In the first of a three-part series of conversations, Lion’s Roar Associate Editor Pamela Ayo Yetunde talks to Sister Clear Grace about the journey to becoming a Buddhist nun and hitting the road as “The Traveling Nunk” in a temple on wheels.
Ancient and contemporary Buddhist monastics throughout the world have lived on the generosity of others as they walked from grove to grove, community to community, serving those in need and teaching the buddhadharma to those who would listen. Today, one Black gender-nonbinary “nunk”, Sister Clear Grace Dayananda, has left the relative safety of their monastery to take service and teaching out of “cloisturedness” to the open streets in the South by converting an old van into a traveling monastery, and taking it on the road for the welfare of others. Why take this risk? In this time and country, will Sister Clear Grace find sustaining generosity for this mission from Buddhists and non-Buddhists? What can be gained by being with a Black Buddhist monastic defying gender norms talking about racial, gender, capitalistic and other forms of oppression? What potential does this expression of Buddhist community building – a temple on wheels — have for healing? How will Sister Clear Grace, in monastic robes, be impacted by the people she encounters and those who refuse to engage?
—Pamela Ayo Yetunde
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: I’d like to know more about how you came to be who you are at this moment. Growing up as a Black girl in the United States, I didn’t know anything about Buddhist monastics, and therefore had no vision of what it could mean for me to be a Black woman practicing Buddhism. How did you discover the dharma?
Sister Clear Grace: I was born in Seaside, California, near Monterey Bay, to a 17-year-old single mother. Growing up as a multiracial mixed person, I was always chasing and looking for a place to fit in. My mother is of Irish and Mexican descent, and my father, who wasn’t in the picture from the beginning, is African American. We moved from place to place three to four times a year, mostly running from domestic violence — running from one situation and relationship to the next.
I had it all. I had the cars, the house, and the career, but it felt like a superficial way of living.
I spent my later years in Southern California. When I was 35, I moved to southern Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. That’s when things started unfolding for me, and I began making that greater turn from Christianity to Buddhism.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: I don’t know if there are a lot of people who move to where a disaster just occured, but you chose to do that after Katrina.
Sister Clear Grace: I was called to do that. In that world of samsara of chasing relationships, I was married and then divorced. I lost my very best friend. I’d lost my younger sister at the age of 14. These great sufferings were actually points in my life that I see now as turning points toward the dharma.
I traveled all over the world with R&B musician Teena Marie for many years. We had traveled to Louisiana for the Essence Festival. There was something about landing my foot on the tarmac of that town that felt like home — like my ancestors were there. There’s so much history in the South — the churches, the music.
Landing in Louisiana felt full. It felt like I was returning home. Just as it did when I landed in India, the land of the Buddha. At that time, I was working in a corporation, and I was very successful. I was running many restaurants within the greater New Orleans area.
The people in that community had this joy in their eyes. There was also poverty, suffering, violence, and harm, but the joy and love present in them was so beautiful, just like the folks that I met when I arrived in India. They were people who had so little, yet looking into their eyes, they seemed to have so much. When I lived in California I had it all. I had the cars, the house, and the career, but it felt like a superficial way of living. I was always trying to keep up with the Joneses or move on up. I was at a point where I wanted to really enjoy people and become a self that wasn’t reliant on external conditions.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: Were you a practicing Buddhist when you went to Louisiana?
Sister Clear Grace: I wasn’t. At the time, I wanted a healthier living style, so I embraced meditation, healthier eating choices, and started running marathons. Then I founded the Greater Mindfulness Community of New Orleans, which was in the Thich Nhat Hanh tradition. I fled to the monastery in Mississippi. When I got there, I knew I wanted to be a nun.
As a young Black woman, I didn’t know what a Buddha was. When I worked with Teena Marie, she practiced many faiths, so I had heard of the Buddha but I didn’t know what it was.
My partner and I had attempted to have children several times, and I dropped to my knees asking God why it hadn’t happened yet. The answer that came to me was because my path was to become a nun — to be a mother to many. But being a nun was unfathomable to me. I ran to the internet and saw some of the things that were necessary to live the life of a nun. This path didn’t match my life — I didn’t see myself being that.
I set that idea aside and tried to push it away, but it got louder — so I renounced everything. I asked to become an aspirant at the monastery. I vowed to myself that I would never go back to California, because I didn’t see it possible living in that lifestyle. Then the monastery sent me right back to Deer Park in California.
I entered Deer Park as an aspirant and was ordained as the very first novice at that community. Though I wanted to go to France and other monasteries, I think I was sent back to California because there needed to be representation of a Black queer monastic. Why would I go to France to do that when the healing needed to happen here, in a state where there was great violence against Black and queer bodies?
