Thesis: Definitions of Terms

Oct 24th, 2017

Image copyright: Daria Nepriakhina

I have always found it interesting how people define terms that they use.  In this instance I found it necessary to define three terms: Oppression, Healing, and Community.  As I was rereading it to post here, I can say that my feelings about these definitions are still there.  Feel free to contact me if you have anything to add.


Chapter Two
Definition of Main Terms

             In this chapter, I will explain what is meant by, as well as how I arrived at, the meaning for three key concepts, oppression, community, and healing which are the primary ideas that must have a shared understanding in order for there to be some clarity to my work. It has been my experience that a lot of conflicts and difference of opinions are resolved when shared understanding of key concepts can be achieved. Because these concepts are personal and intimate in nature, there is some nuance that needs to be clarified.

Like all things, these understandings must change and grow as we continue to practice with these concepts. Nothing is static and these definitions must not be seen as some rigid and definitive declaration of “truth” but instead as starting points for our shared development and understanding. All conversations must start somewhere; here is where I shall start this one.


My working definition of oppression going forward will be that oppression is a practice, which creates suffering for all those involved, by systemic, cruel, and/or unjust treatment. It is important that we view oppression as a practice because, as will be discussed later, healing and community are also practices. It is also necessary to understand that oppression is systemic, meaning it is built into the social fabric of all of our interactions. We can see this as obvious in the system of chattel slavery that is the legacy of African Americans in the US or as subtle as the what Ava DuVernay names, in her movie 13th, as “the continued enslavement of black men through the prison industrial complex.”[1] We could also consider the continuing wage difference between men and women[2] as systemic oppression or the continued inability for LGBTIQ people[3] to have security of job or housing protection in thirty states.[4] Even more subtle is the way in which white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, young, and financially stable has been constructed as the norm in our society and how anything other than that is in some way subject to oppression in one way or another.

Howard Thurman (1899–1981), the African-American Christian mystic, philosopher, social justice advocate and minister talks about oppression as “having your back against the wall”[5] while also suggesting that the oppressors, those in power, are on the opposite side of the wall, holding it up. In his book Luminous Darkness, Thurman, is discussing segregation specifically; which we can also translate to a conversation about oppression in general. He says:

In American society generally, formal power rests largely within the white community. In white society is the citadel of the so-called power structure. The controls that determine the establishment and maintenance of law and order reside there. For this reason, prestigious members of the group can and often do function without social and moral responsibility. Segregation is at once one of the most blatant forms of moral irresponsibility. The segregated persons are out of bounds, are outside the magnetic field of ethical concern. It is always open season. The reason has been previously discussed. This was the general climate and Christian ethic made no impact. Of course the radical difference between the position of Negroes and white persons as regards the effect of social irresponsibility was the difference in power. The idea that a Negro interpreted the white person as being out of bounds had a limited scope in which to operate because of the strictures under which he was forced to live. The power of the white person tended to take all integrity out of his personal relations with Negroes, but it did not affect him materially in his function in the world in which he had established controls. In short, he was less vulnerable than the Negro because he was a white man. [6]


Thurman is pointing at the way in which there was (and perhaps we could agree continues to be) a system in place which protects the white person while simultaneously subjects the non-white person to the pressure of its control and will. This can also be said for women, LGBTIQ people, and anyone outside what is considered normative in society.

Black author, educator, and activist bell hooks has written extensively on the topic of oppression, its role in modern life and how to heal within and overcome its effects. In the introduction to her book Black Looks: Race and Representation, hooks describes clearly the effects and deep entrenchment of oppression:

Theorizing black experience in the United States is a difficult task. Socialized within white supremacist educational systems and by a racist mass media, many black people are convinced that our lives are not complex, and are therefore unworthy of sophisticated critical analysis and reflection. Even those of us righteously committed to black liberation struggle, who feel we have decolonized our minds, often find it hard to “speak” our experience. The more painful the issues we confront the greater our inarticulateness. James Baldwin understood this. In The Fire Next Time, he reminded readers that “there has been almost no language” to describe the “horrors” of black life.

