The United States and the world watched in shock earlier this year, when on January 6 a mob of Trump supporters laid siege to the US Capitol as lawmakers were certifying the 2020 presidential election results. A vast majority of them were white, and many were motivated by racist and nativist ideologies.
The week following the violence at the Capitol, Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, talked with Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles, coeditors of Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom, an anthology of “freedom stories” exploring what it means to be Black and Buddhist in America. Yetunde, an author and dharma teacher who holds a JD and ThD, is a practitioner in the Zen and Insight Meditation traditions. A professor of pastoral care and counseling at Harvard Divinity School, Giles is a clinical psychologist with an MDiv and PsyD and is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist.
In this conversation, which was originally released as an episode on the podcast Tricycle Talks in February 2021, Yetunde and Giles examine racial ignorance and color blindness in Buddhist communities. The two pastoral counselors discuss how their dharma practice has helped them to reaffirm and celebrate their Blackness. Their experiences offer practitioners a different way of relating to ignorance, anger, fear, and pain.
—Julia Hirsch, contributing editor
Black and Buddhist begins with a traditional dedication of merit to George Floyd and all of the unarmed Black men and women who have been killed by police. You also extend well-wishes to the police officers involved in Floyd’s death and to white supremacists. This may be hard for non-Buddhists to wrap their heads and hearts around. Was it so for you, Ayo?
Pamela Ayo Yetunde (AY): One of the most profound Buddhist teachings I have received comes from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village tradition. In his poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” Thay, as his students call him, reflects on how we are the frog and the mayfly, the pirate and the girl raped by the pirate. Over the years I’ve come to learn more about my own ability to perpetrate and be a victim of perpetration. Constantly blaming others while not taking responsibility for the harm that we cause will not move us forward.
Cheryl A. Giles (CG): There’s no question that our nation is deeply divided—perhaps so divided that we can’t hear each other, leaving little room for curiosity or spaciousness. One of the gifts that I’ve received from Buddhism, and part of the reason why I meditate, is an awareness that each of us has another side, and we all have an innate capacity to hold both evil and goodness within us.
The challenge of maintaining equanimity is especially difficult in such a polarized social and political climate. And yet the two of you are wholeheartedly committed to the path of nonviolence. How should one protect oneself and stay committed to peace in a culture that can be so hostile?
AY: On the one hand, there is nonviolence to advance social change, but at the same time, there is wisdom in protecting oneself against harm. When it is embodied by an oppressed person, self-preservation can actually be a spiritual movement. We are continually facing threats against our bodies and our mental health, so we need to love ourselves enough to protect our bodies, minds, and spirits. We are worthy of the birthright of being able to breathe and be. I’m not going to let people walk over me or kill me.
What do you think, Cheryl?
CG: Anger and rage can be all-consuming and render us ineffective. Meditation practice becomes a way to re-center ourselves and find our ground, time and time again. We have to learn how to get out of our own way. When we are completely absorbed by our own thinking, we can become isolated, enraged, or unhinged. Left unaddressed, these emotional states risk doing real harm. Grounding ourselves in meditation is important for developing a kind of radical love that allows us to see others as we see ourselves.
AY: I’ll add that freeing ourselves in different ways implies that our minds are enslaved in different ways, regardless of what we look like, who our families are, or what our social conditioning has been. Black and Buddhist privileges African-American voices who are asking an existential Buddhist question that is also very Black: What does it mean to be free? How can I be my freest, most liberated self when life can be really hard? Everyone can benefit from learning how targeted people make it through.
From the very outset this project poses a question that is long overdue: What can Buddhism teach us about race? But I’m curious: what has being Black taught each of you about Buddhism?
