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

Introduction

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.

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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.

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

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    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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Black Buddhist Interpretations of Dharma

Black Buddhist teachers interpret the teachings of the Buddha in culturally specific ways, aware that many teachings within Buddhism (such as the Four Noble Truths and non-self) may be difficult to understand in a highly racialized context. These texts elaborate the sensitivity required to effectively communicate potentially obscure teachings in a highly racialized context. In Pali, this method is referred to as upaya (skillful means). Gaylon Ferguson, in Natural Wakefulness (2010) and Natural Bravery (2016), illuminates Tibetan Buddhist teachings for contemporary struggles. Other writers draw upon the Theravada tradition: Kate Johnson’s book Radical Friendship (2021) relies on the Mitta Sutta, a teaching within the Pali canon. Sebene Selassie similarly engages Pali Buddhist texts to teach to a diverse audience in You Belong (2020). The Tibetan and Pure Land traditions are also represented: Sheryl Petty in Ocha Dharma (2016) writes on the synthesis between Tibetan Buddhism and Lucumi, an African wisdom tradition, and Alex Kakyuo in Perfectly Ordinary (2020) brings forth Pure Land Buddhist teachings for householders.

  • Ferguson, Gaylon. Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.

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    Influenced by the Shambhala tradition, this book states that all human beings have the capacity to be more attentive to their habitual patterns, and to change harmful habits in order to live with greater awareness and love.

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  • Ferguson, Gaylon. Natural Bravery: Fear and Fearlessness as a Direct Path of Awakening. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2016.

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    Fear is a normal, natural reactive state to unknown and difficult experiences. The path to cultivating fearlessness requires daily practices of seeing one’s habitual responses and refraining from acting out of them.

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  • Johnson, Kate. Radical Friendship: Seven Ways to Love Yourself and Find Your People in an Unjust World. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2021.

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    Employing the structure of a Theravada teaching, the Mitta Sutta, this book explores the meaning of friendship and provides practical rituals to cultivate friendship with oneself and other persons.

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  • Kakuyo, Alex. Perfectly Ordinary: Buddhist Teachings for Everyday Life. Self-published, 2020.

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    This text centers daily life for householders as it offers Buddhist teachings and practices for the path of liberation.

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  • Lingo, Kaira Jewel. We Were Made for These Times: Ten Lessons on Moving through Change, Loss, and Disruption. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2021.

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    Drawing on Buddhist teachings on the nature of impermanence and constant change, Kaira Jewel Lingo conveys wisdom and practices for navigating stress and cultivating stability.

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  • Manuel, Zenju Earthlyn. Tell Me Something About Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2011.

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    This short book, from Soto Zen priest Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, contains reflections on the religious tradition of Buddhism, as well as creative, poetic offerings, for people who have been raised in other traditions.

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  • Mason-John, Valerie, and Paramabandhu Groves. Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction. Cambridge, UK: Wind Horse Publications, 2014.

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    This book states that addiction is a state of mind experienced by all human beings. Through Buddhist meditative practices, many of which are included in this book, all beings have the capacity to overcome addition.

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  • Mason-John, Valerie. Detox Your Heart: Meditations for Healing Emotional Trauma. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Books, 2017.

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    This series of personal reflections employs Buddhist meditations to encourage readers to overcome addictive, self-destructive habitual narratives and actions.

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  • Owens, Lama Rod. Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation through Anger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2020.

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    This series of teachings, offered through Lama Rod Owens’s personal experiences as a Black, queer dharma teacher in the Kagyu Tibetan tradition, encourages readers to come close to feelings of rage, hurt, and shame, as well as honoring joy, sensuality, and ancestral lineages, through detailed practices and rituals.

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  • Petty, Sheryl. Ocha Dharma: The Relationship between Lucumi, an African-Based Tradition and Buddhist Practice. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2016.

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    Synthesizing the Lucumi (an African-based tradition) and Tibetan Nyingma lineages, this book offers a unique interpretation of both traditions.

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  • Rangdrol, Lama Choyin. Black Buddha: Changing the Face of American Buddhism. Self-published, RainbowDharma, 2001.

