Essays

Making Black Buddhist Writing on an Apocalyptic Earth

This introduction appears in the issue “Between Amitabha and Tubman: Black Buddhist Thought” (Volume 9, Number 2). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue


I don’t remember exactly when Chief Editor Gabriel Dayley and I began talking about the possibility of an issue of The Arrow Journal dedicated to contemplating the relationship of global blackness to Dharma, meditation, and Buddhism. However, the fruition of this issue and the journey leading to it were filled with the certainty of life’s uncertainty: a global Covid-19 pandemic, a white supremacist insurrection in the US, the rise of fascism around the planet, the greed/scarcity dichotomy of unfettered capitalism, global supply chain issues, police and state violence, a return to entrenched violence against women, girls, and femmes, religious violence, and violence against LGBTQ+ people.

Amid all this troubling chaos—some more recent, some long-standing—I began to think about my own relationship to Dharma, my blackness, my position as a citizen of the United States, my professional practice as an academic, and my avocation as a Buddhist Dharma meditation teacher and student. Particularly after 2018, with the #MeToo collapse of the Buddhist organization of which I was a member, I felt the freedom (along with anger and despair) to center all of me in a way that a predominantly white organization severely curtailed.1 Working through the sexual and gender harm, violence, and abuse rooted in my former Buddhist organization resurfaced much of the racial, racist, and white supremacist harm, violence, and abuse those of us living at the intersection of blackness, queerness, femaleness, transness, and maleness had experienced. As I and many others began talking across lineages and sanghas, we realized how much white supremacist violence we had endured and absorbed in order to have access to buddhadharma. The mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter movement, the collapse of many Buddhist lineages, sanghas, and communities due to sexual or other forms of abuse, the stark reality of US white supremacy embodied in the Trump Administration and Trumpism, and the growing desire to be in Black-majority spaces have all contributed to the creation of this special issue.

In the US, Canada, and other white settler states, racialized people who are Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, or mixed race have been forming meditation, wellness, yoga, and contemplative communities in vast numbers. Though there are many Black Dharma teachers with long careers—particularly Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Dr. Larry Ward, Dr. Jan Willis, Karla Jackson-Brewer, Ralph Steele, Dr. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Dr. Gaylon Ferguson, and many more—the explosion of books, sangha groups, gatherings, and offerings by Black teachers across at least four generations (from Boomers to Zoomers) has been delightful and impactful. For instance, in 2018, Black Buddhist teachers held a retreat and meeting for Black African descended Buddhist teachers and students at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and over 250 people attended. A year later, Buddhist teachers Konda Mason, Noliwe Alexander, Bishop Myokei Caine-Barrett, and Rev. angel Kyodo williams invited over 70 Black Buddhist teachers, scholars, and friends from the US, Canada, the UK, South Africa, the Caribbean, Uganda, and other places, for a week-long gathering at Spirit Rock for sharing, training, and community-building. The retreat then opened up to accommodate upwards of 400 Black Buddhists, meditators, and friends for a closing weekend with Dr. Angela Davis as the guest speaker. I attended the full week and weekend as an invited Buddhist teacher, scholar, and student. For me, the Gathering II illuminated how white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, sangha supremacy, and sectarianism have kept many of us from practicing and gathering together. This issue aims to contribute to particularities and specificities of Black African descended Buddhist practice and perspectives.

As stated in the call for submissions: this issue of The Arrow Journal turns its attention to thinking critically, creatively, historically, and speculatively about the relation between Blackness, Afrikanness, and Meditation, Dharma, and Buddhism. In part inspired by the 2018 panel “Radical Black Dharma Strategies: Black Femmes and Black Queers on Living in the Dark Age,” featuring Black Buddhist practitioners across traditions and lineages, this peer-reviewed issue of The Arrow sought scholarly articles, long-form essays, interviews, book reviews, and other writing that foregrounds blackness, Afrikanness, and Black indigeneity in contemplative practice and contemplative communities.

Additionally, Black people’s stories, wisdom, experiences, and critical inquiry related to Buddhism, Dharma, meditation, mindfulness, and contemplative practices need to be spoken, read, heard, and archived. This issue is part of a growing body of Black intellectual, spiritual, and communal work inside of Buddhist meditation practices and communities. We especially invited Black, Afrikan, Afrikan-descended, and other Black diasporic people to take up space. The invitation was also doubly welcoming to Black voices from African countries, Caribbean nations, Asian/Pacific countries, and indigenous lands.

