Harvard’s Buddhism and Race Conference Experiences a Radical Re-Orientation

Lion’s Roar speaks with the co-organizers of Harvard University’s Buddhism and Race Conference, discussing the “Radical Re-Orientation Speaker Series.”

Pamela Ayo Yetunde
12 July 2021

Deadly violence against people of color through structural and systemic racism necessitates a radical re-orientation towards and re-interpretation of Buddhist scriptures and practices by Buddhists who are people of color – if we are to survive the scourge of white supremacy — even within some Buddhist communities. This anti-racist, intersectionally-analytical “Buddhist renewal movement” has been in the works for decades in the U.S. and continues to gain momentum.  In this interview, members of the Harvard Buddhist Community (Liem Nguyen, Chantal Sanchez, Keila Franks, and Eva Seligman) talk about how they conceived of, planned, and hosted “Radical Re-Orientation: 2021 Buddhism and Race Speakers Series”. They explain why they re-oriented themselves to offer a series challenging the collective spiritual bypasses around race, gender, homophobia, colonization, and other forms of oppression found in many sanghas, why they invited the speakers who attended, and what they hoped to accomplish through the themes they chose to address. Harvard Buddhist Community makes the case that white supremacy can find support in western Buddhist communities that refuse to turn a cultural-contextual-critical eye upon themselves.

—Pamela Ayo Yetunde

Lion’s Roar: How did the reimagining of the Buddhism and Race conference as an 8-month speaker series come about?

When the 2020 Buddhism and Race Conference was canceled due to COVID-19, we were grateful that all of the 2020 speakers agreed to be part of our 2021 program. We sought to restructure the format to adapt to both the virtual environment and the socio-political reality of the past year. We took to heart author adrienne maree brown’s idea of the need to “move at the speed of trust” and spent the first few months of our time together prioritizing the slow and careful work of relationship building and identifying shared goals and values. This was essential for creating the environment to reimagine and restructure the conference. The process was complex and sometimes messy,, and doing so over Zoom amid the fear and heartbreak of white supremacist violence in the context of a global pandemic was often overwhelming. In the end, however, the process of reimagining our program bore fruit in ways that we never could have expected.

We hope to push the conversation forward to encourage others to join us in this radical re-orientation of the Dharma.

To make our program more accessible, we decided to shift the structure to a free eight-month virtual speaker series, with one event each month. This prolonged structure emphasizes the fact that dismantling white supremacy and collaboratively working toward racial justice is an ongoing process. We’ve wanted to honor and lift up the voices of those who have been seeking to build decolonized, indigenized, and anti-racist Buddhist practices and communities for many years, and we hope to push the conversation forward to meet the needs of the current moment and to encourage others to join us in this radical re-orientation of the Dharma.

Is there a story that lies behind this year’s title, “Radical Re-Orientation”?

“Radical Re-orientation” is a name that reflects our perspective of Buddhism as an inherently radical tradition in its historical context. The historical Buddha challenged the caste and gender hierarchy by proclaiming that everyone has the potential to become enlightened. Despite controversy, he invited Sunita, born to an untouchable family, into the monastic sangha. After being challenged by Lady Gotami, he allowed women to ordain as monastics. We can see that the Buddha was not only grappling with the personal question of how to become liberated, but also the socio-political question of who has or doesn’t have access to the conditions for liberation, and ultimately the radical question of how to challenge societal discrimination within and around the sangha to create the conditions for everyone to realize their spiritual potential.

In the same spirit, the title “Radical Re-Orientation” reflects our collective aspiration to participate in the movement that is turning the Dharma toward the roots of discrimination and suffering in our time— namely racism and its intersections with other forms of oppression, such as sexism, homophobia, and classism. We recognize that there is a tendency in white-convert Buddhist communities to engage with the Dharma in an abstract, apolitical, ahistorical, and individualistic manner, which obfuscates socio-political topics of race, gender, sexuality, and class. At Harvard Divinity School, many students are influenced by scholar Charles Long’s notion of religion as orientation, by which he means “orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world.” This perspective reorients how we often think of religion in the west—as beliefs, ideas, and doctrinal texts. Approaching Buddhism solely through the mind feeds into our hyper-individualism and intellectualizing tendencies. Long’s notion of orientation invites us to engage with Buddhism in a more spacious way. That means engaging with Buddhism not as an abstract philosophy or individual practice, but as a bodily, relational, cultural, and political practice. This kind of engagement permits our Buddhist practices to intervene, name, and transform suffering at all intersecting levels, from individual to interpersonal, somatic to structural, mental to political.

We all wanted to somehow include the word “radical” in the title to reflect the collective urgency to move beyond the bandage strategy of racial integration to actually addressing the problems of racism. Angela Davis reminds us that “radical” means going to the root. That is very much a Buddhist project—to identify and transform the roots of our suffering, whether personal, interpersonal, or systemic. Here we are indebted to bell hooks’ interlocking concept of the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. This helps us see how systems of oppression inter-are, meaning they depend on each other to function and to generate systemic suffering. We believe it is important to not only see clearly how the three poisons of ignorance, greed, and hatred operate at the personal level, but also how they coalesce, manifest, and intersect at the collective level as racism, capitalism, imperialism, and other forms of systemic oppression.