With California being our most diverse state, I didn’t understand why we didn’t have monastics I could relate to — monastics that looked like me.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: I’ve been to Deer Park in Escondido, California, and I attended a retreat there. I want people to get a picture of what it means to go there after living a life of “material excess,” because that is not a place of comfort. What did it mean for you to strip down to that bare essence and find joy in that place?
Sister Clear Grace: It felt like freedom. It felt like I had received the treasures of silver and gold beyond measure. In Louisiana, I had a corporate car, corporate credit card, and I traveled the world as I pleased. I created my own schedule and worked from home. Everything was paid for. I had a beautiful home in the suburbs. However, I quickly laid down those things.
Before I entered the monastery, I went into my cabinets and cleared things out. I put everything on Craigslist. When I was accepted to go to Deer Park, I took nothing with me. I even had an original calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh that said “Breathe, my dear,” and I left it with my sangha in New Orleans because I thought I couldn’t bring anything to the monastery.
When I got there, I saw that my elder brothers and sisters had years of books and other things and I was like, “What? I didn’t have to get rid of my Louis Vuitton wallet?” But I quickly moved to living on a bed box, and having a three-by-eight-foot space and sharing a bathroom. There’s really no privacy. Being able to lay down my ego in this way was all part of the training.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: I saw a sendoff ceremony that you were in at Heartwood Refuge. Most of the people there, from what I could see, were people of color, many of whom seemed to be of African descent and also monastics. Can you tell me about your time at Heartwood Refuge?
Sister Clear Grace: When I left Deer Park, I felt called to East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC). I could no longer find transformation for my particular liberation to happen at Deer Park. I was after the concepts of deathlessness and freedom that the teachings of the Buddha offer us, and not the way that we are embodied or gendered. I sought out a higher training that would benefit the sufferings I had to overcome, and I found that at Heartwood Refuge, a beautiful home and community in Hendersonville, North Carolina led by Venerable Pannavati.
When we enter into a monastery, there’s these layers that you begin to shed and peel. I’ve previously written of an experience I had where ancestors visited me through my body, and showed me an experience of crossing the mid-Atlantic. I was on the floor rolling and heaving this intersection of spirituality, spiritual bypass, and shedding of the self. It was a painful experience, but it was also an embodying one where I was able to experience the pain of those before me. It was a way of coming to the fullness of who I am. I was able to understand that pain and suffering, but know that they weren’t mine.
For the first time, I was able to rejoice that those were not mine. I had the power to do the liberation and the freedom walking forth. I knew that this was my work. This is the higher training that I was able to receive: picking up the lineage of the Buddha and transcending the self.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: I know that your ancestors come from Ireland, Mexico, and Africa. When you say your ancestors visited you, who spoke to you? What did they say?
Sister Clear Grace: These were my paternal ancestors. I was shown a journey on the Middle Passage. Fortunately, we practice very well with our ancestors in the Plum Village tradition. I had the opportunity to do that and came to see all things, causes, and conditions in the way in which that suffering was within me and around me. This healing I experienced had to be done by myself for all of those before me.
I needed a way to be in the world, but not of the ways of the world.
The particular experience I shared with you came from ancestors of the African descent, because there are things in that lineage that I felt were taken from me. My religion, my language, my ancestors, my knowing, and even my name. My birth name is the plantation name Miller. There was also not being able to find my father and know the origin of my history. All of these things felt like they were ripped from me, and I felt resentment within that. In this experience, it was all given back. I saw that it was always within me. There was nothing more to look for. In the moment of that heaving, it was the swaying where I was at the bottom of the ship with my ancestors, head to feet and feet to head. I was purging the way at which the dharma had come to meet the suffering and the way that it was expelled from the body.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: There’s a lot to chew on there. I’d like to bring us to the present moment. Where are you now on your journey?
Sister Clear Grace: Well, right now I’m sitting in a rebuilt van in the rain, in the parking lot of Heartwood Refuge. I had a great aspiration that became a way of needing to find a temple or monastery that worked for the liberation that I’m looking to transcend. I didn’t often find this available in our centers. There’s plenty there — there’s foundation, training, but there are these internalized ways in which anger, greed and despair arise in me, as a person of African American descent. The sufferings I see daily are constantly in my face, constantly in my ear, and constantly come to me by way of the six senses. Where are the Buddhist teachings that speak to those? I needed a teacher who could point to them and say, this is the teaching for that particular suffering, but there weren’t any monastics that have experienced the Dharma in that way.
