In the heat of last summer, the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling rung out like sirens in my ears.
I could not stop the noise of it — could not un-hear the voice of a woman screaming, frantic as her partner, the father of the small child sitting in the back seat of the car, died slowly from a gunshot wound beside her. I replayed the tragedy over and over in my mind, thinking, “It could have been someone I loved. It could have been me.”
At the time, I was working at a coffee shop in Washington D.C, and the reality of ongoing violence against Black and brown people weighed heavy on my spirit. I came to work agitated and distracted. I watched my customers laughing over their pastries and chai lattes and resented their joy. How could they be so calm when the world outside was burning? How could they be happy when people are getting murdered in the streets? I, of course, did not ask them this. In fact, I did not mention my thoughts to anyone. I didn’t talk to my family or my friends about how angry and confused I was feeling. I logged off of social media entirely and decided not to engage. I wanted to create a world in which I didn’t have to feel what I was feeling — a small bubble in which, for a moment, I could put my grief and anger down.
A few days after the mirrored deaths of these two men, in the midst of the outrage and protests that followed, my partner asked me if I had heard about what was going on. “I’ve heard,” I said. “But I don’t know the details. And I don’t want to know.” I explained that I had intentionally checked out of the conversations as a gesture of self-care because I was tired of being worn out emotionally by the never-ending barrage of bad news. I called it an “act of resistance” to protect my spirit against that which seeks to destroy it.
My partner, who has been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for 9 years, listened patiently to my monolog. When I was done, they suggested I try chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. “Just do it for a week,” they said. “Chant to be able to look at what’s going on in the world and not be destroyed by it.”’
They had a good point. I’m a writer. My job is literally to observe what is going on in the world and reflect it through language. What could I add to the conversation if I wasn’t around to hear it? I didn’t want to have to check out — I wanted to stay engaged so that I could fight back! I wanted to be able to look injustice in the face and then do something to stop it. I needed a way to cope with the negative emotions that arose every time I bore witness to the violence happening around me.
So I tried chanting.
Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is the title of the Lotus Sutra, a collection of teachings by Shakyamuni (the Historical Buddha).
The Lotus Sutra is considered to be the Buddha’s most profound teaching, for its assertion that all human beings, despite their circumstances, can attain happiness in this lifetime. Nichiren Daishonin, a Buddhist reformer in 13th century Japan, studied Buddhism and developed a practice of chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo as a means by which every human could manifest their highest potential and become absolutely happy. Nichiren Buddhism’s core philosophy is that the fundamental purpose of life is to put an end to suffering. Nichiren Buddhists chant the title of the Lotus Sutra to call forth their Buddha nature — to summon a state of enlightenment, a state of absolute, indestructible happiness.
This Buddhism teaches that doing one’s “human revolution” — undergoing a process of deep, individual, inner transformation — is the foundation for a peaceful world. At the end of the day, culture, politics, and social norms are none other than creations of the human mind and reflections of the human heart. The more I practiced and studied this Buddhism, the more I saw how clearly applicable it is to what’s going on in the world today — how significantly it would benefit contemporary social justice movements.
At its core, this Buddhism is an ongoing practice of creating value — of taking sufferings, challenges, and hardships and turning them into things that make your life beautiful and fulfilling. It is a truly humanistic philosophy in that it centers human happiness. In Buddhism, as in social justice movements, we fight to dismantle the things that stand in the way of us and our ability to live joyful, dignified, peaceful, happy lives.
As a black queer femme cis woman born and raised in a racist, conservative, Christian South, I have every right to be skeptical of religion.
However, I have confidence in the value of my Buddhist practice because I have actual proof that it works. At the end of the day, having faith in Buddhism only means that I have faith in myself. Buddhist wisdom offers, “The only difference between a Buddha and a common mortal is that the common mortal doesn’t realize she’s a Buddha.” In other words, in order to manifest my Buddha nature and become indestructible happy, I have to have faith that I can.
Similarly, in order to have success in our social movements, we must have absolute confidence in our capacity to affect change. If I want the social climate to change, then I have to change the social climate. If I am unhappy with my job, my lover, my health, my body, my relationship with my parents, my life — it is my responsibility to change it, and I do this, first and foremost, by changing myself. By releasing the delusion that I have no choice in my suffering. By acknowledging that, as a Buddha, I contain the inherent potential to be happy no matter what. In this way, doing my human revolution is quite literally, my activism. I make intentional causes to transform my life for the better and to help the people around me do the same.
My Buddhist faith changed my personal understanding of what it means to be free.
I don’t have to spend my life in a perpetual state of victimhood, constantly suffering, waiting to be liberated from patriarchy, from homophobia, from racism, from sexism, from capitalism. Buddhism speaks directly to people who are suffering and reminds us that not only is it our personal responsibility to not to be defeated — it is our social responsibility to overcome the things that deny us of our right to reveal our full potential as a human beings.
Daisaku Ikeda writes, “Those who have suffered the most deserve to become the happiest.” My intersecting identities constantly put me at risk of physical and psychological harm. I have been trained from every corner to believe that my “difference” is inherent and my oppression is undoable.
Buddhism has helped me feel empowered in the face of oppression and injustice.
I may not be able to singlehandedly put an end to police brutality, but I can deepen the level of support I give to my community. I can practice self-care. I can heal my body. I can transform my negative experiences at work, at school, at home. I can be courageous in acknowledging all the things that stand in the way of me and my happiness, and do whatever it takes to get them out of the way.
The fight against human suffering does not begin outside of myself. The most significant way to participate in the struggle for world peace is to win over my own fundamental darkness and to become absolutely and indestructibly happy. If I do not do the work required to transform my sufferings, then I have become complicit in the suffering of the world.
“If we lack the courage to confront evil acts, or tendencies toward hatred and discrimination, both within ourselves and in society, they will spread unchecked, as history shows.”
Soka Gakkai International