She walks through the gate,
Gazing out from the darkness of skin,
Seeing no church pews,
She sits chanting,
Why have I come without knowing whose house I have entered?
I removed my sandals just outside near an open space 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. I told the 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, when I mentioned to my younger sister that I was exploring being a Zen priest she asked, “What’s Buddhism got to do with black people, anyway? Although Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings came from the earth of ancient India, I knew in the moment when she asked the question, that the teachings had everything to do with me and with every other suffering living being. Of course, she wanted to know how I came to explore being a Zen priest, when she knew me as a devout Christian, a courageous warrior of the black civil rights movement and a dedicated Pan-Africanist. She knew me in my Afro, African headwraps, African jewelry, reading aloud poetry to her by black poets such as Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Instead of watching television on some evenings, we would actually perform the poetry for one another, sitting on our twin beds, speaking through the words of the poets about our experiences as young, black, and female. She needed to know how I was going to help her by being a Zen priest. In that moment, I couldn’t find a way to convey to her that much of what I experienced in being black was much like what the Buddha taught.
When I was thirteen, I remember one evening our family sitting at the dinner table at our home in southern California. My older and younger sisters were in their places and me somewhere in the middle, and my parents each at one end of the table. Something was especially strange with the taste and texture of the meat we were eating. Not being big on meat as a child, I remember frowning and asking what kind of meat was it. My father proudly said in his thick Creole accent, “Possum. I caught it in the backyard.” I didn’t know what a possum was, but I stopped eating the meat because it was caught and killed in the yard I played in daily. Yet, I could see my father’s pride at bringing something to our bare table. Life was hitting us hard at the time, as my parents were aging with three teens, my mother being fifty-five years old and my father seventy-three. It wouldn’t be long before we received our first bag of food for Thanksgiving from a welfare office. It would be our last bag because we could not stand the humiliation. We would never speak of those hard times again, because it was frightening to talk about being black without anything –not having.
Regardless of that period in my life as a child I never thought of myself as poor. Poor was being without food. Poor was being without a house, without shoes. If we had those things, then everything was fine. Poor or rich was measured by what we had not how much money we made. If we did not have material things, someone in the neighborhood, a church member, or a relative would see that we had what we needed. As long as someone else had them, we did. This was how generosity was expressed in the 1950’s and 1960’s among black people, most of whom were new arrivals from the southern region of the United States. When someone from the church shared with us, it was a generosity filled with compassion, giving because they understood or because they were in the same circumstance. Maybe they only had one dollar but they would give fifty cents to someone just because they had a dollar. It was not giving because of being guilty of having more than the other; it was giving to be giving, without any praise. And most often there were no expectations of receiving because of what was given.
A communal sense of having and giving were essential to our survival, an insurance that no one would be left behind. This expression of generosity based on being interrelated was what the Buddha taught. It was generosity, or dana one of six paramitas, based in compassion that I experienced long ago in my community. Therefore, the teachings of Buddha being relevant to a black experience of life were not odd to me.
However, in my early years of practicing, the Buddhist rituals were different than what I had been accustomed to in church. Without communion, baptism, the singing, praising God out loud, and talking back to the minister, it was difficult to believe that there was any religion going on inside the Buddhist environment. I had been accustomed to religious services that included a goal of soul revival. As a child I enjoyed attending revival meetings held to bring souls to Christ. In these ceremonies, which could last for weeks, the weeping and wailing I heard around me was evidence of people being touched or rejoined to spirit. I remember sitting under a huge green circus tent in the heat of summer in Los Angeles. As my family and I walked into the revival meeting, I could smell the hay used as flooring. I loved that smell, because I knew it meant we were about to be rejuvenated. The revival meeting was the time to rededicate ourselves as black people; it was a time to truly face what it meant to live a spiritual life. It was a time to become conscious of that life. Under the sway of night lights hanging in the tent, we were brought back from soul-sleeping, from despair, from our feeling stuck and not growing as black people. In this soul revival we recalled happiness as we celebrated the act of renewal in song and baptism. In essence, we lived again. We flourished.
