Mistaking a Stick for a Snake

What the Buddha taught about inherent bias.

Bonnie Duran

Medicine Buddha illustration for Buddhistm and Race series
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu


When I speak to people
of color, I like to tell my Dharma story first. My parents were both mixed-race Native people. My father is a descendant of the Opelousas tribe from Louisiana, grew up speaking French, and is also African American. My mother is Coushatta (Koasati), also from Louisiana, and had a Hispanic or Latina last name, Romero. My parents both moved to San Francisco because of the African American Great Migration and American Indian relocation. My parents were poor, but they were very Catholic and placed a high value on education, so they put all five of their children in good Bay Area Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. My father was a self-taught electrician, and he would do work for the church parish in order to pay for tuition, which he otherwise would not have been able to afford.

When I graduated from high school, we were starting to see the benefits of the civil rights and women’s movements, so I attended San Francisco State. After getting my degree, I wanted to do what many of my beloved white friends did after they got their degrees: go to Europe for the summer. But I had no money to go to Europe, so at the age of twenty-three, I got a one-way ticket and took a job as a chambermaid in Germany to get the European experience. I was fortunate to end up living with a lot of expatriates—African Americans, people from Australia and New Zealand, and others who were living in Europe. And they all told me, “You have to go to Asia. That’s the promised land of experience!” These friends also advised me, “You should go into a monastery for a month to get used to it, because Asia is so different, India is so different, you’re going to freak out!”

So I hitchhiked to Berlin and took a plane to Kathmandu, and my very first Buddhist experience was a month-long retreat in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. It was kind of intense, but after having lived in Europe for two or three years, I felt like I had come home. The Tibetan people looked like they were native people! I had worked in Indian country before I moved abroad, and I considered myself to be an urban Indian, so being surrounded by Tibetans felt like a taste of home to me. And they appreciated me, too, because they had never seen an American who looked like me. They would march me into a group of their friends and say, “Where do you think she’s from?” And the friends would answer “Bhutan,” or “up the road in Pokhara,” or maybe “Thailand,” and then they’d turn to me and say, “Say something!” I would come out with my American accent and they would laugh in delight, thinking this was so cute and clever. I would tell them, “There’s a lot of people who look like me in the United States!” That sense of mutual recognition was very powerful.

During this time, I completely fell in love with the Dharma. As soon as I heard it, I felt that I was hearing the truth. I spent that month in Kopan monastery, and decided to stay there to do more Tibetan practice. Then all my Tibetan friends were going to Bodh Gaya to see His Holiness and to do vipassana practice, mindfulness practice, and I said, “Sure, I’ll go with you.”1 This was in 1982, before the so-called mindfulness revolution. I went into Vipassana retreat with Western teachers in Bodh Gaya, and I felt like my medicine had started; my healing had started.

The level of relaxation I was able to reach just by being with people of color was transformative.

I ended up staying in Asia for a year and then went back to Europe for a bit longer. After about six years away, I came back to the United States. Because I loved vipassana practice, every single vacation I had, I would go on retreat. In those days there were no scholarships, so I had to save up all my money to do the retreats. I practiced as much as I could, and it really cured me. In spite of going on retreat and being a good practitioner for about fifteen years, I couldn’t find a sangha. Finally, I met Carol Wilson on retreat, and she recommended that I sit at the people of color retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in New Mexico, which was taught by Joseph Goldstein and George Mumford. The level of relaxation I was able to reach just by being with people of color was transformative. I met my teacher there, too—Joseph Goldstein—and after that, I would meditate there every year. I was on the faculty at the University of New Mexico by then, so it became my sangha.

As we know from neuroscientific studies, there are cognitive benefits to doing mindfulness practice, and after about ten years of practicing, I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley for a master’s degree in public health. I hadn’t been a particularly good undergraduate student, but my graduate faculty seemed to think I was kind of smart, and they even invited me to stay for a PhD. I had always worked in the American Indian community, and they felt that more PhDs were needed to work in Indian country. I’m convinced it was all the mindfulness that opened up this path, and I’ve been able to have a sweet little career as a college professor. I have worked on issues of equity and community engagement around public health, particularly with communities of color and Indian communities. Science has a pretty dubious history in communities of color, so I and other colleagues have worked to make sure that the scientific community truly engages with communities of color, to hear and respect the wisdom that we have, too.

