New Release: An Excerpt from Afrikan Wisdom
Excerpt from Afrikan Wisdom
Introduction by Valerie Mason-John (Vimalasara)
We’re gonna have to do more than talk. We’re gonna have to do more than listen. We’re gonna have to do more than learn. We’re gonna have to start practicing and that’s very hard.
We’re gonna have to start getting out there with the people and that’s difficult. Sometimes we think we’re better than the people so it’s gonna take a lot of hard work.
Konda Mason, Noliwe Alexander, angel Kyodo williams, and Myokei Caine-Barrett set the wheel of these teachings in motion by reclaiming the “Fierce Urgency of Now.” In 2019 at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California, they brought together more than seventy African descent Buddhist teachers, scholars, and guests to connect at “The Gathering II: Buddhist Sangha of Black African Descent.”
Alice Walker welcomed us on our first day of gathering; and five days later, the doors were opened to more than 300 African descent people who were practitioners, curious about meditation and/or Buddhism, and, as angel said, some of us were just Buddhish! The closing keynote ended with Angela Davis and Jan Willis in conversation about their activist and spiritual lives.
I left the gathering inspired and with a call to action. “How can new voices be published?” I knew, after feeling the effect of what I had experienced at the gathering, that a publisher would open its doors. I was bowled over by Justin Miles’s Sadhana [Liturgy] of Awakened Melanin, and with Seiho Morris’s Twelve Steps exploring cultural bias. So I initially thought, what about a collection of works exploring Black Liberation through Buddhism?
However, this would have been a denial of the African expe- erience, because Black Liberation has been expressed through the centuries in many guises since the day colonizers kidnapped us, chained us, flogged us, and shaped us into human cargo for the New World. Many African people of the Diaspora have trodden the paths of Christianity, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh- day Adventists, Islam, Rastafarianism, Kwanzaa, Ubuntu, social activism, and much more. These differing paths inevitably influ- enced our expression of spirituality, Yoga, Buddhism, and other religions in the West. The gate had been opened, so I invited writers from faiths other than Buddhism to contribute as well.
This anthology brings an unlikely selection of people together to explore Black Liberation through the written word. Academics, activists, religious and spiritual practitioners, and first-time writers talk about liberation through their personal, lived, and political experiences.
Liberation in a spiritual context can mean enlightenment, awakened mind, acceptance of our mortality, freedom from the prison of one’s own mind, and a heartmind filled with loving- kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity for all beings. This can be a big ask of Black people who do not have the same freedom to walk on the streets as their peers, of Black parents who are having to teach their children that they don’t have the same civil liberties as their white counterparts.
The concept of enlightenment has also been popularized by the “Western Enlightenment” thinkers who pushed eugenics and created the culture that branded Black people as the most inferior of all of humanity, the lowest of the lowest. Colonizers believed that the Indigenous, First Nations people “could be educated,” if stolen from their lands, forcibly taken from their families, and the Indian beaten out of them if placed in residential schools or reserves, and that there was no hope for African people. The nineteenth-century scientist Samuel Morton argued that Caucasian skulls were the largest, followed by Mongolian, Malay, Native American, and finally, African skulls the smallest. Based on these misconstrued facts, it was claimed intelligence was innate, and African peoples, considered the most inferior of all races, were deemed to be only slaves. So, although slavery may have been abolished in law, the rationalization of it still exists in many of our institutions today. We are still considered inferior on both a conscious and an unconscious level. Some of us even have internalized racism, which has been indoctrinated into us by all the subliminal messages in society.
The eugenics theory is still prevalent: Michelle Obama, First Lady from 2009 to 2017, was often likened to a gorilla, with offensive pictures trolling the internet. The English language is peppered with the word “black” likened to ugly, dirty, and impure; and “white” likened to purity, beauty, and cleanliness. In the UK, Black farmers have had the police called on them several times, because someone has believed they’d stolen their farmland. We are stopped at airport borders, in shops, or while driving brand new cars and questioned.
Therefore, the topic of enlightenment has a controversial place within the Black Liberation movement. We cannot transpose the same meaning into a Black context without acknowl- edging our historical and current struggles in today’s society.
Black Liberation is said to have originated from African American seminarians and scholars. When we refer to the Maafa, African Holocaust, Holocaust of Enslavement, we are reminded that the atrocities and genocide inflicted upon the African continent is still continuing against our people. We are disproportionately incarcerated in prisons and mental health institutions and disproportionately killed by the police in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the UK.