AY: Buddhism has offered me a path to transform my suffering. But if I enter a Buddhist community that doesn’t deal with race-based suffering, then I’m going to try to find a place that does. When we sit in silence with each other, we create a container for examining ourselves, yet we often don’t get to know the causes of each other’s suffering. I want to hear about the particular ways that you suffer and see how I might support you. Sitting alone does not transform racism, and neither does it transform racial superiority or inferiority complexes. We’ve got to find another way.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Buddhism is an indigenous tradition founded by a person of color who said, and of course I’m rephrasing here, “Hey, show me where this so-called Self is. I don’t buy that just because you’ve been born into a particular caste you are entitled to power and privilege. Show me where your entitlement and superiority comes from, because I don’t see it.” If we begin to ask ourselves these kinds of questions in our sanghas, then we can engage in a conversation that is caste-destabilizing, freedom-oriented, and liberative.
CG: As Black- and brown-bodied Buddhists, we don’t have the luxury of spiritual bypass. We’re no strangers to the institutions of racism and white supremacy. We’ve lived through it for several hundred years, and we experience it every day. The ongoing police violence, trying to survive a pandemic, dealing with health inequities—in the face of all this dukkha [suffering] I’ve realized the value and the imperative of spiritual transformation. The truth of the matter is that we’re in this together. So whatever the challenges may be, we’ve got to be ready for the long haul.
Black and Buddhist privileges African-American voices who are asking an existential Buddhist question that is also very Black: What does it mean to be free? How can I be my freest, most liberated self when life can be really hard?
AY: When it comes to colorblindness in the sangha, I often hear white folks say things like “Race is a construct” or “I’m color-blind.” What I hear in these comments is a sincere desire to not be a racist, so I don’t find it productive to call them out. Instead, I encourage them to redirect their well-intentioned racial innocence toward other white sangha members—not BIPOC folks, because then you risk undermining their experiences of being targets of racism. If you discuss these questions within white affinity groups, then you can have a conversation about constructs and colorblindness that might actually be useful.
When white Buddhists ask me what role they have in this project, I encourage them to consider whether they are open to learning from nonwhite Buddhist practitioners about how to be free and how to be in solidarity for freedom for all people. If you’re looking to sutras for specific guidance on navigating issues of race and racism, you won’t find it. Our bodies are sacred texts, and we bring that to our sanghas.
Cheryl, as a clinical psychologist who specializes in intergenerational trauma and end-of-life care, how have you come to understand Buddhist suffering?
CG: Years ago, I worked with children and families at Boston Medical Center, a Level 1 Trauma Center. While trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder were gaining currency in medical and scientific communities, we hadn’t yet considered the body as a storehouse for trauma from community violence or intergenerational struggle. It wasn’t until years later that we were able to understand the somatic effects of trauma and how they live in the body, brain, and nervous system. And that’s where the work needs to happen.
Although I’ve found a therapist who has been able to help me rework the trauma I experience in my body, Buddhism has been a big piece in allowing me to deal with trauma in a way that lets me live more fully.
Ancestors are at the heart of one of the practices you offer to readers, Cheryl. What can we gain by bringing ancestors with us into our meditation practice?
CG: I have an appreciation for all those who have gone before me. I practice with a Tibetan Buddhist–inspired benefactor visualization to call upon ancestors that I know and others who are unknown to me. When I call on them to surround me, they become a field of refuge for me. Their unconditional love reminds me of our original goodness and how a large part of our struggle is rooted in being separated from that fundamental truth. Envisioning these benefactors has been powerful for me in facing challenging situations; in trusting myself when I’m overcome by anxiety, fear, and doubt; and in reaffirming my Blackness.
Are you hopeful about the diversity efforts that are being made by various sanghas?
AY: This January, we experienced what some may consider the largest racist mob attack in United States history. Does that mean that there’s no Fourteenth Amendment? No. Does that mean that we didn’t have Barack Obama as president? No. Does that mean that lynching laws have not been abolished? They have been. We’re going to continue to experience moments of shock, awe, discouragement, despair, and celebration. The more important question here is What will we hand off to the next generation?
I’m very optimistic, but I also recognize that this work is ongoing. Sanghas may not see immediate outcomes from their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. And in actuality, you may never see the outcome. We have to do this work knowing that it needs to be handed off like a baton in a relay.
What advice would you give to Buddhists of color who may feel isolated or alone in mostly white Buddhist spaces, as they navigate racism and bias in the sangha?
