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We Remember: Six Remarkable Black Buddhists

In celebration of Black History Month, we discover inspiration within the lives and follow of six exceptional Black Buddhists.

Illustration by Edson Ikê.


By Pamela Ayo Yetunde

The sankofa is a legendary chook of the Akan individuals in Ghana. It’s depicted with its head turned backward, pointing to the previous, whereas the ft are turned ahead, pointing to the long run, and its physique is centered within the now. This symbolism echoes Thich Nhat Hanh’s educating that within the current second we contact the previous and the long run.

The sankofa will be considered as a logo of resistance to the censoring of Black historical past in public training. The present makes an attempt to whitewash curricula is anti-truth and due to this fact pro-ignorance. Why are some mother and father screaming in school board members, hounding educators from state to state, threatening librarians, and protesting the very existence of libraries underneath the anti-critical race principle rally cry? Why don’t they need college students to know that Black individuals had been enslaved and subjected to numerous types of cruelty between 1619 and 1865 within the U.S.? Why don’t they need college students to know that Black individuals had been relegated by legislation between 1877 and 1964 to dwell individually and unequally from white individuals? Why shouldn’t our future adults know the various methods apartheid, resistance to apartheid, and racist backlash to progress have been expressed in America?

Maybe this Black History Month we are able to ask ourselves, with our eyes trying again, ft dealing with ahead, and physique within the current second, “Why are we so attached to a sanitized past?” and let the solutions circulate with out judgment. This is a approach we are able to embody the sankofa spirit.

Celebrating Black History Month should additionally embrace rejoicing in individuals who defied unfavorable racialized stereotypes. Before he turned the forty-fourth and first Black President, Barack Obama mentioned we needed to have “the audacity to hope.” Audacious confidence is what we’d like proper now if we’re to recollect how Black individuals had been punished only for remembering the place they got here from—punished for remembering the individuals they had been separated from, for remembering their start names, worldviews, cultures, their sense of self, their quest for freedom, and want to like.

To embody the sankofa spirit—with our our bodies within the current second, trying again whereas shifting ahead—is the audacious confidence to dwell within the final dimension, the timelessness of actuality, so {that a} brighter future will be attainable. History, if taught and taught factually, can defend future generations from repeating that historical past.

We’ve invited six practitioners from totally different traditions to mirror on a Black Buddhist ancestor of their custom. All these ancestors are relatively latest. Some are “hidden figures” to most readers. By paying homage to those Black Buddhist ancestors, we transgress the wave of ignorance and erasure. We embody the sankofa spirit.

Dr. Marlene Jones

Dr. Marlene Jones

By Ruth King

Dr. Marlene Jones and I met standing in entrance of a mammoth Buddha determine in Beijing through the World Conference on Women in 1995. We had been two Black ladies with dreadlocks and flowing tears. In that second, Marlene managed to ask, “Do you meditate?”

“Kinda,” I mentioned.

Within a short while, we found we each lived in California’s Bay Area. She invited me to Spirit Rock, and my formal meditation follow started after listening to her trainer, Jack Kornfield, communicate. I knew I used to be house.

For years, Marlene and I mentioned racial ignorance in non secular communities and our aspirations of therapeutic the injuries dividing these communities. We shared how tough it was to maintain our hearts open and the way a lot the dharma helped.

I keep in mind the primary time Marlene invited me over for tea. It was a lesson in presence. On that summer time afternoon, her house in Sausalito was breezy and smelled of cinnamon. She’d soaked sliced pink apples in lemon water, serving them on a plate accented with yellow rose petals from her backyard. Sipping tea and consuming apples, we talked at size about our youngsters and moms. We debated whether or not our service aligned with our hearts.

Dr. Jones was a trailblazer! She invited me to affix Spirit Rock’s range council, which she created. At her request, I additionally attended the middle’s first African American Meditation Retreat. And at her instigation, I used to be a part of a small collective of girls of colour, which she organized together with Alice Walker; for ten years we met with Jack Kornfield to dwell within the dharma collectively.

Marlene was instrumental in creating the primary daylong and residential retreats for individuals of colour and the primary range trainings at Spirit Rock. She influenced programing, staffing, and constructions that supported inclusivity and fairness.

