Reflections on Embodiment, Culture, and Social Justice Work in Selected Buddhist Traditions

This article also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue

Buddhism has to do with your daily life, with your suffering and with the suffering of the people around you. You have to learn how to help a wounded child while still practicing mindful breathing. . . Action should be meditation at the same time.

—Thich Nhat Hanh1

These words by Thich Nhat Hanh resonate with my search for a Buddhist lineage that encourages taking action in the world to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. This view calls for interweaving spirituality, physical embodiment, culture, and liberation in ways that attend to our particular socio-cultural positioning in society. If I talk about embodiment and lineage in the context of social justice without acknowledging the ways in which these factors show up in my life, I omit vital information about the importance of these issues for me. So in beginning this series of reflections, let me share a bit about my own background.

I am a U.S.-born, African American woman who came of age during the 1960s Civil Rights, Black Nationalist, anti-war, and Women’s Liberation movements, the integration of social activism and spirituality are extremely important to me. My identity has been shaped by movements which existed at intersections of ethnicity, culture, politics, and spirituality—as well as by decades of organizing in Black communities, women of color2 communities, and multi-ethnic progressive communities. My life reflects the contradictions and intersections of living as an urban mixed-class woman of color: While I do not identify as biracial, I have been other-mothered3 by women of Asian-American, Jewish-American and Euro-American descent. I am a survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and while I identify as bisexual, I live in partnership with a Euro-American man.

All of my identities are important to me, and at 71, they are deeply integrated into who I am. They form a unity of concerns, for I am all of my identities at each and every moment of my life. If I want to find a spiritual home, I can’t belong to a sangha that fails to recognize that we are occupying the stolen land of my Native American relatives, or that marginalizes Asian-American contributions to U.S. Buddhism. I can’t be part of organizations that don’t recognize and support LGBTQI people, or that minimize the continuing effects of anti-Black racism on African Diasporic communities. And while some Buddhist traditions embrace the concept of a “Divine Feminine,”4 I am deeply troubled when this concept doesn’t include the lives and bodies of “ordinary” women. This essay shares some of my thoughts and reflections on searching for a Buddhist spiritual home resonating with my embodiment, and diverse and intersecting identities.

The Spiritual, Cultural and Political are Deeply Intertwined

While some consider social justice struggles involving race and racism to be political endeavors rather than religious or spiritual ones, for many people of color5 the spiritual, cultural, and political realms are deeply intertwined. Spirituality has been a foundational part of many U.S. civil and human rights struggles, providing refuge and healing for marginalized communities enduring state-sanctioned violence and dehumanizing mistreatment perpetrated by the dominant society.

My activist work in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s integrated culture, spirituality, and sociocultural liberation. The Civil Rights movement was grounded in African Diasporic cultural norms privileging voice, embodied experience, spirituality, and collective action by women and men. It was not a secular movement. My organizing with women of color was supported and inspired by global trans-historic legacies of powerful women who served their communities as spiritual leaders, healers, artists, freedom fighters, mothers, and traders/entrepreneurs. I am also a midwife practicing for more than twenty years who currently uses body-based methodologies to support the liberation and healing of marginalized populations, especially women, people of color, and LGBTQI communities.

I learned about Buddhism from first- and second-generation Euro-American teachers who travelled to Asia in the 1960s. They studied primarily with Theravāda6 Buddhist monastics and lay teachers, returned to the U.S., and developed meditation-based convert Buddhism,7 a term distinguishing this form of Buddhism from the heritage Buddhism8 of Asian populations in the U.S. and abroad.9

I’ve attended retreats and trainings at predominantly white Buddhist institutions for over twenty years. I also teach in a small, diverse, inner-city meditation center founded by people of color and other members of marginalized communities. My teachings draw from diverse spiritual traditions, including Diasporic Yoruba traditions, North American Indigenous traditions, contemporary Wiccan traditions, and Buddhism.

‘Engaged Buddhism is Just Buddhism’

In the historical context of Buddhism, it is ironic that many meditation-based convert practitioners believe that politics and social justice activism are inherently opposed to Buddhist spiritual practice. This may reflect the secular nature of modern society, U.S. separation of church and state, or Protestant emphasis on spiritual practice for individual improvement.

