Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 16 Winter 2018

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., Th.D., is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling and Director of Interreligious Chaplaincy at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, MN.

Being the Change You Want to See:

Self and No Self in Buddhist Spiritual Care


Guest Editor

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Th.D.


Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?


Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don't you take it awful hard

’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines

Diggin’ in my own backyard.


You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.


–“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou



If with kindly generosity

One merely has the wish to soothe

The aching heads of other beings,

Such merit knows no bounds…


For if the simple thought to be of help to others

Exceeds in worth the worship of the buddhas,

What need is there to speak of actual deeds

That bring about the weal and benefit of beings?


The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva


 Two-thousand seventeen C.E. in the U.S. was the year of women rising and manifesting in #MeToo – a social media campaign whereby women could simply state that they had been harassed, abused, and or raped by men.  The result has been the fall of some high-profile powerful men in various sectors who abused their positions and power by harassing, assaulting, and raping women.  #MeToo and other movements for women’s rights are re-grouping and re-strategizing after the 2016 presidential post-election and subsequent historic Women’s March that called millions of people throughout the world into the streets as a show of force against dehumanizing women.  Why?  Because the president-elect had admitted to journalist Billy Bush that he found pleasure in using his celebrity, wealth, and access to women by grabbing their vaginas without their consent, and he became president anyway.


It has been a year since the Trump family and administration has been in Washington, and we who have been watching have learned a lot in one of the most troubling years in politics.  One of the main lessons we have learned is that it takes time to recover from a national trauma that has obviously re-traumatized people who had already been victims of sexual assault. Angelou was right about a woman’s resilience, but it may take some time to recover before we laugh like we’ve got gold mines diggin’ in my own backyard.  That time has come, and Buddhist lay women will need to decide if we are going to let Buddhist fantasies of asceticism coupled with fatalistic philosophies of the world being doomed keep them on the sidelines, or whether Buddhist heart practices (compassion, lovingkindness, sympathetic joy) and resistance philosophies (there is no Self) will inspire us to be in active solidarity with one another against sexual predators and also be a caring presence for those who suffer all forms of degradation and suffering.  The time is now.


As women are still recovering and regrouping from our national trauma and as #MeToo took hold in 2016, so much so that many journalists agreed that #MeToo was a more important story in 2017 than Trump, another development in the movement has occurred, #TimesUp (  #TimesUp is a collective narrative shift from the stories of victimization, which remain important, to a collective narrative of change and the power to hold others accountable for their malfeasance.  Holding others to be accountable for their malfeasance will take a willingness to be confrontational.  Being confrontational is not what Buddhist practitioners are known for, but Buddhist practitioners are known for practicing compassion for those who suffer.  With that in mind, what will be our commitment to increasing our capacity for being with those who suffer?


Buddhist historians have noted that what we now call Buddhism (perhaps originally referred to as the way of the Dharma or the way of The Buddha before it was given a religious moniker) arose in, and perhaps because of, a political context similar to the Trump situation.  Similar in that Trump, when he was campaigning to be the president of the U.S., said publicly that he would be the “best jobs president god ever created.” From a Buddhist perspective, this is Selfing (with a capital “S”) at its worst because his belief (actually shared by many other Americans) in his special anointing and spiritual self-possession from an unseen omnipotent deity, has resulted in the destruction, not the healing, of others.  The People’s Temple in 1978, the Branch Davidians in 1993, The Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate in 1997, are a few examples of how Selfing and Narcissistic Personality Disorder and in Trump, wealth, converge to cause destruction.  Even Trump himself said, publicly, that he could shoot someone in public and not lose voters.  He had millions of people support him after he made this statement, and that should give us all reason for concern.  Buddhist women, if you are not prepared to be confrontational during this #MeToo-#TimesUp historic period, prepare yourself to attend to the people for whom this time of trauma is re-traumatizing, not by escaping into ascetic fantasy, but by building relational resilience through meditation, cultivating the Brahma Viharas, understanding self (with a small “s”) as interdependence, and participating in affirming sanghas.  (I learned from my research with African-American Insight Buddhist same-sex loving women that these Buddhist practices and beliefs actually promote Remarkable Relational Resilience).


Remarkable Relational Resilience (a byproduct of some Buddhist practices and philosophy) can take us far during this time of intentional national divisiveness from the Executive Branch aided by Russian fake news fomenting divisiveness.  If we are paying attention and we are not sociopaths, our observations and responses must also include deeper introspection, awakening and compassion──this is what the spirit of the way of the dharma or Buddhism invites us to in the U.S., right now, 2,600 years after the Buddha’s death in Nepal/India.  As Shantideva expressed, there are heads to soothe and aspirations to be of service.  Are you ready to respond to these invitations with introspection, awakening, and active compassion?


