being I very often manage to not-know these same things.

Deep meditation practice starts to reveal the illusoriness of thought and perception, and invites us to connect with a vast, unbiased substrate of mind. Insight and creativity can arise from these deep states. Yet I’d posit that the specific social and systemic dynamics that we don’t know in our societal lives can remain unknown through our meditation practices, so long as we practice within cocoons of privilege.

People of color within white supremacy, indigenous people in settler-colonial systems, precariously housed people, disabled people, trans people, and many other marginalized and oppressed groups continually run up against the sharp edges of unjust systems. They also learn a lot about the perspectives of the powerful, given that powerful people’s intentions and confusions give rise to those sharp edges. Where marginalized people are meditators, these embodied and socially embodied knowledges are potential grist for their meditation practices.

Privilege is insulation from this direct and visceral knowledge of self, other, and systems. Not-knowing sticks to the privileged, enticingly and stubbornly. It does so even for those privileged people who are social justice advocates within our dharma communities—yearning and working for diversity in our centers; for lower economic barriers to participation; for diminished objectification, harassment, and predation by male teachers; and so on. We see injustice, cultivate lovingkindness for those harmed, struggle for change. And yet there is much that the lived practices of privilege prevent us from seeing and knowing.

The dissociation by privileged people from realities of power—our not-knowing—represents a deep rupture in our integrity as practitioners and our usefulness as allies. In our dharma centers, for example, white people sit right in the middle of realities of racial division and harm and hurt—it’s in the room with us, in the present or absent bodies of people of color. Yet still, white people may perceive a basic togetherness. And so it is for gender, sexuality, class, indigeneity, and more. This not-knowing is a fundamental obstacle to skillful social and political action, insofar as well-meaning action would build on a foundation of ignorance and dissociation. Privileged people are prone to miss key power dynamics in the systems we try to affect. We’re at deep risk of reiterating power dynamics in our efforts to help.

A similar break exists, I’d suggest, in our relationship to environmental destruction and climate change. Many progressive and privileged people have strong convictions about environmental responsibility. We have a lot to say. But this may coexist with not-knowing about environmental devastation—shying away from encountering this in visceral ways, in our bodies. It’s too painful, too raw. And we are able to insulate ourselves from many of these realities, especially if the wildfires and floods and storms and refugees are somewhere else. And here too, this shutting out of perception, of body, of gut feeling, is likely to make us unskillful, insensitive to the power dynamics and systemic flows underlying the problems we care about. The same is true for our relationships with economy and class. Moreover, systems like whiteness and patriarchy and heterosexism and transphobia are not separate from climate change or from the devastation wreaked by capitalism; these are interlocking dynamics.

It’s these embodied qualities of privilege that can make theory forlorn. In reference to Walsh’s article, we may know about climate change, about how our electronic devices embody exploitation of the human and more-than-human world, about how our patterns of consumption are incompatible with environmental and therefore human flourishing. We may know about commoning, about post-humanism, about the Capitalocene. And yet we mostly live on within dominant structures, untroubled in most moments, part of the engine of destruction. This is the scary thing about inhabiting privilege: Our bodily comportment, our patterns of interaction, our whole material world reiterates the terms of our own advantage, invites us to live on in privilege, subtly pushes aside experiences that challenge privilege, so as to allow our privilege to continue. This intransigence of privilege leads me to wonder whether commoning points, as Walsh suggests, to a way out: Couldn’t people “common” in racist, patriarchal, anthropocentric, and otherwise harmful ways?

I don’t mean to reject theory, including around dharma, degrowth, and climate change. Rather, this theory needs to be woven together with ways of being and acting differently in our everyday lives. In particular, I want to ask what this weave might look like in dharma centers. What ways of being and acting could start to undo the not-knowing and dissociation wrapped up in various forms of privilege within our sanghas, and also in our pathological economic and environmental practices and systems? How do we seed change?