Historically, Shakyamuni Buddha (c. 563 – 483 BCE) is said to have directly intervened to prevent the occurrence of war. His rejection of caste can be viewed as an act of social justice—inspiring the Buddhist conversions of many Dalit people10 and the creation of new twentieth- century Buddhist lineages.11 Thich Nhat Hanh’s definition of “engaged Buddhism” is supported by these types of actions:

Engaged Buddhism is just Buddhism. When bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time. Meditation is about the awareness of what is going on—not only in your body and in your feelings, but all around you.12

In addition, the global establishment of Buddhism can be traced to political edicts of Emperor Ashoka, who ruled most of India between 268 and 232 BCE. Recognizing the devastating effects of war, he converted to Buddhism and sent Buddhist monks to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Central Asia, and Greece. He developed a model of kingship which travelled to other Asian countries; in this model, the king was a patron of Buddhist monasteries who supported the ordination of monks and the establishment of stūpas, and who acted as a mediator in religious disputes. However, in the late 19th century, as various Asian countries were subjected to European imperialism, the king’s ability to protect Buddhism weakened. The 19th century reformation of Asian Buddhism—with its subsequent emphasis on meditation,13 rationality, and universality—is the direct result of Buddhist responses to European colonialism.14

A History of Euro-centric and Culturally Diverse Buddhist Practice Styles in the U.S.

U.S. Buddhism did not begin in the 1970s based on the efforts of Euro-Americans teachers who imported the tradition to the U.S.; rather, the first practicing U.S. Buddhists were Chinese immigrants in the 1820s, followed by Japanese monks in the 1890s. Nor is there one source of American dharma,15 since new elaborations of Asian Buddhist lineages continue to be exported to the U.S. Currently, two-thirds of the people identifying as U.S. Buddhists are Asian or Asian-American. And, as Asian heritage Buddhists practicing in convert establishments informed me, most Buddhists don’t meditate. “Meditation [is] . . . one branch of the eight-fold path taught by the Buddha—a path which includes ethical teachings, intellectual study, and transformation of personality and character through wholesome attitudes and deeds.”16

The Buddhism promulgated in predominantly white, meditation-based convert Buddhist establishments is a Buddhism that reflects contemporary upper-middle-class, Euro-American norms. It emphasizes meditation, as well as “individualism, freedom of choice and personal fulfillment. These ‘non-negotiable cultural demands’ have reshaped Buddhist ideas. . . yielding a genuinely new religious product uniquely adapted to certain segments of the American ‘market.’”17

This may not seem like a bad thing, since Buddhism has adapted to the cultural norms of each country to which it has spread. As Theravāda Buddhist teacher and author Larry Yang declares:

. . . history seems to show us that the Dharma has survived multiple adaptations to the languages and cultural contexts of those who receive it. Since the Dharma is always necessarily expressed via a language and a culture, Dharma necessarily comes to reflect the different cultural experiences of different cultural communities.18

However, the U.S. contains multiple cultures that exist in a system of race-based hierarchies. Asian Americans are often viewed as perpetual outsiders to America—and to “American culture”—no matter how long they’ve lived here. The exclusion of Asian American heritage Buddhism from contemporary discussions of “American dharma”19 may reflect unconscious assumptions that privilege the meditation-based practices of Euro-Americans as “true” or “essential” Buddhism while denigrating longstanding devotional and religious practices of Asian Americans as “cultural baggage” or superstitions that need to be rejected.20 Helen Terekhov’s claim in a 1992 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review—that Asian Americans had made no significant contributions to Buddhism in America—generated significant push-back by Asian-Americans. Jodo Shinshu priest Rev. Ryo Imamura declared:

I would like to point out that it was my grandparents and other immigrants from Asia who brought and implanted Buddhism in American soil over 100 years ago despite white American intolerance and bigotry. It was my American-born parents and their generation who courageously and diligently fostered the growth of American Buddhism despite having to practice discretely [sic] in hidden ethnic temples and . . . concentration camps because of the same white intolerance and bigotry. . . . Asian Buddhists . . . welcomed countless white Americans into our temples, [and] introduced them to the Dharma.21