Would a practice steeped in the Dharma do the same? Better yet, is a Buddhist practice meant to do the same? Both of these questions are important to the exploration of Buddhism in the lives of black people.
Having lived inside oppression, most of us have experiences of being dominated, alienated, and isolated through a systematic dehumanizing process. This way of living has created a longing to be rejoined with a larger humanity that has been denied or taken away. In these circumstances, there is recognition that we can resign ourselves to limitations and inferiority. Thereby, leading us on journeys of salvation and seeking enchantment, finding ways to survive.
As African Americans, we have been swimming to shore ever since the Middle Passage in which we came to be slaves in this country. The Middle Passage, for Africans who became slaves, was a journey of horrors from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean, to the so-called New World. The shore we searched for was metaphorically the ground on which we might stand as human beings. In seeking this ground, we came across Christianity.
Why Christianity? Perhaps the sermon by the character Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, could explain some if it. In the story, the character Baby Suggs gave a sermon that was not about heaven, hell, and sinning, but one about the beauty of being God’s people. In the story, spirituality existed in gathering places among the trees. This spirituality was a commitment to each other’s well-being and joy. It was a sharing of freedom within community. Morrison named Baby Suggs an unchurched preacher, “uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, [letting her] great heart beat in the presence of the slave community. Baby Suggs’ message was, “In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.” Sugg’s sermon of self-acceptance was a kind of spirituality that helped the people to embrace their spirits despite the dehumanizing social conditions. It was a spirituality that co-existed along with efforts toward liberation from suffering.
This type of spirituality in the novel Beloved was born of a lived experience of slavery. Although there was a disempowerment Christianity brought to slaves that couldn’t be seen until later years, Christianity also brought a spirit of dignity and a sense of being divine that the slave recognized from their African past. Despite the intent of slave masters to use the Bible to coerce slaves into compliant behavior, slaves were creative in bringing an African spirit to the teachings of the Bible. By bringing their African spirit, slaves used the Bible to resist the master and forged a path by which they survived. In essence, the conditions of slavery did not completely cut the slaves off from their ultimate source of the meaning of God, religion and moral understanding. Through great ingenuity, slaves brought together the Christian meaning of God with African buddha nature so to speak.
As in what does Buddhism have to do with black people one could ask what did Christianity have to do with black people? Why did African American slaves take on a religion foreign to African religious traditions? One response: When the slaves understood that God, as a creator of all people, was on the side of the oppressed, that Christ was a liberator, and that God was just, the slaves embraced the masters’ Bible. This notion of God and justice together made black people’s Christianity a socially conscious religion as well as a promise to be a transformative and liberating one.
To sustain a religious practice brought by slave masters, African slaves brought with them mythology, proverbs, folktales, an oral tradition that spoke of God or gods and a tribal or community sense of spirit. In essence, black people made Christianity their own, based on the oppression of the times. They used the teachings of Jesus to guide the communal quest for wholeness, to support the collective soul, and to maintain community.
It is said that what is experienced in life is influenced by the time, the country, and its people. My parents’ vision of enchantment reflected their lives and the world they inhabited. They relied heavily on God as did the slaves for well being, but their times did afford them the freedom to consider education (although limited) and work for paid wages. In my lifetime, I have experienced great social movements, access to higher education, many therapeutic processes of healing, various forms of spirituality, and most important to me the freedom to explore religions. Therefore, the times, the country, and the people have afforded me an opportunity to consider practicing Buddha’s teachings as a way of life.
I came to Buddhism with a sense of a community that strives together. I came from a background of being connected to human beings through our souls as sisters and brothers. I came with a sense of dedication and commitment to serving others, to be like Harriet Tubman, to be like Sojourner Truth. However, it was the truckload of life’s suffering that prevailed above heritage in my choosing the path of dharma.