Part of my answer is a promissory note: I hope to write more on this for a future issue of The Arrow, in relation to the richness of existing literatures and initiatives. For now, and very briefly, let me point to four elements that we can work with as dharma communities: practices rooted in teachings; practices of unlearning and healing oppressive relationships in our dharma communities; practices for building societal alternatives with our own hands; and practices of learning from and acting in solidarity with communities outside our dharma centers. These practices complement each other—indeed, each needs the others to break through our complicity in pathological systems so that we can prefigure something different. In the space of this article I’ll offer just a sketch of each element, knowing that each deserves deep, extensive, and multi-vocal exploration.

Element 1: Teachings

There is tremendous transformative power in Shambhala and other Buddhist lineages, teachings, and practices. Hīnayāna practices can show practitioners the hamster wheel of painful storylines and delusion that fully occupy most people most of the time; connect practitioners with the simplicity of the body breathing and so reconnect body and mind; and offer a ground of stability and openness for our everyday perceptions, experiences, and actions. Mahāyāna practices support equalizing and exchanging ourselves with others, undermine the tendency to clutch our own happiness and push away the suffering of others, and loosen the tight grip of ego. Vajrayāna practices connect us with the unfathomability of mind before thought, and with the wisdom and energy that arise from there. These teachings and practices offered by our lineages are treasures, rich in transformative possibility. And at the same time, they can be practiced diligently in ways that coexist with the forms of not-seeing that I have talked about in this essay. This both grieves and intrigues me. It raises the question of how these teachings and practices can be held with respect, and also supplemented and situated so as to challenge the dynamics of privilege and oppression that haunt many western dharma communities.

Element 2: Undoing dynamics of power, privilege, and exclusion in our sanghas.

There are practices that can directly address dynamics of power, privilege, and exclusion in our dharma centers—that can reveal the sharp edges of these cultural and societal realities so that they can be brought within our spiritual and political attention. There is a burgeoning of writing and practice around this, especially by people of color—from Kelsey Blackwell’s “Expanding Awareness: How Patterns of Interaction Support White Supremacy,”2 to Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah’s Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation,3 to the activity of Charlene Leung and the Diversity Working Group in the Shambhala sangha, to learning arising from the 2017 Social Engagement Think Tank in Shambhala.4

Cutting through privilegeTwo tasks stand out to me as a privileged person wanting marginalization and exclusion and harm to diminish in my own Shambhala sangha. One task is for white (and otherwise dominant-group) practitioners like me to support the creation of spaces in our dharma communities where people of color and other marginalized groups have an authoritative place as leaders and teachers—not someday, as the demographics of mainly white western dharma communities shift, but now. This is about how scarce financial resources are channeled. It’s about creativity in how gatherings are structured and invitations extended, in order to move beyond the predictable groups and faces and power dynamics. It’s about supporting marginalized people to move quickly into leadership and teaching roles. It’s about protecting the ability of marginalized groups to claim spaces where privileged people are not at the center. And at times, it’s about getting out of the way so that others may enter.

A second task for white (and otherwise dominant-group) practitioners like me is to do our own work with others sharing our forms of privilege—for example, as groups of men discussing patriarchy, as groups of cis people discussing how gender norms are policed, and as groups of white people discussing white supremacy. Dominant-group leaders and teachers need to skill up to be part of opening and holding such spaces. As these two tasks are advanced, the chances for fruitful dialogue and work across lines of privilege and marginalization increase; until they are advanced, there may not be strong ground for change around privilege and marginalization in our sanghas.

