Ralph Steele, Gretchen Rohr, Lama Rod Owens, Gina Sharpe, Ruth King, Jozen Tamori Gibson, Chimyo Atkinson, Myokei Caine-Barrett.
At the first-ever gathering of Buddhist teachers of black African descent, held at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, two panels of leading Buddhist teachers took questions about what it means to be a black Buddhist in America today. From the March 2019 issue of Lion’s Roar.
Photos by Garlia Cornelius.
Question: Why was it important for you as black Buddhists to come together?
Ruth King: Until we come together as a group of black folks, we don’t actually realize what we’ve been missing. It’s like there’s a certain hunger you can’t touch until you’re in the soup together. It’s a beautiful surrender, a beautiful uplifting, and a beautiful reminder that the dharma is deeper than a lot of the Buddhist institutions we find ourselves in.
There’s tremendous liberation in our connectedness, in remembering who we are and the lineages that we’ve come from that run parallel to the dharma. Coming together at this gathering, there’s been a tremendous sense of spiritual wealth. It’s a deep stream that has been nourishing and refreshing, and it has fortified us to do what must be done in our communities.
Chimyo Atkinson: We need to understand that dharma centers suffer from the same thread of racism that all the organizations in our society suffer from. This is not necessarily the problem of the black practitioner.
I’ve been very fortunate to have found a welcoming dharma family where I practice, and I’m very grateful for that. But I also recognize that the insidious stream of this disease plagues us even there. I’m the only black person in that room and I’m a teacher. What does that mean?
Coming here to sit with other teachers who have some of the same experiences and background that I do is very precious and nurturing for me. It informs me. It lets me see my blind spots and how I can help others. And by others, I mean all other sentient beings, whatever color their bodies are.
Lama Rod Owens: Representation is very important. I’m tired of this mythology that black people don’t practice Buddhism. (This is for my family if you’re watching.) Gathering together and having this documented is proof for all the Buddhist teachers who say there aren’t any black people in their tradition who practice. For me personally, I came up in my tradition with no idea that there were black people in Vajrayana Buddhism. The first black teacher I met was me.
Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin: Many of us find ourselves in spaces where we’re not allowed to talk about the suffering of racism. It is a disease that infects all of us, especially in America, and if we don’t talk about it, we’ll never get rid of it. Coming together allows us to talk about it, to share our wounds, to heal each other, and to acknowledge the pain and the loss we all suffer when we are separated.