Shambhala Sun | September 2014
There is a Path that Frees Us from Suffering
Insight teacher Gina Sharpe is working to create a truly
inclusive sangha. The place to start, she says, is facing the truth that even
Buddhist communities aren’t free from the suffering caused by racism. A profile
by ANDREA MILLER.
Buddhist teacher Gina Sharpe once asked a student why she
only attended meditation retreats that were specifically for people of color.
“Gina,” the woman answered, “I’m from the South. If I’m the
only black person in a room of ninety-nine white people, there’s only one thing
that’s going to happen.”
“What’s that?” Sharpe asked.
Then came the woman’s answer—graphic and powerful.
“A lynching,” she said.
Looking back, Sharpe pinpoints this as the moment when she
“really got it.” While the white Buddhist community may be very sweet, very
well intentioned, that doesn’t change people’s visceral experience. “It was
nothing I could argue with,” Sharpe explains. “It’s an emotional wound that
Originally from Jamaica, Sharpe has a complex
heritage—white, black, and Chinese. “I’m so assimilated that I’m more
comfortable than many people of color in a white world,” she acknowledges. As a
Buddhist practitioner in the Insight Meditation tradition, she never had any
qualms about attending retreats that were otherwise all white, and for a long
time she didn’t entirely grasp how difficult it was for many people of color.
Yet the first time she led a people of color retreat, she noticed an unfamiliar
feeling of relaxation.
“I didn’t realize that when I’m not in a diverse place,
there’s a certain amount of unconscious tension that I carry,” she says. When
she practiced with other people of color, the tension dropped away.
New York Insight is ten floors up on West 27th, but even
from this height I can hear the sounds of Manhattan below—horns honking, music
Gina Sharpe is at the front of the room wearing an
understated gray top and black slacks. Previously a successful corporate
lawyer, she was one of the center’s cofounders seventeen years ago and is now
its guiding teacher. To open her teaching, she taps a singing bowl, releasing a
“We choose to spend our time together as a community,” she
says. “Even though we come together in what appears to be separate bodies contained
in our own sacks of skin, we are inexorably connected. So, in that spirit, I
ask you to turn to the people around you.”
Reaching out my hand to greet my neighbors, I suddenly see
what makes New York Insight unusual. Like so many convert Buddhist centers in
North America, it has a clean look that is at once cheerful and spare. There
are tidy rows of chairs and cushions, a pot of orchids, and a soothing statue
of the Buddha. But unlike so many convert Buddhist centers, New York Insight
has a diverse membership. Indeed, it looks like New York City itself—a vibrant
mix of black, white, Asian, Latino.
While it might be tempting to think that this diversity
happened automatically—a natural result of the center’s urban, multicultural
location—it is actually the product of years of effort.
According to Buddhist philosophy, ultimately there is
neither black nor white; these are simply constructions of mind. But
practically, there is a legacy of slavery in America, and racism is woven into
the fabric of society. This is real.
“Given that,” Sharpe tells me, “it’s not just a matter of
‘Let’s put people in a room together and let them meditate and everything will
be hunky-dory.’ Work has to be done on all different fronts.”
And that work starts with understanding structural racism.
“What does structural racism really mean? It means it’s not your fault,” says
Sharpe. “You’re not to blame—you don’t have to feel guilty—but you should
recognize it as a problem that needs a solution. And how do we as Buddhists
solve problems? The first thing we do is we sit down and try to see the truth.”
Yet many Buddhists don’t want to see that structural racism
operates in their own communities. According to Sharpe, white Buddhists often
believe they’re so goodwilled that they can’t possibly be racist, and this
means that they can’t be taught. Nobody wants to be seen as racist; nobody
wants to look inside and see racist tendencies. “So when you bring racism up,”
she says, “there’s so much guilt and shame about it that you get
They’re not coming. What’s wrong with them? Why
aren’t they coming for these precious teachings that we have? This,
according to Sharpe, is frequently the underlying attitude of predominantly
white sanghas in regard to people of color not attending their centers.
