Everyday I work (in a modest way according to my limits) to create a world where we live in loving, peaceful, generous interdependence with one another; with other living species; and with the earth that we occupy.
I am a Black American Buddhist Theravadin upāsikā/upāsaka in my 31st year of contemplative practice.
I am also a secular humanist with a deeply humanitarian understanding of the world.
I was lay-ordained by Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong (1909-2000), known affectionately by her Thai students as Khun Yay Ajan Mahā-ratana Upasika Chandra Khonnokyoong or just Khun Yay Ajan; and called by most of her American or non-Thai students Maechi Khonnokyoong or Maechi Chandra). I completed a private upāsikā/upāsaka program for Americans over the course of several years with a few other non-Thai adherents on trips to Thailand at Wat Phra Dhammakaya and other locales. I took another stage of upāsikā vows with the AI fellowship, a small, private humanistic, American Buddhist peace fellowship. (The fellowship had other names, but AI was its most frequently used appellation.)
Along with Maechi Chandra, I also learned from Bhante Suhita Dharma, Guy C. McElroy, and many others. S. N. Goenka's American Vipassanā meditation retreats and lectures in 2002 were deeply important to me. My spiritual thought is also deeply influenced by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, the dissident Buddhist philosopher whose lectures that I attended while I was studying in Thailand inspire my commitment to what he called a "middle way of life."
In a nutshell, I have winnowed my Buddhism down to a non-theistic secularized commitment to peace, mindfulness, harmlessness, giving, fairness, justice, equality, an acknowledgement of an interdependence with others (instead of only considering one's solitary desires), and the four loves (compassion, benevolence, equanimity, and empathetic joy). In essence, my Buddhism flows from five ancient Buddhist concepts:
brahmavihāras (the four loves — benevolence, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity);
paṭiccasamuppāda (loving interdependence with others);
dāna (generosity); and
Who am I not as a Buddhist?
The following is very important:
I do not teach Buddhism. I am not a "Buddhist teacher" or a "Dharma teacher."
I am not a yogi, guru, lama, or anything elevated.
I do not lead a Buddhist group (but I have co-led several meditation groups that have a secular humanist orientation).
I am a down-to-earth person who does not view myself as above anyone or anything else in this world.
I use my extensive multifaceted holistic training in a strictly secular sense as a mindfulness educator, a meditation teacher, a wellness coach, a trauma-informed care practitioner, a restorative practitioner, and a holistic healer.
If I offer reflections framed as a "Buddhist understanding" (or comparable framing), then, rather taking my reflections as universalized dharma (Sanskrit) or dhamma (Pali) doctrine, please only take my reflections as the modest view of a longtime holistic educator whose practice is rooted within a very limited and particular "DIY" (or, do-it-yourself) understanding of humanistic, inclusive Buddhism.
What is my daily practice (or the center of my spirituality)?
For over 30 years, I have meditated for at least a half an hour every single day (except for a two-month break during a challenging period in my life), and this practice has magnified my life immeasurably. I am calmer, more empathetic, more focused, kinder, gentler, and more peaceful.
Usually, after stretching with a few simple yoga poses (or asanas), I begin my practice by purposefully regularizing my inhalations and exhalations of breath while softening the muscles, tissue, and ligaments in my face, head, neck, chest, pelvis, and extremities.
While I may engage in a variety of breath practices from day-to-day, for the most part, I do Ānāpānasati (or mindfulness of breathing), one of the oldest systemized active breathing practices in the world.
Along with my breathing practice, I alternate between two forms of meditation:
The first is called Metta Bhavana (or loving-kindness) mediation. This practice helps me build my capacity for empathy.
The next practice is called Vipassana (Insight) meditation. This practice helps me see and accept things as they truly are.
For the first form of meditation, I visualize someone or something that needs blessings, gratitude, or love—including myself—and I offer it within my mind. Or, I infuse my mind with affirmations and bathe my emotions in hope and strength to resolve, improve, grow, and treat others and myself compassionately.
For the second form of meditation, I visualize problems in my life. Then I breathe deeply and regularly and ask myself what the root of the problem is. Then I say mantras, telling myself to let go of the problem, or I offer affirmations. Or I formulate simple solutions that carry the least amount of stress.