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    This text examines questions of the skin color and phenotype of the original Buddha, and argues that Black-Asiatic practitioners contributed to the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. This text further acknowledges that majority-Buddhist countries never colonized the United States (in contrast to majority-Christian countries), and thus it is liberating for Black people to embrace Buddhism.

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  • Selassie, Sebene. You Belong: A Call for Connection. New York: HarperOne, 2020.

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    In a society that is often experienced as deeply fragmented, Buddhist teachings and practices help persons to cultivate a sense of personal belonging, and consequently an experience of belonging within the broader community.

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  • Yetunde, Pamela Ayo. Object Relations, Buddhism, and Relationality in Womanist Practical Theology. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-94454-8Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This academic text contrasts Western theories of the self with Buddhist teachings on no-self, and illuminates, through qualitative interviews with Black lesbians, Buddhist teachings that are most relevant for Black women’s well-being.

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Buddhism, Black Embodiment, and Social Justice

Buddhism teaches the path of liberation from suffering. For Black Buddhists who must constantly reckon with anti-Black racism in a white supremacist society, Buddhism speaks both to personal freedom as well as social justice. Each of these books and articles illuminate how Buddhism is relevant within a highly racialized context as the writers acknowledge police brutality and mass incarceration, as well as intergenerational trauma stemming from slavery. A fundamental optimism can be seen in Theravada-rooted essays in Charles Johnson’s Taming the Ox (2014) and Larry Ward’s America’s Racial Karma (2020). The Zen- and Tibetan-influenced Radical Dharma (2016), by angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, speaks directly to the harms of white supremacy in society and in Buddhist sanghas. Academic articles such as Rima Vesely-Flad’s “Black Buddhists and the Body” (2017) and Adeana McNicholl’s “Being Buddha, Staying Woke” (2018) uplift interviews and writings of Black Buddhists who have turned to Buddhism as a practice of liberation while politically committing to dismantling white supremacy. Texts on mindfulness from Black Buddhist teachers, such as Ruth King’s Mindful of Race (2018) and Rhonda Magee’s The Inner Work of Racial Justice (2019), state that mindfulness practices are effective when employed in the pursuit of racial justice. Rima Vesely-Flad, in Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition (2022), examines the importance of healing intergenerational trauma while committing to protest, and argues that Buddhism offers methods for healing, connecting with ancestors, and reclaiming the Black body as a vehicle for liberation.

  • Johnson, Charles. Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2014.

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    Part scholarly text, part personal reflection, this collective of essays illuminates the relevance of Buddhism in contemporary times. Charles Johnson takes on social issues such voting, police brutality, and the peace movement.

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  • King, Ruth. Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2018.

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    Approaching racism as a disease that can be healed, Ruth King outlines why it is important to name racial group domination and subordination. She further offers Buddhist practices to confront systemic racism, and discusses how communities can heal together.

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  • Magee, Rhonda. The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities through Mindfulness. New York: Penguin, 2019.

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    This book centers practices of mindfulness alongside acknowledging the harms of racism. It advocates bringing mindfulness into different settings and actively working to address racism in mindfulness communities.

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  • McNicholl, Adeana. “Being Buddha, Staying Woke: Racial Formation in Black Buddhist Writing.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86.4 (December 2018): 883–911.

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    Black Buddhist writers subvert the Orientalist gaze of the dominant culture in their adaptations of Buddhism for racially oppressed communities.

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  • Miles, Justin F. The Sadhana of Awakened Melanin: The Black Power Meditation Liturgy. Self-published, Mind Right, 2021.

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    This book of liturgy includes sacred chants adopted from the Shambhala tradition, that call on African ancestors as well as Buddhist deities.

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  • Vesely-Flad, Rima. “Black Buddhists and the Body: New Approaches to Socially Engaged Buddhism.” Religions 8.11 (October 2017): 1–10.

    DOI: 10.3390/rel8110239Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Uplifting the personal reflections of Black Buddhists who name their experiences of racism and their investment in Buddhist teachings and practices, this article argues that the field of Socially Engaged Buddhism must be expanded beyond the commitments to ending war, environmental destruction, and poverty to include anti-Black racism.