In choosing the path of Buddha’s teachings, over the years, I have grieved the communal sense of African American influenced Christianity, which was based on a shared history of dehumanization, specifically slavery. Being a Christian, in my sensibility, was being black, and therefore entering the Buddhist path once felt to be leaving the African American community. Whereas the Soto Zen in which I practice, while offering sangha, a Pali word for community, it is a community that hardly pays attention to the impact of slavery or social hardship in relationship to the practice. So, I have asked myself what would make a Buddhist community feel like home to black people?
Even though there is no one answer I speculate that a religious practice embraced by African Americans would have deep rituals and teachings filled with compassion, love, and wisdom. The practice would be inclusive of all people, creating both an individual and collective experience. There would be lots of food, dharma music, children and grandparents. Most important, the practice would have a quest of ending suffering, especially dehumanization, by saving all beings. In this way, one can see how African Americans could easily embrace the Buddha’s teachings.
Yet, there is no Dharma gate marked for black people only. But we can acknowledge that there must be some history between the people of the African Diaspora and the teachings of Buddha. Although European literature and perspective on the history of Buddhism is extensive, little to none has been done on the link between Africans, African Americans, and the Buddha. In my bones I know something is missing. There is awareness on my part that the Buddha’s teachings impacted the lives of those who suffered oppression such as the black Tamil Indians, Dalits, and the Untouchables – held down by a caste system. Additionally, Nagarajuna, the great scholar of the Mahayana teachings, espoused the freedom of enlightenment to the black Indians of southern ancient India. And because Buddhism spoke of liberation I assume that it did not flourish in a country that through tradition held the caste system in place. At the same time, there is awareness that when the Buddha spoke of the great rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna, the Aciravati, the Sarabhu and the Mahi, giving up their former names and identities when they reach the great ocean he was expounding the teaching of liberation. Imagine, for the lower caste what this might have meant to them. While ancient India is where Africans might have connected with the Buddha, it is speculative due to suppressed or lost history, considering Africans as part of the Buddhist movement from it’s beginning is a crucial and valid historical perspective to unearth.
However, for certain, as early as 1950 and in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a few African Americans and people of African descent crossed the illusionary boundary of religious practices populated by black people, such as southern Baptist churches, African Methodist churches, Pentecostal churches or churches similar to them, to explore a practice based on Shakyamuni’s Buddha’s teachings. Their courage and innocence pried opened the unfamiliar dharma gate for black people to consider what the Buddha taught. Imagine going to a foreign land, a temple in your own country, without knowing the language and the customs, then deciding to stay and make the place your home. And at the same time, imagine that there is something familiar about the land that reminds you of yourself. So, you stay and the first language you learn is chanting and/or meditation. The customs you learn is to light incense and a white candle, to bow and to sit down. And there you stay for years until some of the confusion becomes clear.
Many pioneer followers of Buddha of African descent have been practicing with great patience from fifteen to twenty, and some thirty years, yet the black community has heard little from them, despite the fact there are several publications authored by black practitioners. What has caused the gap between black people and Buddhism? First, there are historical and social factors that impeded the opportunities for black people to engage with Buddhism when it arrived to the United States.
First, immigrants from various parts of Asia brought the Buddhism they were raised with to the West long before North Americans came into contact with Buddha’s teachings. These immigrants had little, if any, contact with African Americans. At the same time, Sharon Smith, Professor at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, states that Buddhism was introduced in the West around 150 years ago as a result of upper and middle class Westerners who came into contact with Buddhism through the colonization of the East. Smith states that many of them became Buddhist sympathizers, despite the fact that Buddhism was criticized in Western societies, particularly by evangelical churches. Later, around the 1890s, black people were more likely to participate in an evangelical type church and thereby be subjected to the criticism of Buddhism making it a practice to avoid.