Sometimes I engage in meditative hand gestures (or mudras) to help my body-mind focus and articulate with calm and ease. I gesture lightly with my hands and fingers, touching my forefingers to my thumbs while releasing as much muscular contraction in my body as possible. Or I play meditative musical objects: I ring a gong or singing bowl and regularize my breathing while I listen to the sound subsiding. Executing meditative hand gestures and playing meditative objects were special provinces of my main teacher, Maechi Upāsikā Chandra Khonnokyoong.
Most of all, during my daily meditations, I keep boosting myself and telling myself that, with clear, incisive, hopeful thinking, I can meet all challenges and accomplish all goals.
Sick or well, glad or sad, all of my daily meditations are the bedrock of my resilience and the shaper of my intentions as a loving person in an oppressive world.
Pali is an ancient language within which much Buddhist scriptures (or suttas) were written. In Pali, the terms "upāsikā/upāsaka" mean (variously), "One who sits close by" or "One who serves and seeks."
Upāsikā/upāsaka take the same vows as monastics (nuns and priests) with subtle variations, but we are not monastics.
In the modern era, rather than being the attendants of monastics in temples, many of us upāsikā/upāsaka live out in the world and our work is generally dedicated to serving the disadvantaged rather than teaching or "preaching" within a temple.
We generally wear dark colored robes on official or professional occasions as well as simple dark colored dress and adornment for everyday attire. Some upāsikā/upāsaka who are attached to temples wear light colored clothing. There are many ways to be upāsikā/upāsaka.
What does "spirit" or "spirituality" mean to me?
For me, the words SPIRIT or spirituality mean LOVE.
My "higher power" is my capacity to reach beyond my ego and be intentionally kind, loving, and restorative to others.
This understanding is the essence of my morality. For me, true morality means treating fellow humans, other species, and the environment with love, fairness, care, harmlessness, and thoughtfulness at all times.
My dear friend Nizah Morris always said that, whenever anything must be done, first ask and answer this question:
"What is the loving thing to do?"
I have lived by these ideals for almost my entire life.
I became a Buddhist because serious daily meditation and mindfulness helps to forge my own senses of calm, focus, peace, compassion, empathy, and healing.
I became anupāsikābecause I wanted a lifelong vocation within which I can help and serve others to find health and wellness in the wake of trauma through mindfulness.
Is my Buddhism the Dalai Lama's Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism?
Short answer: No.
I have enormous love and respect for the teachings of the Dalai Lama. He has guided many to understand the urgent need for compassion and kind-heartedness in this difficult world.
While it is aligned at its root, my Buddhism is a different tradition than that of the Dalai Lama.
It is often said that the Buddha gave 84,000 different teachings (or dhamma) to various people according to their individual needs. Dhamma is the thought that fuels contemplative practice. In turn, contemplative practice helps us attune our minds to end suffering in the world by becoming more enlightened, compassionate people.
When many people think of Buddhism, they think of Tibetan Buddhism, which is associated with the Dalai Lama. I am loving towards all healthy practices and thoughts within Buddhist traditions. Yet, neither Tibetan Buddhism (which is a form of Mahayana Buddhism) or Vajrayana are the Buddhist traditions within which I live my life.
I am a proponent of a humanistic understanding of Theravada Thai Buddhism based in the Pāli Canon (or the originating Buddhist texts that record the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, the original historical Buddha).
But, as I have aged, I have moved beyond the Pali tradition within which I first trained and I have become a dissident. While still respecting the Pali Theravadin tradition, I embrace a humanistic Buddhism that questions and critiques the propensity for hierarchies, sententiousness, and inequality within many Buddhist traditions.
What do I mean by "Christian-rooted"?
When I say "Christian-rooted" I mean that I was first raised for a limited amount of time in the Church Of God, an African American quasi-Pentecostal place of worship that (at the time of this writing) is still active at 2030 Georgia Ave NW in Washington, D.C. But, since I was a child, unlike the congregation within which I was raised, I have always embraced a vision of spirituality as a force of peace, justice, equality, and affirmation for the poor, for women, for LGBTQ people, and for all those marginalized because of income, race, gender, disability, culture, and creed.
