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James Baldwin and Audre Lorde: two revolutionary thinkers whose legacies remain an important touchstone for those interested in the work of liberation. In the Union course The Dharma of Baldwin and Lorde, Dr. Rima Vesely-Flad and her students explore these two as icons who illuminate Buddhist teachings and provide a context for how to apply them to our lived realities.
Hi Rima, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today about your work and your Union course, The Dharma of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. I am so interested in hearing your thoughts on the significance of Baldwin and Lorde as individuals, as two peoples whose legacies can be studied together, and also the value of exploring their legacies through a Buddhist lens. Can you tell us a bit about this course? How did you decide to offer it and how long have you been teaching it?
I recently published a book called Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation. In the sixth chapter, which is one on gender and sexuality, I engage Baldwin and Lorde. It’s really because there are three dharma teachers who write personally about their interpretations with Baldwin and Lorde, who all come from different Buddhist lineages. So I did a deep dive into these dharma teachers’ books, and coming out of writing that chapter, I thought, ‘I would like to teach a course on this and look at why these two writers are so compelling to these amazing dharma teachers.’
I proposed an eight-week course to the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and right at the same time a book agent approached me and asked if I wanted to write a book on it. So I put together a proposal and in the midst of all of that, I was hired at Union as a Visiting Professor. This is one of the classes I proposed. The class is a response to these Black dharma teachers of different lineages who can see Dharma teachings in Baldwin and Lorde’s works, so my class and the book I’m writing are really an elaboration of what they see and what I see as I look more closely at their essays and interviews.
In your words, who was James Baldwin? Who was Audre Lorde? Why are their lives, legacies, teachings, and works important to study today?
Both Baldwin and Lorde are Black queer writers who are now deceased.
James Baldwin—what can I say? He was on the map. He was a profound writer. He was raised as the eldest of nine children in Harlem and at the age of 24, he fled to Paris and wrote his first two novels. He became a well-known public intellectual. He turned towards trauma in his childhood, towards the impact of white supremacy. He was unapologetic about being a gay man. And I think what is so amazing about Baldwin is his capacity to talk so directly about suffering and the human conditions. He talks about sensuality and repression in the United States, as well as impermanence and death in straightforward terms.
And Audre Lorde, while a very different writer and on some level particularly oriented towards the feminist community, was a poet who talked a lot about suffering and impermanence. She developed breast cancer at a fairly early age (42) and then liver cancer at the age of 50, and her journals and personal musings that deal with her fear of death and her capacity to work with impermanence. And she too talks about erotic energy and the body. She talks about gender and transcendence, dreams and visions.
In this course, you have paired Baldwin and Lorde together as two subjects of exploration. Why did you decide to do this?
The syllabus for the course is structured around the Buddhist doctrine called the Three Marks of Existence—suffering, or dukkha, impermanence or anicca, not-self or anatta. The syllabus is structured around how they address these broad themes, and also the ways that they talk about conditions and identity and illuminate dharmic teachings within this particular context.
Buddhism in the United States is still fairly underdeveloped in some dramatic ways. I think marrying Baldwin and Lorde with Buddhist doctrines allows us to see how relevant this is in this particular context. But it really has to be interpreted—you need a specific hermeneutic in order to do that.
I have thought about teaching them separately, but I actually think in their own ways they get at very different interpretations of Buddhism. To teach them separately you can’t really see the fullness of how the Dharma makes sense in this context.
To give you an example—Baldwin talks a lot about collective delusion and white delusion. He argues that this is what upholds white supremacy. So we get a kind of fierceness and analysis with Baldwin’s works that illuminates a particular doctrine about the human state of greed, hatred, and delusion. Audre Lorde talks a lot about compassion. Because of her descriptions on how to offer compassion towards ourselves, we get an elaboration of a teaching called the brahma-viharas in Audre Lorde’s works. Baldwin and Lorde mirror each other and overlap in many ways, but they also elaborate different dimensions of the dharma.
What does the Buddhist lens offer to the exploration of Baldwin and Lorde? Why should Buddhists study Baldwin and Lorde?
There is so much richness. I think if you can stay with their writings and really hear what they have to say, there’s a level of profundity with regards to turning towards themselves, and also with acknowledging harm that is caused by conditions. I think through their writings, speeches, and interviews, we get a sense of the fact that suffering isn’t just thirsting.
Within Buddhism we have teachings on causes and conditions, or what’s called dependent origination. And I think Baldwin and Lorde help us to understand that suffering does arise from social conditions. We have socially engaged Buddhism, which is so elaborated in Eastern countries and Asian countries, but we really do not have well-developed [Buddhist] social ethics here in what we call the West. In the United States context in particular, we don’t have great Buddhist ethics when we talk about, for example, racial and systemic injustice, the penal system, the immigration system, the foster care system. I think putting Baldwin and Lorde at the center of our readings and our understanding of hermeneutics of Buddhism, we get a sense that we suffer, and we suffer in part because we have conditions that lead to suffering.
Another reason I think they’re so important is that they indict white supremacist culture in very stark language. And they do it in such a way that if we attempt to read their works as Buddhist, we can see how especially within the dominant culture, this incapacity or inability to look directly at fear, to see that which is painful or scary, and how that maintains systems of white supremacy. Both Baldwin and Lorde call that out directly. And it’s not that you can only look for yourself—you need to also look at how your fear maintains these systems in a collective sense. I think they have much to offer with this.
They also both talk a lot about the body and the importance of honoring the body. And we get that in certain iterations of Buddhism, but I think more broadly if we put their voices at the center of our Buddhist practice, of our Buddhist hermeneutics, then we get a deeper sense of why it’s so important to turn towards and honor our bodies.
They both do so much work on themselves. They know themselves really well and are willing to write from that place of self-awareness. And we honor that practice of self-awareness within Buddhism. They’re so vast in what they acknowledge, and I think each writer has something to teach us as we do our own work.
What has it been like teaching this class at Union?
It has been so incredible. It’s an amazing thing to read these texts collectively with a group of adult students who love these writers on their own terms, and many of whom also have a Dharma practice. It has been a really profound experience. I think that because the students really like each other and trust each other, they are willing to put themselves out there and challenge each other. The culture of the class has been really healthy and quite vulnerable in ways that lead us forward. I think the students inspire each other quite a lot.
In our email exchanges, our team proposed that we feature this course in honor of Black History Month, and you mentioned some pushback to Black History Month. First of all, thank you for raising this. Is there anything else you would be willing to share about your thoughts on this?
It’s not to say that we shouldn’t honor Black History Month, as much as to say that we should honor Black History every month. It’s this idea that in these twenty-eight days, we’re going to do this deep dive into Black history as opposed to really building it into every aspect of what we acknowledge in our culture. Sometimes those of us of African descent are invited to come and teach a class or give a lecture during Black History Month, and there has started to be some pushback to that. It should not just be during Black history month—Black teachers should be incorporated into every aspect of a teaching schedule or lecture series.
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