February 24, 2021

Meet the Teacher: Bonnie Duran

We recently sat down with IMS teacher Bonnie Duran for a wide ranging interview on her history with the Dharma, her career in public health, and how Buddhist ethical practices can be supportive of social justice work. Bonnie is one of the exceptional teachers leading the March module of our year-long program, The Way of the Buddha

Thank you for taking the time to meet with our readers today Bonnie. Among other accomplishments, you are a professor in public health at the University of Washington. How are you fairing in this time of Covid-19 and are you involved at all with pandemic response work?

In Indian Country, one of the first things you have to do is to talk about your tribal affiliation. So, we always start off by saying, “My name is Bonnie, an Opelousas/Coushatta descendant.”

I’ve worked in American Indian Indigenous communities my entire career and I’ve been trying to provide as much assistance as I can to Indian country, native rural nations, and urban native people. My colleague and I became co-chairs of the Native American expert panel for the Coronavirus Prevention Network. Dr. Karina Walters has taken the lead in doing a needs assessment survey in Indian country and I’m helping with that—I’ve worked with the Navajo Nation for many years. Same with the Oglala Lakota Nation. I have a dear friend, Dr. Alicia Mousseau, who is now the Vice President of the Oglala Lakota Nation—she also teaches mindfulness.

I’m also the community engagement person on a Novavax vaccine trial here at the University of Washington. I reached out to some of the local tribes and, now, the Lummi and Nooksack tribes are a mobile site for that trial.

And I’ve been working with Sea-Mar, which is a Latinx federally qualified clinical healthcare organization that has 25 clinic sites in the Pacific Northwest. Just yesterday, I got an email from the patient community navigators that said, “Bonnie, we need mindfulness for the Latinx community.” I love it, because the Dharma is wrapped up with all of that—for me, it all fits together. It’s an expression of sila (Buddhist ethics).

How did you get started in public health work?

My dad was really into higher education. My parents both moved from Louisiana to California—the Bay Area—before I was born, and I grew up there. I was raised very poor and I’m a first generation college student which has been incredibly useful for me.

I started college in 1973 as a special admissions student. My brother was a social worker and the first Native American counselor for the Educational Opportunity special admissions program. I was about to join the Navy and he said, “Are you going to college?” I said, “College? What’s that?” But I went.

After traveling the world for six or seven years, I came back to the U.S. and went to grad school at UC Berkeley which had a special American Indian program. One of my beloved professors—who I’m still close to today—said, “Bonnie, you need to stay for a PhD or a doctorate.” So, I did.

And now you are a professor and the Director of the IWRI Center for Indigenous Health Research. You also sit on the Teachers Council at Spirit Rock and serve as a core teacher for the IMS Teacher Training Program. In what ways does your identity as a Dharma teacher intersect with your professional and personal background?

One of the foundational principles of Indigenous life is interconnectedness. That’s why I think the Dharma is so resonant with Indigenous communities—we have connection as a core foundation. We are all relatives. You are my relative.

At the same time, we can recognize systemic, economic, and educational harms that are embedded in the structure of the economy and history of this country. That’s how our beloved country is—the hostility of racism and sexism is present. The question is, what is an appropriate Buddhist response to these conditions?

What can you suggest as an answer to that question? What is an appropriate Buddhist response to racism and sexism?

All of those things are manifestations of greed, hatred, and delusion—the three root poisons. David Loy has written a book that outlines greed as our economic system, delusion as our entertainment system, and aversion as the military industrial complex. For me, it’s totally about uprooting greed, hatred, and delusion.

I see racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, all that stuff, pretty often in myself. Because I am an old brown woman, I am the object of a lot of microaggressions. When that arises, I say, “I see you, settler. I see you, colonialism.” But I also don’t want to alienate my European American relatives because they’re getting played. They’re getting played by greed, hatred, and delusion too if they believe that this system is serving them. So, how lucky am I? I get to do social justice work and uproot greed, hatred, and delusion for a living.

Has the lens of Dharma always been present in your work?

Pretty much. After I finished undergraduate school all of my beloved white friends planned to take a trip to Europe for the summer.

I had no money but I had some friends who had worked at an American military ski resort in Germany so I bought myself a one way ticket there in 1979 and got a job as a chambermaid. There, I met a lot of expatriates and world travelers and they said, “Bonnie, you have to go to Asia.” So, in 1982, I got a one way ticket to Nepal, and checked myself into Kopan Monastery.

I did the month-long with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa and from there we went straight to Bodh Gaya, India, and sat Vipassana with Christopher Titmuss. It was January, when His Holiness the Dalia Lama comes down to Bodh Gaya. Joseph Goldstein was coming in and out of that retreat. Sharon Salzberg, I think was sitting behind me.

Since that time, all of my vacations were, “Hey, I got to go into retreat,” because I felt like I was hearing the truth.

What path did you take to become a Dharma teacher?

