For Tanya Marie Bonner, the absence of the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at her home sangha was always perplexing. Here, she shares the journey of creating an annual program to honor Dr. King and his life’s dedication to the alleviation of the suffering.
The monastic leadership of the Zen Buddhist monastery of which I had been closely affiliated as a lay practitioner had never offered any specific reason why Martin Luther King, Jr. Day had come and gone for decades without any formal ceremonial event to commemorate it.
But there did come a time when this absence was no longer sustainable for me in a predominantly white sangha as an African-American woman.
That time was in the later part of 2019, and would result in our monastery’s first MLK Day Sunday program in January 2020, right before the city, country, and world as we know would be forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And before the reckonings around racial injustice that would reverberate across institutions in the country.
Dr. King himself embodied the Buddha in his attempts at the liberation of Black people and other oppressed people chained under a system of racial and economic oppression.
This absence of Dr. King in my home sangha was always perplexing to me. Dr. King’s entire life’s work was about the alleviation of the suffering of Black people and other oppressed people in the country. King himself embodied the Buddha in his attempts at the liberation of those same people chained under a system of racial and economic oppression.
By the time I sought a formal MLK ceremonial event at my sangha, a shift in myself had already occurred. I had moved from pondering the “why” of this absence to asking “why not now?” And, frankly, I didn’t have the capacity to tackle both the root (why?) and to work with monastic leadership on creating programming that would establish a new pattern of acknowledging this important day (why not now?) at the same time. This was because there had been so many other previous efforts to shift patterns of invisibility of the needs of the non-white sangha members that I was not just tired. I was, as some Black folks would say, “tired-tired.” More than just tired. Tired squared. Sick and tired of being sick and tired. Exhausted.
The Lonely Sangha
The first chapter in my journey in Zen Buddhism and toward January 2020 began when I was first introduced to Zen Buddhism via fellow yoga practitioners in Boston, Massachusetts. The second chapter began a few years later when I moved to New York City in 2004 to enroll in an MBA program, and began seeking a Buddhist “home” in this new city.
The third jewel of the three treasures remained elusive to me on this journey. I knew from the moment I was first introduced to Zen Buddhism that I could take refuge in the Buddha and in the Dharma teachings. These two things provided me with daily wisdom, comfort, and support as I journeyed through my life. But the sangha was another story. I found myself for years floating around from Buddhist temple to Buddhist temple, monastery to monastery in search of that place that felt like home.
I wasn’t expecting a sangha utopia. Like the perfectly imperfect Enso ‘circle’ that stops just short of being completely closed, I was at ease with things being less than ideal. I had been raised in public housing in a predominantly African-American and poor neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois by people other than my parents (my grandparents). And I split my time and my identities between that world and a predominantly white and affluent educational environment due to my academic achievements. I was capable of sitting at ease with messy.
But lingering stares from white sangha members when I would enter a new Buddhist space, the hypervigilance of policing my movements within, and my invisibility as others mingled around me during refreshments after Sunday services made these environments feel not just messy, but unsafe. Efforts to provide space for people of color to be in community and practice together in some sanghas were sometimes met pushback and with accusations of fostering “duality.” This general sense of feeling “othered” would cause me to continue searching. I became a nomad of sorts. I would land mostly at my regular temple run by the monastic order where I would bring that MLK event because I greatly needed and was drawn to its intensive Dharma trainings and its beautiful ceremonies that made me feel a strong connection to the Buddhist ancestors. But I continued to float from place to place, capitalizing on the strengths of the various sanghas in the city.
Sangha is intended to be that imperfect, yet sustaining foundation as we work to grow in our practice.
One of those places was a New York Insight Mediation Center sangha that would annually hold an event on MLK Day in collaboration with its POC sangha. On that special Monday every January, I could breathe. I would feel seen amongst many others who shared my experience of being a minority in America, and of being an African-American woman in America. And every time I would return to my regular sangha for services, I would mourn the loss of that feeling of connection with my regular sangha.