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  • Vesely-Flad, Rima. Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation. New York: New York University Press, 2022.

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    Including more than seventy Black Buddhist voices, this volume argues that Black Buddhists distinctly uplift central dharma teachings to heal intergenerational trauma, honor ancestors, and reclaim the denigrated Black body as a vehicle for liberation. In so doing, Black Buddhists live into the vision for psychological freedom promulgated in the Black Radical Tradition.

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  • Wade, Breeshia. Grieving While Black: An Antiracist Take on Oppression and Sorrow. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2021.

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    In honoring the grief and trauma experienced by Black people, Breeshia Wade deconstructs anti-Blackness as an oppressive force and uplifts the importance of turning toward grief rather than avoiding it or being driven by it.

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  • Ward, Larry. America’s Racial Karma: An Invitation to Heal. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2020.

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    Drawing from Vietnamese Zen Buddhist psychology, contemporary findings in neuroscience, and critical race theory, this commentary argues that the karmic patterns that have resulted in harmful individual habits and macro-level anti-Black racism can be healed individually and collectively through the practice of Buddhism.

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  • williams, angel Kyodo, Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah. Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2016.

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    Responding to disproportionate policing of Black people and overincarceration of Black communities, this book uplifts personal reflections on the relevance of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist lineages for addressing internalized, interpersonal, and systemic racism.

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Buddhism, Blackness, and Gender

The essays and books contained in this section highlight the importance of an intersectional approach to the study and practice of Buddhism. The scholars annotated below consider the meanings attached to race as well as gender in the social sphere, and how gender in particular is acknowledged within primary Buddhist texts. As Black women reading the suttas, these scholars acknowledge that gender discrimination took place historically and continues to take place in many contexts. And yet, as Christian womanist scholars have found, the suttas contain messages of liberation for women in ways in that resonate for Black women. Jennifer Leath, a womanist ethicist, examines the confluences between womanist theology and Pure Land Buddhism in “Canada and Pure Land” (2012). The commitment to intersectionality is seen in the writings of Zen priest Zenju Earthlyn Manuel in her pivotal text The Way of Tenderness (2015). Manuel argues that liberation is found in confronting one’s experiences, including racial, sexual, and gender identity. Keri Day’s “Freedom on My Mind” (2016) and Tracey Hucks’s “Wombu” (2016) involve close readings of Theravada nuns’ poems to find inspiration and liberation for Black women. Jan Willis’s Dharma Matters (2020) brings the practice of Tantric Buddhism to the forefront of Black liberation and women’s liberation.

  • Day, Keri. “Freedom on My Mind: Buddhist-Womanist Dialogue.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 36 (2016): 9–15.

    DOI: 10.1353/bcs.2016.0002Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This essay uplifts the theme of freedom as central to both bell hooks and Alice Walker’s works, as well as in scholarly womanist literature and early Buddhist nuns’ poetry. In Day’s interpretation, freedom is the capacity to do and be—a process of self-actualizing that rests fundamentally in spiritual practice.

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  • Hucks, Tracey. “Wombu: An Intellectual Exercise in Womanist and Buddhist Reading.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 36 (2016): 43–47.

    DOI: 10.1353/bcs.2016.0005Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    In addition to illuminating the healing practice of embracing suffering, Alice Walker has inspired creative intellectual practice for womanist scholars who embrace interreligious textual exchange.

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  • Leath, Jennifer. “Canada and Pure Land, a New Field and Buddha-Land: Womanists and Buddhists Reading Together.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 32 (2012): 57–65.

    DOI: 10.1353/bcs.2012.0017Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Black women who self-identify as “womanist” and Buddhists share many of the same priorities: the quest for individual and collective freedom, cultivating a spirit of determination, and trusting that one’s pleas for help will be answered.

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  • Manuel, Zenju Earthlyn. The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2015.

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    This book disavows the idea that Zen practice elevates oneself above the body and corporal experiences. Rather, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel writes, the path of liberation is to face all experiences, including those impacted by race, sexuality, and gender.