Marlene handed away in 2013, surrounded by household, mates, and her beloved trainer Jack Kornfield. In these final moments of her life, when Marlene was gently requested to supply an indication of presence, tears started to roll down her cheeks. Hearing of this, I used to be reminded of the primary time we cried collectively within the presence of the Buddha in China. I prayed that she was seeing the Buddha and as soon as once more providing her tears.

To most, she is remembered as a diligent practitioner and trainer of the dharma, a pioneer and visionary, a grandmother, educator, and devotee to justice. To me, she was all that. She was additionally a sister and a noble non secular buddy. Through her instance, she ushered me into the dharma, showering me with care and understanding. May everyone knows intimately the ability of non secular friendship.

Alvin Skyes. Photo by way of by way of Kansas City Star.

Alvin Sykes

By Dr. Kamilah Majied

How can Buddhism assist somebody who has endured deep struggling dwell in a approach that brings justice to the lives of numerous individuals? The lifetime of outstanding Buddhist activist Alvin Sykes presents a convincing reply to that query.

He was born in 1956 amidst brutally enforced racial segregation in Kansas City, Missouri. The difficulties in his youth included his fourteen-year-old start mom conceiving him in rape, and his rising up in a bunch house, having epilepsy, and experiencing sexual assault himself.

At age eighteen, Sykes started practising Nichiren Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) after he was launched to the follow by his good buddy, famend jazz musician Herbie Hancock.

In the SGI, Sykes discovered the follow of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo to floor one’s internal knowledge, braveness, and compassion with a view to remodel the painful circumstances of 1’s life into one thing that creates worth for oneself and others. This idea is called “human revolution.”

Sykes was decided to handle the violent racism affecting Black individuals and the shortage of penalties for the offenders. In 1980, Sykes’s pricey buddy and famous saxophonist Steve Harvey was murdered and the assassin was promptly acquitted by an all-white jury. Sykes chanted about this and, with Hancock’s encouragement, determined to do one thing about it. He had no collegiate or formal training, however he didn’t let this cease him. Sykes pored over legislation books within the Kansas City library till he discovered a statute that might be used to reopen the case. Because of his relentless efforts, Harvey’s assassin was sentenced to federal jail and continues to be serving one of many longest sentences ever given for a civil rights violation.

This was just the start. Sykes went on to conduct extra investigations into murders of African Americans that occurred all through the sixties. Because of his a long time of dogged labor, self-guided scholarship, and advocacy, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act was enacted into federal legislation in 2008.

Sykes continued to advocate for victims even after being partially paralyzed from an harm in 2019. In a wheelchair, he mentioned, “I am going to roll my way to justice.” Unable to grip a pen he used his voice and efficiently advocated for laws abolishing statutes of limitation on childhood sexual abuse.

Alvin Sykes epitomized what it means to take enlightened motion within the service of others till the final days of his life. As we provide reward and blessings to his everlasting life power, allow us to permit his instance to information us as we domesticate compassion, knowledge, and braveness to positively impression all beings and the world we share.

Roshi Merle Kodo Boyd. Photo courtesy of Zen Center of Los Angeles.

Roshi Merle Kodo Boyd

By Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao

Roshi Merle Kodo Boyd and I first met a few years in the past once we had been each in Yonkers for a Zen program. Not lengthy after that first assembly, Kodo requested me to be her Zen trainer. Having simply acquired dharma transmission, I laughed it off and mentioned, “I don’t know anything about teaching.”

“But you know how to be a student,” she replied. “That is more important to me.”

Due to her persistence, I turned a Zen trainer. When Kodo started coaching, she was already a mature individual with appreciable non secular intuition. According to her husband, Kodo got here to Zen with “a clarity of thought and luminosity of perspective” honed from childhood discussions together with her sociologist father and a deep willpower to be “the best human being she could be.”

After years of Zen and koan coaching, I gave her dharma transmission, and he or she herself turned a Zen trainer. Kodo’s mild, unassuming method belied a fiercely impartial spirit and unshakeable resolve. I as soon as requested her, “What is most important to you?” Without hesitation she replied, “Liberation.”