There is a reason that Sangha is included among the three treasures. Sangha in its traditional meaning refers to the monastics and other teachers in whom lay practitioners like myself seek support along the Eight-Fold Path. This definition was expanded in the West to refer to all members of a Buddhist community. Tibetan Buddhist Teacher and Shambhala Founder Chogyam Trungpa once described the important role sanghas play this way: “The sangha is the community of people who have the perfect right to cut through your trips and feed you with their wisdom, as well as the perfect right to demonstrate their own neurosis and be seen through by you.” (O’Brien, 2020). Sangha is intended to be that imperfect, yet sustaining foundation as we work to grow in our practice. It provides a supportive, guiding hand when we lose our way.
I had watched for almost two decades POC sangha members be called upon and/or volunteer their emotional labor on behalf of white sangha members to “cut through…trips” and “feed…with their wisdom.” The relationship felt very one-sided. It was difficult for POC sangha members to be “fed” when those upon whom they rely to cut through their own “trips” and challenges are stuck in their own fears around identity, race, and the nation’s history of white supremacy. A need for greater diversity in things like Dharma teachers, retreat offerings, and sangha practices would need to be pointed out and then solutions actively conceived and mostly executed by POCs themselves.
Calling Together the Beloved Community
This is how I arrived at pointing out the annual invisibility of the presence of Dr. King every January and taking a leadership role in working with monastics and some other POC sangha members in planning that first MLK Sunday service. In between a full-time job, teaching part-time at a University, and serving on my local governmental community board, I gave all of myself to this event, as did other POCs helping to execute it.
Admittedly, this first foray into an MLK Day service was a lot about personal need. I was determined to create the sangha I needed. I was tired of roaming to pay homage to this individual who played a key role in my own current freedoms. I also longed for a deeper connection with my sangha as result of their eyes opening up and finally seeing me.
I left that day feeling closer to and more seen my sangha than I had ever felt before.
I pondered why others like me may have hesitated in pushing for this in the past. Had the hierarchies built within the sangha (i.e., monastic and lay persons, Board Members and everyone else) convinced POC sangha members of their limited power to impact such major changes? Had we internalized our own powerlessness? But I was determined to step into my own power and in my understanding of my equal place within the sangha. And my question about “what if we hold an MLK Day event?” became a statement of “we must.” The high-ranking monastic who was helping us with event planning expressed fears about the unknown, and how this event would be received by the sangha. She was afraid of the planned “open discussion” part of the event, and whether things would get too heated. And, honestly, we were all a little afraid. I felt an enormous pressure to get this right, lest POCs in the sangha are denied an opportunity to try again.
Then on January 19, 2020, the sangha opened its doors for its first MLK Day Program, and we called it “Calling Together the Beloved Community.” The program was open to not only the monastic and lay practitioners, but also to any members of the diverse Brooklyn community outside of the predominantly white sangha doors who wanted to join us. And they did in a packed hall.
We kept things uncomplicated and simple that first year. We sat in a multiple row semi-circle. Various sangha members and others from the community volunteered to read varying quotes from the Buddha and MLK. An altar with the famous photograph of MLK and Thich Nhat Hanh greeted attendees as they entered. We listened to recordings of MLK’s words. There was a Dharma talk. People made ancestral offerings at the altar. And that open discussion ended up being quite powerful and nurturing. I left that day feeling closer to and more seen my sangha than I had ever felt before.
There is now an annual MLK Day program every January at the sangha, albeit virtual now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And while other unresolved issues around race, power, privilege, and oppression within the sangha have resulted in my choosing a more limited involvement than in the past, I feel an enormous sense of service to present and future sangha members in having laid the foundation for this important day of recognition.
Perhaps others will be inspired to continue to ask for the sangha that they need in other ways. May they be able to roam less and know they have found home.
O’Brien, Barbara (2020, August 25) Taking Refuge: Becoming a Buddhist. Retrieved from https://www.learningreligions.com/taking-refuge-becoming-a-buddhist-450056
This article was created in collaboration with Buddhist Justice Reporter, who describe themselves as a community of BIPOC dharma practitioners engaged in peaceful resistance to white supremacy and violence.