Without a way to name our pain, we are also without words to articulate our pleasure. Indeed, a fundamental task of black critical thinkers has been the struggle to break with the hegemonic modes of seeing, thinking, and being that block our capacity to see ourselves oppositionally, to imagine, describe, and invent ourselves in ways that are liberatory. Without this, how can we challenge and invite non-black allies and friends to dare to look at us differently, to dare to break their colonizing gaze.[7]


What hooks is pointing at here is that because of how the system is used to convince everyone that oppression is normal, as well as minimize the ability of everyone to see its effects, we end up not truly being able to clear away all of the subtle and unconscious bits that continue unhindered because of our blindness to the operation of the system. It is important to notice that hooks is also pointing to a healing that is possible inside the oppression. “Naming our pain” and finding ways to articulate our pleasure are both necessary contributors to the healing described in this paper. As will be discussed in multiple places later, in order for us to find a way to practice the way of healing we need to acknowledge what is (accepting reality) and take an active role in creating and finding the beauty that is also there. In this way, the oppression that is most certainly present is no longer the sole means by which our lives are perceived, experienced, or articulated. This is healing in oppression. This is the practice of liberation and healing.

I also see hooks articulating, in a more subtle way, the importance of embodiment on healing. She is talking about “speaking our experience”. This can only happened in an embodied way. This articulation only exists when we go beyond the theoretical into our personal embodied experience. She is articulating a focus on our particular physicality in the midst of oppression and using the particularities of such embodiment as a way to find healing. I believe that for hooks to get to the theoretical we must go through the embodied.

In the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, Rev. angel Kyodo williams argues:

For too long we’ve been beholden to a set of surface feelings, organizing around ideas and beliefs about what it means to be a good person or create good society. These efforts at good behavior and pursuit of good policies have proven to be no match for the deep embeddedness of what is the foundation of, and has been intricately woven throughout, every facet, institution, and relationship of the United States and the psyche of its inhabitants: the racialization of people and its underlying presupposition – the superiority of white-skinned peoples. A direct requirement of maintaining that position has always been and continues to be the inferiority of Black people. [8]


Again, we are pointed towards an understanding of oppression and the resulting effects as not just simply the singularity of an action or activity, but a system that is in place, which shapes all the participants. This system attempts to define for everyone what is seen, and unseen, spoken and unspoken, valued and not valued, and convince us that definition is the totality of lived experience. We are also pointed by williams towards a healing practice based on being seen, spoken about and valued, with what I will later discuss as Thurman’s “quiet eyes.” This ability to find a stable, compassionate, and expansive view of the full experience of each moment, not just what the system tells us our experience is, and to be liberated (healed) inside that particular moment of oppression.

There are models for how Buddhist communities can engage in this seeing, valuing and articulation of oppression, as well as providing opportunities for expanding our view of what we call our lives. This expansion allows us to start to “articulate our pleasure” as hooks suggests. I will use East Bay Meditation Center as an example of just such a community engaged in this practice of healing inside oppression. This practice of healing is not in spite of or even seeking to end oppression before we can begin to articulate the beauty of our lives; instead this practice is an articulation of what already is there, a refocusing on the beauty, power and strength of communities met with systems that would, if allowed to be all that is perceived, convince us of our deserving of the oppression.

Next I will discuss and define community. The system of oppression operates in and is supported in our experience of community. The interplay of individual embodiment and interdependent co-creation is the place of both illness and healing. In order to really understand the practice of oppression we must understand the workings of community.