Taken together, the title “Radical Re-orientation” asks us a more existential question—what does it mean for us as American Buddhists to come to terms with our place in the world? Through our practices of precepts, mindfulness, meditation, chanting, and ritual, how do we reckon with the ultimate significance of our individual racial, gender, and class locations in the context of the settler-colonial state of America—an empire  waging war abroad, violence at our borders, and mass incarceration of our citizens? These questions are very much at the heart of the first and second noble truths, which invite us to name our suffering and its roots, to call the afflictions of racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia within and around us by their true names. Unless we can precisely name and diagnose our dis-ease and our karma in relation to our locations, we cannot transform them. This is why talking about these issues matters. If we don’t include a structural, intersectional, and transnational analysis in our practice of the second noble truth, we risk continuing to participate in feeding systems that engender mass suffering. This is why to truly shine our awareness on the root causes of suffering of our time, our practice and analysis need to also be structural and intersectional. In answering the call to be anti-racist, we must be oriented toward intersectionality and decolonization. To be truly anti-racist, we must also be anti-sexist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist.

The invention of race has helped globalized capitalism to commodify and militarize our relationships with each other. If orientation means to find “a sense of center in relation to other directions of the cosmos and all beings,” then how can the radical re-orientation of the Buddhist teachings of the four noble truths and the practices of the eightfold path help us to reorient our relationship to each other toward harmony, mutuality, and solidarity? With the title “Radical Re-orientation,” we posit that anti-racist and decolonized practices bear the mark of Buddhism’s spirit of practical analysis of dukkha and its roots to bring a total end to suffering. Anti-racism and decolonization aren’t and shouldn’t be separate from our Buddhist practice; they are actually pathways that help Buddhism to realize itself fully into this historical moment.

So far, the series has hosted Larry Yang, Rhonda V. Myozen Magee, Duncan Ryūken Williams, Ann Gleig, and Chenxing Han in conversation with Nalika Gajaweera. Can you describe a few highlights from these lectures? Similarly, in what ways are the speakers in conversation with each other? Have you noticed any connections between the lectures?

Larry Yang’s talk in January set the stage for the series having a collaborative and communal feel. As he told stories and showed pictures from BIPOC-led Dharma gatherings, the chat filled up with participants saying they had attended those gatherings and sharing their memories. Larry’s significant contributions to and portrayal of the radical reorientation happening within various American Dharma communities engendered an overwhelming sense of joy and belonging among participants in the chat. Overall, the event highlighted the truth that the work toward racial justice is and must be collective and communal.

Rhonda Magee also spoke to the importance of being in community, and she emphasized how embodied healing and presence are necessary components of “the Dharma of racial justice.” She discussed how the work of racial justice is the work of repairing souls and spirits and of bringing about new ways of being together that amplify the magnificence of being alive. Rhonda concluded her event with a powerful reminder that joy must be a touchstone for how we engage in the work of racial justice and healing.

In March, Duncan Williams spoke to the legacy of Asian-American Buddhist resistance to white supremacy in the United States and stressed how the wisdom of Asian American Buddhist ancestors can offer us guidance now as we seek racial healing. He described how the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, repairing broken pottery with gold, can be seen as a possible framework for racial reparations. In the practice of Kintsugi, the fissure lines remain clearly visible, which emphasizes the importance of remembering and reckoning with the past.  Each breakage point is adorned with gold, showing the dignity of all people and the importance of healing and repair.

Ann Gleig explored how “whiteness” has shaped, functioned in, and hindered American convert Buddhist modernism. Ann highlighted the breadth and depth of transformative change that BIPOC practitioners and leaders are making in Dharma communities across the United States. For example, BIPOC Dharma leaders like Zenju Earthlyn Manuel have exposed how majority-white Buddhist sanghas have used Buddhist teachings such as anatta (no-self) and nonduality to erase and bypass the lived experiences of BIPOC. These leaders affirm that the absolute can be realized through lived, embodied experiences. Dr. Gleig concluded her talk by discussing the importance of white Buddhists confronting their own racial conditioning and working to dismantle white supremacy within dominant American Buddhist sanghas.

Our May event featured Chenxing Han in conversation with anthropologist Nalika Gajaweera. Their conversation made visible how the power of whiteness moves through wrong perceptions by problematizing the dualism of “two Buddhisms,” “convert” Buddhism and “heritage” Buddhism, that privileges the white self as the norm. Chenxing’s work uplifts and weaves together stories of young Asian American Buddhists to illuminate a more hybrid, intersectional, transnational, and culturally-engaged form of Buddhism that would ultimately queer the dualistic categories of “convert” vs. “heritage,” “Western” vs. “Eastern,” “rational” vs. “devotional,” “logical” vs. “intuitive,” and “mind” vs. “body.” They ended their conversation by honoring Asian women, past and present, whose indispensable labor and love constitute the backbone of Buddhism—a fact that is erased through the optics of dominant categories.