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  • Medine, Carolyn. “Practice in Buddhist-Womanist Thought.” Buddhist Christian Studies 36 (2016): 17–28.

    DOI: 10.1353/bcs.2016.0003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Rituals and practices for Black women—for example, the practice of ancestor veneration—offer a form of memorialization that provides care and healing, and facilitate a way to stand firm in the face of violence.

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  • Willis, Jan. Dharma Matters: Women, Race, and Tantra. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2020.

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    Drawing from scholarly research in Tibetan Buddhism, this collection of essays includes academic articles and personal reflections on topics as far-ranging as dakinis and racism in the United States.

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  • Yetunde, Pamela Ayo. “Black Lesbians to the Rescue! A Brief Correction with Implications for Womanist Christian Theology and Womanist Buddhology.” Religions 8.17 (2017): 1–10.

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    This article argues that womanist theologians and ethicists rely disproportionately on Alice Walker’s definition of “womanism” in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and should rely instead on other writings of Walker, who is a practitioner of Buddhism.

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  • Yetunde, Pamela Ayo. Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, U.S. Law, and Womanist Theology for Transgender Spiritual Care. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-42560-9Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Black progressive Christianity and feminist and womanist sensibilities, in dialogue with Thich Nhat Hanh’s engaged Buddhism, support the argument that public theology in support of transgender persons is the ethical duty of spiritual care professionals.

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Poetry and Poetic Prose

The books contained in this section are written in such a way that they honor the forms of poetry and poetic prose. Whether short essays or serial chapters, the books written by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel—Sanctuary and The Deepest Peace—investigate the mystical aspects of Buddhist practice, in relation to race, gender, and sexual identity as well as nature and ultimate reality. In a similar vein, but with a very different tone, spoken word artist Valerie Mason-John pays homage to essayist and novelist James Baldwin, by bringing her voice as a Buddhist teacher to traumatizing experiences of historical and contemporary violence.

  • Manuel, Zenju Earthlyn. Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness, and Belonging. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2018.

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    A series of essays arising from the practice of Zen meditation, this poetic book identifies the experience of belonging as a deep personal practice rooted in stillness and silence.

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  • Manuel, Zenju Earthlyn. The Deepest Peace: Contemplations from a Season of Stillness. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2020.

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    This book includes several meditative essays that evoke the beauty of landscape and the practice of silence in different dimensions of daily life: drinking tea, contemplating income, and finding a home.

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  • Manuel, Zenju Earthlyn. The Shamanic Bones of Zen: Revealing the Ancestral Spirit and Mystical Heart of a Sacred Tradition. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2022.

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    This series of personal reflections examines indigenous practices in relation to Zen practice. Zenu Earthlyn Manuel, a Soto Zen priest, evokes silence and stillness as gateways into practices that arise from nature, magic, deities, and spirits.

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  • Mason-John, Valerie. I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage Paid to James Baldwin. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 2020.

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    Spoken-word artist and Triratna teacher Valerie Mason-John uplifts her own personal story, and the writings of James Baldwin, to illuminate contemporary race-based violence, sexism, homophobia, and liberation in the lived experiences of Buddhism.

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Anthologies Including Black Buddhist Writings

Anthologies containing the writings of Black Buddhists provide personal and academic narratives highlighting how Buddhism provides a set of teachings and practices that serve the liberation of Black people. Liberation, for many of these writers, is a personal practice as well as a political reality. The first anthology to contain a significant number of Black Buddhist writers, Dharma, Color, and Culture (2004), was edited by Zen priest Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín. This anthology was followed sixteen years later by Black and Buddhist (2020), edited by Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl Giles, and the following year by Afrikan Wisdom (2021), edited by Valerie Mason-John. The anthology Buddhism and Whiteness (2019), edited by George Yancy and Emily McRae, contains a number of critical essays on the dominance of white sanghas and publications in the United States.

  • Baldoquín, Hilda Gutiérrez, ed. Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2004.

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    Uplifting many Black Buddhist voices, this anthology of Buddhist practitioners of color presents commentaries on the Four Noble Truths in the broader context of a racialized society.

