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Indigeneity and Dharma


“When you know the place where you are, practice begins.”

– Dogen

Right from the start let’s be clear—I am not the right person to write this month’s column. It should come from an Indigenous person, perhaps one who practices Buddhism. But in whatever capacity I can serve as a bridge builder from a place of my own life experience, I’ll do my best to fill in and point you to Native voices for further learning if that calls to you.

As I am sitting with what to write about for this month, I am very aware of the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the U.S. I also feel how the place I live informs so much of my life. I am living on Tewa ancestral homelands, in what is now known as Northern New Mexico. In the three waves of colonization that have passed through this place (Spanish, Mexican, and U.S), where I live is now called the city of Española, tucked between several Pueblos—called reservations in other parts of the U.S.—including Santa Clara and San Ildefonso to the south, and Ohkay Owingeh to the north. There are other Pueblos up and down the Rio Grande as well, these are the ones closest to me.

For the past seven years, I’ve had the honor of working with a Native-led nonprofit organization here, Tewa Women United. Sharing time with these women and men, and learning about Tewa lifeways, has given me a better understanding of what it means to be Indigenous. This understanding is from the outside in, etic as we would say in anthropology, because it’s not my own experience. But it’s something, and I realize what a rare opportunity it is for a non-Native white person to have this.

So in my imperfect way I’d like to explore what it means to be Indigenous, as I understand it, and the intersections between Indigeneity and Buddhism.

As I was first getting to know people in the Tewa communities here and spending time in meetings and conversations, and later in events that wove in elements of ceremony, one of the things that struck me was how many parallels there are between Dharma and Indigenous spirituality—which may more accurately be described as lifeways because “spirituality” is not a separate entity as it so often is in Western cultures.

First and foremost, the teaching of interbeing, as Thich Nhat Hanh called it, is front and center for both Buddhism and an Indigenous worldview. There is no separate self or existence, the world is a vast web of connections. All of life should be lived from this knowledge, what in Buddhism we might call Right View.

These connections may fray due to various causes and conditions, but they are never broken. The ways in which they fray is what gives rise to dis-eases of various kinds, and healing is a process of weaving these threads back together. That healing might come in the form of renewing a piece of land that has been desecrated by planting native crops there once again; it might come from people re-membering their language, which forces of colonization tried to take away from them; it might come from coming together with other Native people and allies to protect waters that are meant to nourish people, not to be drained for fracking or threatened by oil pipelines. The pathways to healing are many, but they always involve weaving back together that which has been pulled apart.

In Buddhism, interdependence can sometimes seem to be a lofty concept that we try to learn through teachings and words. But if you’ve been in a multi-day meditation retreat, you know how you begin to learn the truth of interconnection through the body—the way that we have to calibrate to each other during walking meditation, the way that we begin to see how our sitting practice impacts that of the people sitting around us and their practice impacts us, the way we can have a felt sense of the chain of causes and conditions that brought our food to us as we take a mindful bite.

These practices are similar to ways of being in ceremony that Indigenous people hold— ceremonies that mark the seasons with dances dedicated to particular animals or plants, sweat lodges and their purification rituals that go on into the night, healing circles, and more.

What does it mean to be Indigenous? I believe it’s about being in relational-tivity—a word I learned from Elder Kathy Sanchez of Tewa Women United—with the land you come from. Some might say that everyone is indigenous to the place they live. While there is some truth to that, it’s important to note the qualitative difference of people who have been living in one place since time immemorial. While I can grow a relationship with my backyard and commit to staying here for the long term, that will not ever be the same as a people who have a generational legacy of knowing how a particular ecosystem functions, of the plants and animals that call it home and are their relatives. It will never be the same as a people who have inherited vibrant spiritual and cultural practices from their ancestors and have had to fight to keep them alive and protected in the face of colonization and assimilation.

In fact that may be the great tragedy of those of us who are white—we have lost so much of that thread of connection to our own ancestors and cultures, because at a certain point our ancestors had to assimilate in order to make it in this country—I’m writing from the perspective of someone who lives in the United States. That thread is not gone completely, of course. But it’s a very different relationship than Indigenous people have. You can see it and feel it if you’re lucky enough to witness one of the dances at a Feast Day here on the Pueblos. These rhythms, these prayers of a dance, have been protected and transmitted through countless generations.

And here is another intersection. In Buddhism as well, we have been entrusted with the great gift of the Dharma that has been passed through a lineage of teachers starting with Shakyamuni Buddha. Various Buddhist traditions emphasize this transmission more than others, but that dimension is always present.

While many of us may not be Indigenous according to the definition of the word as I am using it here, we can cultivate our relationship to the place we live in ways that lead us to an understanding of the Dharma where we actually embody the teachings of interdependence and compassion, not just read about them. This may also serve as a starting point to learn about the strengths and struggles of Indigenous peoples, so that we may be in solidarity with them.


The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery offers these questions that are a good place to start:

1. How are you connected to the land you live on? Do you take walks or garden in your backyard? Do you know the waterways? Do you know which plants are native to your area and which are not?

2. How do you understand land as sacred? What lands are sacred in your tradition? Are sacred lands buildings, like a church, or outdoors like National Parks?

3. Who are the Indigenous people of the land you live on? Who called your land home for generations? Where are they now and how did they get there?

4. How is land sacred to Indigenous people? What places where you live are sacred to Indigenous people? What can Indigenous ways of thinking teach you about the land you live on?

5. How can you honor all lands as sacred? Do you pick up litter when you see it? Do you walk or bike instead of taking your car? Do you stop and listen to what the world around you has to say?

You can try taking those questions on as practices that you integrate with your own Buddhist practice, and see where that leads you.

See more

Tewa Women United
Buddha in Redface, by Eduardo Duran (Goodreads)
Indigenous Dharma: Native America and Buddhist Voices, by John Travis, Eduardo Duran, Fred Wahpehpah, Lorain Fox Davis, Tsultrim Allione, Susan Murphy (Inquiring Mind)
The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery (Facebook)
The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery

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