A Full-Bodied Dharma
By Judith Simmer-Brown
The first anthology comprised solely of essays by Black Buddhist practitioners, Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom offers an intimate and powerful look into what it means to be Black and Buddhist in America today. On December 8, 2020, the Center for the Study of World Religions hosted an author discussion with the editors of the book, Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles, and two respondents, Melissa Wood Bartholomew and Judith Simmer-Brown. The pieces in this series are adapted from their conversation.
This landmark book invites all of us—white, brown, and Black—into an intimate and tender Afrocentric Buddhist world, sharing personal narratives from the journey to freedom in the dharma. Envisioned during the landmark “dharma teachers of Black African descent” gatherings at Union Theological Seminary (2018) and Spirit Rock (2019), this book generously shares a range of personal experiences of being Black and Buddhist in America. From Acharya Gaylon Ferguson’s luminous foreword all the way through to to Cheryl Giles and Pamela Ayo Yetunde’s heartfelt closing dedication, these Black dharma teachers share the ways that meditation has healed nervous systems lacerated by violence and oppression and has helped them learn to love and care for themselves in a world that does not love them.
First, a remark about my personal location. I have come to realize that in the 50 years since I began my dharma training, I have been blind to exactly how the dharma has been adapted to American culture. Let me explain. I have been lucky enough to be trained by remarkable and renowned Asian teachers—primarily Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche—and to practice for decades in a tight-knit established sangha that has taken the teachings to heart in daily life. I have worked in the lettuce fields at Green Gulch, sat 30-day retreats at Shambhala Mountain Center, taught for decades at Buddhist-inspired Naropa University, awakened in the early dawn at Tassajara, and led large group retreats at Karme Choling in Vermont. I and others thought we were faithfully practicing what we had been taught. But I have come to see that we white middle-class mostly Baby Boomers translated these teachings through filters of privilege—middle-class white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity—to morph the authentic teachings into a kind of WASPy tribalism tinged with JewBu energy, dressed up with arrogance and xenophobia.
When our community realized that few people of color were joining us, at first we couldn’t imagine why. We tried to welcome Black and brown people into our community gatherings and practice sessions, not realizing how our self-absorption, social norms, authority structures, and communication styles “othered” them, objectified them, and belittled them. We didn’t realize how our polite queries were actually microaggressions, or how our assumptions created structural racism. I have come to understand that this is what Alan Johnson calls “the luxury of obliviousness,” which is none other than unacknowledged privilege solidified into white supremacy. This book makes a powerful contribution to correcting a distortion, and restoring much of what my Tibetan teacher likely envisioned for a full-bodied dharma.
The editors of Black and Buddhist and their contributors have hospitably welcomed us into their intimately subjective experience as Black Buddhists in America, complete with their pain and vulnerability, as well as their discovered strength and resilience. While their voices are diverse, common themes emerge that ever deepen as we hear their narratives of loss and strength. For one, they show us that the legacy of enslavement, violence, deprivation, and exclusion lives on for African Americans as intergenerational trauma that manifests at every level of experience. This trauma centers on being utterly deprived of consent, what Lama Rod Owens describes as “creation of a context that does not privilege one’s deepest desire to return home and inhabit one’s own agency and body” (55). This triggers disembodiment and a profound loss of grounding and identity, accompanied by “terror, despair, hopelessness, and disconnection” (55). Lama Dawa Tarchin Phillips speaks of this as “the amputated self” (85), severed from aspects of identity experienced as mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical dislocation—bringing “isolation, meaninglessness, loneliness, and depression” (86). This means never belonging anywhere. Yetunde goes on to describe this as becoming “invisibilized” (103); Sebene Selassie confides that this racism taught her to turn away from herself.
This alienated identity has made acknowledging trauma essential to the path of healing. The journey first begins with knowing what trauma feels like. Giles reflects that “Understanding the meaning of freedom requires grappling with the ‘dangerous memory of slavery’ where black bodies were destroyed” (27). Owens speaks of how reliving trauma means a sudden “changing of the tracks” (48) mid-journey, making it hard to know how things feel. Trauma is “transhistorical” (48), carried from generation to generation. For Owens, then, to be Black is to relive the Middle Passage and the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade every day. Giles describes her mother’s childhood trauma of sexual abuse and the ways it carried through her life and the life of her entire family: “feeling invisible, broken and unworthy were parts of my experience being repeated from a history of intergenerational trauma” (40).
