Essays

Kushil Gunasekera in front of his foundation on the anniversary of the 2004 Tsunami. Photo credit: Reuters.

“The more you give, the more will be yours to give”: The Karmic Philanthropy of Kushil Gunasekera

“I want to be one of the nicest human beings that this earth has seen,” Sri Lankan Buddhist philanthropist Kushil Gunasekera told me in an interview early in 2020. I’ve known Kushil for years, so I’m no longer surprised when he makes such bold pronouncements about his life goals. From the naming of his humanitarian organization as the Foundation of Goodness, to its organizational mission of promoting “unconditional compassion,” bold claims of moral excellence are fundamental to Kushil’s understanding of himself as a Buddhist humanitarian. At first glance, Kushil’s ambition to be one of the nicest human beings may seem overzealous or even audacious. Yet, such a gloss would overlook Kushil’s passionate and earnest desire to cultivate and perfect his spiritual vocation of generosity. Take for instance the time when, facing severe personal financial duress, Kushil used the last remaining credit on his credit card to pay the college fees for three children of a woman he hardly knew. Facing financial bankruptcy, he had mortgaged his home for a personal loan. He was not deriving …

Baldwin and Buddhism: Death Denial, White Supremacy, and the Promise of Racial Justice

“Terror cannot be remembered… Yet, what the memory repudiates controls the human being. What one does not remember dictates who one loves or fails to love.” —James Baldwin More attention should be paid to why white people remain so attached to narratives of racial supremacy. This was a sentiment shared by authors Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Resmaa Menakem in an online fireside chat held in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin.1 If the purpose of radical analysis is to grasp injustices at their roots, then what might lie at the aching roots of white supremacy? Menakem’s provocative answer, in his excellent book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, is that white supremacy is conditioned by generations of unprocessed trauma: “White bodies traumatized each other in Europe for centuries before they encountered Black and red bodies.”2 Left unprocessed, that trauma has helped fuel a will to racial supremacy that works emotionally to soothe people whose violent histories made them feel less-than. A question that …

There Was Love Included in It: Linking Art and Abolition

Interview with Malik Seneferu and William Rhodes On a rare sunny day in San Francisco, two long term friends, artists, and grassroots community leaders, Malik Seneferu and William Rhodes, met in the summer amidst the chaotic backdrop of 2020. While the year brought heightened turmoil to the world, California endured a reemergence of protests against police brutality, coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and a particularly intense start to fire season causing terrible air quality and evacuations for many residents. These two old friends relished the opportunity to meet in-person, albeit outdoors and distanced, for a lively conversation on abolition and spirituality. Brother Malik and Brother William are lifelong artists, they serve as role models in their community, teaching and mentoring young artists, with a focus on Black youth in particular. Malik Seneferu is a prolific painter, muralist, illustrator, and sculptor whose work has traveled internationally, adorning book, magazine and newspaper covers as well as the walls of museums and galleries. William Rhodes is a sculptural artist with a fine arts flare; trained in traditional …

Spiritual Activism: On the Streets, at the Shrines

The Rally A little girl marches. Her face contorts. Her little legs struggle to keep up. Her fists raised in the air, she is angry. She wants justice. Her small voice unheard over the crowd. The chants: No justice; no peace. Documented. She becomes iconic. Be mindful of the children! Watch them Listen to them Seek their wisdom They are closest to the soul They are closest to the source They are closest to GOD At home, my parents had created a sanctuary, a place where I was free to be myself: reading, creating, laughing as loud as I wanted. Home was our tiny apartment in The Walt Whitman housing projects of Fort Greene Brooklyn—an oasis from the outside world. I was loved. The end. I was over-loved. My mother and father wanted more than just what the public school across the street could offer. My father, who had not long returned from a trip to Africa when I was around three, could not bear the thought of sending his child to a regular “White …

"Fed Up," protests at City Hall, San Francisco, CA, 2020. Photo by author.