“There’s a feeling of ‘It’s their issue, not my issue,’” she
says. “But racism hurts everybody.
If it weren’t for Duke Ellington, Gina Sharpe might still be
Her mother was a legal secretary in Kingston, her father an
alcoholic and womanizer. The couple divorced when Sharpe was five. Then a few
years later, her mother decided to try to make a better life for her three
daughters. Leaving them in the care of one of her former teachers, she
immigrated to the United States, where she worked as a domestic servant—the
only thing she could do under the radar.
Sharpe describes what happened to her as a Cinderella story.
The teacher, who had a rather plain daughter, was cruel to the attractive
Sharpe sisters. They were all supposed to have their own bedroom, but instead
she piled them into one room and sometimes didn’t give them any food to eat.
Not wanting to add to their mother’s burden, the girls did not tell her what
Finally, one of the sister’s school friends told her father
about the situation, and he marched over to the teacher’s house. “I’ll talk to
your mother later,” he told the girls, “but you’re coming with me now.” He and
his wife already had five children of their own, but they welcomed the Sharpes
into their family.
Meanwhile, the girls’ mother got married and acquired legal
status in the U.S., yet she still couldn’t send for her daughters because she
didn’t have enough money in the bank to satisfy the immigration requirements.
But her new husband, a musician, was friendly with Duke Ellington. One day,
Ellington caught her crying and asked what was wrong. After she explained the
situation, he put the needed money into her bank account, and she immediately
set to work on reuniting with her children.
Gina Sharpe, at age eleven, left her native land. Driving
from the airport through Harlem, she was taken aback by the relentless expanse
of towering buildings, the dirt, and the stark absence of nature. Yet she does
not remember ever being homesick for Jamaica.
Sharpe had always excelled academically and, at her new
school, a placement test landed her in ninth grade, making her three years
younger than her classmates. Moreover, she was put into an experimental
double-honors class for especially gifted students. It was like being at a
private school, only without the price tag.
Sharpe was just fifteen years old when she entered Barnard,
the prestigious women’s college affiliated with Columbia, and the age
difference between her and her classmates proved to be too much. Unprepared for
the extracurricular activities of sex and alcohol, she dropped out after one
year and got a job as a secretary and—briefly—as a model. She did not have to
strike too many poses before concluding that models were treated like pieces of
meat. Moving to the West Coast, Sharpe became an assistant to a movie producer
and worked on the films Little Big Man, Alice’s Restaurant, and Paper
Lion. She introduced her sister Alma to the sixties’ sex symbol Troy
Donahue and the two were married for a couple of years.
In 1970, Gina Sharpe returned to Barnard and completed her
degree in philosophy with a minor in psychology. As it happened, on the day of
her graduation Duke Ellington was across the street at Columbia. Though she did
not speak with Ellington, Sharpe sat in the audience and watched as he was
awarded an honorary degree.
Night has fallen, and through the windows at New York
Insight all I see is darkness speckled with light shining from other windows
near and far.
Tonight Sharpe is offering a few Buddhist meditation
pointers, which are in essence all about being at ease without collapsing. I
try to “breathe the breath” as she recommends, and then she shifts into what
she calls “the underpinning of the practice”—the Buddhist teachings.
About her meetings with students, Sharpe says, “I want to
understand how the practice is manifesting in their life and thinking, because
I believe that practice should permeate everything. It shouldn’t be that you
sit for forty-five minutes or an hour in the morning, and then you get up and
there’s no more thought of it. In every moment, there’s a dharma lesson.”
So when a student comes to Sharpe with a real-life concern
such as “My mom is dying,” Sharpe’s response is twofold. First there is the
simple human piece, which is, “Oh my God, your mom’s dying. How are you and how
is she?” Then Sharpe shifts into her role as a teacher, leading her student to
explore deeper questions in the vein of: How does impermanence work in your
life? What was your relationship to your mom? Are you holding resentment toward
her and have you worked with that from the point of view of suffering and the
end of suffering? Sharpe may point students in a certain direction, but,
she says, “The student is wise enough to get it. I don’t have to lend my wisdom
because they’ve got their own wisdom that they can work with.”
