BAR Book Forum: Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles’s “Black and Buddhist”
Activists and community organizers have never known the precariousness of the threats they face today.
“There are Black Buddhists who are also in solidarity for Black liberation.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured authors are Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles. Dr. Yetunde is a Community Dharma Leader in the Insight Meditation tradition. She teaches pastoral care and counseling and has taught at University of the West, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and Upaya Institute and Zen Center. Dr. Giles is a licensed clinical psychologist and the Francis Greenwood Peabody Senior Lecturer on Pastoral Care and Counseling at the Harvard Divinity School. Their book is Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Dr. Yetunde and Dr. Giles: Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom begins with a section honoring the life of George Floyd, the way he was tortured and murdered by police officers in broad daylight in front of many witnesses while being videotaped, the national (and international) reckoning bringing renewed legitimacy to #BlackLivesMatter, and the unusual political situation and players in largely white Minnesota that brought unusually swift charges against the police officers.
Gaylon Ferguson’s foreword is a love letter and praise song to Black culture throughout the many political and social climates we have survived. Reading his foreword helps Black readers remember we have had our own culturally-specific ways of expressing our suffering and our ways of comforting one another.
Each author shares their narrative of growing up Black in the U.S. Some grew up in Protestant churches, one in a Catholic church, one in The Nation of Islam, and one was raised atheist. Two authors are of Black and white/European heritage and write about navigating different racial and cultural worlds. One author is an Ethiopian-Eritrean immigrant. Through these multifaceted experiences and perspectives, Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom authors help readers understand how to be resilient in the political and social climate we are in.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Activists and community organizers have had at least five consecutive years of Trumpian attacks on their values, ways of life, intellect, neighborhoods, economies, immigration statuses, gender expressions, “racial” identities, professions, resistance movements, and so on. In fact, the president of the U.S. openly supports militia groups organized against #BlackLivesMatter activists. He has openly engaged in “moral equivalency” arguments, stating that there are “good people” who support white supremacists, just as there are “good people” who support racial equality. The consequences of these multiple attacks have left many activists and community organizers tired, wounded, despairing, impoverished, traumatized, disenfranchised, incarcerated, dead, and grieving. By reading Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom, we hope activists and community organizers will be affirmed in their decisions to be activists and community organizers. Activists and community organizers, especially in a weaponized pandemic, have never known the precariousness of the multiple existential threats they face today – from political to biological-chemical. By reading Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom, activists and community organizers will know there are Black Buddhists who are also in solidarity for Black liberation, come to know and remember us as their kinfolk, and learn ways of embodied self-care that promote physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual resilience for the long haul of activism and community organizing.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
We hope readers will unlearn unproductive ways of engaging in transformative change. For example, activists and community organizers have high rates of burnout, feelings of futility, trauma, hopelessness, and sometimes suicidal ideation. We hope readers will un-learn the psychological defense of the “Strong Black Woman” or the “Strong Black Man” or the “Strong Black Person” who appears impervious to pain. We acknowledge the truth that living Black in the U.S. is a virtually inescapable traumatic experience. Through practices in high self-regard, knowing we belong no matter what others say, mindfulness, meditation, and ancient teachings in cognition and behavior called the Noble Eightfold Path, readers will learn how to trust what their bodies are telling them, rest, collaborate, and possibly find equanimity in the struggle. If there are ideologies we hope to challenge, those ideologies include the notion of a Black monolith, separateness, egocentric leadership, Buddhists aren’t activists, Buddhists do not have a Black consciousness, Buddhists are atheists, and Buddhists do not love Jesus.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Buddhism, among many factors, is about cultivating the mind. It can be said that The Buddha was an intellectual in the sense that he did not believe the Brahmin caste were the only ones embodied with God consciousness just by virtue of their birth. In other words, we all had it, or none of us had it. How can we know? Through using our minds (mindfulness) to examine ourselves thoroughly, known as The Four Foundations of Mindfulness. It is also said in some Buddhisms (there are many Buddhist sects, traditions, lineages, and schools) that nothing is to be believed on faith only – the teachings must be put to the test. Consequently, many Buddhist practitioners are interested in knowledge, especially self-knowledge.
The co-editors of Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom are African-American professors and Buddhist practitioners. We have a deep appreciation for Black intellectual heroes who helped Black people know themselves and explicate their positions from religious perspectives. Some of those heroes include: James Baldwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Gaylon Ferguson, bell hooks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Audre Lorde, Lama Rod Owens, Toni Morrison, Jasmine Syedullah, Alice Walker, Cornel West, rev. angel Kyodo williams, Jan Willis, and Malcolm X, to name a few.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
We need to imagine new worlds. We continue working on creating and maintaining new worlds, and thus we have had to contend with violent backlashes. It has been said that the U.S. Attorney General has encouraged state prosecutors to consider bringing sedition and insurrection charges against those who are charged with violently protesting police brutality. What is the new world Buddhism can inspire? Buddhism espouses non-separation and the recognition that we all belong to each other, no matter what we or others think. Buddhism was and is influenced by the Hindu thought that inspired Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., two leaders who imagined and successfully worked for new worlds. Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom is the first anthology of Black Buddhist leaders, demonstrating that Black people have the freedom to believe and live as we choose. Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom helps us imagine new worlds with Black leaders grounded in contemplation, “wokeness” deeply rooted in ancient Vedic traditions, religious multiplicity, and the idea that understanding suffering can be utilized for a new Black consciousness of cosmic interdependence, radical truth, peace, clarity, and strength. In many Buddhist traditions, at the end of communal practice time, a leader will “Dedicate the Merit.” Dedicating the merit means forming our beneficial intentions solely for the purposes of serving others. Through Buddhism, we dedicate ourselves to the making of new worlds.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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