While meditation-based convert practices use physical embodiment as touchstones for individual practice,22 devotional rituals in heritage Buddhism are often collective embodied rituals involving families or communities. Japanese artist Mayumi Oda states that a Buddhist service commemorating her grandmother’s death occurred every month. Her step-grandmother lit candles, placed flowers, and burned incense, while a Buddhist priest led the family’s chanting of a Buddhist sutra.23 For many heritage practitioners, setting up altars for ancestors, lighting of incense, and offering of foods, chants, and other materials to the deities and the dead, as well as the practice of prayers for good fortune in the material world, are essential parts of the practice of Buddhism.

The ‘Body-Mind’ in Buddhist and Many Other Traditions

As a woman and a person of color, embodied spiritual traditions that connect to the material worlds are significantly important to me. Embodied spiritual practices (1) support movements for social justice; (2) generate courage in the face of fear; (3) help us survive grief, trauma and physical pain; and (4) remind us that we are more than our physical bodies.

As someone who draws from diverse spiritual traditions, I define embodiment as: (1) birth in a physical body embedded in the natural world; (2) deep alignment with the physical body, and metaphysical heart; (3) engagement with transpersonal realms via the body; and (4) acknowledgement of sociocultural identity and meaning in the world and the self. Fundamentally, embodiment matters. We journey from birth to death in an impermanent and changeable body, subject to illness, disability, and death. Our body-minds are vulnerable to the effects of social oppression: Our target and non-target social identities (e.g., race, class, age, ethnicity, disability status, etc.) literally shape the bodies in which we live. If I consider the issue of race, while science informs us that race is a fallacy, racism is utterly real. If we are institutionally targeted by racism, we—and our offspring—die sooner. We experience more illnesses, our immune systems are less robust, and we frequently lack the resources needed to survive and thrive.24

Given the ubiquitous nature of the body-mind, almost all Buddhist lineages employ some embodied modalities. Theravāda teachings say that the “Four Foundations of Mindfulness”25 contain the Buddha’s instructions for contemplating mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind, and mindfulness of mind objects. This discourse provides instructions for meditating on eating, breathing, physical elimination, wearing clothing, and contemplating the decay of the body after death. It affirms that the body—and bodily processes—as well as mental states of hatred, delusion, distraction and contraction, and perceptions of sensual desire, doubt, and ill-will are all subjects fit for meditative awareness.

As Buddhism developed, embodied practices came to include devotional singing, chanting, dancing, and drumming; engaging in physical prostrations; circumambulating stūpas, and walking on pilgrimages. While some practitioners engaged in these modalities as individual rituals of grief or devotion, others undertook them as a result of collective trauma or war.26 Embodied Buddhist modalities may have special resonance for socially oppressed groups who can use these modalities to explore their oppression and mindfully take action to end their suffering. As Mahā Ghosānanda declares:

We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of the human experience, the temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ, Gandhi, we can do nothing less. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefields they become our temples. We have so much work to do.27

Contemporary Embodied Buddhist Practices Supporting Social Justice

Many Black, Latinx, and mixed heritage people of color have been drawn to Buddhism, although they may feel unwelcome in predominantly white Buddhist establishments. This can be due to high financial costs, access issues, unfamiliarity with silent practices, lack of other people of color, and silence in the face of social injustice endemic to many communities of color. In other words, many barriers to entry reflect some aspect of material embodiment in relative reality.28

However, two newer versions of Mahāyāna Nichiren Buddhism have actively recruited people of color, in part by centering more embodied, less cerebral practices, and in part by emphasizing a commitment to anti-racist practices. Japanese Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes the Lotus Sutra, which proclaims that everyone possesses an internal Buddha-nature and can be enlightened in their current lifetime. Nichiren practitioners regularly chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,29 and study the writings of 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren (1222 – 1282), who rejected the mainstream policies of government officials and Buddhist clergy of his era.