"There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion, and that you worship Buddha,"said Thích Nhất Hạnh, the venerable Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist.
"Buddhism is a practice. You can be Christian and practice Buddhism," Thich Nhat Hanh stressed.
Indeed, I have met Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, and atheist Buddhists as well as Tibetan, Zen and other Buddhists who embrace their practice as a religion. This diversity of practice is one of the things that I admire about Buddhism.
What was the AI fellowship?
The AI fellowship's most prominent members included the late Nizah Morris (who was also a student of Chandra) who helped found the group as an intentional community of upāsikā/upāsaka, and practitioners like the Donny Reynolds, Diki Yin Yin Coleman, Ciolek Shawna Labeija, Kelly Harper, Marcus Bodhiraja, Gloria Phellps (who is still active, open, and on Facebook at the time of this writing), Anthony Mccullough (aka Alphy Karan), and Ricky Agawa.
Our fellowship's vow-taking was open-ended, non-restrictive, and "DIY—do it yourself": each member created her/his/their own initiating ritual. We all took (or re-took in my case; I took vows in Thailand previously) lay vows (meaning, without being a monk, nun, or priest within a Buddhist order), and thereby we adhered to five precepts:
not harming others;
being open (and not misrepresenting);
engaging in safe, consensual relations—no unwanted intimate relations; and
not abusing intoxicating substances.
While my naming rituals began with Chandra, they ended with my fellowship. With the support of my fellowship, I selected vrksākā dūlī (which are the Pali words for "tree turtle") as my upāsikā name. While the fellowship no longer formally exists, many of us who were members maintain or maintained our lifelong vows. Thus, as an avowed, lifelong upāsikā I live a life of service for others while advocating for compassion, for just action fueled by reason, for civil rights and human rights, for animal welfare and child welfare; for conflict transformation and restorative justice, for environmental sustainability, and, most of all, for the beautiful power of mindfulness.
Which ancient Buddhist texts are important to me?
I am a stronger Buddhist because I have read many of the earliest Buddhist texts myself instead of only relying on other's re-interpretations (which are often helpful too). To do this I have taken classes in Pali. While I have read widely within the Pāli Canon, I always find myself returning to the texts within the Pāli Canon that record the historical Buddha’s detailed ideas and instructions about mindfulness and meditation. These are the Satipatṭhāna Sutta (The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness), theMahāsatipatṭhāna Sutta (The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness aka The Long Discourse about the Ways of Attending to Mindfulness), and theĀnāpānasati Sutta (Breath-Mindfulness Discourse). Nowadays excellent English translations of these ancient Pali texts are available for free online. Just click on to the blue links within this paragraph.
What has been your relationship with various Buddhist communities, including the Thai Buddhist community within which you trained and were ordained?
This is a question that pains me to answer. But, I have come to believe that it is important that I answer it so that readers understand the complex ways in which many progressive African Americans, progressive women, and progressive LGBTQ people like myself were and are still perceived and treated within many (though certainly not all) Buddhist communities. What I say here may depart from American Soto Zen Buddhists' experiences and those Americans who practice contemporary forms of Insight Mindfulness. While there are always challenges, in the 30-plus years of my practice, these two American Buddhist communities have evolved to become more welcoming of difference. This is only my evolving experience and I never impose my way on others.
I deepened my Buddhism within Thailand and I love the country dearly. Thailand is a majority Buddhist country with a constitutional monarchy and a tourist industry that has expanded greatly over the past 30-plus years. I also acknowledge that Thailand is a very gendered country where showing respect is extremely important. Even the language is gendered. Women must make a sound at the end of phrases, including greetings, to show respect, and there are many classifications of "wai," or clasped hands in front of the body with a slight bow to demonstrate different forms of respect. Learning Thai language (and Pali) also means learning the cultural traditions of "wai" and much more to deepen our understanding of Thai worldviews. (My Thai and Pali language skills have weakened considerably because I have not been in the country since my teacher died in 2000.)
