In this excerpt from her new book co-edited with Cheryl A. Giles, Black and Buddhist, Pamela Ayo Yetunde gives POC advice on entering a Dharma community and shares the importance of using Right Intention when she does does.
Black voluntary segregation in the 21st century United States is a mystery to many people. I had my own opposition to POC sanghas for many years until several racial incidents convinced me.
I was born into a Christian family. When I was growing up, no one told me that I had a choice between religious and spiritual paths. Although my positive encounters with Buddhism were arguing, they also indicated something more. African Americans do not come to the Sangha through the power of the intergenerational transmission of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and vigilance, which Christianity used to keep black people in submission (although it has been rejected in liberative theologies of resistance to oppressors). . We come to the Sangha through freedom of choice. For those who freely choose Buddhist sanghas, it is not always clear what exactly is chosen, but the appeal of calming the mind (through meditation, chanting, or other devotional practices) is a draw.
POC sanghas can be places that help us return to who we really are and always have been.
The number of African Americans entering sanghas appears to be increasing. Given the increasing visibility and seriousness of POC Dharma teachers and guides, there are more POC sanghas and affinity groups that blacks can join without ever having attended a predominantly white sangha. POC sanghas can be havens of white inhospitality. POC sanghas can promote near-instant vulnerability when sharing our stories with one another, but being in predominantly white sanghas can also teach us something.
Knowing your intention in choosing a Dharma community is crucial in evaluating your experience with that Sangha. How can correct intention – the path factor in the Noble Eightfold Path, which says that suffering partially ends when healthy desire is cultivated in the mind before action – be induced to choose a sangha? POC Sangha teachers and leaders do it well when they take our cultural-existential situation into account, when they shape topics such as security and insecurity and give lectures, build solidarity, cultivate resilience and joy and the experience of being different with practices of kindness and balance mercy. Leaders and teachers can do this in a way that does not interfere with the Dharma, but treats the Dharma culturally and contextually. In this way, when POC listeners hear the Dharma, their experience is enriched and made practical through cultural interpretation and application
POC sanghas are havens for many things, receptacles for a multitude of experiences, paths to true communion, and places of liberation from isolation and alienation. Healthy POC sanghas promote freedom and resilience. They can be melting pots to transform old habits, but beyond that, POC sanghas can be places that help us to return to what we really are and always have been – the non-self that is undivided, conscious, free, confident , compassionate, fearless, empathetic, and responsive.
Consider advice to POC on entering a Sangha
For POC who are brand new to Buddhist sanghas and who are entering these sanghas to free themselves from the sufferings of racism, I recommend trying to find a POC sangha or affinity group first. I am suggesting this not because I believe that all mostly white or all-white sanghas support racism, but because a large concentration of white (a collective representation that can be interpreted as hostile) is likely to exacerbate the suffering a POC inflicts trying to transform. If there is no POC sangha in your area, you can start one. If there is a POC sangha you may be welcome there, but it would be helpful to include it in if you know there is a risk of disagreement or discord. In other words, go in without the delusion that POC sanghas offer complete safety. Understand that all churches need to find out what they will be and how they will function. The stereotypical fantasy that Buddhism leads to the resolution of conflicts and that “good” meditating Buddhists are emotionally undisturbed will not be helpful in establishing and maintaining POC sanghas.
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When you enter a POC sangha tell them why you are there and ask them if they will assist you in your practice. If the answer is no, then you know you are not welcome. If the answer is “we’ll try,” give them an opportunity to meet you where you are. This requires vulnerability, transparency, receptivity and humility. Why humility? You are entering a belief system and community that you are not familiar with. It will take time before you come to your own conclusions.
How can you be confident that the POC Sangha is actually about liberation? If the POC sangha is a community where practitioners’ main motivation is to avoid white people, I don’t think their mission is profoundly liberating. In such sanghas we may enjoy each other’s company, we may sit still for a while, we may feel temporarily safe, but we do not talk about our responsibility to change our own states of consciousness so that we all act in the world without the Delusion that all whites are evil. Think Malcolm X, or el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, as he was called after his pilgrimage to Mecca. His devotional experiences with white Muslims changed his state of consciousness. The Zen Buddhist ways of Thich Nhat Hanh and other teachers in the Zen tradition are not the ways of separation, on the contrary. These schools of the Buddha-way are the way of interbeing, interconnection and interdependence and therefore agree in a transcendental sense with the African Ntu-cosmology (interdependence) and spirituality. A POC sangha that does not allow interdependent practices and teachings inadvertently supports what I call “internalized apartheid,” the often unconscious way in which we voluntarily separate from whites because we are weakened in their presence feel threatened or inferior. Liberative Buddhism supports strength, trust and equality, or in other words what I call “remarkable relational resilience” in the face of negative white gaze, real and perceived. How is that done?
In my dissertation research, I used a combination of survey and interview to determine the psychospiritual experience of African American lesbians in the insight tradition. One of the areas I explored has been the tension between the need for self-preservation in the face of racial, sexist, and homophobic oppression and a Buddhist practice and teaching that there is no self to preserve. What I have learned is that these women do not interpret “no self” in the sense that some Insight Dharma teachers and writers of European descent have done, but rather in the sense of African spirituality ntu: “no self” means “ no independent self ”. Their belief in no independent self (in other words, interdependence) – along with a meditation practice of kindness, meditation retreats, mindfulness, and participation in sangha life – contributed to remarkable relational resilience in a world that could easily lead these women to To live introverted and isolated, egocentric, alienated and internalized apartheid existences. Contrary to popular belief that Buddhism is all about restraint, it liberates and heals depending on how Buddhism is understood and practiced. And, surprisingly and paradoxically, that healing through suppressive separation can begin in a voluntarily segregated POC community.
From Black and Buddhism: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom, edited by Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles © 2020 by Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles. Reprinted in consultation with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
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