The most recent chapter in my Dharma story is that Joseph Goldstein invited me to start teacher training five years ago. I recently turned sixty, and after being a practitioner for so many years, I have discovered that being a Dharma teacher is different than I thought it would be. The Dharma is the most precious thing in the whole world; it is a difficult and challenging task to teach it.

Illustration for Bonnie Duran's Mistaking a Stick for a Snake

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu


Here, I want to discuss
one of my very favorite topics,the Vipallasa Sutta, the deep teaching that the Buddha gave about distortions of the mind, or distortions of perception. Today, it seems everybody wants to do mindfulness, to have calmness and to reduce stress. But I want to discuss the other important reason to do it: because our minds and hearts aren’t seeing very clearly most of the time.

This is the Vipallasa Sutta from the Anguttara Nikaya:

These four, O Monks [and Nuns and others], are distortions of
perception, distortions of thought, distortions of view . . .

. . .

Gone astray with wrong views, beings
Misperceive with distorted minds.

Bound in the bondage of Maya,
Those people are far from safety.
They’re beings that go on flowing:
Going again from birth to death.

But when in the world of darkness
Buddhas arise to make things bright,
They present this profound teaching
Which brings suffering to an end.

When those with wisdom have heard this,
They recuperate their right mind:

They see change in what is changing,
Suffering where there’s suffering,
“Non-self” in what is without self,
They see the un-lovely as such.

By this acceptance of right view,
They overcome all suffering.2

These four distortions of the mind are fundamental to what the Buddha taught. The notion of avidya, or ignorance, is the fundamental source of all of our suffering, our dukkha. We lack understanding of impermanence, and about the true nature of all of us.

Some of the synonyms of vipallasa are: hallucination, delusion, erroneous observation, illusion, phantom, mirage, fantasy, bias, exaggeration, lie, misinterpretation, misrepresentation, baloney, contortion, coloring, slant, smoke, story.

The Buddha talked about perception, about misperception, and in the Buddha’s psychology, in the Abhidhamma, our perception of forms comes through our senses. But how accurate are they? How clear is our seeing of things, our hearing of sounds, our smell, our taste, our bodily contact, or our thinking, our perception of mental objects? Have any of you ever noticed distortion in any of those? I bet you have.

With mindfulness practice, we see so much distortion in our own perceptions, to the point that I don’t believe anything I think anymore. The Buddha also taught that these four distortions happen at three levels. And in this way, the Buddha actually anticipated a relatively new term in psychology, “inherent bias.”3 The Buddha taught that we all go through life with blinders on. We might be walking down a road at the Insight Mediation Society (IMS) retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts, one of those beautiful rural roads, and we glance over and see a stick in the road, but we mistake it for a snake. And what happens once we mistake a stick for a snake? It kicks up thoughts, and our thinking processes, associated with that perception. We might start thinking, “I know there are Lyme ticks up here, but are there snakes?” We might start thinking about our level of safety, about what animals exist in these woods. “Should I even be walking out here, and should I have taken a stun gun or a stick?” We start engaging in this proliferation of thoughts that are not necessarily based on seeing the first thing very clearly.

According to the Buddha, these initial distortions of perception are citta-vipallasa, and they are followed by distortions of thought, sanna-vipallasa. And then what happens? Multiple instances of misperceiving things and having distorted thoughts combine to create a distorted view: ditthi-vipallasa. If this keeps happening, how does ditthi-vipallasa influence our perceptions? If we have an idea that the woods around IMS in Barre are full of dangerous animals, it is going to have an impact on whether we go out walking. It’s going to have an impact on our level of safety in that environment. What a distorted view does—and this is in line with the latest research about inherent bias—is that it absolutely impacts what we pay attention to, even on the level of perception, causing us to pay attention to certain things and not to others. Misperception hardens into an erroneous view, and that view has an impact on what data we can even take in.

There’s another modern psychological application of the Buddha’s teachings. Chris Argyris and other founders of organization development established the ladder of inference theory. We can’t take in all the data from our environment—there’s too much—so we take in selected data. Then we have opinions, interpretations, and assumptions about that data, and if we are exposed to the same data and hear the same opinions from our environment repeatedly, it turns into a hardened view or belief of how we think the world is. And yet we respond and act on those beliefs. To a people of color group, this sounds a lot like white racism. I like to say that the Buddha talked about inherent bias and white racism 2,600 years ago!