How have these interlocutors healed the self, amputated by trauma? Generally speaking, two factors have been most important. The first is reclaiming embodied experience. Gyözan Royce Andrew Johnson describes his journey of “letting go of living ‘only from the neck up’ ” (129). Owens’s ayahuasca experiences required purging both body and mind, bringing a literal experience of energetic chains around his head and legs accompanied by powerful grief. Embodiment unleashes the experience of grief as well as joy; learning that mourning is a practice has brought wholeness and rehabitation of his body. He writes, “we come back home into our bodies, we begin to do the work, and that’s really where I come from” (62).
The second support for reanimating the amputated self is community. Each of our authors has found support from the beloved community. For Yetunde, it has been sitting with people of color sanghas, where members discover that if they can sit together, they can stand together. Phillips describes pilgrimage practices that have nurtured his sense of wholeness and belonging, especially witnessing with others the stately gait of gigantic bull elephants in Thailand. Johnson describes living in community in Auspicious Cloud Temple and his sangha’s service at a nearby prison.
Many of the contributors describe the importance of Buddhist practice in reclaiming the fullness of their identity. For several, this is how they became Buddhist in the first place. For Selassie, sitting practice helped her turn back toward her Blackness and embrace every part of herself, especially “a direct relationship with our sensory experience for the sake of freedom and joy” (80). Giles discovered in her first retreat that she “was no longer afraid of the passing noise in my head and welcomed the silence as a refuge” (40). Eventually, benefactor compassion practice helped her assemble “a field of loving support on [her] behalf” (41). Johnson describes how Zen practice “helped me to be a Black man who can also live more equanimously with the threat of police brutality, and still care for myself deeply” (130).
Kamilah Majied learned from her Buddhist mother to turn toward the heartaches of life and welcome them, because they show that we are still hopeful enough to let our heart break. She learned to express gratitude toward sorrow and grief as gateways to spiritual depth. When Ruth King first heard dharma teachings, she could “feel my entire body ringing like a sweet, vibrating bell. Everything in me was screaming YES!” (162). She felt she knew who she was for the first time, and she knew that understanding the nature of mind was her “ticket to freedom” (162). Now she describes mindfulness as “the technology for shifting from being ensnarled in suffering to being curious about it” (165).
Still, several ask whether Buddhist practice supported a kind of “spiritual bypassing” of their Blackness and trauma recovery. Owens finds that, even with the traditional three-year retreat behind him, ayahuasca ceremonies helped him to do something “no practice in Buddhism had helped me to do.” He continues: “I want my Blackness to be supported by my dharma practice, not erased by it” (47). Selassie wonders if Western Buddhism’s orientalism and colonialism has created an unhealthy mix. She asks, “Was my turning toward Buddhism a turning away from Blackness?” (78–79). As she found her way forward, she found that she first needed to turn toward Blackness, and then Buddhism “helped me embrace what I had rejected” and eventually “embrace every part of myself” (80). She rejoices that she encountered a deep self-love awaiting her.
While dharma practice has been healing and profound for many of the contributors, Buddhist communities themselves may not have been so healing. Most of these authors have found special solace in POC sanghas. Yetunde describes her eventual discovery of the power of practicing with other practitioners of color, especially because “space [can] be made for the recognition and expression of the sorrow of living in racist societies.” She continues: “Simultaneously, space should be made for the cultivation of joy” (111). These POC sanghas help contribute to a postcolonial Buddhism, reintegrating Asian Buddhist teachings that white sanghas may have omitted. In this way, POC sanghas can contribute to the authentic transmission of Buddhism for diverse people of the future.
One final personal note. One of the most enriching aspects of this book has been the power of what Johnson calls the Way Seeking Mind Story, or the intimate journey into the heart of dharma. In my Tibetan tradition, these moments of direct awakening and transmission are called “rock meets bone” moments, when reality and realization eclipse our confused conceptual version of things. There are many such moments in these accounts. Reading them, I could feel my own original journey of meeting the dharma again for the very first time. Thank you for these abundant gifts!
Judith Simmer-Brown is Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, where she has taught since 1978. She is an acharya (senior dharma teacher) in the Shambhala lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Her books are Dakini’s Warm Breath (Shambhala, 2001) and Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies (SUNY, 2011).