Freedom Doesn’t Happen in a Day
By Cheryl A. Giles
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.
The title of this book is pretty lofty—Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom. And if you think about it too long, you’ll think that this is unattainable. But over the course of writing this book, collaborating with all the contributors, we almost became a little sangha among ourselves. We’ve learned so much together, and one of the things that strikes me most is that Buddhism is a daily practice. It’s an effort that is sustainable. If you continue to practice, if you continue to be mindful, if you continue to choose the Eightfold Path, then you will move toward eliminating suffering. But you have to do it every day.
Several months ago, I had a conversation with students at HDS about racism and white privilege. Some folks remarked that the practice of Buddhism was too much—that it just was a lot of work. And, well, life is a lot of work. Everything that we do is a lot of work. And being able to sustain a spiritual practice—to really live—takes some courage and vulnerability. It takes courage and vulnerability in the sense that we don’t know it all. We can’t. We are always still studying; we are always still practicing. This is one of the things that I love about Buddhism. I tell people this all the time. Recently, I was talking with my nephew, who had started practicing six months earlier on his own accord—not because of me, but because of things I’ve said. He’s been reading Thich Nhat Hanh and anything else he can get his hands on. And I can’t feed him things fast enough because it’s helping him in his daily life. Buddhism is all about helping us in our daily lives.
Freedom doesn’t happen in a day. I’ve been thinking a lot about John Lewis, who said: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic, our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never ever be afraid to make some noise and get a good trouble, necessary trouble.” And so we’re working on this struggle of a lifetime. This is our legacy; this is our work in the world. The practice of freedom is showing up every day.
I think about my ancestors and all the folks who had been enslaved and all the folks who’ve been out of work and all the folks who’ve worked at low-wage jobs and been discriminated against, made to feel invisible and without dignity. Showing up every day is really important for them. And that’s what we’ve done. That’s what we try to do. We do it together; all of the contributors, my colleagues, benefactors, friends, and community have helped me stay on the path. They’ve given me a lot of strength and have pointed out insights to me. For example, most people who know me well know that public speaking is not my forte—I am very, very, very introverted. Showing up to speak is really a challenge. And that’s what we do in terms of race, resilience, transformation, and freedom. We show up, and we try to show up with the support of other people, who help us to see just a little bit farther. This is my understanding of enlightenment—it’s not something way out there. Rather, enlightenment is made up of these small windows of light where people help show us new ways to think about things.
And so the practice of freedom is showing up every day. And we learn to do that through being mindful, moment by moment. These are some of the tools that we hope that people who read the book—and particularly, people in BIPOC communities—begin to take from some of the stories in this book.
This is how we can make it; this is how we can get through this without self-loathing, without depression, without anxiety. Buddhism offers us ways to manage so that we can rest in a place of equanimity: not too high, not too low, but in a place where we feel OK about where we are in life. These tools, these skills, were developed over 2,600 years ago. They have served many, many people across all those centuries. And they’re present for us today. They’re there for anyone who wants to try to reach out and to understand and begin to work with them.
One of the wonderful things that I’ve learned about Buddhist practice is that it really takes you out of your head. It reteaches you how to work with your thoughts and see where they get lodged in the body. And most of the trauma that we’re working with, intergenerational trauma, is really located in the body. That’s what shuts us down—we know from neuroscience that once that trauma gets triggered, it’s fight or flight, or freeze, and we’re gone. We become totally unavailable to ourselves and to others when we’re in that place. Buddhism offers a lot of resources for us when we’re in that place, and I’m hopeful that these resources are sustainable practices that can lead to transformation and to freedom.
Cheryl A. Giles is the Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer on Pastoral Care and Counseling at Harvard Divinity School and a licensed clinical psychologist. She is co-editor with Willa Miller of The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work (Wisdom Publications, 2012).