I read an article recently about a study on gender bias in hiring practices. The researchers sent a resume to the science departments of six highly regarded research universities. Every application was exactly the same, except on some the applicant was named John and on the other the person was named Jennifer. They found that on average “John” was much more likely to be recommended for hiring and, on average, offered a larger salary. So here we have exactly zero personal information, not even a photograph. There are only the abstract symbols in a name. And the consequences of that action—of that bias, that discrimination, that sense of certainty—connect directly to a human being and help shape what their life might be. For John, the door may swing wide open; for Jennifer it’s a smaller, meaner world.

I remember the first time I walked into this monastery—I saw a grand hall; I saw the person who was to become my teacher; I saw practitioners, people who looked a lot like me. I saw a place of potential. I didn’t see anything that made me ask myself, “Is this my place? Do I belong here?” That didn’t happen and I didn’t even notice that it didn’t happen. The fact that I didn’t experience a barrier is a kind of privilege. I didn’t have to think about it. Because our sangha is still predominantly white, others may walk into this hall and have a very different experience. They may be stopped by that very question, “Do I belong here?” So, what is my role in that? Am I perpetuating suffering or working to bring it to cessation? We talk so much about alleviating suffering, and we need to be careful that it doesn’t become abstract. “I vow to alleviate suffering of all sentient beings.” What suffering beings are we talking about? We’re talking about you and me. We’re talking about every living and inanimate being.

Guishan says, “Water is level, why don’t you use water to level it?” Water moves freely; it’s not fixed. Cool it and it turns to ice; heat it and it turns to gas. When it’s quiet and gentle, its murmurings can put a baby to sleep; in its wrath and fury it can destroy cities and landscapes. Not being fixed to any state, it can both give life and destroy it.

In his poem Daido Roshi said that each thing abides in its own dharma state. What is the “water” that Guishan is speaking of? What is it that levels all differences, equalizes all inequalities, dissolves all distances? In The Vimalakirti Sutra, the Buddha speaks of the world as a buddha-field, a place of splendor and perfection. He also said that some living beings can’t behold the splendid display of virtues of this buddha-field due to their own ignorance and confusion. It’s not that they don’t have the capacity to see it clearly, they just aren’t yet able to see it clearly. It’s neither the fault of the world nor the eyes. Hearing this, Shariputra says, “As for me, I see this great earth with its highs and lows, its thorns, its precipices, its peaks, its abysses.” And an elder disciple says, “The fact that you see such a buddha-field as this as if it were so impure is a sure sign that there are highs and lows in your mind.” This is absolutely true—but those highs and lows are conditioned; we weren’t born with them. If we were born with them then we’d be truly imprisoned within them; practice and enlightenment would not be possible.