Building Beloved Communities

Rehena Harilall shares her vision of building and repairing community with an open, kind, and compassionate heart.

Rehena Harilall
16 November 2022
Sankofa, by Sarah Rosedahl.  5×7, acrylic and watercolor. Sankofa is a metaphor depicted as a bird with its head turning back while its feet face forward to reach for an egg from its back. The Sankofa bird symbolizes reaching back to the past to gain knowledge to apply to or shape the present.

The year 2020 was catalytic for me. It felt like portals of the past opened, reflecting the apocalyptic future. We saw social restrictions imposed to curb the pandemic, alongside disproportionate deaths of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) all around the world. The world witnessed the public murder of George Floyd, pleading to breathe and calling for his mama, and the following visceral outrage of international Black Live Matters (BLM) protests. In so many ways, the fissures and dis-ease in our societies and communities around the world became visible, showing the type of re-pair, re-building, re-generation, and personal transformation work that is needed.

We all shape — and are shaped by — the collective we are part of.

Growing up in South Africa, legislation enforced the community one belonged to. A rigid hierarchy of racial oppression meant skin color and hair texture defined how “human” one was. Anger was an emotional tool for survival. In 2020, filled with a gnawing déjà vu of the South African apartheid regime’s “state of emergency,” my mind ran on auto-replay, superimposing faces of friends and family being detained, tortured, and murdered.

When I found myself caught up in the energy around me, I sought refuge in silence. I took writer and activist Bayo Akomolafe’s wise counsel: “the times are urgent; let us slow down.” By turning to my mindfulness and compassion practices to hold my tumultuous emotions, I was able to begin healing, and reflect on how I would like to engage in community action.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s well-known phrase “no mud, no lotus” accurately describes the alchemical composting process that allows for personal transformation. I’ve come to realize that community engagement, building, and being in community is a far cry from my childhood days — much closer to the embodied wisdom of my heroes, parents, and ancestors — a Sankofa moment.2

Today, there’s far more flux in the boundaries of what I consider community. My new notion of community is far more aligned to that of my ancestors, waxing and waning to include specific groupings as well as all life on earth. There is interdependency between my singular self and my community. We all shape — and are shaped by — the collective we are part of.

Community building is not an event or even an outcome, but a lifetime process. This process cannot be divorced from our own existential journey. Whether I’m offering a donation to the homeless on the street, or growing vegetables in my garden, I am in community and am engaged in actively imbuing it with the perfume of our action and intention– which is either skilful or unskilful, wholesome, or unwholesome. We are always in community, with ourselves, with others and in stewardship of life.

My parents and elders patiently built places of safety, refuge, and healing, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “ with dignity… using only the instruments of love.” Acting from what Sister Chan Kong calls “highest purpose” is pivotal to how I desire to contribute to all spaces I’m a part of. I continuously work to discern whether I’m engaging in “good trouble3” — acting with an open, kind, and compassionate heart, or one constricted by anger, violence, and discrimination. I take care to notice where I’m coming from so that I don’t continue to perpetuate oppression and violence, causing greater separation.

Without wholesome energy, community “building” is shifting sand. It is important to carefully shake out the folds of our intention to see whether our good actions are hiding grains of hidden egotistical desires. And examine if we’re reinforcing notions of a “good person narrative” — thinking less about the welfare of others, and more about the “benefits” for ourselves. In our efforts, we should check whether we employ the Buddhist concept of Right Action and engage with skilful energy and sila (virtue).

In Radical Dharma, Rev. angel Kyodo Williams writes: “Without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.” My call for social justice remains undimmed. Peaceful beloved communities cannot be built without justice, which is sustained by understanding, love and compassion — not retribution. It is now that I am truly able to act in alignment to wisdom that Archbishop Desmond Tutu envisioned as the foundations of the Truth and Reconciliation process.

This type of community building is “humanism “ because we are  re-learning to be fully human, taking care of both love and rage an unfurling the heart to those with whom I disagree with the most. My humanity is inextricably tied to the other.

Building community can become all-consuming, making self-care a crucial aspect of engaging in this work. I am reminded of how my mother nourished herself during my childhood. She sang and dance while she worked late into the night, after salvaging edible and cheap market throwaways to secretively cook for activists sheltered in illegal community safe houses. I too am creating space in my day to do what brings me joy: watching deer playfully butt antlers, leaves gently fluttering to earth, and swans gliding across the river.

During the UK’s Black History month in October 2020, there was a heart call to begin a group called “Buddhists across Traditions (BaT).” BaT is now the only Buddhist-BIPOC-centered collective in the UK unifying and connecting Buddhists and practitioners of other spiritual traditions in the service of racial reconciliation, healing, and social justice. We’re working to cultivate the energy we’d like to see in the world in the spaces we curate, raising often ignored social issues and voices, connecting the diaspora across the Africa, UK, Europe, and North America, and addressing the healing that needs to happen here in the UK, a historical source of so much pain, trauma and suffering around the world.

“Our life has to be our message,” Thich Nhat Hanh sagely advises. I am conscious of continuing my ancestors inheritance to continue cultivating just communities, hoping to embrace loving energy in all my actions; consciously aware of the intent infusing every action, all offered in a state of puṇya, or merit.

Today, we all stand taller on the shoulders of our ancestors like Nelson Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Steve Biko — whose community building actions are legendary. I hope we can all continue their legacy in some way, striving to contribute to the glorious unfolding of community, in compassion, humility, and service of life. This way, we can all walk on the public footpath of heart. It is my hope that the energy we leave behind supports the continuation and evolution for generations to come.

As John Lewis said, “Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation must do our part.”

This piece a reflective piece in honor of Black History Month UK, October 2022

Black as defined by Steve Biko in South Africa was not limited to Africans, but also included Indians and ‘coloureds’ (South Africans of mixed race including African, European incorporating Black Theology, indigenous values, and political ideology to overthrow ruling system

2  Sankofa is a metaphor depicted as a bird with its head turning back to reach for an egg from its back, whilst its feet face forward. It symbolizes the reaching back to the past to gain knowledge to apply to or shape the present.

3 John Lewis- July 2020.

Rehena Harilall

Rehena Harilall

rehena Harilall (we,she/her) is South African, a psychologist and management consultant who celebrates African and Indian heritages. She was born and grew up during the Apartheid regime and was involved in various Reconstruction and Development work post democratic elections in 1994.  She now lives and works from the United Kingdom as a management consultant. She has been practising in the Plum Village tradition since 1998 and also  practises in the Tibetan and Insight Traditions. She practises with BIPOC and Non-BIPOC Buddhist Communities in South Africa, the UK, and USA. She is currently engaged in various revitalisation and re-pairing projects in Kwazulu-Natal focusing on the renewal of rural spaces most impacted by the legacy of apartheid and climate change.