Nichiren-based Soka Gakkai International (SGI), founded in 1975, is the largest and most diverse lay Buddhist group in the world. Founded in direct opposition to 20th century Japanese militarism,30 U.S. SGI chapters regularly hold meetings in Spanish, and they celebrate diversity by offering conferences on race or language-related issues. In 2003, over twenty percent of SGI leadership positions were occupied by African Americans. According to Clark Strand “SGI members . . . are taught to transform themselves through daily practice as a way of transforming their environment, with an emphasis on demonstrable results. . . this, more than merely chanting for worldly benefits, is what [motivates] so many African Americans and other minorities to join SGI.”31

Black SGI practitioner J. Sunara Sasser notes:

It’s a fundamental SGI teaching that every member should do all they can to create peace and happiness in our lives and the lives of others. . . We fight to overcome the part of our nature that separates us from others and encourages conflict and division. . . That’s why the meetings involve chanting and heart-to-heart dialogue. We chant for the clarity and wisdom to identify the limitations and unjust thoughts within, as well as the courage to transform them.32

She also notes that SGI president Daisaku Ikeda:

. . . has publicly stated a passionate commitment to anti-racist engagement since the first time he visited the U.S. in 1960, [and] witnessed an act of racism against a black child. . . . This moment [profoundly impacted] Ikeda, shaping his conviction that propagating Buddhism in the U.S. would have to involve directly addressing the prejudice and bias found in people’s hearts . . .33

Nichidatsu Fujii founded the pacifist Nichiren-based Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist group in 1917. It conducts national and international peace pilgrimages accompanied by drumming and chanting.34 In 1998, two female Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhists co-led a year-long “Afro-Buddhist Interfaith Pilgrimage of the Middle Passage,” commemorating the Maafa (Great Disaster) that forcibly transported enslaved Africans throughout the world. Pilgrims prayed, chanted, drummed, and performed rituals together, traveling through the Americas, Europe, the Caribbean, and West Africa.35 Nipponzan Myohoji clergy also joined California Ohlone Indians and their allies for a walking pilgrimage (2005-2008) to honor the sacred Shellmounds of the Ohlone peoples.36

Pilgrimages are powerful collective, ritual endeavors. Their physical hardships encourage contemplation of personal and ancestral suffering, as well as their transformation. For many people of color, pilgrimages to sites of historic injustice may support culturally specific values of ancestral respect and renewed commitment to social justice.

Singing, chanting, and prayer are empowering, embodied technologies, enabling oppressed people to resist pain, fear, and bodily suffering. As Civil Rights-era singer and scholar-activist Bernice Johnson Reagon explains:

Sound is a way to extend the territory you can affect. Communal singing [announces] . . . you are here and possessing the territory. When police . . . would enter mass meetings and start taking pictures and names . . . we knew our jobs were on the line, and maybe more . . . inevitably somebody would begin a song. Soon everyone was singing and we had taken back the air in that space.37

My Personal Journey to Knowing Embodiment

While I have focused much of this discussion on the importance of socio-cultural identity and the use of embodied cultural practices to support contemporary people of color in the practice of Buddhism, especially in predominantly white convert establishments, I am equally concerned with female embodiment. My two decades as a nurse-midwife led me to inextricably link embodied experiences of the female body38 to the numinous or sacred. In my work with birth-giving women39—and in the home birth of my son—I witnessed a primal rite of passage that can serve as a template for spiritual initiation. Like “the dark night of the soul” that precedes spiritual transformation, the birthing process includes: willingness to sacrifice in service to life; acceptance of suffering and physical pain; surrender to uncertainty in the face of doubt; release of the ego and everyday identity; confrontation with death or the fear of death; profound transpersonal experiences; and the potential for spiritual, psychic, and emotional transformation.

The tools I used to guide women through labor included critical elements of meditation: mindful breathing while walking, sitting, or lying down; moment-to-moment attention to physical sensations; and intense focus on the ever-changing present. Midwifery also connected me to the work of parenting and the way that women—and other-gendered caretakers—employed Buddhist paramis (pāramitās)40 like patience, morality, sacrifice, determination, and unconditional love41 in the struggle to make a better life for themselves and their children. Unfortunately, birth-giving, and the roles of householders and mothers, were rarely discussed by my Buddhist teachers.42 As I explored Buddhist scholarship, I discovered texts describing the womb and vagina as foul, disgusting, virtual hell-realms. How could the Buddha, who used maternal love as a metaphor for the tenderness with which we are to treat others,43 be reconciled with teachings that used the female body as a metaphor for the vileness of physical life?

