For me, the interchangeable words SPIRIT and spirituality mean LOVE.
When I talk about my "higher power," I am referring to my capacity to be selfless, kind, loving, and restorative to others.
This understanding is the essence of my morality. For me, true morality means treating fellow humans, other species, and the environment with love, fairness, care, harmlessness, and thoughtfulness at all times.
My dear friend Nizah Morris, an ordained Buddhist, always said that, whenever anything must be done, first ask and answer this question:
What is the loving thing to do?
I have lived by these ideals for almost my entire life.
Everyday I work (in a modest way according to my limits) to create a world where we live in loving, peaceful, generous interdependence with one another, with other living species, and with the earth that we occupy. I am a Black American ordained Buddhist Upāsikā.
While my roots are Theravadin, I gradually shifted my spiritual vocation to humanistic, progressive Buddhism while still honoring my original vows and teachings.
I am also a secular humanist and a metaphysical naturalist with a deeply humanitarian understanding of the world.
I was first lay-ordained in 1988 by Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong (1909-2000), known affectionately by her Thai students as Khun Yay Ajan Mahā-ratana Upasika Chandra Khonnokyoong or just Khun Yay Ajan; and called by most of her American or non-Thai students Maechi Khonnokyoong or Maechi Chandra.
I took vows to adhere to the same traditional five precepts that ordained monastics and non-monastics commit to for the rest of our lives:
I studied with Maechi Chandra off and on for 8 years at Wat Phra Dhammakaya in Thailand. While in Thailand I also attended lectures by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906-1993), the dissident Buddhist philosopher. His thought continues to inspire my commitment to what he called a "middle way of life."
I also learned from my friends Bhante Suhita Dharma and Guy C. McElroy (Bhante's childhood friend).
S. N. Goenka's American Vipassanā meditation retreats and lectures in 2002 were deeply important to me.
After studying at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, I took another stage of Upāsikā vows with the AI fellowship in Philadelphia in 1993. AI was a small, private humanistic, American Buddhist peace fellowship founded by my dear friend Nizah Morris.
My Buddhism integrates five ancient Buddhist concepts:
Maechi Chandra helped me re-name myself as part of my lay ordination. Not all ordained non-monastics change names, but I believed this was a very important step to take.
With the help of Maechi Chandra. I selected vrksākā dūlī (which are the Pali words for "tree turtle") as my Upāsikā name and my legal name.
As a Buddhist, I live a life of service for others while advocating for nonviolence, compassion, justice, reason, civil rights, human rights, animal welfare, child welfare, and environmental sustainability.
I am a lifelong ambassador for the beautiful power of mindfulness.
The following is very important:
I do not subscribe to, and nor am I a member of, any Buddhist or other spiritual institutions that have or continue to commit acts of abuse, violence, discrimination, or harm towards children, women, men, or LGBTQ persons of any race, ethnicity, or cultural heritage.
While I maintain my ordination and love for my main Buddhist teacher, I have moved to a "DIY" understanding of spirituality that openly critiques some (but not all) spiritual and religious institutions' hierarchies and capacities for doing harm.
I am therefore an agent only of the work of compassion and contemplation within the Buddhism that was shared with me.
I am not an agent of any of the harm within a few Buddhist or other religious traditions. Please don't group me with them.
If I offer reflections framed as a "Buddhist understanding" (or comparable framing), then, rather than taking my reflections as universalized doctrine, please only understand my reflections as the modest view of a longtime holistic educator whose practice is rooted within a very limited and particular understanding of humanistic, inclusive Buddhism.
For over 30 years, I have meditated for at least a half an hour every single day (except for a two-month break during a challenging period in my life when I was learning how to walk again after an attack that injured my back), and this practice has magnified my life immeasurably. I am calmer, more empathetic, more focused, kinder, gentler, and more peaceful.
My daily practice has also helped me mitigate the post-traumatic stress that I endure after multiple acts of violence perpetrated against me as a child and an adult.
Most importantly, my daily meditative practice helps me attune myself to caring for others, which is my life's main work.
Usually, after stretching with a few simple yoga poses (or asanas), I begin my practice by purposefully regularizing my inhalations and exhalations of breath while softening the muscles, tissue, and ligaments in my face, head, neck, chest, pelvis, and extremities.
While I may engage in a variety of breath practices from day-to-day, for the most part, I do an adapted form of Ānāpānasati (or mindfulness of breathing), one of the oldest systemized active breathing practices in the world.
Along with my breathing practice, I alternate between two forms of meditation:
For the first form of meditation, I visualize someone or something that needs blessings, gratitude, or love—including myself—and I offer it within my mind. Or, I infuse my mind with affirmations and bathe my emotions in hope and strength to resolve, improve, grow, and treat others and myself compassionately. For the second form of meditation, I visualize problems in my life. Then I breathe deeply and regularly and ask myself what the root of the problem is. Then I say mantras, telling myself to let go of the problem, or I offer affirmations. Or I formulate simple solutions that carry the least amount of stress.