The spirit of the way of the Buddha, which has transcended geography and time, includes the recognition of state-inflicted caste-class-race-gender segregation and other forms of degradation as well as the liberation of people from suffering through spiritual practice, ethics, and acts of compassion (to name a few components).  True Buddhism ought not be abstracted from the political situation that gave rise to this alternative worldview, anthropology, spirituality, ethics, religion, and way of life.  Compassionate, loving, equanimous, and selfless political activism and spiritual care is what suffering human beings are calling us to bring forth into the U.S. in 2018.  The Noble Eightfold Path, a very effective modality for improved mental and spiritual health, is not just about the relief of an individual’s suffering, but about the social transformation of collective suffering.  For example, Right Livelihood (one of the eight path factors), or refraining from work (whether paid or not) that causes harm to self and others, or deriving profits from businesses engaged in harming others, when enacted on a grand scale, can actually put an end to certain industries and transform countries.  Gandhi and King, though not Buddhist practitioners in a strict sense, understood the power of right livelihood to transform people and the places where they live.  Right Livelihood can also be an inspiration to involve oneself in work that enhances another’s embodied experience of being human in the midst of dehumanizing forces like, for example, the liberation from sexual slavery by refusing to buy pornography, refraining from hiring prostitutes, and choosing to intervene when you sense girls and women are being kept in a house against their will.  True Buddhism is a liberatory tradition, and sometimes it has to be liberated from itself, in particular, the notion that Buddhist liberation is solely for individuals on a person-by-person basis.  We are here because of, in spite of, for the purpose of, for the continuation of, and for the well-being of each other.  Women throughout this nation and this world have marched and are marching in historic numbers to remind ourselves and others that we are human beings worthy of respect and bodily integrity and we will continue to call out the men in power who have sexually harassed and abused women in secret, no matter how long ago the harassment and abuse occurred.  Activism on behalf of those who have been abused is collective spiritual care and is congruent with true Buddhism, unabstracted from the political context.


When I was invited to guest edit this issue of American Buddhist Women, given the fact that I am a human rights law-educated pastoral counselor and seminary professor for an inter-religious chaplaincy program, I wanted to invite Buddhist women in Buddhist spiritual care to write about the paradox of the “use of self” (a common concept in traditional Christian-informed pastoral and spiritual care programs) and “no self” (a Buddhist anthropological truth claim).  No self, if only understood from a strict cosmo-anthropological perspective that says one’s physical existence is because past lives were steeped in craving and clinging and future lives will be the result of present life craving and clinging, when held tightly undermines wholesome desires, and potentially snuffs out the possibility for Right Intention cultivation and active compassion.  How do Buddhists in the West care for others with this use of self-no self paradox in mind?   Three women Buddhist practitioners working in the areas of Buddhist spiritual care for those who are dying, those receiving mental health care treatment, and those in prison, share with us their understanding of and experiences in the paradoxes of using one’s self while practicing no self.  The populations Kim Allen and Mary Doane work with are all vulnerable to changes in health care insurance, and the population Diane Wilde works with are vulnerable to the particular dehumanization that comes from being imprisoned.  As you read their essays, I invite you to also reflect on who you are becoming in the midst of the rise in active misanthropy and misogyny.   Do active attacks against immigrants and refugees (particularly non-White immigrants and refugees and Muslim immigrants and refugees), women, Muslim Americans, poor people, journalists, transgendered military service members, intellectuals, civil rights activists, non-Christians, and the rest of the world that has, according to Trump, taken advantage of the U.S., make you more anxious?  More misanthropic?  Misogynist?  Racist? Paralyzed?  Neutral?  Actively compassionate?  Pay attention.  Are you a member of one or more targeted groups?  If so, do your practices and communities sustain you?  If so, do they sustain you enough to be actively compassionate towards others?


There has been a downward and outward transmission of permission to actively hate others and it has been going on, with increased intensity, for about three years.  #MeToo and #TimesUp are disrupting this hate-filled transmission.  How has your Buddhanature informed your responses?  Have you clung to a literal view of the Heart Sutra chant, “no eyes, no ears, no tongue…” and thus no self and therefore, no responsibility towards self or others?  Are you unwilling to have your states of deep peace undisturbed while people are being deported, while neo-Nazi and Antifa fight in the streets, while molesters in political power (Trump and former judge turned U.S. senatorial candidate Roy Moore) defend themselves and endorse each other?  The majority of Alabamians disrupted that.  It is time for disruption and chaos.  Are you attached to your states of peace?  The Buddhism of deep concentrative states at any cost comes with long-term expenses – ask the monks active in the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar. Who should receive the bill or bear the costs of the rise in hatred against the U.S. government and the consequent pain and suffering of its citizens?  Bearings the costs and paying the bills will fall on the bodhisattvas because they have opened their very selves, through no self, to receive the sufferings of this world.  Are you ready to pay up?


When we contemplate the questions around who should bear the costs of pain and suffering, I invite you to read these three essays with these questions:  How does Allen’s essay help you understand the challenges of working with people with mental illness and how to meet those challenges through meditation?  How does Doane’s essay help you understand the dying processes on physical, mental, and spiritual levels and how to work with people who are dying?  How does Wilde’s essay help you understand what prisoners with life sentences face and how to work with them as they face those challenges?  Ultimately, how can these essays help you cultivate an active compassion for those who suffer?  What is Right Livelihood in the political, social, and economic contexts we find ourselves in today?


My hope, as someone who teaches students how to examine themselves in order to be more selfless (or less selfish) in service, is that reading these essays will inspire you to enter the danger zones that have repeatedly called for your attention, but went ignored or denied due to fear or doubt.  I hope these essays help dissolve some of the selfing resistance material you may have had, those internal voices that say, “That’s not my problem,” or “I am not able to deal with that,” so that you can reach out your hand to those who are drowning.  If you are the one drowning in the sea of hate, I hope these essays inspire you to reach upward toward those of us who are showing up for you through the power of lovingkindness.  These essays show what it means, being (an active state of dynamic process) the change we want to see.


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