The spirit of jazz and gospel kept rhythm with Buddhist mantras, chants, and dharma teachings in the first-ever African American Dharma Retreat and Conference, held in August at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. For five days, African American Buddhists shared in a unique spiritual celebration that drew from and blended Buddhist tradition and African American culture. Led by and devoted solely to African American Buddhist practitioners, the conference was the inspiration of Black psychologist and Vipassana teacher Ralph Steele, who garnered the support of Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock.
Because the kind of suffering that is produced by oppression and racism is often visible only to those who are its direct targets, even Buddhist sanghas have been slow to address these issues, in spite of the injunction to “understand suffering.” The stated aims of the retreat and conference were “to acknowledge and foster mutual support and understanding among the growing community of African Americans who find nourishment and inspiration in Buddhist practice” and “to connect the gathering to the important issues of racism, social justice, and active compassion that are an essential component of any honest dharma practice in our times.” In order to do this, the retreat brought together for the first time African American teachers, leaders, and practitioners from all the major schools of Buddhism.
With abundant smiles and laughter, hugging, and “soulful” dharma talks, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, accustomed to hosting silent Vipassana retreats, witnessed a new energy during this August week. For example, responding to the introductions of the impressive array of African American Buddhist teachers, singer Rachel Bagby bellowed out a joyous and heartfelt “Amazing Grace.” Fifteen teachers and seventy-five students (called “yogis” at Spirit Rock) participated in the event. Owing to the limitations of lodging, hundreds more had to be turned away. The daily schedule included yoga, sitting meditations, walking meditations, and morning discussions. The afternoons were devoted to dharma talks led by author Alice Walker, Hilda Baldoquin (a newly ordained priest at San Francisco Zen Center), and myself. Evening “Councils” were followed by yoga and more sitting. Silence was then observed from nine in the evening through lunchtime the following day.
In addition to combining a serious dharma practice and retreat atmosphere with sincere reflection and dialogue, the conference was a wonderful opportunity for the teachers—most of whom had practiced and later taught in virtual isolation from their own communities—to meet face to face and to bring the teachings alive in a new way. Alice Walker suggested that we send forgiveness to former slaveholders through metta meditation; Lawrence Ellis had us visualize gaining strength and power from our African ancestors and returning our pain and suffering to Mother Earth; and I described why I find Vajrayana techniques so valuable in healing wounded self-esteem. Eschewing sectarian bias, we all practiced in one another’s traditions, another first for a Buddhist retreat.
Looking around the meditation hall and seeing ninety African Americans sitting on their cushions or performing prostrations together was inspiring in itself. But even more inspiring was to listen to the teachers’ insights into the dharma from an African American perspective, and to hear the queries of the students, many of whom were seeing for the first time in a Buddhist teacher’s face, their own. Such recognition viscerally embodied and communicated the potential Buddhahood of all beings, including African Americans.
At the closing ceremony, the hills surrounding Spirit Rock resounded, as parting advice from dharma teachers blended with the sounds of a jazz flute, drumming, a powerful voice, and the haunting vibrations of an Australian Aboriginal wind instrument, the didjeridu. African American Buddhists left Spirit Rock with a new perspective on the struggles of being Black in America. A similar retreat and conference is being planned for next year on the East Coast. But for now, this much seems abundantly clear: A new Buddhist dharma is being born. ▼
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