             I would like to highlight two important things as we explore the concept of community. First that community can be as small as two people (patient and Chaplain perhaps) or as large as all beings. Second, community is integral to healing. In the discussion of Arai’s ten principles of healing, which will happen in Chapter Three, we will see that her first principle of healing, “experiencing interrelatedness”, is foundational to the practice of healing. This means that in order for any practice of healing to be successful, it must be inside the container of community. We do not heal alone any more than we suffer alone. When Jerry Falwell died, there was a large number of those in the gay community who celebrated his death. Falwell was leader of the so-called “Moral Majority” that did much to oppress and disparage the gay community, and this, in the minds of some, called for rejoicing at his passing. My personal experience however was to grieve. I was aware that before he was “Rev. Jerry Falwell” he was a person. There were those who loved him very much. He had a community and family and there was grieving. For reasons unknown to me, this is what I experienced. Despite any harm his participation in my personal experience of oppression caused, there were those who suffered by his death. It was a suffering I knew and perhaps because of my healing practice and my work as a chaplain, I was only able to see this and respond to this suffering, and understand it as “mine” and not separate from me. This is what it means to live in overlapping and intersecting communities. Just as I tapped and prioritized the community of Falwell over the community associated with my sexual identity, we are constantly choosing which particular community to pay attention to and in each moment prioritizing the multiple ways communities interact. There isn’t a “right” way or a “skillful” way. Just to know that this is at work.

Because oppression exists on a systemic level and systems operate on communities as much as on individuals, we also must understand oppression as a community experience. Understanding community and our places inside or outside a particular community allows for the ability to be in true solidarity with the oppressed. For example, I am a white, cisgender, disabled, queer, male. I am educated, and although I have experienced great poverty, I have a certain amount of class privilege. These are all communities to which I am a part. I experience the privileges associated with each one, and the oppression of each one. I am not inside of the Black community. I am able, by understanding and taking my place fully inside of the white community[9], to be in solidarity with the Black community in their efforts to find liberation from the oppression caused by my white community. I will never be inside; however, that does not limit my ability to have impact on the system of white supremacy, or to live in solidarity with non-white communities. I do this by fully investing in the privilege and power associated with my whiteness into the effort to free all beings from oppression. Solidarity comes not from trying to bring my whiteness into Black community, but from bringing my understanding of my whiteness in line with the lived experience of those inside the Black community. When I understand, acknowledge and fully accept the privilege and the systemic abuse this privilege may have caused, I can then bring that to bear in service of undoing the systems of abuse and power. Like all “tools” how they are utilized matters, and I can only change how the tool of privilege and power is used if I acknowledge it fully. This is liberating for those subject to its abuse, and for me as the wielder of that privilege and power.

As part of my ordination as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest, I took refuge in the Three Treasures: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The English translation of these refuges that was used was as follows:

I take Refuge in Buddha.

I take Refuge in Dharma.

I take Refuge in Sangha.

I take Refuge in Buddha as the perfect teacher.

I take Refuge in Dharma as the perfect teaching.

I take Refuge in Sangha as the perfect life.

Now I have completely taken Refuge in Buddha.

Now I have completely taken Refuge in Dharma.

Now I have completely taken Refuge in Sangha.[10]

Sangha is understood to be “community.” Which community is often dependent on what is being discussed. Sometimes it is the community of ordained monks; sometimes ordained clergy; sometimes ordained men and women, as well as lay men and women; sometimes it is all Buddhists everywhere; sometimes it is all beings. Understanding refuge and community in this way points to the various circles encompassed by the term community. I am struck by the line in the Refuge Vows that says, “I take Refuge in Sangha as the perfect life.” As I examine how this is developing in my life, I am starting to see how community or sangha is a practice. It is a way of life. We are not just embedded in or a part of a community. We live it out. This is interdependence in action. We are mutually responsible to and for community, whichever one we mean when we use that word. This is demonstrated by the activity of the Japanese laywomen who are the subjects of Arai’s work and by the activity and framework of East Bay Meditation Center is engaging. In the Upaddha Sutta the Buddha says, “Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life.”[11]