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  • Dews, Angela, ed. Still, in the City: Creating Peace of Mind in the Midst of Urban Chaos. New York: Skyhorse, 2018.

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    Edited by a Black Buddhist writer, this collection of essays contains a range of voices from urban practitioners in the Theravada/Insight tradition of Buddhism. Many of the essays do not discuss the broader racialized context in which the writers practice, but several point to the visibility of violence and addiction, and the presence of police stations, in majority Black settings.

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  • Mason-John, Valerie, ed. Afrikan Wisdom: New Voices Talk Black Liberation, Buddhism, and Beyond. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2021.

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    This collection of thirty-five essays by Black writers, most of whom self-identify as Buddhist, expands the teaching on liberation to include Black social and political liberation, including from police brutality and mass incarceration. Many of the essays examine the relevance and cultural adaptation of Buddhism for Black lives.

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  • Yancy, George, and Emily McRae. Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Reflections. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019.

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    This unprecedented volume of academics and Buddhist meditators brings together Critical Philosophy of Race and Buddhist philosophy to challenge epistemological norms in Buddhist communities in the West. Essays range from white practitioners’ self-awareness of complicity in anti-Black racism to social observation of dynamics within white Buddhist sanghas and the reception of core dharma teachings by Black Buddhists who experience anti-Black racism.

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  • Yetunde, Pamela Ayo, and Cheryl Giles. Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom. Boulder, CO: Shambhala, 2020.

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    The eight personal essays from multilineage Black Buddhist teachers and practitioners contained in this volume speak to a range of themes, including the particularities of Black suffering, belonging, reclaiming the Black body through movement, and healing intergenerational trauma. Published shortly after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in May 2020, the essays are contextualized within the broader context of police brutality against Black bodies.

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Critiques of Orientalist Discourses in Buddhist Studies

The books and articles included in this section provide critical approaches to Western scholarship on Buddhism and predominantly white Buddhist communities. Each critique acknowledges an Orientalist gaze that privileges and normalizes whiteness within Western Buddhism, and includes revisions of Buddhist practices such as uplifting teachings over and against rituals, highlighting the biography of the Buddha (similar to a Protestant Christian approach), and privileging the laity over monastic institutions. Joseph Cheah’s Race and Religion in American Buddhism (2011) is an oft-cited text on Orientalist Buddhist scholarship. Shannon Wakoh Hickey’s book chapter “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism” (in Buddhism beyond Borders, 2015) acknowledges an indebtedness to Cheah while deconstructing Buddhist scholarship by white academics who categorize Buddhist communities by ethnicity, culture, and race. Adeana McNicholl, in “Buddhism and Race in the United States,” argues that Orientalism and unacknowledged whiteness constitute normative understandings of Buddhism (academically and in community centers) in the United States. This Orientalist approach is further seen in uplifting white Buddhist communities as authentically Buddhist while relegating Asian Buddhist communities to the margins of American Buddhism. Finally, Orientalism is seen in the confluence of patriarchy and anti-Black racism in conservative and alt-right Buddhist blogs and writings.

  • Cheah, Joseph. Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199756285.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    This book highlights how white supremacist arrogance embedded in US Buddhism is invisible to many white practitioners. Cheah argues that white supremacy fosters the dominance of a certain type of Buddhist practice, in large part because white Buddhists have access to institutions that allow them to disseminate Buddhist teachings packaged in particular discourses that are familiar to white practitioners. He states that Buddhism is only considered to be truly American when white practitioners are invested in it.

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  • Gleig, Ann, and Brenna Grace Artinger. “#BuddhistCultureWars: BuddhaBros, Alt-Right Dharma, and Snowflake Sanghas.” Journal of Global Buddhism 22.1 (2021): 19–48.

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    Alt-right Buddhist practitioners reify racism as well as patriarchy in their refutation of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in Buddhist sanghas.

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  • Hickey, Shannon Wakoh. “Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, and Racism.” In Buddhism beyond Borders: New Perspectives on Buddhism in the United States. Edited by Scott Mitchell and Natalie E. F. Quli, 35–56. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015.

