Awakening Through Audre Lorde

Four Buddhists explore how the life and work of the Black, feminist, lesbian poet Audre Lorde serves as a gateway to the dharma

Rima Vesely-Flad
15 May 2022
Audre Lorde, 1983. Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images.

Pathology, Racism, and the Wisdom of Sangha

By Leslie Booker

Leslie Booker

When Audre Lorde was dying from metastasized breast cancer in the early 1990’s, she had already offered us the great gift of sharing her process of illness in The Cancer Journals in 1980. She wrote “I do not wish my anger and pain and fear about cancer to fossilize into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience, openly acknowledged and examined … imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness.”

Every time I read this quote, I see the complexity of it.

Lorde speaks through the lens of her anger, her physical pain, the shame and blame of illness, and all that it was taking from her. Then she became curious about it all — the wisdom that was there to be found, and to come to the conclusion that she refuses to fall into the trappings of white supremacy tactics that separate and enable. She does so with the resolve to not succumb to the malevolence of the violence of illness.

As a child, I had a very sanitized and protected view of illness. When our dogs became old and sick, they were quietly taken to the vet, and we were told later that “Snuggles had to be put down.” I had not been exposed to Lorde’s work yet, as I began my own journey with illness.

Audre Lorde’s writings are very similar to the Buddha’s teachings. They are universal and noble truths about suffering and the end of suffering.

My first ovarian cyst appeared when I was about 12 or 13, so I wasn’t a stranger to pain once fibroid tumors began to grow in my late twenties, and the endometriosis appeared in my thirties.

I hated the shift in my energy and my self esteem, and that it was invisible to the outside world who saw me navigating life through muscle memory.The way the tumors disfigured my body, depleted my red blood cells with their ferocious hunger, and how chronic anemia was now impacting my lung capacity, obscuring my vision, and creating extreme pain in my joints.

Then there was the second arrow of this pain not being believed by overworked doctors who had been unconsciously educated to not believe the embodied wisdom of Queer / Black / Women.

I have always winced when there was a reference to folks who have historically been oppressed and have survived great violence as resilient. Not because we are not, but because it allows some folks to forget that resilience does not mean the absence of harm, but rather our resilience is our response to the primal ache to survive.

Lorde’s quote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgent, it is self-preservation; and that is political warfare” became my battle cry as I prepared for my radical hysterectomy in 2019.

Again, the complexity of a Black / Queer / Woman to speak these words and to insist that her body was worth fighting for. I knew that I could not do this alone, and that it was a disservice to others who were living with disease and illness in their bodies, to pretend that I could.

I could not get to that understanding, without the wisdom and reflections of kalyanamitta (spiritual friends), who sat with me through every doctor’s appointment.

The writings of Audre Lorde are very similar to the Buddha’s teachings in that they are universal and noble truths about suffering and the end of suffering. These teachings transcend time, class, gender, and sexual orientation.  They are rooted in the first paramis of generosity; the first teaching that is said the Buddha often gave as he believed only with a generous heart and mind could one truly understand the whole of the Dharma. They both offered teachings that were incredibly radical for the time, and I can feel the  love and care for humanity, as they both put language to the internal struggles that come with being born into this precious human form.

It gives a validation, and a reclamation of our dignity to be witnessed in our quest for collective liberation.

My Gateway to the Buddhadharma

by Aishah Shahidah Simmons

Aishah Shahidah Simmons. Photo by Zhee Chatmon

I am a Black, feminist, lesbian survivor of childhood and adult sexual violence who found refuge in the buddha, dharma, and sangha twenty years ago. Decades before I took my first dip in the dharma ocean in 2002, Black feminism was my refuge.

I never met the self-defined Black-Lesbian-Feminist-Mother-Warrior-Poet Audre Lorde in person, but her book, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, saved my life in 1990 when I read it for the first of countless times. I came to Lorde because I was suffering. I was afraid to live my authentic life as a Black feminist lesbian. Sister Outsider was an invitation and call to be fully embodied. I came to Buddhism because I was suffering. I was in search of spiritual tools in tandem with my Black feminist psychologist to help me navigate the terrain of childhood and adult sexual trauma. Vipassana meditation, taught by S.N. Goenka, quickly became a steadfast compass on my life’s journey. I compare my first reading of Sister Outsider in 1990 to my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course in 2002. Both experiences were seismic and paradigm-shifting.

