Black Americans bring a unique outlook to Buddhism, said Pamela Ayo Yetunde.
“African Americans bring to Buddhism in the U.S. the life experience of constant existential threat of white supremacy,” said Yetunde, co-editor of the anthology, “Black & Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation & Freedom,” (Shambhala Publications), released this month.
Most of the anthology was written months before George Floyd was killed, but its opening section is written in his honor. The editors write, “By watching Black and brown bodies die by police violence without resistance, we slowly die too.”
“In honor of George Floyd and countless others, we vow to breathe,” they added on behalf of the eight teachers in this book, who share their own internal journeys as a way of experiencing liberation, defined by Buddhist principles, as Black people in America.
The idea for the book was birthed in 2018 at a meeting of Black Buddhist teachers called “The Gathering,” attended at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of the jewels of the anthology is that the Black writers arrive at Buddhism from vastly different backgrounds. They include children of immigrants, people raised in various religious denominations, and various traditions of Buddhism. The richness of their diversity and experiences serves as an on-ramp to readers considering a Buddhist practice, who may recognize themselves in some of these stories.
Yetunde said the book is for “African Americans curious about Buddhism,” white Buddhists who want to know “how the teachings land on African Americans” and religion scholars who can use the book “as a great help to their understanding of religion as a whole.”
In Buddhism it is important to “practice,” to commit to a way of life that includes nonjudgmental self-awareness through mindfulness, cultivating compassion, meditation or chanting to experience transcendence and unity.
One co-editor, Cheryl A. Giles, said racism is “a huge elephant” that must be dealt with, one small step at a time.
“When I find myself getting really worked up, I take a couple of breaths and become less reactive,” Giles said. “That is the practice of freedom.”
As a clinical psychologist, she helped many Black youths and families with their traumas but writes that she found herself coming “unhinged” until she found a therapist “who saw me as I was: queer, Black, Buddhist and searching for relief from suffering.”
Part of her personal story includes “generational” suffering, how her mother was affected by becoming pregnant after being sexually abused by a relative at 13.
“Trauma cannot be buried, ignored, pushed aside, or denied,” Giles writes. “By learning to sit with discomfort, you develop an ability to be with whatever feelings, sensations, and thoughts arise within the body with presence and the courage to be with yourself just as you are in each moment.”
It was this process of healing that attracted teacher and writer Ruth King to Buddhism.
“I wasn’t really searching for something but found myself very compelled by the idea I could be in a practice that was inviting you to know the experience of freedom on your own by turning inward and giving yourself what you need — and your freedom is not reliant on something outside of you,” said King, who noted that she grew up in a Los Angeles family and community where it was dangerous to show vulnerability.
Each writer in this book mentions experiences practicing with different sanghas, or communities practicing the dharma (Buddhist teachings) together.
For King, moving to the Southeast and recognizing “the pervasive racial ignorance within dharma communities, ignited the need for deeper understanding and exploration of our relationship to race and racism.”
Arriving at “The Gathering” in New York, she said, “I didn’t realize how much I needed this community until I was in it."
“The idea is not that we are seeking something in the sense of the preference of being just with people of color. You should be able to be anywhere without hating it, being in struggle with it," she said.
But "The Gathering: was nourishing in a way she does not always experience.
“We all need to be mirrored. It is not that we are dependent upon one another. We are nourished by each other’s practice. There is something very rich and connective and healing about being with Black folks, especially in the dharma, because it is a teaching around liberation, around nonattachment,” King said.
Yetunde offered as an example of a cultural difference found in sanghas: “When a Buddhist who is not Black says ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation,’ they are talking about the mind, not the body (free) from white supremacy.”
Yet both experiences refer to eliminating suffering.
Lama Dawa Tarchin Phillips, a spiritual leader in the Tibetan tradition who spent 12 years in a monastery, writes about healing the “amputated self,” a state when we are “disconnected from our own personal stories as full human beings.”
This state, said Phillips, is “just as present in majorities and in people who choose to identify with being so-called privileged.” We build our identity based on skin color, body shape, gender, education, upbringing and other factors that don’t really identify who we are, Phillips said.
“The reflections so many Black men are given is not the reflection of who they are or can be, but often times who other people think they should be limited, too,” Phillips said.
Particularly for this reason, it is important to have a community that mirrors to you the truth. “To be surrounded by people who offer you the opportunity to grow and shed skin as you are evolving,” Phillips said.
“I hope this book can fulfill that function for some people, give the feeling they are surrounded by a community, getting a reflection of their goodness and their brilliance and of the fact that this is a path that is deeply human, and anyone can take at any time.”