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Contemplative Superpowers for Social Change: How Mind-Body Practices Can Support (and Sometimes Limit) Collective Liberation

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Abstract

How can contemplative practices support the transformation of unjust power relations? This question is at the core of three important new books in contemplative studies: Rima Vesely-Flad’s Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation; Farah Godrej’s Freedom Inside? Yoga and Meditation in the Carceral State; and Sokthan Yeng’s Buddhist Feminism: Transforming Anger Against Patriarchy. We featured these books, their authors, and respondents in an event on “The Politics of the Mindfulness Revolution” that we hosted as part of the 2022 Western Political Science Association Annual Conference. This issue is a record of that event and some of the conversations that ensued.
THE ARROW
A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS
FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
How Mind-Body Practices Can Support
(and Sometimes Limit) Collective Liberation
VOLUME 9 | ISSUE 3 | WINTER 2022/2023VOLUME 9 | ISSUE 3 | WINTER 2022/2023
The Arrow
A JOURNAL OF WAKEFUL SOCIETY, CULTURE & POLITICS
THE ARROW JOURNAL explores the relationship among
contemplative practice, politics, and activism. Inspired
in its founding by the teaching and social vision of
meditation master Chögyam Trungpa, THE ARROW
welcomes the insights of multiple contemplative lineages
for achieving a kinder, healthier, and more compassionate
world. We encourage dialogue on wisdom and knowledge
arising from methods of contemplative inquiry, ways of
embodied knowing, and intellectual disciplines. In doing
so, THE ARROW provides a critical and much needed space
for investigating the meeting point of contemplative
wisdom and pressing social, political, and environmental
challenges.
The Arrow
STAFF
Chief Editor
Gabriel Dayley
Managing Editor
shah noor hussein
Associate Editor
Ashley Wilson
Copy Editors
Destenie Fafard
Tyler Lehrer
Francie Reed
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Creative Director
Alicia Brown
Artists
Rae Minji Lee
Chetna Mehta
LEADERSHIP
Board of Directors
Martina Bouey
Gabriel Dayley
Sharon Owyang
Sheryl Petty
Rosalyn Stagg
Advisory Board
Rachel DeMotts
Gaylon Ferguson
Michaele Ferguson
Holly Gayley
Michael Gayner
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Judith Simmer-Brown
Aarti Tejuja
ISSN 2768-055X (Online)
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Visit our website
www.arrow-journal.org
© 2022 e Arrow Journal
Guest Editors: James K. Rowe, Farah Godrej, Shannon Mariotti
Cover art by Rae Minji Lee
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023 3
CONTENTS
VOLUME 9 | ISSUE 3
Journal Editors’ Introduction 5
shah noor hussein & Gabriel Dayley
Contemplative Superpowers for Social Change 6
James K. Rowe, Farah Godrej, & Shannon Mariotti
Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: Reflections on an
Africana Buddhist Hermeneutic 22
Tracey E. Hucks
Breaking our Brains and Hearts Open: Dr. Rima Vesely-Flad’s Black
Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition 29
Toni Pressley-Sanon
In Response: A Black Buddhist Hermeneutic within the Field of
Buddhist Studies 35
Rima Vesely-Flad
Embodying Transformation in Carceral Spaces: On Farah Godrej's
Freedom Inside 40
Anita Chari
Violence, Liberation, and Freedom Inside 46
Robin L. Turner
CONTENTS
The Arrow JournAl
4
VOLUME 9 | ISSUE 3
In Response: (Re)inking Freedom
through Refuge & Embodiment 53
Farah Godrej
Sokthan Yeng and the Superpower of Buddhist Feminism 58
Leah Kalmanson
Sokthan Yeng and the Resuscitation
of Anger in Buddhist Feminism 63
Jason M. Wirth
In Response: e Magic of Feminist Sanghas 69
Sokthan Yeng
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023 5
When James Rowe, Farah Godrej and
Shannon Mariotti rst approached us
to pitch an issue featuring discussion
of three new books that link dharma teachings and
practices with social change and drawing on actual
dialogue among the authors, we were immediately
intrigued. Our guest editors have curated something
truly special in this edition of e Arrow: a textual
oering for our readers that reects the conversa-
tions they facilitated in a symposium titled e
Politics of the Mindfulness Revolution,” held at the
2022 Western Political Science Association Annu-
al Conference. Six discussants oered reections
directly to the three book authors, each of whom
in turn responded to the reviews of their work. e
conversation was lively, heartfelt, and engaging.