AY: The first thing is, don’t be surprised. If it’s not specifically a BIPOC or an immigrant sangha, then expect to be one of a few colored bodies—likely even the only one—in a predominantly white room. Notice how you feel as you enter that space. Find someone who is willing to make eye contact with you. Forget the sea of whiteness; go to that friendly face and tell them why you’re there. Ask if they would be willing to talk with you about what this community is about, who is welcome, and how they’ve come to know that.
CG: This particular question cuts close to home. I have felt othered in the sangha I was trying to participate in. I was in an administrative position with lots of responsibilities, but I never felt at home. Today, I don’t belong to one particular sangha. Even though the pandemic has heightened my sense of spiritual wandering—a constant place of struggle for me—I’ve been able to sit with others online. While I still have no idea where I’m going, I practice with curiosity and take comfort in knowing that things change all the time.
What I’ve learned from Buddhist practice is that I have the ability to choose which narratives I want to carry and that it’s OK to have multiple identities and belongings.
Resilience is a recurring theme throughout the book. What does that word mean to you?
AY: In the wrong minds resilience can be used as an excuse, as a reason to harm Black people, consciously or unconsciously. For example, there was a study conducted by medical residents about their views on the Black body. A majority of them believed that Black people have thicker skin and blood, and that as a consequence of our physical differences we can endure greater amounts of pain, in large part because of our history of being enslaved and beaten and then getting back up. This misperception has real consequences; it has led doctors to assume that we don’t need pain medication when we ask for it. We experience suffering and pain just like everyone else. So when we say we are in deep pain, we need to be believed and attended to with compassion.
CG: There’s a common misunderstanding perpetuated by the media that resilience means you bounce back easily. None of us really work that way. For me, resilience has to do with putting the supports in place that will allow you to stay in the game for the long haul.
Learning how to claim and accept oneself is another aspect of resilience, and it has a lot to do with the question of multiple belonging. I’m still learning how to let go of trying to fix myself, to be different, to live up to other people’s expectations. We may know conceptually that it is OK to be who and where you are, but our minds can spin delusions that prevent us from actually believing it.
AY: There was a time when I thought being Black meant you had to look, dress, speak, and behave in a certain way. For the most part, being Black has been tied up with being Christian. Models of Black Buddhists are few and far between. Up until recently, there were few societal allowances for people to be proud, Black, and Buddhist, because it insinuated a betrayal of the Black community and the Black Church.
What I’ve learned from Buddhist practice is that I have the ability to choose which narratives I want to carry and that it’s OK to have multiple identities and belongings. Zen Buddhist teachings of nondualism in particular have helped me to understand that I am endowed with a consciousness that is not limited by what other people think being Black is.
Lama Rod Owens writes in his chapter, “I want my Blackness to be supported by my dharma practice, not erased by it.” Sebene Selassie similarly talks about turning toward her Blackness. In fact, in many ways, the book is a celebration of Blackness, isn’t it?
AY: Being Black and beautiful isn’t only a passing mantra sung by James Brown that we can all get down and funky with!
[Laughs.] There is so much beauty in Blackness, in the Black experience, and in Black culture. So when we work toward accepting things as they are through Buddhist practice, we are really working on accepting ourselves as individuals with a unique history, lineage, ancestors, continent, with the pain of war, colonization, and slavery. Accepting all of that without shame or guilt is what it means to accept ourselves as beautiful, Black people.
Lately I’ve been practicing a lojong [mind training] to take what is painful and turn it into something beneficial. I am the lead doan [Zen ritual leader] on Thursdays in my sangha. During our morning chant the day after the attack on the Capitol, I was heartbroken, but I brought something very Black to the ritual spontaneously. It was a chant that I was riffing from a song by Frankie Beverly and Maze about joy and pain, sunshine and rain.
This is from the Black experience, but it’s just as much a Buddhist meditation on equanimity. These are things that Black Buddhists bring to the dharma. No single community, religious or otherwise, has a monopoly on truth. All communities have truths that we bring together to better the whole.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.