I’m teaching now, and this is the first time I’ve taken a seat at part two of the three-month retreat at IMS. I’m delighted to be part of that team, and a few times I’ve had the thought, “What were they thinking giving me this role?” Other times I think, “This is exactly where I need to be!” So as I listen to the yogis coming in, and when something starts coming up from my own experience that’s uncomfortable or unpleasant, what is the assumption that goes with that feeling? “This is the way it’s going to be forever.” Think of a difficult situation in your own life—do you do the same thing? Most of us probably don’t even realize we carry this assumption. Even though we have so much evidence to the contrary, we still think, “This is the way it’s going to be forever.”

There is a reason this is an eightfold path. Our practice is 24-7, it’s not just when we’re on the cushion.

At a recent Dharma talk by Joseph Goldstein, we discussed pleasant and unpleasant feeling, which can be worldly or unworldly. We often experience worldly, pleasant feeling. For me it’s eating candy; for a lot of us it’s maybe sex, or sometimes it’s shopping. All of it provides a hit of pleasure, but it never provides the satisfaction that we’re looking for. It never lasts at the level of satisfaction that enables us to let go of wanting—that second noble truth. Then we talked about pleasant and unpleasant unworldly feeling, which is what we’re cultivating in our practice—the wholesome, counterintuitive qualities we’re developing that actually have a chance of being good for others and good for ourselves. One is the practice of generosity. It is counterintuitive, but to let go of stuff and give it away provides much more satisfaction than the accumulation of stuff.

Then Joseph talked about unworldly, unpleasant feeling, and how it is extremely useful and important, and leads toward freedom. A verb is associated with each of the noble truths, and the verb associated with suffering, dukkha, is that it is to be known. Perhaps the most meaningful moments of our lives are moments that have not been pleasant, but they are times when we could show up for ourselves, or show up for other people with an open heart. And yet we assume that we have control over how our lives are unfolding, and in order for it all to be okay, it has to be “good.” The only way our lived experience can live up to this pressure is if we repress about two-thirds of it—if we don’t open to the truth of most of it—and that’s exactly what mindfulness addresses, our inability to open to the dukkha. How many of us really know we’re going to die? We all want to throw impermanence under the bus.

In our social life together, some of the common perceptual distortions play out in our “isms.” My colleague Camara Jones, current president of the American Public Health Association, wrote a brilliant paper about the three levels of racism: institutional, personally mediated, and internalized.4 And it just so happens that those three levels align with what the Buddha taught. We tend to think of racism as only the second form: personally mediated, which I think is akin to the level of distortions of thought, sanna-vipallasa. The way we experience personally mediated racism is through micro-aggressions. We do these to each other all the time—I perpetrate them, too—so I always try to open a safe space in sanghas where we can tell each other about them and apologize. But what also happens at the interpersonal level is that we speak or act in a way that leaves somebody out. For example, at IMS, we’re trying to espouse inclusive values as part of training ourselves to be retreat leaders. In working with transgendered people, we’ve become aware of trying to use fully inclusive pronouns. This means that every single day, whenever anybody doesn’t use “he, she, or they” or say why we’re not including everyone, we call each other out in a very loving way—“Uh, you did it again!”—as a way to train ourselves.

In the ways we treat each other, we all tend to universalize our subjectivity. So we might assume everybody drives a nice car, and everybody went to college, and everybody had two parents growing up, and everybody was cared for by their parents, and everybody has enough money to go on retreat without worrying about it. Those are distorted views, right? Our perceptions come from a very limited perspective, but they inform our thoughts, and our thoughts harden into a distorted view, and that view makes us look around and not see the difference. We leave a lot of people out in our ways of communicating. We erase them, we erase their experience.

Jones also talks about institutional racism, and that is akin to ditthi-vipallasa, distortions of view, where whole institutions don’t consider what it’s like for certain people who are from particular ethnic groups or have different histories. And finally, internalized oppression or internalized racism is yet another distortion of view. In a way, all of these distorted views are what we tend to form our identities around. I work exclusively in tribal communities doing community-engaged research, and right now I’m doing a psychiatric study in twenty-two tribal colleges. Because I’ve been working with my tribal partners for more than twenty years, or maybe because of what I look like, they tell me the truth. They are not afraid to admonish me, to say, “We don’t like that!” and “You better not do that!” Why? Because they know I’m going to stick it out with them. They know that even though I work in higher education, I recognize that there has been a lot of egregious racism, and that the academic disciplines, higher education, and Western knowledge production had a huge amount to do with colonization, a huge amount to do with slavery, a huge amount to do with the confiscation of Native land, and a huge amount to do with the oppression of many people of color—and of white poor people and various immigrant groups.5 Given the long history of oppressing different groups in this country, the collective ditthi-vipallasa—the distorted view of them—that supports this oppression is held not only by the dominant culture, but it also seeps into the people themselves.