Element 1 is a tremendous support for challenging and unlearning privilege (Element 2). Buddhists practice with holding strong energy, aversion, distress, and groundlessness, which arise insistently when privilege is explored or challenged; we learn to notice habitual storylines triggered by these forms of intensity and to come back to the present. My own Shambhala community is also focused on deep dialogue, listening, and conversation,5 which can be connected powerfully to anti-oppression work. And many Buddhist communities work with embodied as well as verbal ways of exploring systems, which to me seems crucial in understanding and undoing the most visceral and elusive aspects of privilege and marginalization.6

Element 3: Building societal alternatives with our own hands

As noted earlier, each of us engages in fine-grained societal practices that either affirm dominant systemic dynamics or challenge them. Our Buddhist sanghas do this in relation to economy: We are enmeshed in a dominant system in which we pay rent, charge fees, cultivate patrons, and manage exigencies; and we may work to counter these patterns through generosity and practicing economic alternatives. We do it in relation to environmental harms, in the foods we serve, the travel we fund and expect, the products sourced for our centers, and more. We do this in relation to dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, indigeneity, and other social hierarchies. The discussion of commoning in Walsh’s essay offers useful cues about places where Buddhist sanghas might support change on the ground, and how we might envision broader societal ideals. Here there are important and longstanding experiences and experiments by dharma communities, and room for much more experimentation—with social enterprises, community gardens, car shares, mutual care and public provision (including around disasters and crises that are intensified by climate change), circular economies, alternative currencies, economic redistribution, health care, education, and more.

These innovations can start at the grassroots, prefiguring and prototyping forms of society that might be scaled up and out. And crucially, these are forms of practice—they change us through the work of our own hands. Oakland-based transition and climate justice activist Gopal Dayaneni explains why this hands-on quality is so important:

“You’ve got to knead in the work of love and the love of work. We have allowed the notion of the job to alienate us from our labor and to not feel the power of our work. And so the idea for us, the central piece of resilience-based organizing, is this idea of direct action resilience, this idea that we are actually going to build it with our own hands. And when I say direct action, I don’t just mean we’re going to do something that breaks the law, though we do need to do that—a lot of that. When I say direct action, we mean people doing for themselves directly what they need. We need to create the solutions ourselves. What the hands do, the heart learns. And if all we do is fight against what we don’t want, the heart learns not to love our vision, but to only long for it. We have to apply our labor directly to meet our needs, and we need to do that in the communities where we live.”7

As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has said repeatedly to the Shambhala Buddhist community and its leaders, “you have to be it.” In the context of this volume of The Arrow, I take this to speak to the place of theory around dharma, degrowth, and climate change. Theory has uses, but should not mainly be about constructing ideals separate from action. Indeed, spinning linguistic alternatives can happen amidst marginalization, be part of sustaining not-knowing, be part of iterating marginalization. Languages of common identity, common goals, and commoning can elide what isn’t common in our fates and experiences. So Element 3 needs steadfastly to build on and build in Element 2, so that sanghas hold their societal experiments within deep, challenging dialogue about our diversity and the diversity beyond our walls.

Element 4: Practices of learning from and acting in solidarity with communities outside our dharma centers

The work discussed in this essay so far has been about how, in our practices and sanghas, we can recognize and unmake systemic marginalization and discrimination, and seed ways of being and acting differently in relation to dominant systems. But for these efforts to bear fruit, they have to extend beyond our walls.

One aspect of this relates to the limits of internal diversity. Many dharma centers, including my own, have memberships that skew toward privilege—in the U.S. and Canada this can include being predominantly white, non-indigenous, higher income, cisgender, able-bodied, and highly educated. While we may aspire to diversify over time, that is a long-term proposition, and one that presupposes learning about how we exclude, as well as how we can develop cultural humility and undo implicit biases. Moreover, opening to the diversity of the broader world cannot simply mean welcoming diverse practitioners into our communities. Society’s diversity includes forms of life and spiritual practice that will not assimilate into Buddhist communities but that we need to know nonetheless—for example, learning with Muslims, including about Islamophobia; and learning with indigenous people, including about entrenched settler colonialism.

Another aspect relates to our ability to learn from established social movements outside of our own dharma circles. Just about every challenge and initiative discussed in this essay has been the object of mobilization, community, and learning for decades in grassroots movements of the marginalized. These movements hold tremendous knowledge, and it would be arrogant to seek to reform Buddhist communities or seed social alternatives without learning from and with our non-Buddhist peers.

