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Post by: Ismail Buffins, Master of Divinity (MDiv) ‘20; Social Justice Chair, HDS Student Association (HDSSA)

Read on to learn about an MDiv student’s explorations of family, race, and Buddhist ministry this past summer. 

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Ismail and his uncle, Luqman

This summer, I went to Morocco to familiarize and develop a relationship with disparate elements of my family, all while studying the relationship between Buddhist soteriology, racial justice, and political praxis via interviews and reading. My interviews took place with my uncle, Luqman. He is a child of the Great Migration and a devout Muslim. I spent lots of time gleaning stories from him. These stories came together to form a cloth, one in which I could explore the living quality of an individual’s search for spiritual fulfillment and racial justice. Racial violence was no stranger to my family. My grandfather fled white terror twice. Initially, he left Memphis as a teen on warning from a family associate that violence was coming his way for not staying in his place. The second time, he left Cleveland for New York because of a violent loan shark. My father and my uncle both served in the Marines in the early 1950’s and afterwards converted to Islam at the Nation of Islam’s Temple No. 7, the masjid where Malcolm X was minister. They were not raised religiously; their conversion to the Nation was motivated by a sense of empowerment and belonging. My uncle served as driver for Malcolm for some time and my father as a captain in the Nation. After the deaths of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, my uncle moved away from the Nation. In the 1980’s he decided to leave the United States to live in Morocco. Much like his father, he was leaving a region that he felt was unsafe for a Black man. Morocco was also place he found he could practice his religion more easily.

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Ismail’s uncle Luqman

When I wasn’t interviewing my uncle or learning about Islam from him, I was traveling. Long train rides made a perfect time for reading. I read sociopolitical theory that focused on race as a crucial episteme shaping political and moral discourse. I read chapters on moral psychology, Buddhism, and meditation that grappled with the value of anger. I meditated, journaled, celebrated and observed holidays, and I ate a lot of food.  

For much of my religious life the spiritual path laid before me, whether it was Christian or Buddhist, or some New Age amalgamation, often required adherence to a larger perspective on human suffering. I ought to see things as God saw them, lay my burdens on him, or see the non-self nature of things – the interdependent play of phenomena – all to achieve a liberation from suffering. These teachings were helpful in some ways; I was able to absorb my individual, familial, and societal troubles in a larger cosmology; to reframe my perception around an issue so that its salience would be diminished and in turn I would feel happier or perhaps have more clarity. 

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Masjid Al-Saud, in Bouskara, Casablanca, Morocco after Friday jummah prayers. 

However, I found these teachings did not always adequately speak my truth or address my needs. I found them particularly at odds with wisdom I received from elders in my family, in my racial community, or with historical patterns. It felt like a personal violation to be told to leave valid emotional responses that have helped my ancestors survive and thrive with clarity and dignity. I began to worry about the danger of “Spiritual Bypassing”on both a micro and macro level [1]. I didn’t find any easy answers for my quandaries through interviewing my Uncle or reading. I believe more important than tranquility is living in the friction between the Ultimate and the Relative [2]. I think it is a minister’s work to inhabit that space of tension creatively. This is how we serve to make the world whole and fruitful for all. As Padmasambhava said, “Though the view should be as vast as the sky, keep your conduct as fine as barley flour.” May we all live our lives in this way, to the best of our ability.  

[1]From Fosella, Tina & Welwood, John. “Human Nature, Buddha Nature.” Tricycle, Spring 2011. The “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.”

[2] In Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness (Skt. Sunyata) refers to the position that all things lack intrinsic existence and nature. Relative truth refers to the way phenomena can be said to exist through interdependent arising.