“When my friends saw me for who I am, and accepted me as I am,
I could love myself.”
I was speaking with Dr. Kamilah Majied in our session, “Buddhism, Black Liberation, and Racial Justice,” at the Parliament for World Religions. The theme of the 2021 conference is, “Opening our Hearts to the World: Compassion in Action.” We were talking about our paths to Buddhism and I was telling my story.
It was the sixties and I was young. Growing up as the only Japanese boy in my all white New England town was a good way to teach me who I was in the eyes of those around me. Some liked me and others hated me, all finding the Japanese part either strange or scary. But when I went away to high school there were Black kids, who I played basketball with, roomed with, sang and danced, with and picked hair with (mine didn’t really pick well).
We became courageous when Muhammad Ali refused induction into U.S. Army. We stood tall when Tommie Smith and John Carlos had raised their fists in the Black Power salute at the Olympics. We felt compassion when we saw that the Black Panthers weren’t just looking good in their black leather jackets but were feeding hungry children with free breakfasts. We sang with James Brown, “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud!” When my friends said, “Black is beautiful.” I realized that if they could be free, if they were beautiful, I too could be free and beautiful.
When Martin Luther King Jr. met Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh he was moved “to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart.” He declared opposition to the Vietnam War, a revolutionary crossing of borders of compassion, extending brotherhood to people beyond one’s own group. I realized that solidarity in the fight against injustice could occur when Black liberation movements united with others. For me, it was significant that it integrated Black and Asian peoples and struggles.
All this led me back to Japan, my birthplace, to live with my grandparents, and to become more Japanese through their teachings and lived cultural experience. I learned daily life practices, customs, and moral values that are deeply embedded in Buddhism and Shintoism. I felt like I had returned home to a peaceful place of my original self, as if these ways were always inside me more than I had known.
The second movement to Buddhism occurred many years later when the Black Lives Matter movement erupted. My college students were aroused to a level of activism that reverberated into my classroom, challenging what we were doing in school, and forcing me to face the reality that I needed to do more to help them deal with the volatility and complexity of the situation. For me, this meant returning to virtues of Bushido, the way of the samurai, based in Buddhism.
Bushido offered a way to honor the BLM focus on the value and dignity of human life and my students’ passionate declaration of willingness to sacrifice their lives for the cause. But I asked them to also consider, “What are you willing to live for?” We formed healing communities based in vulnerability, humility, equality, and service, crossing borders within our hearts and between ourselves and others. We practiced values of acceptance, listening, and gratitude to sustain our hope and activism.
I call this approach “Heartfulness” to highlight its Japanese essence of including body, mind, and spirit. Based in mindfulness, it becomes compassion when our beginner’s mind enables us to connect with the humanity in others. And compassion in action is manifest through responsibility in our service to the world.
The revival of BLM with the George Floyd murder is another moment in which I have moved toward Buddhism, and Black Liberation has been tied to my own, but that’s another story. For now, I want to show how in my life I owe so much to the struggles for Black Liberation. I believe that this is true for many people. Black liberation is human liberation.