When I think of Black Liberation, I think of liberating African people in the Diaspora from the systemic racism that still incarcerates us. It’s time for us to say, “Get your knee off our neck!” We have been living with the pandemic of racism for centuries. In 2015 the United Nations announced the International Decade of People of African Descent, and in the same year Sheku Bayoh died after being restrained by the British police. Five years later in 2020 the world witnessed the public lynching of George Floyd, Jacob Blake, the slaying of Breonna Taylor, and others in the United States. And in Canada the murder of D’Andre Campbell and the mysterious death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet while police were conducting a wellness check. These are the ones that made the media. There are many others who have died at the hands of the police and did not make the news. When a white youth, Kyle Rittenhouse, on August 25 walked around with a semi-automatic rifle in the town of Kenosha, the police did not perceive him to be a threat, and even threw water to him. This is an explicit example of whose life is more valued today.
As a person who lives the Buddhist path, I have found myself thinking about my own liberation, and the places it has taken me to. From astral walking as a child, I could escape my body, to listening to Billy Graham saying, “Knock, knock, someone is knocking at your door, and all you have to do is open the door and let the Lord into your heart.” In that moment I experienced freedom, I was filled with love and faith. I got up from my seat aged ten, and went into the tent to be blessed by Billy Graham.
It was my first experience of the spirit moving through me. I had been transported to another world. I went forth from my peers who were cracking jokes. I wanted to be saved. I didn’t know what from, but I knew I wanted to be free. That lasted all of two weeks. I was back in my Anglican church, where I had been raised by white missionaries who gave up their lives to look after the poor little orphans.
Aged thirteen I had found Rastafarianism, and I escaped into shabeens. Aged nineteen I went to Israel, worked on a kibbutz, and gave up Christianity at the wailing wall in Jerusalem. If there was one God, why was every denomination arguing about who owned a piece of oblong stone in the main part of the church? Why did the People of Color have the poorest part of the church? I was angry with God: why had he not come to my rescue when I needed him? Why had he made me suffer so much? Why were Black people still suffering? I had no answers, and social activism soon became my religion.
I came home, stood on picket lines, protested in riots, found respite on the rave scene. I began writing about Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia and about other oppressed peoples. I was desperately looking for liberation. The Aboriginal people of Australia who lived traditionally in Yirrkala Arnhem Land taught me mindfulness. I didn’t know it then, because it didn’t have a name. People were just still, just mindful, and spent days just “being and doing” by just sitting. It wasn’t separate. My life for three months became pure awareness and compassion.
The elders asked: Where was I Indigenous too? I had no idea; I had been robbed of my African identity. Descending from Creoles in Freetown, Sierra Leone, means my ancestors were enslaved, but who knows from whence my ancestors were kidnapped. I was stateless, didn’t know my tribe, traditional ways, or any African wisdom. I could not appropriate the DreamTime, and I knew I had to go home to find my liberation. I had experienced a taste of freedom, and now I had to return to England to do my work, with the gift of a new name, given to me by the elders: Buminjah, fruit of the tree.
It was a rocky journey, and meditation was my raft. Nobody taught me meditation. I had first accessed this place while in solitary confinement in children’s prison aged fifteen to seventeen and a half. I accessed meditation again on the dance floors of nightclubs in London. Drug and alcohol free. It pointed me in the direction of liberation, Buddhism, and beyond. I got lost for a while and thought substances would bring me happiness. They didn’t; they brought me depression, self-hatred, and resentment.
Meditation is our birthright. It belongs to every culture, every human being. I once heard angel Kyodo williams say, “We come into the world with a breath of inspiration and we leave the world with a breath of expiration.” What are we doing in the bardo? In between birth and death? Breathing, and yet breathing has become almost a political act for Black Indigenous People of Color. Over the years we have heard factual stories of police who have murdered BIPOC while begging for their breath during the final moments of their life. COVID-19, a respiratory condition that has taken millions of lives, has impacted the BIPOC communities disproportionately. Meditation is breath, and breath is meditation. Every spiritual tradition and religious tradition has a form of meditation, be it prayer, chanting, or just sitting. And it is all about becoming one with the breath, which can be seen as the divine; coming home to the body of breath.
Those of us living in the African Diaspora have had the breath strangled out of us so much so that some of us have written off things like Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, or Buddhism as a middle-class white pursuit or hobby—practices that are in conflict with our Christian, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, or other religions and faiths. However, all of these practices have origins in Africa. When the colonizers came, they did their best to destroy our culture, our ways, our religions. To the extent, that I remember being in school aged twelve, looking at a map of Africa, and scratching my head because I could not find Egypt. It had been erased from the map of Africa. The Nubians, the ancient Africans, the Moors who came from all over Africa, the many tribes, had everything that can give us freedom. And much of our wisdom is still available to us, if we don’t fall prey to the misinformation that tells us the continent of Africa is way behind in its civilization.