One of the behind-the-scenes highlights of the series is the joy and hope inspired by the interconnections and fierce commitment to this work of our speakers and the attendees of our events. Many of our speakers know each other personally, and they are aware of each other’s work in the field of racial justice. In this way, all of our speakers have emphasized the fact that racial justice and healing in American Dharma communities is a collective movement.

Race is the issue of our time. There have been recent spikes in hate crimes against Asian Pacific Islander Americans, including vandalism of many Buddhist temples throughout the U.S. How do the speakers address these recent attacks? How do they suggest a Buddhist response?

Duncan Williams’ event took place on March 16th, and his talk included information about the recent spike in anti-Asian violence and the vandalism of Buddhist temples in the United States. What we soon learned was that his event occurred at the same time as the shootings in Atlanta that killed eight people, six of whom were working-class women of Asian descent. What is so important here is Duncan’s analysis of the recent anti-Asian hate crimes as an iteration of history, not an aberration. In his words, “Religio-racial hostility and outright hatred—also the result of delusion—runs deep in American history.” The poisons of ignorance, greed, and hatred that are ingrained in supremacist and exclusionary ideologies continue to inflict state-sanctioned suffering onto BIPOC communities past and present, at home and abroad, to serve capitalist and imperialist interests. These hate crimes are manifestations of a collective karmic pattern that is foundational to the U.S., and we must name it with precision to begin transforming it.

In direct response to the March 16th attack and the general rise in anti-Asian violence, two of our speakers, Chenxing Han and Duncan Williams, along with Funie Hsu, organized the “May We Gather” memorial exactly 49 days after the Atlanta shootings. According to the May We Gather website, “In many Buddhist traditions, forty-nine days after death marks an important transition for the bereaved.”

We are called to rise up together in solidarity through the muddy waters of racial violence and systemic suffering.

This historic ceremony embodies a collective multi-lineage Buddhist response that delivered us into deeper kinship with each other through mourning for the unbearable loss not only of those who lost their lives in the wake of racial violence in Atlanta but also throughout U.S. history.

At this ceremony, Duncan Williams provided a powerful reminder of Bodhidharma’s teaching to “fall down seven times, get up eight.” In this historical moment, that means we gather to grieve deeply in community;  as our spirits are imbued by the presence of those no longer physically with us, we stand up with greater resolve to fight against injustice in their honor. Echoing Duncan Williams, in recognizing that our “destinies and freedoms are intertwined,” we are invited to make connections between seemingly disparate struggles for liberation as the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass did in the past by linking the struggle for emancipation to the struggle for immigrant inclusion of Chinese American. Likewise, in the present, we are urged to tend to the interconnection between anti-Asian hate crimes and unequal vaccine distribution to the Global South, or between mass incarceration at home and the occupation of Palestine and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, for example. We are called to rise up together in solidarity through the muddy waters of racial violence and systemic suffering.

What has the response been to the series so far? What feedback have you received from viewers?

We’re so grateful and honored that so many Dharma leaders, practitioners, and Buddhist scholars are participating in the series and sharing their ideas and perspectives. One of the most powerful aspects of the series so far is that our events have fostered a collaborative atmosphere in which participants offer resources, lessons from their own experience, and contributions to the dialogue through the Zoom chat and Q&A features.

We have an optional survey we send out in the follow-up email to participants and have been so thankful for the thoughtful feedback we have received. Participants have highlighted a variety of aspects of our speaker events that they’ve appreciated, from specific anecdotes told during the events, to the speakers’ contributions and dedication to the larger conversation. For example, during Duncan Williams’ talk, he recalled a story of an elderly Japanese woman protecting a mosque from vandals as an example of solidarity in socially tumultuous times. Many of our participants emphasized this particular story as especially impactful for them as they continue to consider the intersection of race and Buddhism. It’s also been wonderful to read in the survey responses that some participants have even been inspired to make changes in their sanghas such as by creating affinity spaces for BIPOC members and white allies.

Overall, what has been the greatest feedback has had to be hearing BIPOC participants’ feelings of being both seen and heard through our series, with a reaffirmation that the larger Buddhist community is diverse and interconnected.

What speakers and topics can Lion’s Roar readers expect in the series’ future?

Our June event featured Dr. Shanté Paradigm Smalls and is available on our YouTube channel. We also are excited to announce that Katie Loncke, Managing Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, will lead our July event by reflecting on their own Buddhist activist experience and how Dharma teachings can aid racial justice movements. For our closing event in August, Larry Yang will come back to facilitate a panel discussion that is intended to be an experiential description of what people can do and are doing to shift away from the limitations of white-centered Buddhist spirituality with BIPOC leaders from the East Bay Meditation Center, Gathering Roots, and South Side Liberation Center. Stay tuned to our website for dates, times, and ticket information for these events. We hope to see you there!

Pamela Ayo Yetunde

Pamela Ayo Yetunde is an associate editor at Lion’s Roar and the author of Casting Indra’s Net: Fostering Spiritual Kinship and Community. She is the co-editor of Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us About Race, Resilience, Transformation and Freedom and has written other books and articles about being Black and Buddhist. Ayo is a pastoral counselor and is the founder of Marabella StoryCraft (www.pamelaayoyetunde.com).