In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhism and Black Embodiment

  • Introduction
  • Personal Reflections
  • Black Buddhist Interpretations of Dharma
  • Buddhism, Black Embodiment, and Social Justice
  • Buddhism, Blackness, and Gender
  • Poetry and Poetic Prose
  • Anthologies Including Black Buddhist Writings
  • Critiques of Orientalist Discourses in Buddhist Studies
  • Black Embodiment in Buddhist Sanghas: Case Studies
  • Buddhism and Black Embodiment in Popular Publications

Buddhism Buddhism and Black Embodiment
Rima Vesely-Flad
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0276


Since 2000, Buddhist teachers of African descent have published personal testimonies and interpretations of dharma, often referencing the hegemonic racial and cultural dominance of white Buddhist communities. These texts have sought to be culture-specific, similarly to the cultural forms Buddhism adopted as the teachings spread through Southeast and East Asia, Tibet, Europe, and North America. While many interpretations of dharma in the United States in particular have downplayed the social sphere and emphasized individual enlightenment, Black Buddhists point out the highly racialized environment within which North Americans operate, and the specific harms enacted within majority-white Buddhist communities. Racialized (and gendered) bodies must be acknowledged and addressed in the quest for enlightenment, write Black Buddhists, in a wide range of academic and personal texts. A number of scholars and dharma teachers elaborate this argument by pointing out the emphasis on liberation in Buddhism and social justice movements as well as the unacknowledged Orientalist gaze that pervades Buddhist scholarship and communities in the United States. Finally, the movement toward including and celebrating cultural forms of Buddhism that uplifts Black cultural practices is gaining attention in popular publishing spheres. The texts included in this bibliography are divided between personal reflections, interpretations of dharma, texts on social justice, scholarly writings on gender, anthologies, Orientalist discourse that deconstructs whiteness in Buddhism, case studies of Black Buddhist communities, and popular commentaries by Black Buddhist writers.

Personal Reflections

Many of the narratives that have emerged since 2000 illuminate the personal stories of Black writers who have embraced Buddhism. Rev. angel Kyodo williams’s first book, Being Black (2000) recognizes that specific suffering experienced by Black people renders the practice of Buddhism as a natural path to alleviate suffering. Jan Willis’s memoir Dreaming Me (2001) and Faith Adiele’s reflections in Meeting Faith (2005) similarly elaborate how Buddhism meditation and Asian teachers offer particular relevance for healing the inner wounds of Black people. Since 2015, a number of Black Buddhist reflections have brought the tradition of Buddhism into mainstream conversation within Black communities: See, for example, Insight teachers Spring Washam’s A Fierce Heart (2017) and Ralph Steele’s Tending the Fire (2014). In addition to uplifting how these Black Buddhist writers have navigated race and racism, many of these narratives intersect gender and sexuality in their reflections.

  • Adiele, Faith. Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.

    College student Faith Adiele travels to Thailand and temporarily ordains as a nun in order to better understand her research project. In so doing, she investigates how Buddhist practice addresses her deepest anxieties and questions.

  • Masters, Jarvis Jay. Finding Freedom: How Death Row Broke and Opened My Heart. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2020.

    Writing from death row in a maximum-security prison, Jarvis Jay Masters reflects on the meaning and practice of Buddhism as a Black man in an environment rife with constant racism, aggression, manipulation, and violence. First published 1997.

  • Steele, Ralph. Tending the Fire: Through War and the Path of Meditation. Maui, Hawai’i: Sacred Life Publishers, 2014.

    Raised off the coast of South Carolina in a Gullah community, Steele chronicles his deployment to Vietnam, his experience of addiction and PTSD, and his ordination as a monk in Southeast Asia.

  • Washam, Spring. A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage, and Wisdom in Any Moment. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017.

    The personal essays included in this book detail stories of early trauma, and how Buddhist meditation and communal support facilitate the practice of stillness and collective freedom.

  • williams, angel Kyodo. Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace. New York: Viking Compass, 2000.

    Written from a personal voice, this reflection posits that Zen teachings can offer Black people direction for addressing spiritual and daily life questions, and are thus relevant for the lives of Black people.

  • Willis, Jan. Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey. New York: Riverhead Books, 2001.

    This memoir chronicles the author’s travels in India during her college years, when she encountered Tibetan monks. Jan Willis writes of how she eventually embraced Lama Yeshe as her teacher, feeling that he understood the parallels between being exiled from Tibet and the oppression experienced by Black Americans. In witnessing the resilience of Tibetans, Willis was inspired to heal an internal suffering that was wrought by the conditions of racism in the United States.

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