These types of misperceptions take place in the present day, too, with far-reaching effects. I recently read a two-hundred-page report from 2014 about disparities in school discipline across race.6 There is more and more evidence about disparities in the disciplining of black and Hispanic students, and it’s not based on different conduct. It’s absolutely based on the vipallasas, on distorted view. It’s based on expecting to see something in children, and that’s what you see. This has a significant negative impact on our children—and on all of us—because there are definitive links between school failure and later incarceration.

This is why we all have to clean up how we’re seeing each other and ourselves, and the Buddha taught that the mechanism for undoing these erroneous perceptions is mindfulness.7 The different kinds and levels of distorted perception occur when we see anything, either externally or internally. We all have two knowledge systems. There is our conceptual, linear knowledge system, which serves us pretty well for naming and counting things, and for building institutions. But we also have a second knowledge system based on intuitive awareness. I like to say that mindfulness is the data collection system for intuitive awareness. Strong mindfulness, or sati sampajanna—mindfulness with clear comprehension—trains us to see directly what’s happening in the moment, and prevents us from putting distorted conceptual overlays over what’s happening in the moment. Then we can see the truth of impermanence—that things are changing all the time, and that for us to expect it to be otherwise is the source of our pain. We come to see that no conditioned thing—that nothing at COSTCO (where I was today!)—is going to make me enlightened. Perhaps most important, we recognize that we’re not who we think we are. There is a reason this is an eightfold path. Our practice is 24-7, it’s not just when we’re on the cushion.

When we can strengthen our intuitive awareness, when we can rest in spacious awareness and not have these distorted thoughts, these distorted views, these distorted perceptions, this is where the truth is, which is where our peace is. This practice is what we offer the world and what we offer ourselves.

Notes:

  1. Bodh Gaya is located in the Indian state of Bihar and is where the Buddha became enlightened. To this day, it is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists.
  2. “Vipallasa Sutta: Distortions of the Mind” (AN 4.49), translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki, Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013, www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.049.olen.html.
  3. Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington and other contemporary social psychologists have done important work on the “implicit bias” that exists against racial and cultural groups that exist in every culture. We internalize the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes of the dominant culture, without realizing that we have developed significant “blind spots.” Greenwald was one of the scholars who developed the “Implicit Association Test,” a popular tool used to test for subtle biases against groups such as women, people of color, and immigrants.
  4. C. P. Jones, “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale,” American Journal of Public Health 90, no.8 (2000): 1212–1215. Jones uses the simple but profound allegory of a gardener who separates seeds for pink and red seeds and plants them in two different environments to describe the many layers and nuances of institutionalized, personally mediated, and internalized racism.
  5. I often tell the story of the father of American psychiatry, Benjamin Rush, who was the first to write that Native people can’t be equal partners in the establishment of the United States because they have issues with alcohol. This was actually a created story that allowed people in power to take Native land and to exclude Native people from voting. In fact, this narrative was propagated at the same time that the new burgeoning U.S. government used alcohol as a trading commodity in Indian country. The distorted view as set forth by people like Rush seeped into the level of perception of the dominant culture, and of the people themselves.
  6. Among the key findings of these studies are that “racial disparities in discipline begin in the early years of schooling.” To give two examples, “Native-Hawaiian/Pacific Islander kindergarten students are held back a year at nearly twice the rate of white kindergarten students” and “Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment but [represent] 42% of students suspended once, and 48% of the students suspended more than once”; U.S. Department of Education, “Expansive Survey of America’s Public Schools Reveals Troubling Racial Disparities,” March 21, 2014.
  7. Two of my favorite books on mindfulness are Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (Sounds True, 2013), and of course Analayo’s wonderful book on the Satipatthana Sutta, Satipaṭṭhāna: The Direct Path to Realization (Windhorse Publications, 2013).

Bonnie Duran has been practicing mindfulness meditation since 1982 and is one of the founders of the People of Color Sangha in Albuquerque and in Seattle. She is an associate professor of public health at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work, where she directs the Center for Indigenous Wellness Research. This article is adapted from a dharma talk Duran delivered at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in November 2015.

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