The Complex Role of Female Embodiment in Buddhist Culture

The issue of female embodiment in Buddhism and its relationship to enlightenment is complex and contradictory.44 While many writings discuss the initial resistance of the Buddha to the ordination of women, according to Sponberg:

The earliest Buddhists clearly held that one’s sex, like one’s caste or class . . . presents no barrier to attaining the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering. Women can . . . pursue the path. Moreover, they can (and did) become arhats, Buddhist saints who had broken completely the suffering of the cycle of death and rebirth.45

Tibetan Vajrayāna traditions affirm the fully enlightened status of Tara, the female liberator who vows to return to the world in female form until all beings are liberated. While Tara is associated with stereotypical “feminine” values of compassion and healing, her wrathful form uses arrows, swords, or axes to destroy ignorance, enabling a swift path to enlightenment. Many contemporary U.S. feminists have been drawn to Tibetan teachings that offer positive images of female embodiment and the Divine Feminine.46

Barbara Reed suggests that as Avalokiteśvara, the Indian male bodhisattva made his way into China, he “became a beautiful white-robed Chinese woman. In addition to the sex change, the female symbolism of the bodhisattva was expanded. . . by the addition of yin symbols (for example, moon, water, vase) from the yin-yang polarity of Chinese thought.”47 Mahāyāna Buddhism’s Prajñāpāramitā, variously described as the “mother of all the Buddhas, genetrix of awakened states . . . [and] the womb of totality” has provided refuge and inspiration to many contemporary meditation-based convert Theravāda female teachers.48

Recognition and Transformation

I deeply respect my Euro-American convert teachers who travelled and studied in Asia, especially those who included themes of embodiment in their teachings.49 Their experiences with Buddhism were profoundly transformative, inspiring them to share the teachings with others. However, their adaptations of Buddhism, inadvertently and unconsciously contributed to the marginalization of people of color and other oppressed groups. Fortunately, some predominantly white convert institutions have acknowledged institutionalizing oppressive dominant culture norms and are working to change this.50

I’m lucky to teach at an institution created for marginalized communities.51 Founded to support marginalized groups and individuals, the East Bay Meditation Center offers multiple self-identified affinity-group sanghas; explicitly acknowledges the impact of social oppression; and runs almost entirely on donations. It is a place where I can not only recognize the complexity of the nature of Buddhism in the west but also where I may bring through my teaching essential embodied practices to students and offer a deeper more inclusive meaning to the idea of the sacred feminine. I’m also profoundly grateful for some of the Black Dharma teachers in other convert establishments who included elements of African Diasporic culture in their dharma teachings.52

In closing, I would like to cite the writings of Larry Yang, renowned Chinese American Theravāda Buddhist teacher:

… the evolution of the different Buddhist schools (Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna) was not strictly a matter of scriptural development and interpretation but also a matter of the Dharma being transformed by the cultures with which it came into contact. . . . [This] development is sometimes couched in the language of multiple ‘turnings of the Wheel of Dharma’. . . But we can also say that distinct Dharma lineages blossomed . . . as the Dharma encountered and was integrated into particular geographic, social, and cultural worlds.53

I am blessed to live in times when diverse Dharma lineages are still blossoming—and I hope to see more sharing between U.S. Buddhist lineages.54

Arisika Razak is a Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Women’s Spirituality, and past Director of the Women’s Spirituality MA and PhD program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is also Director of Diversity at CIIS. Arisika is an African-American healer, ritualist, spiritual dancer, and educator who practices an eclectic mix of Earth-based spiritual traditions. She has worked with indigent women as an inner-city nurse-midwife for more than 20 years, focusing on the lives and cultures of women of color, which has led to her research interest in feminist, womanist, mujerista, and postcolonial epistemologies and worldviews, and in women’s health.

