Eva Seligman is a Master of Divinity candidate at Harvard Divinity School, where she studies the entanglement of Buddhism and Colonialism. She works as a graduate assistant at BCBS.
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In October 2017, I had been working as a middle and high school teacher for over ten years. I imagined that I would be a teacher for the rest of my life. But… things had been feeling off for a while and I couldn’t explain why. I was having increasingly intense mood swings and insomnia. A job that I had loved was beginning to feel draining and exhausting. I tried turning to Buddhist practice and community to help me make sense of what was wrong and what I was supposed to do about it, but my meditation practice felt stuck and I had trouble finding a community of practitioners that did more than sit in silence and make small talk.
That month, I went to see Lama Rod Owens at the New York Insight Meditation Center. As he spoke about the relationship amongst queer liberation, racial justice, and Buddhism, I began to feel something stirring inside me, the first inkling that my life was about to take a sharp turn in a new direction. The next day I went out and bought the book he wrote with Reverend angel Kyodo williams and Dr. Jasmine Syedullah, Radical Dharma.
I began to attend talks with Lama Rod whenever he was in town, and eventually went on a few Radical Dharma retreats. I felt a little like Dorothy landing in Oz. I hadn’t realized how grey the world was until I could suddenly see in color. I started to see just how much I needed the sustaining and energizing power of spiritual community and practice in my work towards justice. I also realized that I needed a stronger justice-oriented framework in my Buddhist practice in order to work towards my own freedom from suffering and to stand in solidarity with others in their search for freedom.
As I spent more time with the Radical Dharma community, I became increasingly curious about what White cultural norms were, where they came from, and how they might perpetuate White dominance. I became increasingly curious about why so many of the Buddhist centers I was visiting were predominantly White and had almost entirely White leadership structures. As I learned more about the history of race and race theory in the context of European and American imperialism, I became more curious about how these things might have interacted with the transmission of Buddhism in the West. Although I had been raised Buddhist, mostly in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village community, I came to realize that I knew very little about these things. These questions eventually led me to upend my entire life.
I am writing this as I finish the last few weeks of a three-year Master of Divinity program at Harvard Divinity School. I started this program in August of 2019 at the age of 36, leaving my career as a classroom teacher. I think it was the early stages of a paradigm shift that brought me here, a powerful sea change that completely overturned everything I thought I knew, fundamentally altering how I make sense of the world I live in.
Thomas Kuhn coined the phrase “paradigm shift” to describe massive changes in scientific models, such as the Copernican revolution. Although Kuhn used the phrase to describe the change from one major theoretical model shared in scientific communities to a different model, it has since made its way out of the sciences and been adapted into the vernacular with a much broader sense.
According to Kuhn, a paradigm shift starts when there is enough data that doesn’t fit into a shared worldview, provoking a crisis of belief. I find this part of Kuhn’s model of scientific revolution incredibly helpful in understanding my own thinking, while acknowledging that I am using it in a way that may be out of step with Kuhn’s original intent. There have been moments in my life when a series of anomalies that don’t make sense build up and build up and build up until I’m forced to reckon with everything I thought I knew. The crisis is so powerful, I realize I can no longer live the way I had been living or use the same narratives to describe myself or the world.
I could feel the crisis in my body before I consciously knew it was happening. Something just felt… off. It was like there was something on the edge of my peripheral vision or bubbling under the surface. My relationship with Buddhism was the subject of the crisis. I began to realize that so much of what I thought I knew about Buddhism was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of history. Buddhism was also part of how I navigated the crisis, turning to Buddhist teachers, practices, and friends to help make sense of the disorientation I was experiencing.
In Divinity School, my coursework has included decolonial theory, nineteenth-century European race theory, Enlightenment philosophy, British colonialism in South Asia, Buddhist scripture, pan-Asian Buddhist modernism, and settler-colonialism in North America. I feel like the floor is dropping out from under my feet almost weekly. Instead of solving my paradigm crisis, I’ve been prolonging it. I have learned that the idea of religion as we know it was invented in early modern Europe. I have learned that the contemporary concept of an Aryan race can be circuitously traced back to the discovery that Sanskrit was linguistically related to European language families. I have learned that in the nineteenth-century, European scholars thought they had discovered the “original” Buddhism and believed that it had been “corrupted” by the Asian lineages that had transmitted it for millennia. Maybe you already know all these things. Three years ago, I knew none of them.
As I arrive at the end of my graduate program, rather than coming to some kind of closure, I’m learning even more about how much was missing in my previous conceptual framework. Maybe I’m approaching a new paradigm, but I’m not there quite yet. This internal chaos has made me deeply curious about the kinds of shifts that other Buddhist scholars and practitioners have experienced and how they have made (or are in the midst of making) sense of it.
For this issue, undertaken as part of my graduate internship at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, I have invited four contributors to reflect on their relationship to Buddhism and Buddhist practice, and on significant shifts in their practice, teaching, understanding of buddhadharma, or relationship to Buddhism in its socio-historic context.
Thanissara (she/her) writes about how impending climate catastrophe impacts how we understand our responsibility as Buddhists. She writes, “Despite the overwhelming complexity we are navigating, I hope all our hearts can ascend from circling, freeze, flight, and fight so we can rise together.” She affirms that our current crises must be faced with deep collaboration and collective action.
In an interview I conducted with Pascal Auclair (he/him), he spoke about two major shifts in his relationship with the dharma. The first was in recognizing that the dharma is not somewhere outside of himself. The second was experiencing the dharma as deeply, profoundly relational and recognizing how social location matters in building a community that can support liberation.
Cristina Moon (she/her) reflects on training in Kendo, a form of Japanese Fencing, at Chozen-ji Zen Temple in Honolulu. She writes about how learning to spar in Kendo classes helped her develop the ability to cut straight with all her might, while connecting her shift in personal practice through Kendo to a broader reflection on Zen, culture, race, power, and identity.
Katie Loncke (they/them) writes about powerful realizations that emerged in the intersections of activism, Buddhist practice, and plant medicine. They explore how the intimacy of a friendship with a former cop brought more nuance and compassion to their stance on police abolition.
We invite you, the reader, to reflect on paradigm shifts in your own life. Was there an experience or series of experiences that altered how you saw yourself or the world? Did you know it was happening in the moment, or was it only apparent in retrospect? Did it seem sudden or like a slow shift? How have these shifts intersected with your Buddhist practice or study of Buddhism? And, perhaps most importantly, now that you can see something more clearly, what will you do next?