Throughout this period, I would go on retreats. Because I was in the Bay Area, I had been at Spirit Rock. I remember going to a people of color day-long—or back then it was probably called “minority day”—with Jack Kornfield and others, before the meditation hall was even built. This was back in the 1980s.

At one point, I was living in Colorado, and I went on retreat with Carol Wilson and Guy Armstrong in Durango. I’d been meditating by that point for 15 years. I was interviewing with Carol and she said, “Bonnie, I think you need to meet Joseph Goldstein.” I didn’t know why. But it turned out that Joseph was teaching a people of color retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center near Durango. So, my very first people of color retreat was with Joseph teaching.

I’d always just sat with the mix of people that attend retreats. And I will say that I was shocked at how much more relaxed I was. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t relaxed at the other retreats.

By that time, I was an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. And I had certain experiences with Joseph. He said, “Bonnie, you have to become a Dharma teacher.” I didn’t need to be a teacher—I actually love being a yogi—but he said, “No, you have to do it.” Back then he knew that he needed to integrate the teaching cohort. Through those experiences I got totally synced into the two big centers, and the community in a much deeper way.

Did you encounter any challenges on your way to becoming a Dharma teacher?

Of course, just like any other environment, Dharma communities can have racism and sexism. All of us have a lot going on that’s unconscious. But I think the Dharma opens up an opportunity for us to see that much more deeply.

Dharma spaces can be like a club—the longer you’ve been in it, the more privileges you get. But I also realize that those who may be privileged are also some of the deepest teachers.

I’m now on the Guiding Teachers Council for Spirit Rock and I’m also one of the core teachers for the IMS Teacher Training Program. I push to make things more equitable. And in both the IMS and Spirit Rock teacher trainings we are primarily teaching people of color. With predominantly BIPOC trainees, it was interesting when Asian and South Asian and East Asian trainees were feeling like “Hey, where’s our culture in here? Why isn’t that acknowledged?”

I’m a big proponent of acknowledgement because my partner is Japanese American. Through him, I have joined the Buddhist Churches of America. I’m getting chills just saying it. They have the best intergenerational sangha; they even have temple Boy Scout and Girl Scout clubs. They have all of these events where everybody’s invited, and they’re incredibly welcoming. At their Women in Buddhism conference, I talked about the Japanese internment and historical trauma, and how the Dharma can help us heal from that.

I think the biggest barrier, though, is money. Even with sliding scale registration fees, flying to Barre, Massachusetts, or flying to Woodacre, California, and taking time off, is expensive. Offering more online Dharma is going to be a huge, positive element in bringing Western convert Buddhism to many people who might benefit from it.

Are Dharma spaces well-positioned to not only be part of the conversation on social issues, but to actually lead in solutions?

I think there are two reasons why the Dharma is particularly applicable.

First, in our Buddhist perspective, humans have two knowledge systems. We have our conceptual knowledge system—count things, name things. But a lot of people don’t realize we have another knowledge system called intuitive awareness—a body and heart based system, where wisdom arises from within. This wisdom is what frees us. Seeing the truth of things really releases us from suffering.

I always tell people in retreat, “You might have a day, a week, or a month or two of sobbing meditation, or stomping meditation.” That’s just the body releasing historical trauma. People used to say, “Oh, intergenerational trauma is just an American Indian folk tale.” Then epigenetics discovered that extreme conditions in one generation actually makes the next generation more susceptible to substance abuse, diabetes—all those things. So, I think on an individual level, the Dharma is excellent for clearing the body of that suffering.

Second, I think that the Dharma is an excellent base for working with structural systems change. For this, I love the sila, the ethical conduct. To be truly based on Dharma, it’s about realizing our interconnectedness. Realizing that these aren’t just some brown or black or yellow people over there—these are our relatives, and we need to make sure they have what they need too.

We also have to be very careful of what our intentions are for our actions in the world. If we are railing against the machine, based on anger and hate, that’s just going to turn us into the machine. Checking in with ourselves, we ensure that our work is not based on anger and rejection, but based on a knowledge of our interconnectedness.

What specific techniques might we employ to reduce anger and hate, and increase awareness of interconnectedness?

It all starts with personal practice. Mindfulness—and real study of Vipassana meditation—allows us to be much more objective about what’s happening inside. It shows more clearly what our intentions are, and what is fueling our thoughts, our speech, and our actions.

We can do the exact same thing with the intention of hurting somebody or the intention of helping someone. And if you act or speak with the intention of hurting—because you hate these people—you are watering the seeds of your greed, hatred, and delusion. But if you want to help them realize what’s happening, that’s incredibly wholesome, and you’re watering seeds of your compassion and love.

Any last words of wisdom today?

Let me ask citta—that intuitive awareness—”Is there anything else I need to say?” [Pauses.] I’m getting a sense that I just want to say that for historically marginalized people, for racialized groups of people, Dharma is really bada**. It can be a source of internal healing and a foundation for doing social justice work in the world. The Dharma is trying to free all of us from greed, hatred, and delusion. Systems of oppression are manifestations of that. The Dharma gives a very clear and loving way to address it with wisdom and power.