At our annual Won Buddhist Studies retreat, every moment can turn into a learning experience, and that was made profoundly clear to me through one of the students this year. On this particular day, a student sat in solemn reflection outside the meditation hall. Concerned, I approached her. Her eyes, filled with a mix 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 wrapped in the comforting embrace of the setting sun.
The next morning we crossed paths again, this time on our way to breakfast. With a determined look, she stopped me and began to share a disturbing incident from the previous day. Two individuals had, without asking, touched her hair. To them, it might have been mere curiosity, but to her it was a gross invasion of personal space. Being African American, this was not her first encounter with such insensitivity. Hair in the black community carries a history, a story, and a deep significance.
Her response to the incident was not one of anger but of purpose. She articulated her intent: “I want to educate them on the cultural implications and history tied to this act. It may not be malevolent on their part, but ignorance does not excuse the offense.” She sought advice from her peers, delved deep into the Won Buddhist scriptures, and prepared her thoughts meticulously. I couldn’t help but admire her commitment to turning this personal discomfort into a broader lesson for all.
That evening, as the community gathered, she stood up. Holding everyone’s attention with her eloquence, she explained the historical objectification and “othering” of Black individuals, using the act of touching their hair without consent as a potent example. To touch without asking is to act on a presumption—and these presumptions are often rooted in deep-seated biases. Our collective responsibility, she urged, is to interrogate these biases, to understand them, and to unlearn them.
She reinforced the idea that while curiosity is natural, it should never be at the expense of another’s dignity. Her words were a clarion call to respect individuality, to understand the historical nuances attached to actions, and to be ever-aware of how our behaviors might affect others.
Her words also resonated with the principles of Won Buddhism, transforming a lack of awareness into a profound teaching moment. Her grace in dealing with the situation embodied the teaching: “turn an unwillingness to teach, into a willingness to teach well.” She was neither confrontational nor dismissive. She stood firm in her truth, yet radiated 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 her about her motivation to address this. With a hopeful look, she said, “If I can prevent even one person from unknowingly causing pain to another, then I’ve made a difference.” Such moments make one reflect on the journey of self-awareness and the boundless capacity for growth. It is through these shared experiences and teachings that we can hope to create a world steeped in understanding and respect.
Following the retreat, I connected with a colleague who is also African American. She informed me that the student had sought her counsel on the incident. My colleague, drawing from her years of wisdom as a retired professor and her personal experiences as a Black woman, shared a perspective that deeply resonated with me. While she provided a listening ear and empathetic heart to the student, she also imparted an invaluable lesson: the importance of self-reflection amid external adversities.
She told the student that while educating others is crucial, moments like these also serve as opportunities for one’s own personal growth. It’s easy to lay blame or to let external circumstances amplify our pain, yet genuine healing and empowerment come from introspection. She emphasized that living as a Black woman in the US, it can be tempting to attribute frustrations solely to societal structures or prejudices, but freedom and transformation are truly realized only when we critically examine ourselves and our responses to these challenges.
It’s easy to perceive moments of ignorance or insensitivity as mere external problems that need to be rectified by others. However, true growth and understanding arise when we also turn inward, examining our responses and continuously learning. This isn’t about assigning blame or absolving others of their actions—rather, it’s about realizing the true depth of our interconnectedness and understanding that every moment of conflict is also a potential moment of waking up!
My student and colleague’s actions served as a reminder: “turn an unwillingness to teach, into a willingness to teach well.” And most importantly, to always remain willing to learn.
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