I would be the first person to tell you that if you want to read an article about the benefits of Zen for the Black community, you should read “Being Black” by @changeangel aka Angel Kyodo Williams. It’s an amazing book that is well worth the read.
I see no point in trying to re-invent the wheel. Rather I offer a what could easily be classified as a criticism. And maybe even some whiny finger-pointing. I am also going to take my personal observations and experiences, and apply them to Black people in general. Yeah I know. Just take what is useful and leave the rest.
I lived most of my life in misery and fear. All the people I knew were barely scrapping by. Constantly on the brink of losing everything. There was never a question of if something bad would happen, it was only a question of when. I honestly believed that my problems only plagued me and people who looked like me. No one else could ever understand. As I continued to gain more education, I was surrounded by people who didn’t look like me and could never understand my pain. I was numb and depressed. I didn’t know it. There was no talking about my pain. I swallowed it and kept pressing forward. My depression was masked as anger and a bad attitude.
I didn’t realize I was stumbling around in a small dark room until someone turned the light on. And for me that light was Zen. I realized people are more alike then we are different. Most people live lives of quiet desperation. Fear, anger, betrayal, inadequacy, failure, depression, loneliness, longing, and suffering are part of the human condition. I learned a simple truth that made life very complicated. It was the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me. Ready? Here it is: I and I alone was responsible for my happiness and my suffering. Not my circumstances, not the stuff I have or don’t have. Not the people in my life or out of it. Not my God or lack thereof. I save myself. I have the answers to all my questions, the solutions to all my problems. Happiness and suffering don’t just happen to me, I choose them. That was some transformative shit. That simple, yet complicated truth saved my life. Literally.
Buddha by Slick on Garey St., LA Arts District
People who live desperate lives, can’t conceive of such a thing. At least, I couldn’t. What good is all that meditation stuff when you are constantly on the verge of catastrophe? Or when you have lost everything and you and your family of five must move into one room in your grandmother’s already crowded apartment? The answer is that suffering is the mother of Buddhism. Ending suffering is why that skinny dude went and sat under that tree in the first place. Yet sitting is contrary to everything Black folks know and believe. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. You dig in and press on. Carrying all your baggage with you.
Typically, when Black folks have problems, we don’t sit and we don’t go to therapy. Some drink, some use drugs, some sit around hating the world. But we almost always end up in church. We’ve learned generation after generation to look up, not in. The church is like going home after a long vacation. My momma, her mamma, their grand mamma and all them, go to church. Everybody knows and it doesn’t have to be explained. And if your next question is ‘knows what?”, that is exactly my point. People who look like you, care about you, and sometimes gossip about you, welcome you with open arms. This home away from home is usually in the middle of a neighborhood that people move out of as soon as they can. They are not just in the neighborhood, they are a part of it. From feeding the hungry to neighborhood legal clinics.
Banksy’s Injured Buddha, London
I’ve yet to come across a “help the local community,” “grassroots” type of activity organized by Buddhist. I am unaware of any Zen centers in a neighborhood where I can guarantee there is a church. So how exactly are my fellow sufferers with no money, nothing but problems and no inkling of the world outside of their own neighborhood going to discover this trans formative shit called Zen?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’m about as good of a Buddhist as I was a Christian. But I think the answer lies somewhere in where we sit.
Buddhist temples are not very inviting. And they are certainly not filled with folks that look like me. Often they are set far off. You don’t just ride past or walk to them. And, granted I have never been in one, like I said – not too inviting. But I’m willing to bet there’s a lot more involved than just walking in and sitting. My perception may be wrong, but it is not unwarranted.
What I love about Zen is there is no special equipment needed. Zafus can be expensive on a tight budget. But you can use a towel or couch pillow or even a chair. Just sit, count your breathes. When you stop trying to figure it out, you’ll figure it out. (<——– I love when we talk like that). We can and do practice anywhere. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to far off temples. But because of this we can easily practice in isolation (<— guilty) or restrict ourselves to more affluent places.
LA. Art by El Mac & RETNA. Photo by Robyn Franckowiak.
We can cultivate compassion on a cushion, but we need to go further. I think if Buddhism was all about sitting in caves and keeping your own counsel, then there would be no Buddhist. Siddhartha would have just been some half-dressed weirdo who abandoned his family and sat under a tree. Stop being selfish with your Dharma.
[Andrea is a Vegetarian Buddhist, who has made a mess of her life and is slowly picking up the pieces. She thinks it sucks that she is responsible for her own happiness. She loves yoga, running (turtle speed), writing, cursing and crochet. She lives in Central Florida with her 5 crazy dogs. Because she is not nearly as interesting in person, you can find her on twitter @grumpyzen. ]