There are some of us challenging the systemic racism, the white supremacy in countries like the United States, Canada, and England. There are some of us reclaiming our traditions. And both are urgently needed. It’s part of the same coin.
Afrikan Wisdom: New Voices Talk Black Liberation, Buddhism, and Beyond needs to be part of a volume of voices speaking to this subject. We must not forget Black Liberation: social justice movements have a long tradition, perhaps beginning with the first slave revolts, to the Underground Railroad, to the Black Panthers, and the Black Power left-wing movement in the United States, 1970s to 1981. More recently, Black Lives Matter was founded in July 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. And then there were the uprisings around the world in 2020, where the destruction of part of the mythos became a reality. More than 200 statues that glorified those who engaged in trading enslaved people, enslavers, and the Confederacy were either toppled or taken down by the city or by the owner.
My own liberation is not enough. May I be the fruit of the tree for my community, and live out this teaching given to me by Aboriginal elders. And may I continue to live out the name my spiritual teacher gave me, Vimalasara, they whose essence is stainless and pure. And with these gifts I dedicate my life to the uplift of African peoples. May I and the contributing authors in this book leave a legacy of wisdom that predates us. While some of us may liberate from the prison of our minds, many will be victims of the manifold institutions that exude systemic racism. Reparations are not enough. The US, Canadian, UK, and European governments, the police force, the banks, the educa-tion system, the newspapers, the export and import industries, and other institutions that were originally founded by white colonizers and slavers must be dismantled and built up again with different beliefs, attitudes, and values.
This book is just a glimpse of what is possible through the lens of nonviolence. It is a privilege to get to a place of wanting to change the world through nonviolence. These authors have a part to play in the struggle for our freedom and liberation. Just as householders had an important role to play in the days of the Buddha, supporting monks and nuns, those of us who lead Buddhist, church, or mosque communities, or mindfulness or Yoga workshops, have a role to play. We offer a place of refuge, filled with compassion and equanimity. By changing the self, we have the potential to change others.
Angulimala, which means the garlanded one, is a legendary Buddhist story. In brief, he’d murdered ninety-nine people and he wore all ninety-nine fingers on a necklace around his neck. He was looking to kill one more person, so he could pay the fee to his teacher whose mind had been poisoned by students jealous of Angulimala. While out searching for his hundredth person, he came across a man. With the intention to kill him, Angulimala tried to follow but found he could not keep up with this person despite the fact that this man was walking serenely, slowly, and calmly. In his frustration he yelled, “Stop!” The person replied, “I have already stopped. I have stopped killing and harming, and it is time for you to stop too.” Angulimala was so impacted by the words of the Buddha, that he followed him back to the monastery and never killed again. Yes, people were still angry, even threw rocks at him, when he begged for food. But, in stopping, Angulimala found freedom from his tortured mind.
Do we have to wait for the police to stop killing us? Wait for the institutions to completely dismantle? No! Just as the Buddha took action, spoke up, and didn’t wait for Angulimala to stop killing people, movements like the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter need to be part of the collective voice that demands: stop killing our Black community, stop marginalizing our Black community. Without these movements, where would we be today? We have spent years in conference rooms asking for diversity, equity, and inclusivity. And very little has happened. There is a place for wrathful energy in both the spiritual and political worlds. And the time has come when many people have said enough is enough, you won’t listen. And now you must listen to us, if it takes uprisings, and protesting in the streets.
Some of us have gone back to Africa: Sankofa—The Village Re-Membered. We have gone back home and fetched what was left behind when we were rounded up, shackled, enslaved, and shipped to foreign lands. Others of us have stayed in the Diaspora and found ways to live in this world that does not yet favor the Black person. And our freedom fighters like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Marie-Joseph Angélique, Viola Desmond, Chloe Cooley, Mary Seacole, Claudia Jones, Ignatius Sancho, Olaudah Equiano, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Black Loyalists, the Maroons, and many more paved the way so I could live and be a free person in a land where my ancestors were sold into slavery.
It is now my turn to stand on their shoulders and continue to challenge the status quo and the systemic racism that still exists and impacts the safe movement of African descent people.
Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, the fire next time!
Freedom is a constant struggle.