e written commentaries and responses, en-
capsulated in this collection, have sparked important
dialogues on the role of Buddhism in prisons, Black
communities, and feminist practice. ey reect on
how yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can shape
how we respond to systems of oppression—from
quiet resistance to punitive systems to righteous an-
ger in the face of dismal realities. In these texts, we
come to see clearly how Buddhist practices can serve
as tools for channeling strong emotions into right
action. Together these books ask—and attempt to
answer—how can Buddhism serve as a tool of sur-
vival and transformation for those seeking liberation
from systems of oppression?
We are grateful to James, Farah, and Shannon
for their skill in convening a group of insightful
commentators and authors to reect on these three
important contributions to Buddhist scholarship
and praxis. eir curatorial eye, thoughtful feed-
back, and ability to interweave the contributions of
each text made this issue a pleasure to put together.
As always, we’re also grateful to our editorial team
and artists for their contributions to this issue. We
hope you enjoy reading it!
shah noor hussein, Managing Editor
Gabriel Dayley, Chief Editor
e Arrow Journal
Journal Editors’ Introduction
SHAH NOOR HUSSEIN & GABRIEL DAYLEY
The Arrow
A JOURNAL OF WAKEFUL SOCIETY, CULTURE & POLITICS
The Arrow JournAl
6
Contemplative Superpowers for Social Change
ree New Books on How Mind-Body Practices Can
Support (and Sometimes Limit) Collective Liberation
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON
MARIOTTI
HOW CAN CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICES support the transfor-
mation of unjust power relations? is question is at the core of three
important new books in contemplative studies: Rima Vesely-Flad’s Black Bud-
dhists and the Black Radical Tradition: e Practice of Stillness in the Movement for
Liberation; Farah Godrej’s Freedom Inside? Yoga and Meditation in the Carceral
State; and Sokthan Yeng’s Buddhist Feminism: Transforming Anger Against Pa-
triarchy. We featured these books, their authors, and respondents in an event
on “e Politics of the Mindfulness Revolution” that we hosted as part of the
2022 Western Political Science Association Annual Conference. is issue is a
record of that event and some of the conversations that ensued.
In an ideal world, you’d have the time to read each of these important
books. We do not live in an ideal social world. And so our hope is that this
issue can quickly orient you to the vital contributions that Vesely-Flad, Godrej,
and Yeng make to contemplative studies in their recent works. e Arrow Jour-
nals mission is to explore the intersections between contemplative practice
and political change. Each of these books has a quiver of arrows that broaden
our collective understanding of how contemplative practice can support—and
sometimes inhibit—the dawning of more just worlds. Indeed, the title for this
special issue is drawn from a shared conclusion by Vesely-Flad, Godrej, Yeng
and their respondents that genuine superpowers with profound political eects
can be cultivated through contemplative practice. In her response to Yengs
book, Leah Kalmanson reminds us that the cultivation of supernormal pow-
ers through “mindfulness and meditation is not unusual and in fact appears
multiple times throughout the Pāli canon.” Instead of being just a metaphor,
or a facet of the ctional Marvel Cinematic Universe, meditation can literally
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
7
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
augment our powers to do good. As Kalmanson writes, “…Buddhism involves
developing superpowers, and right now superpowers are indeed what feminists
and allies need… Yeng lifts up those supranormal dimensions of Buddhism
that are still vibrantly with us today, despite modernizing attempts to disen-
chant the discourse.”
We begin this introduction by sharing the basic argument developed by
each author and pointing to the superpowers highlighted in each text. We
then explore key points of overlap between the three works and what those
resonances portend for the future of contemplative studies and embodied so-
cial change. e body of this special issue consists of commentary on each of
these three books by other scholars, followed by responses from the authors.
Tracey E. Hucks from Harvard University and Toni Pressley-Sanon from East-
ern Michigan University comment on Black Buddhists and the Black Radical
Tradition. Anita Chari from the University of Oregon and Robin L. Turner
from Butler University discuss Freedom Inside. And Leah Kalmanson from the
University of North Texas and Jason Wirth from Seattle University comment
on Buddhist Feminism. is introductory essay, and the ensuing critical con-
versations between commentators and authors will provide a rich experience of
these three new vital texts in contemplative studies.
Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: e
Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation
by Rima Vesely-Flad
In her own words, the central argument of Rima Vesely-Flad’s book is that
“Buddhist teachings and practices liberate Black people from psychological
suering. Black liberation depends on healing intergenerational trauma, and
forms of Buddhism facilitate the process of attaining inner freedom.1 Black
Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition is animated by more than forty inter-
views that Vesely-Flad conducted with Black Buddhist teachers and long-term
practitioners. She found that more than half of her interviewees were inspired
to engage in Buddhist practice as a way of healing racially induced trauma.
Based on her personal experiences of healing and felt freedom, as well as those
of her interlocutors, Vesely-Flad presents Black Buddhism as a powerful sup-
port for overall Black liberation. In chapter two, “From the Plantation to the
Prison,” she outlines current and past drivers of trauma that continue to im-
pact Black people. Vesely-Flad shares current research showing how these trau-
matic experiences are stored in the body and can be passed on to subsequent
generations “resulting in physical ailments and suppressed capacity for joy.”2
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON MARIOTTI
8The Arrow JournAl
Ongoing trauma can limit individual freedom and also complicate collective
eorts to bend the moral arc of societies and institutions towards justice. For
Vesely-Flad, Black Buddhism oers embodied practices such as “ancestral de-
votions, connecting with nature, practicing yoga, walking and dancing” that
can help metabolize intergenerational and present-day trauma, thereby sup-
porting bids for Black liberation.3
While some of these listed practices would be commonly found among
most Buddhist communities across North America, others are particular to
Black Buddhism, such as movement-oriented practices like dancing. is leads
to another key argument in the book: that Black practitioners are crafting a
distinct form of Buddhism, infusing it with practices and ideas from other Af-
ricana religions, Black Christianity, and the Black radical tradition. For exam-
ple, Vesely-Flad found that the Black radical thinkers Audre Lorde and James
Baldwin shaped the transmission of the dharma for many of the teachers she
interviewed.4 Reecting on her interviews, she notes that “cultivating Black
identity in dharma community is central to making the rituals feel like home-
coming: a source of grounding, refuge, and belonging.5 ese adaptations are
especially important since anti-Black racism has shaped majority white Bud-
dhist convert communities in North America, making them sometimes painful
places for Black practitioners—places where trauma can be perpetuated instead
of healed.
Vesely-Flad, for example, shares the experience that psychotherapist Justin
Miles had within the Shambhala Buddhist organization:
[W]hen I came to Shambhala, I came to understand that we were
appreciating Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese, and European lineages and
their warriors. I think we should do that. But I would look around
and say, “Well, where are my people? Where are my ancestors?
Where’s their wisdom and their gentleness, their fearlessness… So I
decided to create a practice that invited all of our warrior ancestors;
mine and theirs.6
is is an instance of a teacher pushing back against anti-Black racism within
Buddhism and transforming the tradition so that it is better able to support
his own and other Black people’s healing. In his conversation with Vesely-Flad,
Miles also shared his frustration with the insularity, quietism, and homoge-
neity of the Baltimore Shambhala community he participated in: “how long
do you sit around and wait for somebody to take these teachings outside of
here and make them available to more than middle and upper class whites in
Baltimore? We’re in a predominantly black city.7 Miles’s eorts to better link
Buddhist practice with racial justice is aligned with another distinctive feature
of Black Buddhism—a strong emphasis on yoking practices of internal trans-
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
9
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
formation with practices of external
or social transformation. “For many
Black teachers,” writes Vesely-Flad,
“the interlocking spheres of spiritu-
al and political liberation cannot be
separated.”8
To oer truly healing practices
for Black people, American Bud-
dhism needs to be attuned to the
histories of slavery, Jim Crow, mass
incarceration, and white supremacy
that have been the source of so much
Black suering. Likewise, it needs
to be committed to ending both the
internal and external manifestations
of these injustices. Early in the book,
Vesely-Flad demonstrates how Bud-
dhist teachings on the three poisons—greed, hatred and delusion—help to
explain the causes of patriarchal white supremacy. is suggests that Buddhist
practices like meditation, designed to soften ego-attachments and delements
such as the three poisons, can play an important role in undoing white suprem-
acy. And yet, the persistence of racism within convert Buddhist communities
is a clear sign that inner work always needs to be aligned with outer work tar-
geting structures and norms that shape behavior. Black Buddhism is a model
for Buddhist communities worldwide in the way it lives at the intersections of
spiritual and political liberation.