Sharpe’s approach leading tonight’s dharma talk is similar.
In fact, as she puts it, it’s not so much that she’s leading a dharma talk but
rather that we’re all creating the talk together. The format is inquiry, and
it’s not a one-way street.
A woman sitting cross-legged on her chair takes the mike and
explains that she’s been meditating consistently for quite a while and she can
feel how the practice has transformed her life. Yet, she says, “I have a hard
time with actually landing on the teachings. They don’t stick.”
“What do you mean?” Sharpe probes.
“Like the four noble truths. I’ve heard them a million
times, but every time it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what they are!’ Somehow I’m
not super connected to them.”
“Is it okay?”
The woman adjusts her hat. For her, she says, it’s okay. Yet
she wonders if it really is. She’s just happy doing what she’s doing.
Shouldn’t there be a next step?
Sharpe pauses. “So what can I do for you?”
“I love your questions!” The woman smiles. “I guess the
question is… I mean… you don’t know me well enough to give me the answer on a
“Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t!” Sharpe laughs.
“Everybody learns differently. Maybe you don’t need to know what the four noble
The woman persists: “Is it important to find a teacher?”
“Is it important to you?”
“I guess I’d want to have a reflection at some point.”
“When it becomes a heart’s desire—if it ever does—then you
look for a teacher.” But for now, Sharpe asks, what are other ways to seek the
answers to life’s big questions?
“There’s a lot,” the woman says. “Meditation is one.”
“Go for it!” says Sharpe. “Live your life fully. It doesn’t
have to look like anybody else’s.”
There is skillful means in Sharpe’s teaching. It’s not one
size fits all. When a man in a grass-green shirt and glasses asks a related
question, she gives a much more tempered, traditional response.
The man, who identifies himself as Ken, explains that he
appreciates how meditation focuses the mind. Yet he’s unclear how this leads to
what he defines as the larger objectives of meditation: developing compassion
and understanding no-self and impermanence.
“How long have you been practicing?” Sharpe asks him.
“For a few years but not consistently. Sometimes I give it
“Have you ever been on a silent retreat?”
“No, but I try to go to dharma meetings about three times a
week, here and at Tibet House and the Shambhala Center.”
“So where do you think you’re falling short?”
Ken simply repeats that he isn’t seeing the connection
between meditation and wisdom.
Sharpe asks, “Are you interested in being able to think it
through, or are you interested in being able to see it work its way into your
“I’d like to know the intellectual connection.”
“Aha! Well, there’s a lot to be said for being able to
reflect—we’re intellectual beings. But we’re also emotional and physical
beings. The way to realize these connections is not by thinking them through.”
Take the concept of impermanence, she tells him. You can
watch the shifting tides and the spinning hands on a clock and you can tell
yourself 150,000 times that everything is impermanent. Yet that doesn’t mean
you understand it in your gut.
As Sharpe sees it, the teachings of the different schools of
Buddhism all wind up in the same place: the four noble truths. Nonetheless, if
we’re all over the place in our practice, shopping around and sampling
different traditions, we may have breadth but not depth. When we choose a path
and delve into it deeply, our intention is not like a cork bobbing on the water
but like a stone dropping down: the mind steadies and insight appears.
“If you’ve been practicing for a while, a retreat is really
helpful,” says Sharpe. On retreat, you get a base of stillness and silence,
which broadens and deepens your practice at home.
“Then insight is nothing that you have to seek,” she
concludes. “It simply happens. The mind is still and so it sees the nature of
reality, and, from that, wisdom and compassion arise. When we see for ourselves
that we are deeply connected to other beings, we don’t have to try to be
compassionate. Compassion arises because we know there’s no difference between
us. Your sadness is my sadness; your joy is my joy. Meditation is a way of
helping the mind settle so it understands that in a deep way.”
