In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Rima Vesely-Flad. Vesely-Flad is Visiting Professor of Buddhism and Black Studies at Union Theological Seminary. Her book is Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Rima Vesely-Flad: Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation (NYU Press, 2022) responds to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, and in so doing, elevates the argument that social conditions lead to suffering, and that we must turn towards social conditions even as we turn towards our inner lives. It also looks at the history of white supremacy—conquest, the transatlantic slave trade, the auction block, the exploitation of Black bodies, and all of the current manifestations of that history, through a Buddhist teaching of the “Three Poisons”: greed, hatred, and delusion. It deconstructs the delusion of white supremacy—the false narratives of superiority—using powerful Buddhist doctrines. It asserts that the practice of turning towards suffering, and deconstructing the false narratives of white supremacist thought, are deep practices for dismantling white supremacy. Through the voices of seventy-one Black Buddhist teachers and long-term practitioners, readers gain a sense of how Black Buddhists have deconstructed harmful narratives and shifted their ways of thinking and being, so that whiteness is not at the center of their psyches. This practice of deconstructing provides clarity and inner stability when confronting the erasure of Black history and perspectives—for example, the erasure and revision of Black history that is taking place on the state level in Florida.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition was initially conceived as a response to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson. I have written towards vanguard activists who put all of their lives on the line and argue that in order to sustain their work, activists need contemplative practices and healing modalities in their daily lives: to turn inward even as they turn outward. The book argues that these healing practices, which have been articulated in the tradition of Buddhism in helpful ways, establish psychological liberation that has been referenced in the Black Radical Tradition, in Pan-Africanism, the Black Power movement, Black Liberation Theology, and Black Feminism. The book argues that, as activists focus on external responded, it is also essential to focus on how the body channels rage, and to find meditative practices to release pent up anger. Lastly, this book emphasizes important Buddhist doctrines that help the nervous system to stabilize. These doctrines, of Not Self and of the Brahmaviharas, help Black activists to discern balance and self-care within high-pressure, confrontational contexts.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I hope that readers will incorporate healing practices that are essential for longevity, including meditative practices that bring mental clarity and physical practices that facilitate balance, strength, and flexibility. So often those who grow up in the dominant culture internalize messages of respite and vacation, but those whose lives have been filled with struggle feel that they must always struggle in order to change external conditions for themselves and others. That message of constant struggle is very often debilitating. Activists need, and deserve, time for rest as much as anyone. Activists deserve time to turn towards their inner lives—their thoughts, feelings, dreams, and aspirations—as much as anyone. When we are constantly facing outward and responding to external conditions that provoke ongoing suffering, we do not attune to our deepest longings and desires. But the inner lives of Black activists matter and deserve spaciousness and support. This is all to say that I hope that Black grassroots activists unlearn the dominant practices of constant, exhausted striving and make foundational to their lives meditative practices of attuning to their bodies, feelings, and internalized patterns that fail to serve their deeper well-being. I also hope that, in unlearning harmful practices, they incorporate new ways of being and communicating.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
Almost all of the writers and intellectuals of the different iterations of the Black Radical Tradition have been inspirational for my own work, particularly James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. I find them to be very Buddhist (even though neither of them self-identified as Buddhist), particularly in their essays and interviews. They wrote about turning towards suffering in such poignant ways. Baldwin in particular, in The Fire Next Time, writes about turning towards suffering as a process that results in unshakable inner authority. He states that people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That self-discovery, for Baldwin, was the essence of being a human being, regardless of conditions and circumstances. Audre Lorde, too, distinguished between suffering and pain, and wrote about the capacity to bear suffering. In so doing, she articulated practices of self-mothering that I find deeply profound. Both writers were highly political, and at the same time, deeply self-reflective. They took responsibility for what was happening in U.S. society and the world, but they did not do so at the expense of their inner lives. In that way, they modeled for us how we can commit our energies to changing oppressive conditions without disregarding our inner voices.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
The first is Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger, by Lama Rod Owens. This deeply personal book incorporates many practices alongside analysis. I have taught this book in the classroom many times, and have witnessed how students respond to basic insights on how to honor the body, how to honor the ancestors, and how to honor all feelings that arise, including anger. Owens is similarly deeply indebted to James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, and in that way I envision incorporating his insights into my next book (on Buddhist, Baldwin, and Lorde).
I also highly recommend The Trauma of Caste, by Dalit Buddhist author Thenmozhi Soundararajan. She is deeply indebted to Black feminists as she takes on the caste system of Southeast Asia and how it manifests in the diaspora. I have another book project in mind, that directly addresses how Buddhist ethics speak to systemic racism in institutions such as the U.S. penal system. The anti-caste movement in India and the U.S. illuminates the ways in which Buddhism as a religious tradition has served the spiritual, psychological and political liberation of peoples who have been systemically oppressed. Soundararajan states in her book that a system rooted in spiritual and religious traditions requires a spiritual and religious response. She uplifts Buddhism as a way forward. I am tremendously inspired by her political work and how she locates it within Buddhism.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.