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Blackness, Self, and Non-Self in Buddhism — The Revealer

(Picture supply: Stocksy United)

The next excerpt comes from Rima Vesely-Flad’s e book Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation, printed by NYU Press. The e book explores how Black Buddhists in the US have used Buddhist teachings to cope with residing in a white supremacist society.

This excerpt comes from the e book’s fifth chapter. The part explores how Black Buddhists have interpreted the Buddhist ideas of “self” and “non-self” to search out psychological and religious liberation inside a deeply racist world.


Blackness, Self, and Non-Self

Moderately than considering of non-self as a vacation spot or final fact, Sebene Selassie says, we’d like to have the ability to relate to the truth of the self and the reality of non-self on the identical time.

“The Buddha was requested if there’s a self or non-self. He wouldn’t reply as a result of he mentioned ‘that’s not the best query.’ He pointed to the useful want for connecting or regarding the self. It’s not like he walked round and didn’t confer with himself or didn’t have reference for others. He mentioned these are essential designations we have to transfer via the world. There may be self, however there’s additionally non-self. . . . He wasn’t saying that non-self is someplace we’ve got to get to after which we will let go of self. He was stating that we should develop an understanding of non-self, it is a mark of existence too, in the identical approach that struggling is a mark of existence. However he additionally mentioned that there’s freedom from struggling.”

In connecting and regarding the self, the physique is a conduit for liberation. On the identical time, Lama Rod Owens, a instructor within the Kagyu Tibetan custom, relates the metaphysical understanding of self to political, psychological, and religious liberation:

“In Buddhism, enlightenment isn’t the extinguishing of the self. It’s the recognition of the self. It’s the popularity of the phantasm of self. If we didn’t relate to the self, to this sense of ego, then we wouldn’t have the ability to be in a relationship to folks round us. As a result of everybody on the planet communicates via ego. We relate to actuality via ego. So if I have been to acquire enlightenment—and I hope to in some unspecified time in the future—but when I have been to acquire enlightenment, I might nonetheless be very related to ego, particularly if I’m making an attempt to liberate others from this actuality. So it’s not the ego, it’s not the self that’s the challenge. It’s our relationship [to those ideas]. . . . Our relationship provides which means to issues round us. The factor itself doesn’t have which means. This type of fundamental work that I’m all the time engaged in is that this stability between self and non-self, and the way that pertains to social liberation, and the way social liberation ties into final liberation.”

For Owens, in addition to different Black Buddhist lecturers, mindfulness of the physique is an important side of liberatory apply. Pamela Ayo Yetunde states,

“Within the practices of mindfulness of the physique, there’s by no means [a teaching of] ‘be conscious of the capital S self.’ . . . So [for some] it in some way has change into this interpretation or educating that the physique doesn’t exist. However I don’t consider that’s the educating as a result of there’s a lot concentrate on mindfulness of the physique. These two truths can’t coexist with all of the concentrate on meditation and mindfulness of the physique—when to eat, how one can sit, so I don’t consider that no-self means no physique. And I believe that’s harmful educating really.

The way in which that I take a look at it now’s that no self means ‘strive to not change into a narcissist.’ . . . Don’t be so centered on ego clinging that you just change into egocentric. Once we take a look at the teachings of the Brahmaviharas on compassion, equanimity, loving, kindness, and sympathetic pleasure, whenever you interact in these practices deeply, it makes you selfless; it cultivates selflessness, and in order that’s actually how I see no-self. It means selflessness . . . consideration in the direction of the well-being of others.”

The actual fact of fixed change—impermanence—of all phenomena, together with the self, illuminates that racial constructs of the Black physique are empty of considerable which means. Briefly, to embrace the educating on non-self is to acknowledge that degrading interpretations of Blackness are superficial labels, rooted in ignorance, that traditionally have been exploited for expedient functions corresponding to land theft and colonization, slavery and compelled servitude, and setting up whiteness as intellectually and morally superior to Blackness. Within the educating on non-self, the artificiality of constructed realities is starkly illuminated. To deconstruct the self, not solely as a sequence of all the time altering and shifting aggregates, but additionally as a set of degraded photos originating from a deluded white supremacist thoughts, permits practitioners to say the liberty inherent in dharma teachings. Constructs are merely constructs. They haven’t any foundation in actuality; nor are they liberating. These constructs type a part of the causes and situations of struggling, however are usually not onerous and stuck details, eternally believed and internalized. Thus, Black practitioners can shift interpretations of their constructed selves within the motion towards their liberation.

