The Harvard Buddhist Community hosted the 4th annual “Buddhism and Race Conference” at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 2 March. The one-day conference drew more than 60 participants from Harvard University, Brown University, Tufts University, and the local Buddhist community.
In the opening prayer, Harvard Buddhist Community co-coordinator Anh Tran, who is studying for a Buddhist Ministry master’s degree at HDS, offered a poem by Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh titled “Please Call Me by My True Names:”
Don’t say that I depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.
Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive,
in order to laugh and to cry, to fear, and to hope,
the rhythm of my heart is a birth and death
of all that is alive.
I am a mayfly
metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.
I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond,
and I am the grass snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda,
all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl refugee
on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am also the pirate
my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politiburo,
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
It was this poem that set the tone for a critical engagement involving scholars and practitioners of multiple Buddhist backgrounds and lineages.
Prof. Charles Hallisey, Yuhan Numata Senior Lecturer of Buddhist Studies at HDS, whose research is centered on Theravada Buddhism, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia, moderated the morning panel, titled “Buddhism and Race in the Books.”
Panelists included Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, and Associate Dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs at HDS, who is a specialist in Buddhist studies with a focus on Tibet, and South Asian cultural and intellectual history, Ven. Dr. Changshen Shih of Dharma Drum University, a visiting fellow at Harvard, and Layli Maparyan of Wellesley College, executive director of the Wellesley Center for Women, and a professor of Africana studies, best known as the author of The Womanist Reader and the Womanist Idea.
The afternoon panel, titled “Buddhism and Race on the Ground” was moderated by the Harvard Buddhist Community, and consisted of Harvard students Lopon Heather Moody and Rev. Jesse Le Fefebvre, HDS graduates and Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation scholars Kusala Bhante, Ven. Priya Rakkhit Sraman, and Sebene Selassie.
The event was auspicious for Harvard as, under the guidance of Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust, it has recently begun to grapple with its own colonial history of white supremacy. Dr. Faust, a scholar of the American Civil War, along with Harvard Law School professor Annette Gordon-Reed, recently unveiled a monument that reads: “In honor of the enslaved whose labor created the wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School. May we pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their memory.”
This year’s Buddhism and Race conference extended the parameters of the discussion beyond the university to consider the application of Buddhist principles to ameliorate the suffering of those under systemic oppression worldwide.
HDS, founded in 1636 with an initial fund of £400 from the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, is home to the first-ever Buddhist ministry track in the United States. Originally intended to provide training only to those pursuing ordination in the Christian tradition, the school has been able to offer a degree in Buddhist ministry as well, thanks to a gift from the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation in 2011.
In addition to the degree course, the Buddhist Ministry Initiative invites Buddhist monastic scholars from Asia to study at Harvard for a one-year fellowship. On completion of the fellowship, many of these monastics apply to join the degree program in Buddhist ministry.
Two of the degree program’s recent graduates sat on the afternoon conference panel: Ven. Priya Rakkhit Sraman, a Theravada Buddhist monk originally from Bangladesh with a master’s degree in Buddhist studies from The University of Hong Kong, was awarded a Master of Divinity in Buddhist Ministry by HDS in 2017. Ven. Priya Rakkhit is now Buddhist in Residence at Tufts Chaplaincy, at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.
Ven. Derangala Kusalagnana Thero (Kusala Bhante), a Theravada monk originally from Sri Lanka, and also a Ho Family Foundation scholar, graduated from HDS in 2017 with a Master of Divinity degree in Buddhist Ministry. He is currently a hospital chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.
Such stories provide inspiration for other Asian monastics, and from the presence of both monks it is clear the Buddhist Ministry Initiative at HDS is already, after such a short time, producing graduates who are having an invaluable impact on both the national and international discourse of issues of global impact such as race.