I needed to create a space where I could do that learning. I needed a way to be in the world, but not of the ways of the world. That’s how this mobile monastery came to be. As I look at American Buddhism, there’s an elite whiteness that is present. There’s an attachment of hanging on to these cultural ideas that weren’t America’s to begin with. These don’t allow space for all of us to come to see the dharma.
In my insights on the cushion and in the monasteries, I would come out of our meditations and look at those around me experiencing the same time type of happiness. There would often be no one that looked like me. It was typically middle-aged white folks. I was questioning “If the dharma is free for all, and it should be shared for all, where are those folks?”
We often have to do a lot of work in our monasteries just to have a five-day retreat for BIPOC practitioners, and to simply invite folks of all walks of life into our centers. We have to spend years on committees to try and make that happen for a five-day retreat. I spent a lot of time speaking with my elder brothers and sisters about how important these retreats are and how important these spaces are, but I got tired. I saw that this was not the way for us to spend our life with the dharma.
I want to be amongst all practitioners, not just BIPOC practitioners, who also want to be transcendent of the ways of we are in the body. I want to be a part of a community that is also looking to transcend, heal and transform. We often don’t have time for that because we can’t breathe — the knee of America is on our necks. If we’re going to continue to sit on our cushions, recite mantras, and remain in states of mindfulness and happiness for only ourselves, then the dharma becomes a way of keeping it for only our own enhancement, not for those that are just beyond our reach.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: What I hear, Sister Clear Grace, is you’re concerned about when people of color walk into a dharma community that has been consciously or unconsciously wrapping its Western culture over the dharma. You’re concerned about them showing this person entering the community for the first time more of the same old “you know what.”
Sister Clear Grace: I’m highly concerned. I hope that we do get back to the core of the buddhadharma, to the things of the Buddha that will transcend us and will catapult us together. This requires work, action, and our wide-awake circles and BIPOC communities. It’s a catapulting forward, not a remaining in our suffering. It’s not a remaining in our shedding our guilt. We have become such a resilient folk as Black folk, but now there’s sensitivities in everything that we do with our heightened mindfulness. This appropriated mindfulness has kept us aware of our suffering and pointed out how our traumas show up in our body. I think that our focus is on the symptom and not on the healing.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: And here you are a tricked-out van, but not tricked out in the ways that we typically talk about it.
Sister Clear Grace: It’s a 2003 Chevy with 190,000 miles on it.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: But what else is in that van? If you open up the door of your van and you invite people in, what’s the first thing they’ll see on the left?
Sister Clear Grace: The great aspiration is in this van. The first thing you’d see is an altar to the Buddha, the teachers, and the ancestors. There’s also a dharma library, a sitting area to get still and listen, and a space for me to abide. I have a kitchen, a sink, and a full bathroom.
Pamela Ayo Yetunde: This van is dharma-tricked-out. If they enter into “The Great Aspiration,” they are entering into a monastery. They’re entering into a small space with your powerful presence. Where have you been in “The Great Aspiration” so far? What do you do when you arrive?
Sister Clear Grace: I’ve been to Gastonia, Shelby, Lumberton, Hickory, Wilmington, Whitesville, and Kinston.
Depending on the time of day that I arrive, I’ll arrive at a cemetery and pay homage to the ancestors. I will also be aware of any historical land trauma and do healing and transformation for those ancestors as well. I’m also visiting sites where a lot of things are present — looking at the root of homelessness, gentrification, poverty. There’s this political and racialized violence and injustice at the root of that.
I spend time downtown. I walk about a mile and a half a day early in the morning, doing my walking meditation downtown. That’s where I seem to meet the most people, and then I can choose either to go left of the tracks or right of the tracks.
I’ve been asked how I find these communities. You can go to your appropriated Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, down Main Street, down Broad Street — it’s just about the same in every American city that you visit. It’s not hard to find.
With Covid, our shelters and food banks have slowed down and practically closed. The need for these people is extremely high. Things seem to be more normalized — these communities are not so hidden. You don’t have to go to “the hood” or be on the other side of the river or across the tracks anymore. In every city, you’ll see a gentrified main strip with wonderful condos and retail stores, then five or seven blocks of housing communities. It’s so normalized that we don’t even see it anymore, but it’s in our face and our dharma practices. This is the part that’s discouraging because we can become so normalized with what’s in front of us.
The difference between dana and generosity in these communities is if I want to have clean, fresh, water brought to my home so that I can drink water that is not intoxicated with chemicals and poisons, then I want that for somebody else too. I’m willing to give that up so folks in Flint can just turn on the tap water. That’s the part that we need to do. That’s the part we need to quickly get over and see that we play a part. We need to come to see that we play a part in that, but we need to quickly get over that, transcend that, and make that available in every way that we can.