In addition, Smith states that Buddhism arrived at a time when black people were suffering the effects of the Jim Crow laws (systematic dehumanization based on skin color), including new theories of Darwinism that said blacks were scientifically inferior. It was a time when black people were seen as beastly animals. Obviously, these were not the conditions by which the seeds of Buddha’s teachings would be sown in the black community.
Buddhism’s next wave of attention in America, according to Smith was during the 1950’s Beat Era and the 1960’s counterculture movement. At the time, there were many movements toward changing mainstream traditions and social thought. As a consequence, many of the activists and artists of the 1950’s and 1960’s were attracted to Eastern spirituality including Buddhism as a way of transforming their lives. However, while sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations were taking place among those of the counterculture movement, few black people were looking to the East for enlightenment. What was important to many (but not all) black people at the time was the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of participating in the larger counterculture movement, black people had their own counterculture activities based in efforts toward being seen as human beings and not the beasts they were perceived to be a decade prior. Therefore, only a small number of us, including some renowned folks such as scholar and author bell hooks, artist Romare Bearden, and many others of the African American cultural arts community found their feet planted on Buddha’s path during that time.
Smith states that, “Eventually, in the 1970’s and 1980’s the numbers of Americans practicing Buddhism began to grow but still few black people were interested in the issues of the newly converted and social engaged Buddhists, who were interested in human rights, ecology, and peace, whereas black communities were more interested in issues that derived from having been dehumanized, such as the criminal justice system, community safety, education, employment, and healthcare.”
Who was going to address the suffering of dehumanization and speak of Buddha? The Sōkai Gakkai International (SGI) movement, a lay organization steeped in Nichiren Buddhism, led by the widows and widowers of World War II Japan, offered the kind of hope and determination of the early black churches. In addition, the practice offered a way to change one’s deep-rooted karma, which might include the horror of the oppression suffered by black people. Also, the leaders and teachers of the Sōka Gakkai had no problem with walking the streets of the black community, or any other community of color for that matter, to share the practice. It was their way of actualizing the nature of a Bodhisattava, or spiritual warrior, by helping communities in despair. As a result, many African Americans, including myself in 1988, came to chant Nam-Myōhō-Renge-Kyō. Still, today, the Sōka Gakkai has the largest numbers of black people practicing Buddhism, which is not to be misinterpreted that there is no racism occurring within that community; to the contrary.
In the same vein as the SGI, individual black Dharma teachers and scholars have made efforts to examine Western Buddhist convert Sanghas while actively inviting African Americans and other people of color to enter the Dharma gate. In the last two decade in various Buddhist traditions the teachers include: Bhante Suhita Dharma (deceased), Marlene Jones (deceased), Spring Washam, Angel Kyodo Williams, Jan Willis, Charles Johnson, Merle Kodo Boyd, Ryumon Baldoquin, Bishop Myokei Caine-Barrett, Gaylon Ferguson, Ralph Steele, Gina Sharpe, Choyin Rangdrol, Jules Shuzen Harris, Venerable Pannavati, Venerable Pannadipa, Bhante Buddharakkhita, Sister Jewel, Sister Peace, Karima Kimberly, Crystal Muldrow Boepbo SunyaDharma, Shahara Godfrey, Noliwe Alexander, Konda Mason, and more.
In conclusion being black, African American and perhaps Buddhist can be places of practice and understanding or if we are unaware these relative places can be places of separation and suffering. An acknowledgment of the relative existence, the form (color, class, gender, 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, to have no self, I am grasping, seeking to attain another existence. Therefore, I use the teachings to understand the suffering of life through understanding this form we live with. Eventually, I evolved into the teachings and the separation between life, the form, and the teachings seem to merge, one lesson at a time.
Note: Some of this essay appears in Tell Me Something About Buddhism by Zenju Eathlyn Manuel, Foreword by Thich Nhat Hanh (Hampton Road Publishing)