Feeling African, Being Buddha

(redbuddha by zenju)

I removed my sandals near an open space just outside where the door used to be.  Sporting dredlocks and sweaty brown skin, I stepped inside the ruins of an ancient temple and planted my flat wide feet in the mix of dung and mud.  It was 1995, Tamil Nadu, India. There in the temple that had only one wall and the sky as its ceiling, I wondered what it must have been like a thousand years ago to chant there, to sit in silence listening to cow bells and wooden wagons.  I faced a crumbling limestone statue of Shakti, and despite the fact that she had no eyes, no nose, and chipped lips, I could feel the ripples of her presence throughout the centuries. Although I had been practicing Nichiren Buddhism seven years prior, I felt in that moment, in that temple, a sense that I had been introduced to Dharma or the teachings of Buddha a hundred thousand million kalpas ago.

Whether that is true or not, I do experience meeting the Dharma as something that you don’t do once.  It occurs as often as one is awakened to the suffering and joy of life.  So, sometimes I say that I first heard the Dharma from my mother, when she said something like this at a time when I was disappointed by our church members, “You can’t look at other peoples’ lives and decide if you are going to pray or not.” In other words, if I judge a spiritual or religious practice by its people, I would never practice because there are no perfect people.  That human beings are human beings and that other people have very little to do with how far I go down a chosen path of compassion.  On the other hand, I might say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was my first Dharma teacher.  His message of non-violence and peace sank deep into my eleven-year old heart, especially at a time when four little girls my age had been bombed to death.

Given that, I would say I didn’t go out of the way of my own life to meet the Dharma, but that it met me at the door of my own suffering. And when it came knocking to take up full residence in my life, I actually ran the other way.   I was afraid of something so new and different from the black church I was raised in or the Yoruba African religion that I had dabbled in.  I told the Buddhist teachers that I did not have any room for chanting, sitting down after work, or altars that were Japanese.  Still the teachers didn’t go away, bringing me candles, incense, and books to read.  I had met my match.  They were more stubborn than I could ever imagine.  But it wasn’t their persistence that kept me still long enough to invite the Dharma in.  It was the fact that I never sent the teachers away, because I recognized the innate kindness and compassion of the Buddha’s words that they shared.  I recognized the teachings as something I had been yearning to hear.  I recognized the bodhisattvas sitting next to me…not their faces, but their sincere intentions for a world of peace.

Immediately upon accepting the path of Buddha I began to see the depth of suffering within and around me.  It was almost unbearable, causing me to doubt the teachings, meaning I had taken on something that might get the best of me.  But with the help of many teachers I began to see that the suffering and the joy would be the places in which I practiced the teachings.  That my life would serve as the ground in which Buddhism would come alive.

Today, the Soto Zen that I practice is felt in my body.  I can feel the healing that is taking place by how I see, both the world and my life, with the curiosity of a child.  I can feel the chants grace my thick lips and my southern Louisiana ancestors knowing that all is well with their daughter chanting in Pali, Sanskit, ancient Chinese, and Japanese.  It is all very natural to me.  I welcome the Dharma as it has welcomed me long before I was born.

However, no matter how much I welcome the teachings as a way of life, there are many complex questions about taking on a practice that has yet to become part of the everyday lives of black people in this country.

So, far I have used the word black to describe a kind of practitioner, a kind of life.  However, when I used that word it is specific to African Americans who are descendants of African slaves that were brought to the southern regions of North America.  It is the only experience I can speak of with any understanding.   At the same time, I am fully aware that equalizing black with African American leaves out those who consider themselves of African descent, those who claim Native American heritage, Africans from Africa that live in North America, and lineages that include bicultural experiences of both African and Chinese, Irish, Portuguese, Cuban, Haitian, Puerto Rican and so much more.  Yet, I hope that using the word black or African American will feel somewhat inclusive of those in the African Diaspora despite the fact that I only know my own historical experience as an African American.

A word about “one black experience” would be helpful before I go on.  Based on a historical and present experience of life, I have come to identify with others that look like me, that they have the same skin color as I do.  This collective-self identity affects how experiences are expressed in my life.  Throughout these pages, there is a use of first person narrative “I”, while at the same time there is a joining of black people in the language by using the pronouns, “we” and “our.”  Therefore, the language usage is a matter of perception and not meant to perpetuate a unified or standardized blackness.

In addition, there was great effort taken to write as non-dualistically, without possession, as much as possible.  Given the limitations of the English language, it was difficult to give a clear and authentic message without the words, I, my, me, and you or seemingly oppositional words such as black and white.  But there is awareness on my part of the tension between perceived polarities as well as the non-existence of polarities because one is reflective of the other.  When we perceive of such, delusion is enlightenment.  Zen Master Dōgen, founder of Soto Zen, says we are to be “ever intimate” with enlightenment and delusion for they are companions on the path of realization.

Given that, I have considered in this writing that being black, African American, and Buddhist are locations of practice and understanding as opposed to places of  identity, separation and suffering.  An acknowledgment of the relative existence, the form (color, class and culture in particular) of life, is my way of having some ground on which to understand the teachings.  However, I do recognize the absolute, the emptiness of form, as the nature within our lives.  But if I attempt to be formless, without substance, then I have turned the Buddha’s teachings into a technique, or method by which to create an empty personality.  One cannot take the teachings and perform them as written instructions.  But what one can do is use the teachings to understand the suffering of life through understanding this form we live with.  We will eventually evolve into the teachings and the separation between life, the form, and the teachings will end, one lesson at a time.

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