Pamela Ayo Yetunde is a pastoral counselor and chaplain. She teaches at Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Ayo is the author of the book Object Relations, Buddhism, and Relationality in Womanist Practical Theology, and Buddhist-Christian Dialogue, U.S. Law, and Womanist Theology for Transgender Spiritual Care. Ayo and BCBS board member Cheryl A. Giles are co-editors of the forthcoming book, Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom. Ayo has also written for American Buddhist Women and Lion’s Roar. This essay is an excerpt from Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, & Freedom, edited by Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles © 2020 by Pamela Ayo Yetunde and Cheryl A. Giles. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO (pp 99-103).
Encountering and Practicing Buddhism in Integrated Sanghas
Like many African American people, I grew up in the United Methodist Church. I had two maternal great-uncles who were United Methodist pastors, and their sister (my adoptive grandmother) and my mother followed in that tradition. I first encountered the core of Zen Buddhism (though I didn’t know it at the time) in 1999 when my work colleague gave me a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. When I finished reading this short text, I felt a peace I had never felt before. I was amazed! Reading the Tao Te Ching was not like anything I had ever experienced from reading a spiritual text. In 2001, a friend gave me Thich Nhat Hanh’s Touching Peace, and right around the same time, my hospice volunteer application was accepted by Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. Reading the Tao Te Ching and Touching Peace and entering into Zen Hospice Project as a volunteer—all around the same time in the course of my maturation—opened my eyes to nondualism, mindfulness, and the process of confronting existential angst. All this took place in predominately white-populated communities.
When the idea of forming POC sanghas was first brought to my attention at a meditation retreat for POC led by Nhat Hanh, I was firmly against the notion of racially segregated spiritual communities. The POC retreat was attended by approximately five hundred people, including my sangha friend James, a person of Filipino descent. My opposition was a result of my previous experiences in integrated spaces, but I was willing to consider the invitation to explore the idea more.
James and I decided we would discuss the idea within our small, mostly white sangha, and when we brought it up, the suggestion just to talk about the notion of POC sanghas was met with thick, impenetrable resistance. This resistance, which came especially strong through a particular white-bodied man in the group, was of an intensity I had not experienced in many years, maybe not since I was eleven when our school bus was met by an angry white mob. It was his resistance which led me to believe that forming a POC sangha might actually be a good idea. But, I didn’t pursue it at that time because I felt that sitting in silent meditation with white people was a fortifying experience to prepare for facing white people “off the cushion, ” in real life when we aren’t in meditation—without fear, without self-loathing, and without internalized apartheid (a subject I return to later).
With the exception of that one instance of resistance, the whole of my experiences with white sanghas had been affirming—but that was in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 2000s. My subsequent experiences in two sanghas in Atlanta proved to be another story in contemporary racism, demonstrating to me the need for POC sanghas.
When I was living in Atlanta, I had become a Community Dharma Leader (CDL), a lay Buddhist leader in the Insight Meditation tradition (a westernized Theravadin Buddhism). When I entered into the Insight sangha in Atlanta, I was welcomed by some but I was also met with harsh criticism by others for speaking dharma, as if I had no authority to do so. In fact, I had authority granted by Spirit Rock Meditation Center (the organization that leads CDL trainings), but that authority isn’t enforceable (not that I would want to enforce it) and not recognized by many. My speaking up eventually caused such as disturbance for two white men that they trolled me on our Buddhist list serve! In a subsequent planning meeting, one of the trollers screamed at me at the top of his lungs because I asserted myself and left him off the list of speakers. (Unapologetic trollers are not good examples of dharma leaders.) Eventually, the sangha disbanded over a financial rift, but it was no place for a person of color to speak, lead, or be perceived as leading. Even after the experiences with the resistant white male in the Bay Area and the two white men who trolled me in Atlanta, I started the Sacred Refuge Sangha (SRS) in Decatur, Georgia and I made it open to all because I still believed POC sanghas were not the ideal community for me to spend my limited spiritual practice time in.