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  1. Thich Nhat Hanh cited by John Malkin. “In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You”. Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time. (July 1, 2003). (accessed October 20, 2019).
  2. The term, “woman of color” is derived from the term “people of color”. It originated in the U.S. where notions of “whiteness” and “non-whiteness” (aka “color”) determined whether one could be killed without redress, legally retain land and property or access necessary resources. Currently this term is applied to people of African, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, Caribbean, Pacific Islander, or Western European (aka “Middle Eastern) heritage, including their biracial and multicultural descendants.
  3. “Other-mothering” is a concept used in a variety of African Diasporic communities to refer to the nurturing care offered to children by women who are not their biologic mothers. This care can be provided by actual relatives or ‘fictive’ kin.
  4. While this is a problematic term, referring to socially constructed notions of an “ideal” cis-gendered feminine construct who is often dissociated from the bodies and realities of living women, it is a term employed by some Buddhist teachers I am citing.
  5. A U.S,-centric term based on the importance of “whiteness” and “non-whiteness” (aka “color”) as a category that determined whether one could be killed without redress, access necessary resources or legally retain land and property. Currently applied to people of African, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, Caribbean, Pacific Islander, or Western European (aka “Middle Eastern) heritage, including their biracial and multicultural descendants.
  6. Many scholars list 3 major schools of Buddhism. 1) The Theravāda tradition (the Way of the Elders) focuses on the Pali canon—written transcriptions of the Buddha’s teachings produced approximately 600 years after the Buddha’s death. The Theravada tradition emphasizes meditation, monastic life and Buddhist teachings. Theravadin teachings are predominate in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. 2) Mahāyāna Buddhism arose about 500 years after the Buddha’s death. It emphasizes the role of compassion and wisdom, focusing on the enlightened deities (bodhisattvas) who commit to return to the world until all sentient beings are liberated. Mahāyāna Buddhism includes Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism; it’s found in China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. 3) Vajrayāna Buddhism, found primarily in Tibet and Bhutan, has links to Mahāyāna Buddhism but emphasizes secret teachings, tantric and artistic rituals, and an accelerated path to enlightenment for lay people as well as monastics.
  7. Terms used to describe the Buddhism brought to the U.S. by white Western converts include: “convert Buddhism,” “import Buddhism,” “Protestant Buddhism,” “elite Buddhism,” “meditation-based ‘convert’ Buddhism). This article uses the terms “meditation-based convert Buddhism” or “convert” Buddhism. (See: Ann Gleig, “The Shifting Landscape of Buddhism in America,” Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Times, February 3, 2018,
  8. The Buddhism that travelled to the U.S. via Asian immigrants and their descendants has been termed: “heritage Buddhism”, “ethnic Buddhism”, “baggage Buddhism”, or “export Buddhism”). In this article, I use the terms “heritage Buddhism” to describe Buddhist traditions established in U.S. Asian immigrant communities by Asian practitioners. (See: Ann Gleig, “The Shifting Landscape of Buddhism in America,” Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Times, February 3, 2018,
  9. Nattier suggests that “import Buddhism”, “export Buddhism” and “baggage Buddhism” more accurately reflect 1) travels to Asia by Euro-Americans who imported Buddhist teachings; 2) international travels by Asian missionaries exporting Buddhist teachings; 3) the retention of Buddhist teachings by immigrants leaving Asia for reasons other than religious proselytizing. See: Jan Nattier, “Buddhism Comes to Main Street,” Wilson Quarterly, Spring 1997, reprinted in,
  10. The Dalits, formerly titled “untouchables” make up between 1/6 and 1/4 and of India’s population (250-300 million persons). As members of Hindu’s lowest social class, they endure tremendous social oppression. See
  11. The Sakya Buddhist Society of India (1898) was founded to introduce Dalit people to Buddhism. Independence advocate, B.R. Ambedkar, a Dalit contemporary of Gandhi was India’s first Law and Justice Minister, authoring its first constitution. Believing that Hinduism was incompatible with justice for Dalit people, in 1956 he publicly converted to Buddhism with half a million of his followers. The Narayana Buddhism (Neo-Buddhism) he created emphasized social justice, and rejected many traditional Buddhist beliefs (karma, rebirth, meditation, the Four Noble truths, etc.).
