Sacred, Ancestral Cries for Freedom
By Melissa Wood Bartholomew
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.
It is truly a high honor to have been invited by Cheryl Giles and Ayo Yetunde to participate in this conversation. I have only met Ayo once, and it was on the day she first began her postdoc with Cheryl a couple of years ago. I had just returned to HDS as a Racial Justice Fellow. We were sitting at a table during orientation with a couple of students who were also Black women. I don’t remember any of the particulars of what we talked about, but I remember the joy and laughter and the space Ayo created in her interaction with us. Though we had all just met, we were engaging deeply like Black women do when we allow ourselves to connect and move into that space of intimacy that can manifest in an instant.
Cheryl was my professor while I was a student at HDS. She created an atmosphere for the learners to engage as teachers and modeled a decolonized, anti-oppressive approach that cultivated intimacy and gave us access to her heart. She brought hot water and tea to each class. Her radical hospitality and love extended beyond the classroom, and she consistently affirmed me whenever I was blessed to be in her presence. I have deep gratitude for her years of labor, advocacy, and activism as a student and a professor at HDS that have paved the way for Black students and professors and helped to lay the groundwork for the position that I currently hold.
I share all of this as important context because it matters who the editors are. They are the midwives. They are women whose Buddhist practices help them to create the spaciousness that allows those around them to breathe and to love.
This book emerged from their openness and commitment to healing Black people through love. It is about the intimacy of Black suffering and resilience. We have been invited into the interior and exterior lives of eight Black people who are free enough to share their stories for our instruction. Healing artist Christa Bell taught me that when Black people write instructions for healing, it’s scripture. This book is sacred, ancestral scripture, deciphered from our ancestors. It’s scripture that reveals a path to liberation and freedom. The ancestors’ call for us to heal and liberate reverberates throughout these narratives—through whispers and through visceral cries. The cry is prominent in Cheryl’s narrative, which incorporates a reminder from our enslaved African ancestors that we have the capacity to take flight—and find refuge from racial and all forms of violence, and pain, and grief, in Buddhist practices. Describing an early experience of daily sitting and walking meditation, she shares: “As I sat on the cushion, my thoughts gradually settled. I was wrapped in a warm silence that brought me to tears, releasing a deep well of pain” (39).
The practices of breathing, sitting, silence, walking, identifying benefactors . . . all create a path to the well—the deep well of pain in us Black folx that some have never accessed, and from which some have never emerged. But the ancestors are here to guide us to and from the well. Cheryl makes this explicit in the way she opens her benefactor practice: “I begin by recalling my black, enslaved ancestors as a field of unconditional loving care, resistance, and models of liberation, and I dwell in their presence” (41).
This text allows us to linger in the call of the ancestors. It is a call heard, and profoundly felt, through Lama Rod Owens’s “Dharma of Trauma,” where he describes his deep, intimate engagement with our enslaved ancestors who appear during ayahuasca ceremonies and remind him to keep his joy, and to cry, and to mourn. About mourning he says:
Mourning is my attempt to acknowledge brokenheartedness, accept it, and offer it space to be in my experience so it may do its work of teaching me and passing through. I am learning how to let myself be with my hurt whenever it comes up, even if it means I have to stop everything that I am doing and support this experience through meditation, breath work, movement, or even tears. (57)
Lama Rod reminds us that mourning is a practice we cannot neglect.
As Ayo And Cheryl beautifully outline in the introduction, Buddhism is “a way of life, a philosophy, a psychology, a set of ethics, a religion, or a combination thereof” that can offer Black people a path to liberate our minds and cultivate a protective shield against trauma. They lay out the system of mental wellness known as the Noble Eightfold Path, which, as they assert, research has shown to support psychospiritual resilience against oppression and trauma. The eight-part system includes: 1) Right View; 2) Right Intention; 3) Right Speech; 4) Right Action; 5) Right Livelihood; 6) Right Effort; 7) Right Mindfulness; and 8) Right Concentration.
This eightfold commitment to Rightness mirrors the prayer I heard from many of my elders growing up in the Black church who would preface their petitions with gratitude to God for waking them up clothed in their right mind. They were describing a mind fixed on the love of Christ. This Christ mind gave them the capacity to see the world through God’s goodness and grace and shielded them from succumbing to the world’s hate and destructive ways. Our ancestors traveled this path of right relationship with their breath and with all living beings. It may or may not have been explicitly Buddhist, but it mirrors their way—their right way of being, and doing, and surviving while enslaved. This book reminds us of their ways, and it is accessible even to those who do not claim to be Buddhist. As a follower of Christ committed to cultivating Christ Consciousness, I find that these practices and intentions mimic my own, as they come from the same consciousness of Love. That’s what scripture, scrolls, living sacred texts do: they breathe and they transform over time, through us, adjusting to the particularities of those in need.
Our ancestors are calling us back to their ancient ways so that we can heal and live free. This text will get us through our lingering, collective grief. It can guide us to the well of pain and ensure that we have a sturdy ladder to climb our way out, emerging rooted in a greater awareness of who we are, who we came here to be, and what we came here to do, in love, in community with our ancestors and each other, and with the capacity to live right.
Melissa Wood Bartholomew, MDiv ’15, is the associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at Harvard Divinity School, where she is also an instructor in ministry.