Yet another aspect relates to the need for collaboration and solidarity to seed real change. Many of the pathological systemic dynamics referenced in this essay, and much of the work of constructing alternatives, requires mobilization and coalition-building that must stretch far beyond Buddhist communities.

My vision of how we unlearn privilege, how we construct practices and institutions that prefigure alternatives, and how we resist dominant systems involves work within and beyond our dharma centers. And this in turn calls upon our practices and pedagogies. In the words of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, “the fact that our society is experiencing a high level of fear and doubt is a signal for humanity not to give up, but rather to engage further with our enlightened tendencies…”8 How can we practice humble perception and attentiveness as we step outside the comfort of our everyday social worlds, into spaces that provoke fears and harmful storylines? How do we bring discipline and energy to social change initiatives, given tendencies we might have toward anxiety and aggression? How can we go beyond a vacillation between hope and fear to bring empathy and equanimity to the work of undoing privilege, minimizing the harms of pathological systems, and manifesting societal alternatives? And how can we draw on the unfathomable space we touch in our practice, arising with confidence and wisdom in the face of social challenges, as well as in the face of conventional responses to these challenges?

Drawing on the richness of our lineages and traditions, we can step onto new ground in recognizing how the pathologies and exclusions of dominant systems permeate our own Buddhist institutions and practices. We can work to heal these internal divisions while developing practices and institutions that prefigure different societal patterns and possibilities. We can work with communities beyond our dharma centers to further unlearn patterns that manifest social pathology, and to build collaborations, solidarities, and coalitions that manifest futures outside of current patterns. This will be challenging, and at times scary, and we will screw up. It needs to be done in a spirit of experimentation and learning and humbleness, with accountability and a sense of humor. The voices of those marginalized in our communities need to be given space and authority as we find ways forward, making the path by walking.

This complex path of change excites me. It speaks to my own yearning to practice and teach the dharma in ways that acknowledge and feel the sharp edges of injustice and pain in our communities, and that refuse to give up on ourselves or the world. By practicing in these ways we can speak authentically to a yearning that is felt, tentatively but also very deeply, within broader societies—to live in ways that do not hide from the pain and injustice of our world, and that manifest our highest capacities and aspirations.

David Kahane is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta in Canada. From 2010-2016 he led Alberta Climate Dialogue, an international project that convened citizens to deliberate on climate change and influence climate policy. He teaches and researches democratic theory and practice, especially as these relate to the design of public dialogues and consultations, and to questions of power, sustainability, and systems change. He is a national 3M teaching fellow, a permaculture gardener, and Shastri (senior teacher) at the Edmonton Shambhala Centre in northwest Canada.

Illustration by Alicia Brown

To cite this essay: David Kahane, “Beyond Theory: Relating to Dominant Systems and Manifesting Social Alternatives in Dharma Communities,” The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics 5, no. 1 (2018): 29-39.

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  1. Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845). Accessed January 29, 2018.
  2. Kelsey Blackwell, “Expanding Awareness: How Patterns of Interaction Support White Supremacy,” The Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics, May 10, 2017,
  3. Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2016).
  4. Four short articles in the Shambhala Times describe the Think Tank, especially in relation to learning about racial dynamics within the sangha. See Shastri Charlene Leung, Think Tank: Four Voices; Tuyet Cullen, Think Tank: One of Many Voices; Ashley Hodson, Think Tank Reflections; and Alexandria Barnes, Contemplating the Think Tank.
  5. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, The Lost Art of Good Conversation: A Mindful Way to Connect with Others and Enrich Everyday Life (New York: Harmony Books, 2017).
  6. Within the Shambhala sangha, these methods include Mudra Space Awareness, Social Presencing Theatre, and Interplay.
  7. Gopal Dayaneni, Organizing for Resilience, YouTube, October 13, 2013, (Dayaneni’s contribution begins about halfway in.)
  8. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure (New York: Random House, 2013), 34.