  12. Thich Nhat Hanh, “In Engaged Buddhism, Peace Begins with You.”
  13. According to Ann Gleig, prior to these reforms, meditation was rarely practiced even in Theravāda monasteries. See: Ann Gleig, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019), 21.
  14. Ibid, 21-46.
  15. The Three Jewels of Buddhism include 1) the figure of the historic Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, c 563-483; 2) the Dharma or the teachings of the Buddha and their various lineages; and 3) the Sangha, the community of people who practice together and study the Dharma.
  16. Lewis Richmond, “Buddhism and Meditation: Why Most Buddhists in the World Don’t Meditate,” Huff Post, May 2, 2012, July 2, 2012,
  17. Jan Nattier, “Buddhism Comes to Main Street.”
  18. Larry Yang, Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017) 59.
  19. Many popular articles in mainstream publications initially identified convert-based meditation practice as the new American Dharma.
  20. Ann Gleig, American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity.
  21. Funie Hsu, “We’ve Been Here All Along,” Lion’s Roar: Buddhist Wisdom for Our Time, May 17, 2017,
  22. In the meditation-based convert establishment in which I practiced, movement via embodied practices of chi gung, or yoga as well as vipassana “walking meditation” accompanied most retreats. However, these offerings were generally presented as practices beneficial to individual practitioners.
  23. Mayumi Oda, Goddesses (Volcano, CA: Volcano Press, 1989), xi.
  24. It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully explore USA health disparities. Research implicating race, class and other oppressions as factors in health disparities has been ongoing since the late 1990s. See: Camara Jules Harrell, Tanisha I. Burford, Brandi N. Cage, et al., “Multiple Pathways Linking Racism to Health Outcomes,” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 8, no. 1 (2011): 143-157, S1742058X11000178; “Unnatural Causes… is inequality making us sick?” DVD California Newsreel, 2008,
  25. See: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, Fourth Edition, trans. Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikku Bodhi, (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2015), 145-155.
  26. In the aftermath of the killings of thousands of Cambodians, Mahā Ghosānanda defied threats of death to lead refugees in a chant affirming that only love could conquer hatred. See: Jack Kornfield, The Buddha is Still Teaching: Contemporary Buddhist Wisdom, (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2010), 237-238.
  27. Mahā Ghosānanda, “The Human Family,” cited in Anna Brown, “Peace is Possible: Remembering the Cambodian Gandhi,” Waging Nonviolence: People Powered News and Analysis, June 26, 2009,
  28. See: Clark Strand, “Born in the USA: Racial Diversity in Soka Gakkai International,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 2003,; Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin (ed.), Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2004);
    J. Sunara Sasser, “Why Are There So Many Black Buddhists,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, October 16, 2018,
  29. The Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra is “Myoho Renge Ko”. “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is… an expression of determination to embrace and manifest our Buddha nature.” See: “The Meaning of Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo”, Soka Gakkai International: Buddhism in Action for Peace,
  30. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) is credited with starting Sokka Gakkai in 1930. He was jailed for his resistance to WWII Japanese nationalism and militarism, as was his student, Josei Toda.
  31. See: Clark Strand, “Born in the USA: Racial Diversity in Soka Gakkai International, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 2003,
  32. J. Sunara Sasser, “Why Are There So Many Black Buddhists.”
  33. Ibid.
  34. Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhists participated in the Indigenous “Longest Walk” (1978), and in 1994-95 their Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life, travelled from Auschwitz through Bosnia, Iraq and Cambodia to Hiroshima.
  35. For a discussion of the complexities, contradictions, and difficulties rooted in race, class and trauma, that emerged between Pilgrimage participants, see Peter Sutherland, “Walking Middle Passage History in Reverse Interfaith Pilgrimage, Virtual Communitas and World-Recathexis,” Etnofoor 20, no. 1 (2007): 31-62.