Lorde wrote frequently about impermanence in her poetry and prose. She was a breast cancer survivor who courageously wrote about her mastectomy and decision not to wear a breast prosthesis in her landmark, timeless book originally published in 1980, The Cancer Journals.

In, “Today Is Not The Day,” one of Lorde’s last poems written April 22, 1992, seven months before her November 17, 1992 continuation into another form and realm, Lorde acknowledges her death standing adjacent to her human life.

I can’t just sit here
staring death in her face
blinking and asking for a new name
by which to greet her

I am not afraid to say
I am dying
but I do not want to do it
looking the other way

Today is not the day.
It could be
but it is not.

How can I not think about the Buddhist impermanence chant when I read those stanzas in Lorde’s poem?

All things are impermanent
They arise and they pass away
To be in harmony with this truth
Brings great happiness

Despite these undeniable examples of Lorde’s relationality to dharma teachings, I retreated from investigating further. At the time, I wasn’t in a close relationship with any dharma teachers who could help me expound on this further. Seeing and experiencing dharma through the lens of Black feminist writers, both queer and straight — especially those who weren’t Buddhists — wasn’t a reality I knew in the S.N. Goenka tradition.

Everything came holistically full circle eight-years later when one of my dharma-sister-friends, Rima Vesely-Flad, invited me to co-create and co-teach our six-week Buddhism and Black Feminism course at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS). I re-read the Lokavipati Sutta, more commonly known as the Eight Worldly Winds.

These conditions among human beings
are inconstant
subject to change”

I contemplated Lorde’s poem, “A Litany for Survival,” excerpted

“And when the sun rises we are afraid
it might not remain
when the sun sets we are afraid
it might not rise in the morning
when our stomachs are full we are afraid
of indigestion
when our stomachs are empty we are afraid
we may never eat again
when we are loved we are afraid
love will vanish
when we are alone we are afraid
love will never return
and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.”

Over and over again, I felt Lorde’s radiant light serving as a portal to the dharma. Lorde’s prose and poetry have been compasses for me since 1990. Her writings are some of my sacred texts. In Summer and Fall of 2021, I experienced the connections between her profound wisdom and the depths of buddhadharma wisdom. I’m not talking about absolutes, but I am talking about parallels. Lorde is one of my gateways to a more profound understanding of the dharma. I had a deeply embodied experience of this knowledge when I taught her writings in tandem with Buddhist suttas.

Parts of this reflection emerged from Aishah’s October 16, 2021 dharma talk, “Audre Lorde as a gateway to impermanence and the eight worldly winds,” in the Buddhism and Black Feminism course at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. It is excerpted from a more extended essay.

Audre Lorde: Uncovering A Bodhisattva

By Pamela Ayo Yetunde

Pamela Ayo Yetunde. Photo by Miriam Phields

Buddhism is infused with the cultures it finds itself in, and that is also true of Buddhism in the African-American culture. Like many other Black folks in the U.S., our values, sensibilities , and aesthetics are formed long before Buddhism enters Black consciousness. This happens to be the case as it relates to the art and activism of African-American I Ching-inspired poet Audre Lorde and the emerging Black liberation-oriented Buddhism in the U.S.

I was introduced to Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) in 1985, 26 years before I encountered Buddhism, but it was 30 years later that I began researching the psycho-spiritual lives of African-American lesbians in the Insight tradition, and called on Lorde to guide me. Instinctively and then intentionally I drew on Lorde’s body of published and unpublished work as a spiritual interlocutor even though she wasn’t a Buddhist. Why? First, I anticipated there would be a tension between the self-preservation ethos of Black queer women on one side, and the Buddhist teachings on no self on the other side. Second, I was living in Atlanta, GA at the time and Audre Lorde’s papers are archived at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college. Lorde was calling me over for some conversation! Third, because reading Zami helped me to accept the various parts of myself, visible and hidden, I thought her work might illuminate some shadows of our practices.