While Black Buddhism points particularly towards the importance of ra-
cial justice for majority white convert communities, Vesely-Flad asserts that the
major contribution of Black Buddhism to broader Black liberation is to oer
culturally appropriate practices for healing. Indeed, both she and Pressley-Sa-
non oer an important counterpoint to our “superpower framing in their
contributions to this volume. ey note how much scholarship focuses on the
impressive “resilience” and seeming “superhumanness” of Black communities
Rima Vesely-Flad
Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition:
The Practice of Stillness in the Movement for Liberation
(New York: New York University Press, 2022)
ISBN 978-1479810499
ISBN (eBook) 978-1479810543
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON MARIOTTI
10 The Arrow JournAl
in the face of white supremacist violence, without also acknowledging Black
people’s need and capacity for healing. As Vesely-Flad observes in Black Bud-
dhists and the Black Radical Tradition:
e public collective face of Black people has been that of protest,
critique, and moral authority. It is critical to stand against overt op-
pression, but it is also critical that Black people take the time to heal
intergenerational trauma. e teachers and long-term practitioners
in this book assert resoundingly that Black people have inner lives,
psyches, and hearts that require attending and care. is book ele-
vates the importance of making visible the inner lives of Black peo-
ple.9
For Vesely-Flad, this healing is crucial to both individual and collective lib-
eration. Individually, it can help Black practitioners become increasingly free
from racially-induced trauma, as well as the “traumas of everyday life” such as
old-age, sickness, and death that beset all humans—although increased rates of
sickness and premature death result from white supremacist culture and insti-
tutions, and so not all humans experience these existential matters similarly.10
Collectively, the pursuit of healing can help Black liberation movements oper-
ate more eectively. According to Vesely-Flad, “without taking the time to heal
intergenerational trauma, Black people themselves will continue to perpetuate
harm on themselves and those who are closest to them.11 Internal healing can
support external movements for liberation, which hopefully succeed in creat-
ing material conditions that allow for even more people to achieve spiritual
liberation. is is one of the great gifts and promises of Black Buddhism.
Freedom Inside? Yoga and Meditation In the Carceral
State by Farah Godrej
If yoga and meditation are ultimately about spiritual liberation, what happens
when these practices are taught in some of the most materially conning spac-
es imaginable? is is a question that Farah Godrej explores in her new book,
based on four years of immersion in prisons and prison volunteer communi-
ties, along with ethnographic work inside a jail, and over sixty in-depth inter-
views with people who teach and practice inside prisons. Do mind-body prac-
tices support the spiritual and political liberation of incarcerated (and often
oppressed) people? Or, do these practices further conne them by encouraging
personal responsibility as the sole path to freedom while deecting attention
away from unjust structures that continue to bear down on them, severely
limiting their life choices? ere are no easy answers in Godrej’s careful study.12
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
11
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
Ultimately, she nds evidence for
both results. e weight of her em-
pirical ndings, however, points to
meditation and yoga contributing to
further connement in carceral insti-
tutions. Given the quick association
of meditation and yoga with peace,
tranquility, and felt freedom across
Euro-American cultures, this is an
especially provocative nding.
How can practices designed for
liberation support the opposite when
taught in prison? A key legitimating
narrative for the prison-industrial
complex is that it operates to rehabil-
itate “bad actors.” But the academic
literature that Godrej mobilizes to
inform her empirical study nds
that rehabilitative narratives in prison serve to “victim-blame and shame the
criminalized, while evading any discussion of the structural inequalities con-
nected to criminalization.”13 As she carefully outlines, the outlook of many
of the organizations teaching yoga and meditation in prisons aligns with this
individualized rehabilitative narrative promoted in carceral institutions. Such
alignment can result in simply rendering incarcerated persons more compliant,
while directing their attention away from the injustices they may have experi-
enced prior to and during incarceration.
