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 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.