Ruth King, a instructor within the Perception custom, embraces the teachings on anatta as liberating for folks of African descent:

“The teachings on anatta—non-self—are an necessary inquiry for folks of colour—these of us who’ve [had] their sense of self ripped away from them or haven’t had an opportunity to shine or be inwardly affirmed in a significant approach. We query and doubt ourselves. We don’t know if we do that due to race or if it’s simply the human situation.

Self and non-self are wrapped across the Buddhist educating on final and relative actuality. In short, you want a self (relative actuality) to know that you just’re not a self or to know you’re liberated (final actuality). In different phrases, you want the physique so as to get up.

Within the Buddhist teachings, non-self isn’t that you’re not a self, it’s that you just’re not a self which you could solidly depend on. The self is continually altering—a sequence of processes or mixture experiences. Change is all there may be. Once we perceive this from our apply, we will soften the grip that id hardens in our hearts and minds. We are able to know a deeper freedom, regardless of conditioning, from the within out.”

For Black lecturers with long-term practices, personally regarding dharma teachings can illuminate obscure or probably threatening passages, particularly in a society by which Black folks have been dehumanized. Kate Johnson, a instructor within the Perception custom, says,

“What are the deep type of awakening experiences that we’ve had, and can we or can we not train from that place? A few of my most profound experiences in meditation round this [teaching on anatta] have been deep experiences and insights into vacancy and selflessness, and the interdependent, not strong, nature of self. And in addition the actual fact [that there is] no central command system for that self, that the thoughts really isn’t that. I don’t normally train that. After I can, my favourite locations to show are inside POC [communities], the neighborhood of girls, and queer communities—that’s what I really like. And I really feel like after I’m in combined firm or after I’m educating to primarily white audiences I don’t typically talk about selflessness or anatta as a result of I fear that it’s going to be gasoline for religious bypass.”

(Picture supply: Yuko Shimizu)

“Religious bypass” refers to utilizing religious teachings to keep away from psychological and social issues in a single’s self or atmosphere. For folks of African descent, the problem of regarding non-self is much less about “religious bypass” and extra about regarding language that implies non-personhood. Denial of Black humanity undergirded legal guidelines and social practices throughout centuries of colonization and formation of the US as a nation-state. Thus, the language of “non-self” can erect an emotional hurdle that’s necessary to handle with nuance. Distinctive Holland, a long-term practitioner within the Zen and Perception traditions, describes her first encounter with the teachings on non-self. “[We live in a society in which] white persons are the norm. There’s a racialized class distinction. And so this concept of no self had all of this packaging . . . in a approach that was distinct from the sorts of oppression and masks making that was anticipated of me exterior of dharma areas.” The “norms” to which Holland refers are the constructed norms of whiteness as superior and Blackness as degraded. The educating on non-self, for practitioners corresponding to Holland, has the potential to additional reiterate degradation. But for Black Buddhist lecturers, the liberation discovered within the educating on non-self is akin to the liberation encountered within the Black Radical Custom: it’s doable to deconstruct the falsely constructed Black physique and declare one’s (relative) self in constructive, affirming methods. Furthermore, in Buddhism, it’s doable to affirm one’s Blackness as one—however not the one—stage within the strategy of religious, psychological, and political liberation. Within the apply of letting ideas fall away, and coming into into meditative focus, the falseness inherent within the mundane world fades to background noise, and the expertise of psychological stillness arises, even briefly, as the trail to liberation. Thus, dharma apply might be seen as residing into the aspirations of the Black Radical Custom: practitioners who enter a realm of psychological stability are now not in response to white supremacist constructs and messages. Moderately, they will see the delusions inherent in white supremacy and observe however don’t react to the false constructs inherent inside these delusions.