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    This chapter critiques embedded racism in identified scholarly approaches to the study of Buddhism in the United States. Shannon Wakoh Hickey writes that Buddhist temples serve different functions for immigrants than do predominant white Buddhist centers, and that the term “two Buddhisms” does not allow for the diversity within sanghas and meditation centers in the United States. Finally, “immigrant” and “Asian” are terms far too broad to encompass the complexity of Buddhist identity and practice in “heritage” Buddhist communities.

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  • McNicholl, Adeana. “Buddhism and Race in the United States.” Religion Compass 15.8 (2021): e12412.

    DOI: 10.1111/rec3.12412Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Orientalism and unacknowledged whiteness constitute normative understandings of Buddhism (academically and in community centers) in the United States.

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  • Pierce, Lori. “Buddhist Modernism in English-Language Buddhist Periodicals.” In Issei Buddhism in the Americas. Edited by Duncan Ryuken Williams and Tomoe Moriya, 87–109. Champagne: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

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    Orientalist worldviews are disseminated in Western iterations of Buddhism, as seen in English-language Buddhist texts that mirror Protestant approaches to religion.

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Black Embodiment in Buddhist Sanghas: Case Studies

Several articles illuminate the changing racial demographics of sanghas as Buddhism is embraced in the United States. Soka Gakkai International (SGI) contains the largest number of Black practitioners, especially compared to other US Buddhist organizations and sanghas. David Chappell’s “Racial Diversity in the Soka Gakkai” (in Engaged Buddhism in the West, 2000) argues that SGI is effective in its approach to culture, as well as teaching daily practices of chanting and meditation. In “Sitting in the Fire Together” (2021), Nalika Gakaweera writes that the Insight community, in its emphasis on cultivating racially diverse teaching teams and retreats, offers refuge to people of color, many of whom self-identify as Black. Other articles critique the whiteness of Buddhist sanghas from the perspective of people of color.

  • Chappell, David W. “Racial Diversity in the Soka Gakkai.” In Engaged Buddhism in the West. Edited by Christopher S. Queen, 184–217. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2000.

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    Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is the most racially diverse Buddhist organization in the United States. This essay asks whether this racial diversity, which includes large numbers of Black practitioners and lay leaders, effectively counters hegemonic white racism, and concludes that it does.

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  • Gajaweera, Nalika. “Sitting in the Fire Together: People of Color Cultivating Radical Resilience in North American Insight Meditation.” Journal of Global Buddhism 22.1 (2021): 121–139.

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    As Black Lives Matter protestors take to the streets, Insight meditation communities provide a safe space for processing trauma, individually and collectively.

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  • Gleig, Ann. American Dharma: Buddhism beyond Modernity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.12987/9780300245042Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Chapter 5 of this book investigates how a predominantly white sangha in the Washington, DC, area addresses anti-Black racism and responds to the desire for an “affinity sangha” for people of color.

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  • Hase, Craig Nicholas, James C. Meadows, and Stephanie L. Budge. “Inclusion and Exclusion in the White Space: An Investigation of the Experiences of People of Color in a Primarily White American Meditation Community.” Journal of Global Buddhism 20 (2019): 1–18.

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    People of color in the East Coast Meditation Community experience six dimensions to their participation: Interpersonal Barriers to Full Participation, Institutional Barriers to Full Participation, Strategies for Coping with Racialized Exclusion, Failures of Leadership Support for People of Color, a Range of POC Experiences, and the importance of Promoting Equity and Inclusion.

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Buddhism and Black Embodiment in Popular Publications

Popular writings by Black Buddhist teachers are increasingly available in publications such as Lion’s Roar. One of the first papers to circulate, Making the Invisible Visible (2000), was written by a diverse, multilineage team of teachers who confronted unacknowledged racism in US Buddhist communities. Buddhadharma magazine broadened the conversation about racism in predominantly white Buddhist sanghas in two forums (“Why Are White Buddhists So Angry?”and Special Issue: Free the Dharma). Black feminist scholar bell hooks, in two articles (“Waking Up to Racism” and “Toward a Worldwide Culture of Love”), writes provocatively about the cultural arrogance of white Buddhists as well as the Buddhist practice of cultivating love.

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