  36. Jacob Sheynin, “IPOC’s Shellmound Peace Walks: Historical Essay,” Shaping San Francisco’s Digital Archives @ Found, 2015,
  37. Bill Moyers and Gail Pellett, “The Songs are Free: Bernice Johnson Reagon and African-American Music,” Gail Pellet Productions, Public Affairs Television, 1991, https://
  38. Virtually all of my clients identified as cis-gendered women.
  39. Currently, birth givers include a variety of genders. However, my midwifery service was exclusively with cis-gendered females.
  40. Theravāda Buddhism’s Ten Paramis/Ten Perfections include: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity.
  41. These qualities are present in other caretaking roles, e.g. caring for one’s parents or spouse during illness, dying, etc.
  42. Exceptions include Stephen Levine and Debra Chamberlin-Taylor who focused on couple relationships as gateways to spiritual development.
  43. In the Metta sutta, the Buddha says: “Even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” See: Kittisaro and Thanissara, Listening to the Heart: A Contemplative Journey to Engaged Buddhism (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2014), 225.
  44. See Alan Sponberg, “Attitudes Toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism,” in Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, ed. Jose Ignacio Cabezon (Albany: State University Press, 1992/1985), 3-36. Sponberg suggests that early Buddhist writings discuss women’s ability to become fully enlightened in a female body, while later writings reflect the institutionalization of monastic life which emphasized 1) the undesirability of birth and rebirth; and 2) strategies for resisting attraction to female bodies generated by celibate, (heterosexual) male monastics.
  45. Ibid, 8.
  46. Venerating female deities doesn’t always connote respect for human women; the Tibetan term for women can be translated as “inferior being” or “lesser birth”. Some Tibetans deny the possibility of ‘awakening’ in a woman’s body. See: Michaela Haas, Dakini Pow- er: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West (Boston: Snow Lion, 2013), 5-7.
  47. Barbara E. Reed, “The Gender Symbolism of Kuan-Yin Bodhisattva,” in Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, ed. Jose Ignacio Cabezon (Albany: State University Press, 1992/1985), 159.
  48. See Anna Douglas, in Ann Cushman, Julie Wester, Anna Douglas, Debra Chamberlin-Taylor, and Janice Gates, “Reflecting on the Sacred Feminine: An Interview Series,” Spirit Rock: An Insight Meditation Center, 2019,
  49. Examples include 1) Stephen Levine’s Opening the Heart of the Womb Meditation, which honored and praised the female body; 2) Jack Kornfield’s public declaration that racism is the core wound of American society, and his teaching stories highlighting contemporary people of color and their struggles against oppression; 3) Debra Chamberlin-Taylor’s commitment to chanting, movement and qigong—and to embodied immersions in nature.
  50. See: Spirit Rock Diversity Working Committee, “Spirit Rock Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan: Part I: Lessons,” “Part II: Values and Principles,” and “Part III: Goals,” (Developed by Spirit Rock’s Diversity Working Committee and unanimously approved by Spirit Rock’s Board of Directors on March 16, 2016).
  51. The East Bay Meditation Center website states: “Founded to provide a welcoming environment for people of color, the LGBTQI community, people with disabilities, and other underrepresented communities, the East Bay Meditation Center welcomes every- one seeking to end suffering and cultivate happiness. Our mission is to foster liberation, personal and interpersonal healing, social action, and inclusive community building. We offer mindfulness practices and teachings on wisdom and compassion from Buddhist and other spiritual traditions.”
  52. Deep bows to Ruth King (Theravāda Insight Meditation traditions) and Karla Jackson-Brewer, (Vajrayāna traditions) and Rev. Jamil Scott who included African/Diasporic songs and ancestral honorings in presentations I attended.
  53. Larry Yang, Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community, (Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2017), 61.
  54. The importance of culturally relevant, embodied, cross-lineage sharing was validated at a historic, international gathering of 70 Buddhist teachers of Black African Descent at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California. Group panels, dharma talks, embodied workshops and creative modalities reflected a diversity of Buddhist/African Diasporic cultural norms, rituals, aesthetics and activisms. Most participants found the gathering was a profoundly healing and transformative space. The two-day public portion of the event brought an additional 250 Black people to the site.