The issue commences with a short roundtable of Black women and non-binary Buddhist teachers and practitioners who reflect on the place of sanghas led by Black, Indigenous, Asian, Arab, and Latinx teachers in a post-Trayvon Martin, Black Lives Matter world. Rima Vesely-Flad’s “Honoring Ancestors in Black Buddhist Practice: Rituals of Devotion and Resilience,” leads the issue’s four peer-reviewed articles. In this piece, Vesely-Flad thinks through the specificity of ancestor veneration in Black Buddhist practice. As Vesely-Flad reasons, Black Buddhist practices differ from white Buddhist practices in key ways: “the practice of silence for many Black Buddhists is also informed by indigenous ways of knowing and practices of deep listening to the rhythms of the natural world in addition to the more psychological/scientific approaches to Buddhism that are often encountered in the United States.” Vesely-Flad also illuminates the ways in which the body and embodiment are key for many Black Buddhist practitioners. David Salisbury Brown Mitchell’s “Of Color-Confrontation and Consumption: Black and Buddhist Insights into Racism,” guides readers through an adroit and inspired study of the “consumptive force of white supremacy” through an analysis of Cress Welsing’s Theory of Color-Confrontation, Vincent Woodard’s work on consumption, flesh, and slavery in his book The Delectable Negro, and the Buddhist concept of the hungry ghost or preta. Mitchell reminds readers of the physical and spiritual stakes of white supremacist violence, stating,

“Allegorically, the ability for humans to be consumed by lack of self-knowledge and voracious appetite for possessions to compensate is ever-present. Unless the pretas’ appetites are appeased, their incessant strivings make their imminent materializations a threat for the living. Such behavior is reminiscent of what we have seen with Woodard, wherein the consumptive palates of slaveholders posed a constant threat to enslaved Africans.”

Arisika Razak’s “‘Buddish’ Not Buddhist: Womanist Reflections on My Journey Towards Buddhism,” moves us in another direction as she contemplates the relationship between blackness, Buddhist practice, womanism, and the term “Buddish”—a neologism she adopted after hearing it at The Gathering II in 2019. Razak weaves first-person narrative, experience-based Buddhist and African spiritual practices, and her training as a writer and spiritual practitioner to think through the expansiveness and limitations of traditional Buddhism in her life as a Black African person. Sha’Mira Covington and Dr. Carolyn Medine close out this section by explicitly attending to embodiment in their work, “Africana Yogi Personae: Black Women Yoga Practitioners’ Aesthetic Negotiations in Dress.” In this qualitative ethnographic work, the authors attend to sartorial choices Black women yogi practitioners make inside a westernized white yoga asana industry in the United States. The authors attend to the ways that Black women’s aesthetic negotiations contribute to their decolonization efforts in white predominant yoga spaces and how their dress can open them up to racial profiling and other forms of racist violence inside of white-dominant yoga spaces.

We feature two essays by Black practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism. The first is Dr. Kamilah Majied’s “Transcending Internalized Racism with the Perfection of Resolve, Generosity and Wisdom.” In this essay, Dr. Majied reflects on the teachings of Dr. Daisuka Ikeda and broader Buddhist concepts to think and feel through the damage that entrenched racism does to Black people internally. In the second essay, titled “The Karma of Slavery: A Rumination,” Tracy Watson writes a deeply personal narrative in which she tackles the tricky terrain of the Buddhist concept of karma as it relates to chattel slavery of Black Africans and Black people of African descent. Watson pleads, “What had our ancestors done to experience American slavery, the purest form of slander of the Law, the most demonic form of bondage, the crystallization of fundamental darkness?”

We have interwoven poetry that evokes the issue’s themes. Chris Lang pens a contemplation titled, “For Grandma, Pain as Teacher.” The work explores the common theme of relation and relationality that is so strong in both Buddhist practice and study and Black diasporic philosophy and embodiment. The musing on the power of prayer or chanting to remake pain and suffering is a powerful reminder of what is possible for Black folks who practice meditation and other spiritual practices. Next, in “Remember black run ‘cross my hips,” Raquel Baker evocatively elucidates that “the most radical thing I’ve ever heard about gender is that it is violence.” This lyrical, powerful, whimsical writing leads the reader through the thorny and terrorizing terrain Black women and others must traverse in the United States. Baker’s work echoes Black feminist thinkers like Hortense Spillers and her ideas of ungendering, as well as Sylvia Wynter’s work on the “genres of Man,” including race and gender. This is a poem meant to be read over and again. Our final work is by shah noor hussein, Managing Editor of The Arrow. Their poem, “ASÉ / Vital Energy,” is a beautiful piece of hauntology, inviting readers and viewers to contemplate the interplay of the absolute and the relative as written through Black diasporic memory. The notion of ASÉ—a Yoruba concept that roughly translates to “energy” or the power to do and transform—is closely related to a Tibetan Bön/Buddhist term, Ashe (pronounced the same as asé), which can also translate to “power,” “energy,” or “powerful existence rising out of that which is.” May you read this poem and connect these similar terms embedded in disparate countries and religious traditions.

This issue has been a journey of stops and starts, dedicated and insightful labor from The Arrow editorial staff, graciousness from the authors and peer reviewers, and a test of will and endurance. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the emergence of monkeypox as a global concern, the impact of climate catastrophe, supply production issues, the increase in chronic illness and debility, fatigue, and state and non-state violence in the US and beyond made it difficult to get together and finish the issue. But we persisted. I am so grateful that this issue has come to fruition—may it be a blessing and guide to all who read it.

Shanté Paradigm Smalls
Guest Editor

Notes

  1. In 2018, credible allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse were revealed against Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche through Buddhist Project Sunshine. To read more about this, visit: https://sf.shambhala.org/2018/07/04/resources-for-helping-our-sangha-to-understand-current-events-in-shambhala/.