Whatever life served up—a persistent sickness, intense internal struggles, a legacy of slavery—Kodo absorbed it into her vow to be free. Facing obstacles, she usually quoted Zen Master Xuedou: “The dragon’s jewels are found in every wave.”

In 2011, Kodo took the abbot’s seat on the Zen Center of Los Angeles. The abbot’s seat is a coaching floor in endurance, complexity, and publicity. For these of us ladies who don’t readily declare the highlight, it’s particularly daunting. Kodo’s knowledge, humor, and great-hearted kindness was a balm for the sangha, they usually responded in type. “I felt so loved,” she mentioned. The sangha as a power of affection is certainly one of her legacies.

Although we’re of the identical White Plum lineage tree, Kodo and I had totally different flavors. This turned particularly evident sooner or later whereas we had been discussing which folktales finest exemplified ourselves.

“I keep coming back to Goldilocks,” I mentioned. “Particularly, ‘this one’s just right.’”

“Well, for me,” Kodo mentioned, “I keep coming back to Baba Yaga, the wild woman who lived in a forest hut standing on chicken legs!”

That indomitable spirit is how I keep in mind Roshi Kodo. It’s what made her a trailblazing, wild-woman Zen ancestor.

Rev. Dr. Leon E. Wright

Rev. Dr. Leon E. Wright

By Aishah Shahidah Simmons

One of the “hidden figures” in Buddhist historical past is the Black scholar, theologian, writer, and cultural attaché Rev. Dr. Leon E. Wright, PhD. In the Nineteen Fifties, he studied in Myanmar with U Ba Khin, a number one twentieth-century authority on vipassana meditation. S. N. Goenka, who studied alongside Wright, later established meditation facilities across the globe.

I practiced inside the Goenka custom for seventeen years. Yet, in all that point, I didn’t hear about Dr. Wright. How was an African American practitioner like myself by no means launched to Wright’s legacy inside this custom? My puzzlement led me to analyze.

Born in 1902, Wright was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Boston University the place he additionally acquired a grasp’s diploma within the historical past and philosophy of faith. Subsequently, Wright acquired a Sacred Theology diploma in 1943 from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in 1945 within the History and Philosophy of Religion at Harvard University.

Then he joined the Howard University college in 1945 the place he was the affiliate editor of the college’s Journal of Religious Thought. For his sensible scholarship, he acquired a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952 and served as a cultural attaché on the U.S. Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar.

During his tenure as an attaché, Wright met U Ba Khin and studied with him extensively. The vipassana grasp as soon as remarked that Wright may attain a state of deep reflection achieved by just one in ten thousand monks. Such was Wright’s aptitude and devotion that, in 1963, he turned one of many first Westerners ever to be approved by Khin. This authorization is a rare historic instance of a detailed connection between a Burmese Buddhist meditation trainer and his African American pupil. Khin did what it’s taken many white-dominant sanghas a long time to do: authorize a Black trainer.

Authorization to show lit a fireplace inside Wright. Within three years he’d given dharma talks and taught meditation to many hundreds of individuals. Yet Wright by no means recognized as Buddhist, which might be why his legacy in Buddhism stays obscure. He was a congregationalist minister who taught Buddhist meditation. As a Sufi Muslim-raised Buddhist practitioner, I resonate with how Wright’s Christian and Buddhist practices labored collectively.

Taking the cultural restrictions into consideration, I discover it awe-inspiring that Wright, a Black congregationalist minister, taught Buddhist meditation through the reign of Jim Crow apartheid legal guidelines within the U.S. As a Black Buddhist, I’m dedicated to inserting Dr. Leon Wright’s title within the continuum of Westerners who studied Buddhist meditation in Asian nations and taught what they discovered to their communities again house.

I first discovered about Dr. Wright’s life from my dharma buddy Joah McGee shortly after shifting to Washington, D.C., the town the place Dr. Wright lived and taught for many of his life. I consider my newly chosen ancestor waited on me, a non secular descendent, to reach in order that I may meet him.

I communicate your title, Rev. Dr. Leon Wright.

Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma. Photo courtesy of Tessa Dansie.

Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma

By Mushim Ikeda

Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma was the primary and presumably solely African American to be monastically ordained in Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana Buddhist lineages. He thus promoted what he known as “the Triyana,” a blended Buddhism that was each fluid and deep, and he signed his letters, “Blessings of the Triple Gem.”