As the founding leader of SRS, I was responsible for many things including giving dharma talks and organizing space for others to do so. When I gave my first dharma talk (a talk that was scheduled for only fifteen minutes, on the topic of equanimity), a white woman during the question and answer period criticized my talk and proceeded to give her own talk. I reached out to her afterward and learned that she wanted to become a dharma teacher. So I invited her to give a talk, and she accepted. After her talk, she told me that she appreciated how not everything that can be said on a topic can be said in fifteen minutes. She also told me she was was self-conscious the entire time and realized she was not ready to be a dharma teacher. When I gave another dharma talk on another evening, this same person, after hugging me, patted me on top of my head! I interpreted this behavior as an act of condescension and a breach of physical space. When this happened, it built upon my experience of thick resistance in the Bay Area, the trolling behavior in the other Atlanta sangha, and the woman’s previous attempts to discredit and diminish me as a Buddhist leader. The case was now built for me to start engaging in POC sanghas, but I still decided not to start another sangha.
After two years, SRS closed because no one was willing to take the lead. The “business” of holding a sangha, POC or not, requires regular attention and care from at least one handful of people, and as it grows, two handfuls and more. Eventually, another sangha started with a new leader and new name, but with one of the same unapologetic trollers. It was not a safe place for me, so I decided not to join. I was glad to be free of the leadership role as well as free from the community itself. I was free to explore being a part of another sangha in Atlanta, where I had met some lovely and impressively rebellious white Zen practitioners.
This new Zen group shared leadership among its members and had a zeal for community education. They offered a multipart series on how to offer dharma talks and they opened their workshops to the public. The series was led by a white Christian theology professor. (I never learned why they asked a non-Buddhist to lead these workshops). Just before the series ended, the organizers asked if there were other topics they could offer workshops on. Since I was someone who had worked as a chaplain and pastoral counselor, someone who was in a doctoral program in pastoral care, and someone who had written on Buddhist spiritual care, I offered the topic of “Buddhist pastoral care.” The idea was embraced with enthusiasm. When the organizers asked who could teach it, I offered myself. Again, there was positive curiosity. We scheduled a meeting where I told them about my education and experiences, and no concern was expressed.
Months later, one of the organizers asked me if I was going to attend the workshops on Buddhist spiritual care—the same workshop topic I had proposed that I could lead months earlier. I told her that I hadn’t heard about it, and when I asked who was leading it, she told me it was a white male Christian pastor—the husband of the Christian pastor who led the previous workshop. At first, I was stunned, but it wasn’t long before I felt rage, and I respectfully let her and others in the room know I was enraged. I was met with silence by some, confusion by others, embarrassment by a couple, and one white man said out loud that he really didn’t care how I felt.
Even after all my other experiences in sangha race relations, I still felt some resistance to creating POC sanghas, so even this was not the final straw to break the proverbial camel’s back. I asked myself, in good Zen fashion, What can I learn about myself through this? and in good lojong (a Tibetan Buddhist compassion practice) fashion, What is the unpredictable thing I can do now? Rather than leave this sangha, as an act of compassion for myself, I did the unexpected. I decided to stay where I felt unwelcome by some. I stayed several months. Owing to what I had learned about Buddhism and Zen from the various readings I had done, the experiences I had in the sanghas I had joined and started, and the trainings I had been part of, I found the confidence to stay.
One of the things I learned by staying was that those who were prone to treat me as if I was invisible, incompetent, or unworthy of empathy also didn’t treat some other white people with respect. I also realized something about my own resilience by staying in a group of white people I had lost respect and trust in. I discovered I wasn’t dependent on them to teach me Zen, but I sat with them to understand something about myself. I found I could practice the dharma in a community that I was not dependent on for teachings, and I saw that I was learning less and less from this community. These realizations had implications for my off-the-cushion life as well, a subject I return to later. I left and vowed not to be a part of an all-white sangha in Atlanta, ever again.