By Taikyo Gilman
Honoring the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not on the MRO’s annual calendar of events until sangha member Tanya Bonner brought it up. She asked the teachers, Why do I have to go somewhere else outside of my practice community to honor this ancestor? While not a Buddhist, Rev. King embodied the moral and ethical faith imperative to respond to suffering in his lifetime. So, planning began for the first annual event held in January 2019, organized by Tanya, other Black and POC sangha members and MRO staff.
Simultaneous MLK Jr. events at Brooklyn’s ZCNYC Temple and upstate’s Monastery were powerful reminders of the bodhisattva activity in the world, and the sangha’s deep need to honor our connection with these ancestors who support us in our moral and ethical precepts—in social and racial justice work—within dharma practice.
This year’s 2021 MLK events were sobering reminders of how entrenched the violence, trauma and racialized inequality continues to be in our nation. Many months in the planning, Hojin Sensei and Tanya developed Brave Together: A Conversation Panel with Black sangha members and special guest Pamala Ayo Yetunde, co-editor and author of Black and Buddhist: What Buddhism Can Teach Us about Race, Resilience, Transformation, and Freedom for mid-January.
Joined by sangha members Yama Faye and Degna Chikei Levister, the four panelists took up questions related to how they encountered Buddhism and connected with the Dharma, and their experiences as Black practitioners entering this and other sangha communities. A lively discussion brought to light the challenges of creating sangha and the need for more awareness of the bias and confusion that are part of being conditioned, cultured beings. We all need to be brave and stay open, to stay vulnerable and genuine when we hesitate or blunder, trusting with openness and integrity.
On Sunday the Monastery and virtual sangha honored MLK Jr. with an event created by Black sangha members, Awakening Justice, to bring into the room an awareness of on-going struggle. Sangha member Carmen Phelps organized a reading of over 155 names of Black people murdered by police from January to August of 2020—and the acknowledgment of others yet unnamed—was a stark reminder that racial bias is still a dynamic source of trauma and pain. We honor all who work to change systemic bias and to uproot racial violence and hatred.
The morning included dharma words from Hojin Sensei and Shugen Roshi and featured a short video created by Yama Faye and the planning committee showing the stark reality of neighborhood inequity in food, housing, policing and green spaces in a five mile ride from Yama’s home in Brownsville to Boerum Hill where the ZCNYC Temple is located, giving a visual experience of these differences in real time.
Aware of these persistent inequities and our Bodhisattva vow to alleviate suffering, an increasing number of sangha members are engaging in social justice as an integral part of their dharma practice. More than half of last ango’s participants engaged in study sessions on anti-racism work as dharma practice, many for the first time but also many with experience spanning decades of engagement in social justice and personal study. Some may be studying on their own, and the teachers and the sangha want to encourage everyone who has not yet taken up this bodhisattva practice and study to step in.
It is important—imperative—for the MRO sangha to be creating a shared, public dialogue across the silences with events of this kind, and study such as “What is Whiteness,” exploring the harm of entrenched, persistent inequity and bias. Our different experiences and unique circumstances need to be clearly understood and expressed, regardless of where we are coming from. Together we take up this living vow to bring an end to all suffering, trauma and injustice.