The Deliciousness of Truth
By Pamela Ayo Yetunde
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.
In Judith Simmer-Brown’s words we witness something that we don’t see that often, which is a confession. Judith confessed. Confession is part of the bodhisattva way. There’s no shame, no guilt in confessing. Judith’s confession is beautiful and inspiring, as is her recognition of what each contributor has offered. There may be a relationship between confession and the ability to recognize this pain and suffering without attempting to explain it for others, without the impulse to deny it. Is there a connection between confession and the ability to see something in people for who they are?
Judith commented that this book is like the dharma itself: good in the beginning, middle, and end, which is to say good for the future. And I hope it is. I hope it does serve people in the future. I think it will. Sometimes people say that nothing has really changed. But many things have changed, and one change we have seen is a change with the willingness of African-descended people in the United States to explore a variety of belief systems. That doesn’t mean that they lose what they started with, but many are now able to say I’m a Black Hindu, I’m a Black Muslim, as people have been saying for decades, I’m a Black Christian, I’m interfaith, or I’m a Black atheist. To be able to say it and claim it and have no shame about it—I think we’re seeing more of that.
I myself grew up in the United Methodist Church, and I consider myself an interfaith Buddhist practitioner, because I still hold to Christian ethical principles. When I was young, there was an incident in church that shook my doubts about the things I had been taught all of my life. I stopped going to church for many years and didn’t return until I was in my thirties.
On September 11, 2001, I was at an airport at the time of the World Trade Center bombing. I found myself surrounded by anxiety, fear, and confusion, and when I got home, that anxiety multiplied. Soon the United States announced its plans to retaliate. We didn’t know who had struck us, but we were going to war. I felt like there was nothing that could make me feel better. I was turning 40 in October and had planned a party, so I said to my friends, “If you’re going to bring me something for my birthday, bring me peace of mind, because that’s what I need.” And a friend gave me Touching Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. That book was my introduction to Buddhism. It led me to the practice of Buddhism and helped me seek out community as an interfaith Buddhist practitioner.
I hope this book will serve young people who, as I did with Touching Peace, see the book and wonder, “Oh, what is this book about? Let me go read it.” And then they read it in secret and are moved by it and begin to ask: “Who else is reading this? Where can I find those people?” I hope this book will serve those folks and draw them into community.
Melissa Wood Bartholomew said something that hearkens me back to my upbringing as a Black person: to be in your right mind. To be in your right mind is a value, a desired aspiration that comes out of the Black experience of being gaslighted. Gaslighting is a new term, but the fact is Black folks in America have been gaslighted since before we even got here. And I think that’s been most evident these last four or five years of consistent daily gaslighting about all manner of things. Perhaps all of us can find some inspiration in this book to recognize the danger of gaslighting—being gaslit, but also engaging in the act of gaslighting. This book invites us to find the deliciousness of truth: to be able to tell the truth, to identify the truth, and to protect truth telling.
This book also invites us to learn to relate to each other—to truly see one another. When Black and white folks encounter each other, we often can’t see each other as individuals. We don’t know each other’s stories, we don’t know each other’s voices, we don’t know each other’s habits, we don’t know anything. From an object relations point of view, what we see are objects and representations. And in order to get past the objectification of one another, we need to relate to one another. And in that relating to one another, the objectification breaks down. We become subjects for one another—some would even say we begin to make each other in that relationship. In many white Buddhist spaces, when white stoicism permeates the environment, it replicates the feeling of indifference that many people of color experience in the United States. It just doesn’t feel good to receive this indifference.
This book makes a call for hospitality in the face of that indifference. This is another aspect of being in your right mind: be hospitable, and take the time to get to know each other. When you see someone new in your sangha or community, say “Hello, thank you for coming, glad you’re here, let’s take some time to get to know each other. When would be a good time for you?”
Pamela Ayo Yetunde, JD, ThD, is the co-founder of Center of the Heart. She is the author of Object Relations, Buddhism, and Relationality in Womanist Practical Theology (Palgrave Pivot, 2019) and Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, U.S. Law, and Womanist Theology for Transgender Spiritual Care (Palgrave Pivot, 2020).