In Solitude and Solidarity

Who Are You? If we are what we do then who are you? Are you who you say you are? Are you the same when you are sleeping? When the world is sleeping? When the lights are off? In the dark? Are you alive when you are dreaming? When awake? In the light? Who are you when no one watches? Who are you when no one knows? Are you the same? Are you living who you’re meant to be? Or are you living who they say you are? Self and other?  One and another? All or none? All  in  one? Whole Essential Soul Credentials Who Are  You? Pandemic Symptoms and Systems “… for there are times when disobedience heals a very ailing part of the self. It relieves the human spirit’s distress at being forced into narrow boundaries. For the nearly powerless, defying authority is often the only power available.” ―Malidoma Patrice Somé1 “Slow down. Inhale peace. Exhale worry,” I’ve had to remind myself. The more chaotic everything gets, the more peace I try to …

From “The Afro Tarot” deck by Jessi Jumanji

Queering the Archetypes of Tarot

We find ourselves walking down a path that our ancestors laid ____A spiral ________Up or down depending on which way you bend your neck ____________We’re in lockstep ________________Passing the same points of interest again and again ____________________The same but different ________________________Slavery ____________________We loop round ________________Sharecropping ____________We loop again ________The prison industrial complex ____Back again and again until we’re numb, I get dizzy and reach for a way out My hands find my well-worn deck of tarot cards and I pull at them hoping for answers I pull The Emperor  The oppressive chokehold, the knee on our necks, the invisible puppeteer that we fight against Oh how this world would love us if he were gone, or if he were like a redwood instead of a ram The Star The first glance of light after a lifetime of darkness Hope A way out of this dizzying madness 10 of Pentacles A question What will I leave behind and for whom? I walk the path that my Ancestors laid and suddenly I see it fork I see …

We Need More Fugitives

radical Black feminist thoughtfeelings (& propaganda) “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?… Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well.” —Minnie Ransom And so begins Toni Cade Bambara’s 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters: Its protagonist Velma Henry, resistantly coming undone in the hands of Minnie Ransom, a trusted healer intimately acquainted with the voices of her ancestral guides. This novel is unsettling for many reasons. Structurally, the many voices and perspectives Bambara uses to tell the story disregard narrative conventions. Deeper still, Velma Henry, a black woman activist hospitalized and seeking healing after a sucide attempt,  stands as a haunting embodiment of the ways embattled resistance can literally tear apart the bodymind. I’ve written out parts of that opening line and posted it on my walls and doors in nearly every place I’ve lived over the past five years. Currently it sparkles in golden glitter ink on a white piece of paper next to my bed. …

Land-Based Ethics and Settler Solidarity in a Time of Corona and Revolution

Settler colonialism has been defined as a structure, not an event, meaning that settler societies like the U.S., Canada, and Australia endure over time through racist laws and ideologies that naturalize the dispossession of Indigenous populations.1 One of the most effective strategies that settler states rely on to eliminate Indigenous peoples and their power is the idea that their knowledges are primitive and superstitious, examples of failed epistemology.2 This view is rooted in an Enlightenment-born materialism that asserts that legitimate knowledge can only be produced through narrow empirical methods, relegating the negotiations of immaterial life to the social margins.3 As the colonial project progresses, legitimate knowledge production is simultaneously tethered to race and power (reserved to the white and landed), resulting in what we have come to know as modernity.4 Settler colonialism seeks to eliminate Indigenous populations in order to monopolize resources for the sake of capital. It operates through laws and racist ideologies, but also through conceptualizations of the natural world as white men’s for the human taking. Settler colonialism operates from its own …

From Sheltering in Place to Dancing on Shifting Ground

For days a robin has been flying into the glass doors of my studio, bouncing off and then standing nonplused on the deck, looking back at the glass with, what I take to be utter consternation. Then she goes at it again, hurling herself against the glass, bouncing off and then standing four feet away confused, I suppose gathering resolve for the next, duty-bound attempt. At first, I thought she might be a pregnant female looking for a good nesting site. Worried, I did a bit of robin-nesting research online and built a small bird-house along the lines of what I’d seen on birding sites. I mounted the little house on the exterior wall of the studio, where the robin could see it. I even collected some nesting materials—grasses, sticks, and mud. But the robin took no interest and continued bashing herself against every glass window and door. Alarmed, I sent off emails to various birding sites asking if anyone had seen something similar. In just a few hours I had received a half dozen …

Grief in the Time of COVID: Sharing in Compassion and Resilience

When my father went into the hospital on May 6th, there were 76,000 deaths in the US from COVID-19. By the time he passed away eleven days later, there were 90,000. It’s strange when something as deeply and personally felt as the death of a loved one becomes part of a national statistic. Yet it also points to the collective nature of grief related to the pandemic and the systemic injustices that it has revealed and intensified. We are in a time of collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Others have lost jobs or been furloughed due to the lockdown of cities and towns across the country. On top of all that, since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, the streets have been filled with renewed anguish and calls for racial justice and the end of police brutality. The enormity of the crisis affects us all, directly or indirectly. How can we handle the emotional intensity and grief while supporting each other in the process and working for …