'What I Learned from a Black Buddhist Nun'
“동서양의 고정된 법문 틀을 벗어 던지다”
서구 불교계에 ‘다양성’ 자극 / 신명나는 법문에 감명받아
수미런던 듀크 불교공동체 지도법사
Sometimes I’ve had a little fun during meditation by imagining standup comedy routines. One monologue that I always thought had promise was that of a Pentacostal, charismatic Buddhist preacher. He or she would be standing before a crowd, eyes shining with faith, face glowing, looking heavenward with arms outstretched and a Buddhist Bible in one hand, saying, “I believe, I believe, in the HOLY Tripitika! Yes. Have mercy. Praise the Buddha.” Wouldn’t that be a kick? I’d think to myself.
Just recently, I got to see something of that in reality, but it was no comedy routine. It was one of the most refreshing presentations of the dharma that I have ever heard in my 25 years of dharma-listening.
Venerable Pannavati is 62 years old, a woman, an African-American, formerly a Baptist Christian, and formerly a pastor. She is now a Buddhist nun ordained in three traditions: Vajrayana, Chan, and Theravada, her last ordination. I met her briefly at the Western Buddhist Teachers Conference in New York in June of last year, where she was just one of three black monastics and of a handful of black Buddhists overall. Much of the conference explored the laden issue of the lack of diversity in Western Buddhist communities, and how racism and prejudice express themselves in our communities of primarily white people, even though white Buddhists as a whole are very progressive, embracing kinds of Westerners.
Through these rich conversations, I decided to address the issue of diversity in the student group at Duke University, where I am a chaplain. Most fortunately, it turned out that Venerable Pannavati lived just four hours west of Duke here in North Carolina, and I invited her to come speak. The Buddhist community at Duke is actually quite diverse, with white at times being in the minority. Yet, all of our senior dharma speakers and I myself are white or Asian, and I wondered whether seeing a black Buddhist would provide inspiration and modeling for non-white and non-Asians in the community.
In the months prior to this nun’s talk, a prominent Buddhist teacher named Lama Surya Das, a Western American of Jewish heritage, had been sending me and a handful of younger, up-and-coming Buddhist teachers emails asking provocative and broad questions. One email asked:\nWhat would and could the Way be today, free of cultural and hemispheric influences? I mean the great way of awakening, achieving optimal presence and living in the absolute presence and ultimate present?
And in another email:\nFifteen hundred years ago, the Zen revolution in China stripped India-born and bred Buddhism to its bare essence?leaving behind almost all of the traditional Hindu-based Indian cosmologies, complex philosophy and elaborate rituals ? and set forth a simple, clear and potent way of awakening “outside the scriptures, pointing directly to the nature of the heart-mind.” Zen tradition still describes itself thus to this day. Are we to import of necessity exotic Oriental customs and theologies along with the vital essence of that pure and living Dharma conducive to freedom and enlightenment that we are drawn to?
I didn’t write back to the lama’s questions because at the time I thought that Westerners had already adapted quite a bit of the Asian style of Buddhism to the American context. Then, the Buddhist Community at Duke hosted Venerable Pannavati. When two black women and I greeted her, she gave each one of us a big, full hug. Yes, I later reflected, this is how Western Buddhists normally greet each other, and how nice that this nun has chosen to connect with us as we are accustomed to, and as she is, as well.
Ven. Pannavati’s style of giving a dharma talk was so inspirational that I had a huge smile on my face for much of it. She did not choose to speak in what you might call a “white” way, the way English is spoken in newscasts, but instead used the style that black people tend to use. You can hear it in the way President Obama speaks, for example. In short, it was the way she naturally speaks: she did not adapt her style to the setting or audience. As a result, her sentences had a more varied cadence than broadcast English. She played with the language, using phrases with alliteration and poetry. She spoke in a way that was natural, animated, and personal. Her face was expressive and she moved her hands and arms. She made references to the Bible, which many of us understood. There was also energy between her and the audience. Some of the black people in the audience vocalized their approval, in the same way that you hear in black churches or other settings. I really liked this give and take, because it let Ven. Pannavati know she was heard and that what she was saying resonated. If I felt I had permission, I too would have given out a “uh HUH” and a “yes” every once in a while at dharma talks, but instead I just nod my head vigorously but silently.
Witnessing her manner brought to mind how the earlier generation of Western Buddhist teachers have carried forward some of the style and culture of their Asian teachers. In Western vipassana centers, for example, when a Western teacher gives a dharma talk, he or she speaks in a low, calm voice and slowly. There’s some body movement, but not much. The sentences are structured so as to eliminate using the I-pronoun, and things are stated in observational modes. That is, instead of saying “I felt angry,” teachers say, “the arising of anger.” Of course, this way of speaking is very much in line with the what we are trying to do in meditation: cultivate a way of observing that is depersonalized. And the slow, peaceful manner in which teachers speak is appropriate to the retreat format in which the mind has become quite still. Although teachers do use personal stories and humor, for the most part the talks are fairly formal and the audience sits quietly and respectfully.\nIt was in seeing Ven. Pannavati that I revisited Lama Surya Das’ question. Seeing a teacher present the dharma in a fully embodied expression of a kind of Western American style helped me connect with the teachings in a way that I don’t think I’ve experienced before. And yet everything the nun said was clearly Buddhist ? no Asian Buddhist would find what she said objectionable or untrue.
Why is it that one of the most marginalized persons?a black woman--not only in the States but also in Western Buddhism has one of the most authentic and alive ways of teaching? Perhaps because she is so outside the system she is free to be herself. But I know from some of her comments that there has been tremendous pressure on her to conform, obvert pressure from her Asian teachers and subtle pressure from us white Westerners. But she has had the courage to be herself, and as a result, brought one of the most energizing ways of teaching the dharma to the floor that I have ever seen. Although I am not suggesting that Western Buddhists abandon all the forms from Asian Buddhist culture we have learned, I think its time reflect thoughtfully on what forms are not serving a purpose in certain contexts. Although I had invited this black Buddhist nun to speak to the non-white students at Duke, as it turned out, she provided inspiration for us all.
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