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Union Theological Seminary Hosts Panel on Being “Black and Buddhist in America”

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Panel discussion during the Black and Buddhist in America forum. Image courtesy of the author
Panel discussion during the Black and Buddhist in America forum. Image courtesy of the author

A panel of 14 Buddhist teachers convened in New York City on 21 October to discuss the topic of being Black and Buddhist in America. The panel discussion, which was shared on YouTube, concluded a historic gathering of 30 Black Buddhists from a range of traditions in America. 

The discussion was introduced by Greg Snyder, head of Buddhist studies at Union Theological Seminary and Zen teacher at the Brooklyn Zen Center. The format featured two panels of seven teachers. Each gave a very brief introduction before the direction of the conversation was handed over to the audience for questions and answers.

The first question from the audience asked the initial seven-teacher panel why they thought that it was important to bring together Black Buddhists for such a discussion in the first place. Magistrate judge and founder of the Justice in Balance forum Gretchen Rohr spoke of an opening that occurs in spaces when in an affinity group, while teacher and author Lama Rod Owens responded that there is a myth that Black people do not practice Buddhism. Meditation teacher and author Ruth King continued, “One of the beautiful things about coming together as a group of Black folks is we don’t really realize what we’re missing until we get encircled together. . . . It’s a beautiful surrender and a beautiful uplifting.”

The 40-minute discussion that followed touched on questions of aloneness as a Black practitioner, bringing activism into practice, and bringing greater awareness of racism to Buddhist spaces. Then the first group of seven panelists adjourned and the next seven took the stage. 

The conversation continued, again prompted by questions from the audience, and sometimes referring back to questions from the first panel. The questions ranged from how to support Black teachers and dealing with loneliness as Black practitioners in all or mostly White sanghas, to undoing the White colonialist narratives still present in American Buddhism. 

The panels were comprised of Ralph Steele, Gretchen Rohr, Lama Rod Owens, Gina Sharpe, Ruth King, Jozen Tamori Gibson, and Chimyo Atkinson in the first panel, and Kamilah Majied, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Ven. Dr. Pannavati, Konda Mason, Dawa Tarchin Phillips, Pamela Ayo Yetunde, and Myokei Caine-Barrett in the second.

Concluding the second panel was Melvin McLeod, editor in chief of Lion’s Roar magazine, who praised the efforts of the panel and supplicated those present to continue to come together in dialogue for the benefit of all.

Panel discussion during the Black and Buddhist in America forum. Image courtesy of the author
Panel discussion during the Black and Buddhist in America forum. Image courtesy of the author

The panel discussion and preceding gathering was co-hosted by Lion’s Roar and Union Theological Seminary’s Thích Nhat Hạnh Program for Engaged Buddhism, with support from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Hemera Foundation, and the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation.

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Union Theological Seminary
Brooklyn Zen Center

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