The temple at which I trained relied (and still relies) on non-Thai visitors (foreigners and tourists) to take care of some of its needs. Many Americans and other foreigners who trained at the temple made donations to it to support our training. Take in mind that Maechi Chandra built the temple with her devotees, family, and extended family from the ground up—literally—setting aside the land for the original grounds and building all the infrastructure. The temple has expanded greatly to become incredibly large and complex. While the support of foreigners and tourists has been criticized by many within and outside of the country, I praise this support because the country has a challenging economy and a frequently repressive politics. Thailand has endured a dozen military coups in recent years and many native people find it challenging to thrive and survive and they do not feel safe sharing their true feelings.
At the same time that the country and some temples rely on non-Thai support, many Thai people were wary of non-Thai people. (Of course, this has changed a lot since my time there. I see an explosion of social media videos of Thai people's wonderful interactions with non-Thai that don't comport with my experiences. It's hard to gauge how deeply these videos reflect realities on the ground.) I believe that this wariness that I experienced was extremely important for Thai people's own self-protection because many Europeans and Americans have colonized, exploited, disrespected, or made war with Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), outer Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia and, of course, Vietnam. I feel strongly that non-Thai people should never advance themselves as authorities on Thai culture or spiritual life, and I do not present myself as such. There were a very few Americans that were close to Maechi Chandra's temple at various points in its history, and, by and large, we are not greatly highlighted in publicity about the temple and nor should we be.
On my first trip to the country around 1988 to study at the temple, I was stopped repeatedly by Thai police who asked if I was trying to sell drugs in the country (I was emphatically not!) and they suggested that they were asking the question because of what they thought were African Americans' propensity to abuse illicit drugs. Similar patterns of mistreatment unfolded for LGBTQ people when I visited the country. On the one hand, Thai people are sometimes accepting of queer and trans people and the nightlife in many cities teams with cabarets devoted to queer and trans entertainment. But, on the other hand, many Thai and non-Thai LGBTQ people are persecuted and refused benevolence as queer and trans people if we are open about ourselves. Two now-departed Thai trans women (both passed of HIV/AIDS) that I knew who wanted to join the priesthood or upāsikā-hood were told that they would have to revert to the gender that they were assigned at birth to advance in their roles. One did and one did not, but both suffered greatly because of their country-people's sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.
Like the USA and most countries in the world, the government and the temples of Thailand are extremely male-dominated and patriarchal. Sexism abounds. A few women spiritual leaders like Maechi Chandra, my teacher, are revered at the same time that they are subtly disparaged. Maechi Chandra grew up in the countryside and she did not have traditional schooling (but she insisted that many members of her family study hard). I am still alarmed by the fact that, before and after Maechi Chandra's death in 2000, she was and is often called "illiterate" by people inside and outside her inner circle (including on her Wikipedia page). Characterizations like this are not only false, but they also serve to dilute her power and influence as a woman nun and abbotess even as she is praised. As a founder of the large temple, she was, in fact, extremely literate in many ways—a master organizer and influencer with a brilliant gift for language and relationship-building.
Much, much more quietly (and, to my knowledge, this has never been written about), Maechi Chandra ministered to a few queer and trans people and welcomed a few African Americans like myself to study at the temple that she founded. Simply being queer or trans is often viewed as misconduct in many Thai spiritual communities (just it is in many American spiritual communities too) and LGBTQ people must hide or risk subtle and overt forms of censure and ostracism. Sometimes, leaders within the spiritual communities must also hide their ministry of us.
Additionally, there has always been a grave problem of male-dominated abuse within many Buddhist communities (towards women, towards LGBTQ people, and towards anyone who may be different or perceived lesser than the few powerful men and their collaborators who are in charge). I came to study at Maechi Chandra's temple because I did not want to be exposed to male-dominated abuse in a spiritual community. But, Maechi Chandra's influence only reached so far and even within the worlds that she held some power, abuse reigned.
So there is a love/hate view of people like me in many Buddhist communities and over the years I have been complexly invisibilized or even ostracized within the same spiritual communities that I hold dear. I have made peace with this. I still speak out against abuse, mistreatment, and misuse of power, while celebrating my Buddhism. I am also very open about the fact that, as a result of these challenges, my Buddhism is heterodox: to be otherwise would be to enable or endorse the abuses and misuses of power that I have witnessed firsthand in my training and in my spiritual observance over the last 30-plus years.