Of their embrace of the teachings on non-self, moreover, Buddhist practitioners of African descent elevate core teachings on interdependency or interbeing. Within the Zen custom, “non-self” can also be interpreted as teachings on interrelationship. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, a instructor within the Soto Zen custom, writes on interrelationship in her meditation The Manner of Tenderness: Awakening via Race, Sexuality, and Gender. Manuel acknowledges the “profound interrelationship that sustains our existence” and states that “interrelationship is inherent to residing.”

“No-self implies that different persons are concerned. That’s what no-self means. It’s not simply you. It ought to say not simply your self, somewhat than no-self. It means no-self in and of itself, like there’s nothing taking place right here. It’s relational, and that’s why I say there’s no-self, there’s no simply you.

No-self has no substance. . . . And so, it’s important to discuss your life again to the place you began from: the way you’re residing and who you’re, so you’ll be able to perceive the struggling. It’s important to have some[one] to review. You may’t simply stroll round, go ‘there’s no person and there’s nothing and there’s vacancy, and so I simply sit right here and breathe.’ How lengthy will that final?

I believe that no self is admittedly necessary to know, particularly in Zen, and I speak so much about it as a result of they [other teachers] use it a lot to negate the lived expertise, nevertheless it’s saying it is the lived expertise. No self is interrelationship. No self is interrelationship, it’s interbeing.”

Manuel emphasizes that teachings on non-self give practitioners a possibility to review their very own lives: to look inside and perceive how they arrived at totally different experiences and identities. Moderately than negating the expertise of being human, the educating on non-self is a educating on studying from one’s lived experiences in addition to how relate to different individuals in an conscious and interdependent approach. Equally, Chimyo Atkinson, a former resident monk at Nice Tree Girls’s Zen Middle, states,

“To say non-self is type of detrimental. [The phrase] is type of empty as a result of self in my understanding is bigger than what we see as contained on this physique or what we see is contained on this head. It contains your whole environment, the whole lot, all of the beings that you’re finally related with, as a result of there’s the large self. The self that’s included in all of this universe. We’re not separate from something. To say self is to separate from all myriad beings which can be on the market. And that’s our massive delusion proper there.”

Understanding the educating of non-self in relation to the social world, Owens says, fosters deeper understanding of 1’s personal life—as actual and in relationship, as a assemble and an phantasm, and in relation to final actuality:

“The final word fact is non-self. However the relative fact is self. So one of many issues that no less than in my apply and likewise all through the dharma is that to ensure that me to earn my expertise of the final word, I’ve to truly earn the expertise of the relative. So I’ve to return actually shut and actually strong into what my expertise of getting a self is. As a result of as soon as I get actually curious on this thought of self, I start to know how one can really undo the self, and undo my fixation on the self. I believe the self is so deeply, deeply entwined in a approach of being on the planet and I’ve to truly perceive the mechanisms of the self so as to transcend the self.

So I can begin talking in methods of very basic non-self phrases, however really that’s going to be the basis of accelerating my struggling, of accelerating my struggling on the relative, as a result of I simply don’t perceive the self sufficient so as to transfer via it or to transcend it but. However the final is all the time on the horizon. So I can speak concerning the self, however I additionally know on the identical time there isn’t a self. That is the difficult a part of integrating justice and dharma. Each of those concepts should be held collectively. The relative and the final word. You may’t skip round to either-or. It’s important to be proper with each of these all the time on the identical time, after which that truly begins to assist us transfer extra in the direction of the final word.”


Rima Vesely-Flad, Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor of Faith and Philosophy and the Director of Peace and Justice Research at Warren Wilson School. She is the writer of Racial Purity and Harmful Our bodies: Ethical Air pollution, Black Lives, and the Wrestle for Justice.


Focused on extra on this subject? Take a look at our dialog with Rima Vesely-Flad in episode 24 of the Revealer podcast: “Black Buddhists and Healing the Traumas of Racism.”

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