Lorde’s ability to see the healing potential in various contexts and shape shift to meet the opportunity is the bodhisattva ideal manifested.

As I read and re-read her works with a Buddha eye this time, and for the first time encountered some of her unpublished works on spirituality, I understood more clearly and felt more strongly the emanation of the healing vibrations of Lorde’s embedded nondualistic I Ching spirituality that led to her being the grandmother of intersectionality before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the word in 1989. Lorde’s I Ching is infused in her writings on justice, healing, activism, romance, politics, parenting, psychology, poetry and prose. Her ability to see the healing potential in various contexts and shape shift to meet the opportunity is the bodhisattva ideal manifested in Lorde’s written and spoken words.

As I began to present Lorde’s work in my dissertation and in a presentation for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I said that studying Lorde was like uncovering a bodhisattva. Comparing her life and work to the path factors in Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva, Lorde’s heroic perseverance and vigilant introspection (and others) are examples that inspire Black liberationists and abolitionists.

When Lorde was recovering from her mastectomy, she wrote a “sheroic” feminist critique of the powerful American Cancer Society in her book The Cancer Journals (1980). How many people recovering from an illness and a debilitating treatment confronts a beloved and charitable behemoth because they believe that charity also causes suffering? A bodhisattva.

Her vigilant introspection is in full display in Zami and in the Sister Outsider collection of essays (originally published in 1984 and republished several times since), but her vigilant introspection really began when she was a pre-teen writing journal entries and poems to God about the fact that God was not living up to his reputation because she was trapped in suffering.

Eventually, through the embrace of psychotherapy, Lorde did not let her intersecting marginalized identities get tangled in shame, but learned to use all parts of herself, informed by I Ching nondualism, to combine these various aspects into a powerful force for social change. If you don’t know how to harness the power of your intersecting identities, read Lorde’s poetry and essays beginning with her 1980 essay “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.”

A Compassionate, Maternal Voice

By Rima Vesely-Flad

Rima Vesely-Flad

Poet and essayist Audre Lorde is a pivotal voice for many seekers who reject patriarchy, racism, classism, and heteronormativity. She was a strong Black feminist advocate for intersectionality and sought to honor rather than repress differences. Her writing has been a gateway to the dharma for me and many others, even as she never explicitly discussed Buddhism. Lorde’s focus on one’s interior life — even as she was highly political and overtly engaged in critique and activism — is one way in which she has illuminated the dharma. In her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” she writes of scrutinizing our interior lives. In other essays she discusses giving oneself permission to feel, and furthermore, cultivating the capacity to root out internalized oppression. All of these themes are central to the practice of dharma teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. For example, in the practice of concentration we come face to face with our lives, without judgment and blame.

She claimed the Black, female body as a vehicle for joy.

Lorde also distinguishes between pain and suffering in language that is highly congruent with Buddhist teachings. She writes about the importance of acknowledging painful circumstances or events, but refraining from ruminating and letting oneself be swept away by anxiety. For Lorde, all experiences — even painful ones — can be transformed into “something useful, lasting, effective.” But we need to be devoted to the process of seeing, cultivating, and staying with our painful experiences, rather than repressing or avoiding them and thereby leading to greater suffering.

In the practice of turning towards our pain and seemingly enduring suffering, Lorde uplifts a compassionate, maternal voice. She writes in her essay “Eye to Eye” that Black women must mother ourselves. In this practice of deep nurturing, Lorde helps us to see the importance of deep compassion, first for ourselves, as a way forward. Indeed, the practice of clear seeing and turning towards our suffering can only be effective if we give ourselves a tenderness and affection that we often desperately want from others.

Finally, but not least, Lorde spoke of erotic power in powerful, consistent language. In her celebration of the Black body, of women’s love for one another, of bringing sensuality into every aspect of our work and play, she claimed the Black, female body as a vehicle for joy. The Black body, which has historically been reviled in a white supremacist culture, is — in the gaze of Audre Lorde — a conduit which brings us a fullness of life and liberation.

Rima Vesely-Flad

Rima Vesely-Flad

Rima Vesely-Flad, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Religion and Social Justice and the Director of Peace and Justice Studies at Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation (NYU Press, 2022).