Nearly 30 Days as a Black Buddhist
(The purpose of this is not to explain Buddhist practices and traditions. I’ve included hyperlinks for your further reading. Also, when I refer to Buddhism, I’m speaking of Nichiren Buddhism.)
Religion and spirituality has always been a secret struggle for me.
In my teenage years, I disconnected with Christianity. Even after my baptism , my grandparents taking lead roles in ministry, and years of vacation bible school I knew that God existed but I just couldn’t get with this Jesus thing. Church got in the way of the true essence and spirit of Christianity for me. I was moved by the experience of church: messages, the music, the atmosphere , but I was not spiritually connecting. How can you when your primary purpose is to sit and receive?
Also, Praying was not working for me. I couldn’t kneel and talk to someone who I did not know for myself. Sadly, I was completely turned off with how God, Jesus, and The Bible were used more as a weapon against people who didn’t fit a particular status quo — me. I wanted more direction and more experiences that helped me to obtain happiness in the moment through a connection with something bigger than my life. I wanted more for myself.
The Misunderstanding of Jesus/God/Christianity and the people who promote these misunderstandings, pushed me to think about how I could nourish my spiritual development.
When I was 16, something miraculous happened. You know every Sunday, we’re in church singing and clapping. We’re giving side hugs, admiring our attire, and eating chicken and rice after service. I broke this routine. I sat in my 1999 Bonneville after church and I told myself, something has got to change. And on my way home, ironically, I drove past an SGI USA Center, a Buddhist meeting place.
The Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a community-based Buddhist organization that promotes peace, culture and education centered on respect for the dignity of life. SGI members uphold the humanistic philosophy of Nichiren Buddhism in 192 countries and territories around the world.
I walked inside and to my surprise, it was a party going on. A typical, religious Sunday gathering I assumed. My first reaction was, damn there are a lot of Black people in here. Afros and locs and 360 waves and weaves. I truly believed in the stereotype that all Buddhists were Asians. But, here I was wrong. There was some of everybody in here. However the presence of Black people made me feel the most welcome.
I awkwardly stood at the door, but not for long. Everyone was welcoming. They shook my hand, inquired to know more about what brought me to the center. Looking back, I’m not sure what they truly said about Buddhism that kept me there. My curiosity lead me there, and I think I just appreciated the diversity in the room and their positive energy.
They answered a few clarifying questions for me about the practice and cleared some misconceptions. I was most interested in the daily practice of chanting “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”. I couldn’t help but to laugh. “Aint this what Angela Bassett was saying in “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Interesting. One of the sistah’s with the locs asked if I was interested in chanting with them. I agreed.
A group of Buddhists and I went into a quiet room upstairs, away from the noise. The sun shined on a shrine that we sat in front of. A Black man with a Panthers fro’ struck the bell. And we chanted. “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”, “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”. Again and again. I will never forget this.
For the first time in my life, I had a physical reaction from a spiritual connection. I was sweating in an air-conditioned room on a 60 degree day. My body was vibrating from the inside out. The vibrations of the synchronized voices struck me. Every time I changed “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”, something inside of me just felt different. I chanted till I ran out of breath and came back in. “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”. The Panther fro’ struck the bell and we all came back to Earth. The day I felt a spiritual connection with my actual self.
As life moved on, I maybe visited the center one other time. I got a job, was involved in high school activities and college came, and I moved on. But the memory has always stayed with me.
Fast Forward to July 2018.
I’m sitting at an overpriced D.C. restaurant with a former colleague of mine, a Black woman. She taught on the other side of the school building from me, so we didn’t have the opportunity to talk unless we were moving past each other in the copy room. We’re having a conversation, and she casually mentions that she’s a Buddhist. I’m instantly taken back to my chanting experience back home all those years ago. I told her of this story and she invited me to a speak with a fellow Buddhist member. We all sat down over tea. This fellow Buddhist member is a Black woman and she’s been practicing for over 20 years. From this conversation, I become fascinated with the ideology behind Buddhism, I can’t help but to be surprised by this community of Black Buddhists. She told me, “timing is everything. And the timing is right.”
That evening, I went to a meeting to chant and engage with other Buddhists in the local DC area. The room was diverse on every level you could think of. Most importantly, I saw myself in other confident Black Buddhists in the room. I was also very impressed that during this meeting, we had a discussion that included all voices surrounding the role of Buddhists in the movement for social justice in Trump’s America. My eyes went big. When’s the last time you heard about Buddhists being involve din modern social justice? Everyone had their own personal opinions, but there was a strong understanding of injustice and racism in the world, the belief of self-work, and that action should be taken with everyone. I truly believe, I recieve messages from the Universe (God speaks to me) through my gut. And through these experiences over these days my spirtual energy has truly been off the charts. This energy was the confirmation for me. I was ready to recieve my Gohonzon.
Accepting My Buddhahood
A few days later, I was apart of a special ceremony. In front of my friend who introduced me, my new friends, and people I was just met, I accepted my Gohonzan and committed to practicing Nichiren Buddhism.
The day I received my Gohonzon felt like I was getting married. On a rainy day, I stood in front new and old friends accepted the scroll that said “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”. I nearly cried. It felt like a new beginning. The ceremony didn’t end there. Two elders and my friend accompanied me to my home to help enshrine my Gohonzon and to set up my alter. Piece by piece, I set up my space. White table cloth, plants, candles, inscense. Above it, enclosed in a cherry wood case, lies my Gohonzon. Always to be guarded and protected.
Since I’ve committed to Buddhism, I’ve chanted and recited the two prayers twice a day, typically taking me 45 minutes to 60 minutes daily(I’m working to increase this). This daily act of chanting (self care) helps to set intentions and goals for the day, and to reflect and show appreciation in the evening. I’ve gotten to the point where I feel weird if I don’t chant. The vibrations and the rhythm of chanting brings forth an overwhelming feeling of peace and happiness — my Buddhahood.
Would you believe me if I told you magical things have happened since I’ve called myself a Buddhist? I feel an unfamiliar sense of peace. It’s unfamiliar. It’s the kind of peace that breathes when a car cuts you off in traffic. It’s the kind of peace that allows me to listen more to myself. The kind of peace that allows me to forgive myself in the midst of turmoil and chaos. The kind of peace that brings joy and prosperity at all time.
Buddhism says that we can all be happy in our present lifetime. We don’t have to wait for that. We don’t have to receive that from someone or something else. But, it is inside of us. I see evidence of this each day I practice.
Not to mention, I have gained a greater appreciation for Christianity since becoming a Buddhist. I see the similarities between the Buddhism I practice and Christianity. Ultimately, we all want to achieve the same thing. We call our practices something different. Differences should be acknowledged but not used as excuses to divide. We all want happiness, not just for ourselves but for everyone everywhere. This is just the beginning of my journey to complete happiness.
P.S. You can take a boy out of church but you can’t take the church out of the boy. I’m probably one of the churchiest Buddhists you’ll meet. Lastly, I am incredible grateful for my non-Buddhist friends who I’ve shared this journey with. Thank you for uplifting me, supporting me and pushing me. I’m a better person because of you.