             In this paper, healing refers to a practice which addresses the entirety of a person’s experience. Perhaps, to answer the question, “What is healing?” we could say the short answer, if we must have a short answer, is the process and practice of liberation and wholeness a person develops, engages, and experiences in response to the suffering of disease or dis-ease. Healing is as necessary during the difficulties of a cold or flu or say a cut finger, as it is for things like the death of a partner, moving homes, or a diagnosis of cancer or AIDS. In order for healing to mean anything, it must be consistent. No matter what issue it is being called to address, healing must be directly addressing the suffering we experience in our lived experience. Oppression is one of the ways that people suffer. As made clear above while discussing oppression, both the oppressed and the oppressor suffer in oppression, and both sufferings can be met with healing.

I contend that the work of a Chaplain is to help facilitate and encourage healing. Healing must be a practice. Even if only allopathic healing is considered, there is still a process involved. However, as has been discovered over the course of my lifetime of experience as a caregiver, friend, lover and companion during much of the AIDS crisis, there is no healing that does not involve all the areas of a person’s life. The difference between healing and curing were made more distinct by the fact that often there was healing despite the commonality of death. In my experience, the medical establishment has even begun to see the importance of things such as diet, amount of exercise, and states of mind as well as emotional well being, social and family support, and the spiritual condition of a patient have on the effectiveness of interventions offered. Rarely do I meet with doctors, nurses, or other medical personnel, either as a patient or as an advocate, that these topics are not included in the conversation. So when we speak of healing, it may at first seem to be separate from curative measures. My experience would say that they are interdependent in the same way that Buddhism contends all things are interdependent.[12]

In this chapter I have clarified the definitions of key concepts of oppression, community and healing as processes that are in interdependent and co-creating each other in each moment. I have shown that oppression creates suffering for both oppressor and oppressed, and that it is a systemic process at work on individual embodiments. I have shown that community is multi-valiant and how it is that we all are embedded in multiple communities that are interacting and overlapping. I then began to clarify the process and practice of healing.

Let us begin a deeper dive into the concept of healing. This paper relies heavily on Arai’s work on healing, specifically with her work with Japanese Buddhist laywomen. Arai’s pivotal research helped bring my work into focus and has shaped how I view oppression, community and healing today. As mentioned in the introduction, I began to investigate difference and oppression sometime around age eight. Over the course of this time, I have encountered many ideas which became “aha moments” propelling me into a new direction or infusing me with a new vitality to dig deeper into my practice of healing in oppression.

[1] The thirteenth Amendment states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” There are those who state the disproportionate number of black and brown men incarcerated and subject to forced free or very cheap labor has continued a legacy of slavery. See Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay, “13th” (video), October 7, 2016, [accessed October 10, 2016].

[2] Kevin Miller, “The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap,” American Association of University Women, 2016, [accessed January 2, 2017].

[3] LGBTIQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Intersex, Queer. It is the most common identifier of non-heterosexual communities. I will intentionally scramble the order these letters appear in this paper in order to not center one sub-community over another.

[4] Ashe McGovern, Sarah McBride, and Sharita Gruberg, “Nondiscrimination Protections for LGBTQ Communities,” Center for American Progress, December 08, 2016, [accessed January 2, 2017].

[5] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996), 3.

[6] Howard Thurman, The Luminous Darkness: A Personal Interpretation of the Anatomy of Segregation and the Ground of Hope (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1989), 6-7.


[7] bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992), 2.


[8] angel Kyodo williams, Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2016), xii.


[9] To acknowledge the power and privilege differential at work in white supremacy, I am intentionally capitalizing Black community and not capitalizing white community.

[10] See Appendix A “Shukke Tokudo” or Priest Ordination Ceremony at San Francisco Zen Center.

[11] Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Upaddha Sutta: Half (of the Holy Life),” Access to Insight, November 30, 2013, [accessed October 15, 2016].

[12] There will be a larger discussion of interdependence in Chapter Three.


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