Sometimes I engage in meditative hand gestures (or mudras) to help my body-mind focus and articulate with calm and ease. I gesture lightly with my hands and fingers, touching my forefingers to my thumbs while releasing as much muscular contraction in my body as possible. Or I play meditative musical objects: I ring a gong or singing bowl and regularize my breathing while I listen to the sound subsiding.
Executing meditative hand gestures and playing meditative objects were special provinces of my main teacher, Maechi Upāsikā Chandra Khonnokyoong.
Most of all, during my daily meditations, I keep boosting myself and telling myself that, with clear, incisive, hopeful thinking, I can meet all challenges and accomplish all goals.
Sick or well, glad or sad, all of my daily meditations are the bedrock of my resilience and the shaper of my intentions as a loving person in an oppressive world.
Upāsikā/Upāsaka are ordained non-monastic Buddhists.
Pali is an ancient language within which much Buddhist scriptures (or suttas) were written. In Pali, the terms "upāsikā/upāsaka" mean (variously), "One who sits close by" or "One who serves and seeks."
Upāsikā/upāsaka take the same vows as monastics (nuns and priests) with subtle variations, but we are not monastics.
In the modern era, rather than being the attendants of monastics in temples, many of upāsikā/upāsaka live out in the world and our work is sometimes dedicated to serving the disadvantaged rather than teaching or "preaching" within a temple community.
We generally wear dark colored robes on official or professional occasions as well as simple dark colored dress and adornment for everyday attire.
Some Upāsikā/Upāsaka who are attached to temples wear light colored clothing.
There are many ways to be Upāsikā/Upāsaka.
On formal occasions we also wear robes that cross over our left shoulders, but I do not leave my right shoulder bare. Increasingly, as I age, I choose my own variations on spiritual attire.
I became a Buddhist in my adolescence because I learned that serious daily meditation and mindfulness helps to forge my own senses of calm, focus, peace, compassion, empathy, and healing.
I became an upāsikā because I wanted a lifelong vocation within which I can help and serve others to find health and wellness in the wake of trauma through mindfulness.
Short answer: Not exactly.
I have enormous love and respect for the teachings of the Dalai Lama. He has guided many to understand the urgent need for compassion and kind-heartedness in this difficult world.
While it is aligned at its root, my Buddhism is a different tradition than that of the Dalai Lama.
The form of Buddhism (Theravada) within which I first trained is actually older than the form practiced by the Dalai Lama. Theravada is the "original" form of Buddhism developed closest to the life and death of the Buddha (Siddhattha Gotama aka Siddhārtha Gautama) in the 4th century BCE.
It is often said that the Buddha gave 84,000 different teachings (or dhamma) to various people according to their individual needs. Dhamma is the thought that fuels contemplative practice. In turn, contemplative practice helps us attune our minds to end suffering in the world by becoming more enlightened, compassionate people.
When many Americans think of Buddhism, they think of Zen Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism, the latter of which is associated with the Dalai Lama.
I am loving towards all healthy practices and thoughts within Buddhist traditions. Yet, neither Tibetan Buddhism (which is a form of Mahayana Buddhism) or Vajrayana are the Buddhist traditions within which I live my life.
I am a proponent of a reformist, humanistic revision of Theravada Thai Buddhism based in the Pāli Canon (or the originating Buddhist texts that record the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, the original historical Buddha).
While still respecting the Pali Theravadin tradition, I embrace a humanistic Buddhism that questions and critiques the propensity for hierarchies, sententiousness, and inequality within many Buddhist traditions.
"There is a misconception that Buddhism is a religion, and that you worship Buddha," said the late Thích Nhất Hạnh, the venerable Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist.
"Buddhism is a practice. You can be Christian and practice Buddhism," Thich Nhat Hanh stressed.
Indeed, I have met Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, and atheist Buddhists as well as Tibetan, Zen and other Buddhists who embrace their practice as a religion. This diversity of practice is one of the things that I admire about Buddhism.
I am a stronger Buddhist because I have read many of the earliest Buddhist texts myself in English translation and in Pali instead of only relying on other's re-interpretations (which are often helpful too). To do this I have taken classes in Pali.
While I have read widely within the Pāli Canon, I always find myself returning to the texts within the Pāli Canon that record the historical Buddha’s detailed ideas and instructions about mindfulness and meditation. These are the Satipatṭhāna Sutta (The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness), the Mahāsatipatṭhāna Sutta (The Great Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness aka The Long Discourse about the Ways of Attending to Mindfulness), and the Ānāpānasati Sutta (Breath-Mindfulness Discourse). Nowadays excellent English translations of these ancient Pali texts are available for free online.
I also highly recommend Gil Fronsdal's The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings. Fronsdal's book is an outstanding, clearly worded translation of The Aṭṭhakavagga or “Book of Eights," a collection of poetic messages that are among the earliest of written Buddhist texts.
Maechi Chandra Khonnokyoong (1909-2000)
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