Gina Sharpe’s home is full of buddhas. There’s a white one
presiding over the kitchen where her husband, John Fowle, is making lunch. Then
there’s a buddha of gilded wood in the piano room and one of brass in the
bedroom. And hanging on the living room wall there’s a Chinese painting on tin
of an arhat. Thirty-five years ago, Sharpe tells me, she was going up an
escalator in Bloomingdale’s when she saw this arhat and decided he had to be
rescued from just being somebody’s decoration. For Sharpe, Buddhist imagery is
a tangible reminder to practice. She smiles when she puts it this way: “Lest
Fowle serves lunch in the dining room and the three of us
cluster at one end of a long table. In the center, there’s a South African
table runner decorated with a giraffe motif, and at our feet there’s a cat with
a charmingly strident meow. The meal is a carrot-mushroom medley, perfectly
seasoned asparagus, and brown rice topped with a kidney bean stew. Though I
relish every bite, Fowle insists that his wife is the better cook.
The couple met more than three decades ago when they were
both young lawyers—Fowle working for a firm in the Bahamas and Sharpe working
for another in New York. Their first date was at a restaurant that served
platters of sizzling steak, and Fowle says he was so nervous that he invited a
friend along. “This particular friend was married to a brain surgeon, and he
told me not to get involved with Gina because she was too smart. I totally
ignored his advice.”
Less than two years later, on an afternoon in September,
Fowle and Sharpe went to Tiffany’s and picked out a ring. The next day they got
I ask Sharpe how she and her husband find equilibrium in
their relationship, and her answer is generosity and kindness. According to
Sharpe, marriage is difficult because it’s a very close relationship with
someone who has their own practice, their own history, and their own ideas
about how things should be. We all have a history of trauma, isolation, and
abandonment, and so much of what constitutes life is how our past difficulties
manifest and how we work with that. Marriage, she says, is not just about “How
do I get my needs met?” It’s about “How do I get my needs met? How does the
other person get their needs met and how does the relationship, which is a
third entity, get what it needs?”
“A marital relationship,” says Sharpe, “shows you all of the
places where you’re stuck, all of the places where you’re selfish. Marriage is
the dharma of sex and money and work and relationship all contained in one
situation. If we look at it as practice, then we learn from the conflicts that
As for Sharpe and Fowle, I’ve rarely encountered a couple so
supportive of each other. When I ask Fowle who his teacher is, he tells me
there’s a group: Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield. But his
number one is his wife.
“This is clearly biased,” he says. “I don’t care. Gina is
the best there is. What I love about Gina’s teachings is that they can cover a
Buddhist text and be very detailed, and then she’ll open it up and take you
from your head to your heart.” Fowle also points to the work that Sharpe has
done for people of color in the dharma.
“It’s not about
proselytizing to those ‘poor people of color’ who need to know the dharma,” she
explains. “When we’re in a room that’s not diverse, we’re missing opinions,
we’re missing viewpoints of the world. So getting a more diverse sangha is
about enriching our community. It’s not about getting them to come get what
we’ve got but for them to bring with them what they’ve got. When we all study
the dharma together, it becomes really rich.”
Sharpe feels that a critical step to encourage diversity is
retreats and sitting groups specifically for people of color. In these safe
spaces, people of color have the opportunity to connect with Buddhist practice
and many of them will fall so in love with it that they’ll then begin attending
general retreats and sitting groups.
In 2005, Sharpe was instrumental in establishing the NYI
People of Color Sangha, a sitting group that meets once a month. This was
followed by other initiatives to reach out to people of color and to educate
convert Buddhists, particularly those in leadership positions, about issues of
race, diversity, and equity.
Recently, Sharpe and her collaborators launched “Cultivating
a Beloved Community,” an eight-week course that explores differences and
similarities through a Buddhist lens. The first course was led by four
teachers—a white lesbian, a black gay man, a white straight man, and a black
straight woman—and forty-five people applied for the sixteen available spots.
“It’s not just talking about race or sexual orientation or prejudice,” says
Sharpe.“It’s really looking at suffering and the end of suffering.”
“The way suffering ends,” she concludes, “is that its cause
is understood. Racism is a huge part of American suffering. If we’re not
attending to it, we’re being ignorant.”