Born within the U.S. South through the Jim Crow years, Bhante Suhita’s Catholic monastic vocation was ignited by the racial violence he encountered. At round age seven, he and a buddy had been enjoying in a wooded space acquainted to them after they came across a Black man hung from a tree, horribly disfigured.

Reading Thomas Merton as an early teen, he felt a powerful calling to affix the Trappists. He turned one of many final of the “child monks” to enter the Catholic Trappist order and was a Trappist for ten years. After Vatican II, he left the cloister and traveled all through Asia the place he encountered the buddhadharma.

Although Bhante Suhita held a plethora of monastic ranks and achievements by the point of his demise in 2013, together with being the equal of a bishop within the Vietnamese Buddhist Church within the United States, he had simply as many mates, together with a number of households whose youngsters he befriended and mentored. As a non secular buddy, Bhante taught by way of instance. During some intervals he’d name me two or 3 times per week for informal chats, and at different occasions he’d be gone for months on pilgrimages to Buddhist and Catholic shrines and temples around the globe.

Bhante was extraordinarily fluid and demonstrated anatta, nonself, in his whole approach of being; as a pure consequence of his follow, he manifested in dazzlingly alternative ways. He may appear like a frail, frightened elder clutching his shoulder bag whereas ready for a bus, then a second later he may change into a roaring dharma lion. He might be having fun with his favourite meals—fried hen and ice cream—then a second later he may reply a query in a quiet approach that demonstrated his huge information of Buddhism.

Near the tip of his life Bhante mentioned to me, “I’m transgender.” He mentioned it two or 3 times in the identical night to ensure I heard. I knew that he had been raised by his grandmother, the matriarch of the household, who was known as Big Mama by all and who protected and inspired him. I at all times suspected that he channeled Big Mama by way of his mannerisms and the best way during which he spoke.

Bhante delighted in being fluid in how he confirmed up on the planet, but was a really devoted, dependable buddy. In different phrases, he was a one-of-a-kind individual. He used to say, “What you see is what you get.” Then we might see a lot and get a lot.

Photo by Bennie Nelson West.

Leonard West

By Sister Peace

Born in 1935 in Oklahoma, Leonard West subscribed to many, seemingly disparate philosophies in his life. He was a jazz-loving beatnik within the fifties and a passionate “servant to the people” within the Black Panther Party within the sixties. Leonard additionally lived for seven years in Nara, Japan, the place he was launched to Buddhism, and proudly served within the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea and Vietnam.

Like so many who’ve skilled warfare, Leonard suffered an habit to medicine. Thanks to his meditation follow and his spouse, Bennie, he was in a position to remodel his habit and helped numerous others to do the identical. He turned an activist within the restoration neighborhood, sponsoring scores of males in addition to working as a counselor for fellow veterans.

Leonard created a various physique of labor—pictures, work, drawings, sculptures, and assemblages. He exhibited in galleries and reveals all through the Southeast and taught on the Memphis College of Art and the Firehouse Community Arts Academy of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, the place he was a constitution member.

Bennie identified to me, “Everything in his life impacted him and came through his art. The Black Panther party helped open his eyes and his heart to other truths. If you look closely at his art, you’ll see symbolism of the struggles of Black people and how we’ve overcome or succumbed in one way or another to issues of racism in this country.”

Leonard celebrated Buddhism in his artwork as properly, assembling varied photos of the enzo, amongst others. Leonard fashioned the Magnolia Sangha in Memphis and in 2005 was one of many first African American practitioners to be ordained as a member of the Order of Interbeing within the custom of Thich Nhat Hanh.

I requested Dr. Leslie Gordon, a fellow Memphian, his ideas about Leonard, his dharma mentor. “Buddhism made a big difference in his life,” says Gordon. “It was one of the foundational supports he had in the recognition and transformation of his addiction and other suffering. It changed his perspective, and it changed his life.”

Leonard handed in 2011 after an extended battle with colon most cancers. Relaxing at house as his time approached, he was listening to Miles Davis’s “Round Midnight” when he slipped by way of the veil. And it was, certainly, round midnight.


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