According to Godrej, many Western practitioners of yoga and meditation
“call themselves ‘socially engaged’ but their eorts often fall into the realm of
service, educational, and humanitarian work, without taking any rm politi-
cal stand on the sources of suering in these realms.”14 Godrej reports seeing
“many examples of this neutered apolitical’ approach, in which teachers of
mind-body practices said little or nothing about the systemic diculties people
lived with, but rather oered tools for them to function better within and ad-
just better to structural obstacles.”15 Instead of simply reconciling incarcerated
Farah Godrej
Freedom Inside? Yoga and Meditation in the Carceral State
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2022)
ISBN 978-0190070090
ISBN (eBook) 978-0190070113
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON MARIOTTI
12 The Arrow JournAl
persons to their often unjust circumstances, Godrej encourages meditation and
yoga teachers in prisons to become better attuned to the structural injustices
that shape systems of mass incarceration in the United States, and to bring
these perspectives into their prison-based pedagogy.
is said, Godrej is also keenly aware of how restrictive prison spaces can be,
even for volunteers. Many of her interviewees expressed concerns that bringing
a more political outlook to their teaching might lead prison ocials to cancel
their programming. Despite these restrictions, Godrej found important ex-
amples of meditation and yoga supporting an expanded critical consciousness
among incarcerated people. “I learned of rare instances,” she writes “in which
prison volunteers oered these practices to deepen participants’ understanding
of the choices available to them, without relying on standard prison indoctri-
nation about choice as entirely removed from structural constraints.16
Despite Godrej’s nding that prison meditation and yoga were more of-
ten “therapunitive” in outlook than supportive of transformative change, her
nuanced analysis also reveals the diculty of judging what counts as resistance
within carceral institutions. For Godrej, the “horizon of what was possible
inside prisons could not simply be explained by these dualities between ‘com-
pliant’ and ‘oppositional’ modes of practice.”17 is non-dualistic outlook is
helpful not only for making sense of resistance in carceral contexts but also
in society at large, where people push back against structural constraints in all
kinds of subtle ways that don’t always adhere to recognizable political catego-
ries.
According to Godrej, her ndings can help us “rethink the concept of ‘re-
sistance’ in a way that considers people’s interior lives as a crucial arena for
such resistance.”18 Focused on carceral institutions, Godrej shares examples of
incarcerated persons using their contemplative training to become less reactive
to taunting and bullying from prison ocials. Instead of being acquiescent,
Godrej’s ethnographic research reveals how agential they can be in those mo-
ments, consciously choosing non-reaction to injustice as a way of ensuring that
they dont prolong their sentence. Mind-body practices can help people behind
bars choose quiet in the face of injustice as a way of accelerating their exit from
those unjust circumstances.
Perhaps the most profound form of such quiet resistance that Godrej re-
veals is the capacity incarcerated persons have for feeling free from the negative
judgements in which carceral institutions seek to envelop them. One of her
interviewees who participated in prison meditation noted: “I learned how to
justly treat myself. So it doesnt matter what the world does… Believe it or not,
I had freedom inside. I refused to just exist. I’m going to make a life in here,
I’m going to be happy—probably as happy as you could be inside prison.”19
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
13
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
Another participant noted how “meditation helped me with not accepting
other peoples messages about who I am; to really come to my own understand-
ing of my identity instead of allowing others to have any inuence on that.”20
ese participants are narrating a possibility that exists for all people: touching
into a fundamental emptiness, a fundamental freedom from xed concepts
whether imposed by self, other, or society. Meditation provides time and space
for people to connect with their basic human dignity that precedes and exceeds
any eorts to diminish them.
Zen teacher angel Kyodo williams describes this primal dignity as “our
freedom spot.” In Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and
Grace, williams writes:
ere is a place that we nd when we look deeply into ourselves that
allows us to be completely free of our histories, our stories, our hang-
ups… We dont have to live in the shadow of anyones expectation of
us. Not those of white America, nor those of our parents or lovers.
Instead, we can live our lives for the sake of the experience itself…
e experience of life, the actual doing it, living it, is what we have to
savour. We actually have a freedom spot in our brains!21
Meditation can allow incarcerated people to nd “freedom inside.” While this
individual experience of freedom will not undo structures of mass incarcera-
tion tomorrow, it does make a terrible situation more bearable, allowing an in-
carcerated person to endure with their humanity intact despite the best eorts
of an often-inhumane institution. “Making claims on freedom,writes Godrej,
“without having to wait for an unjust system to be xed—even while conned
in an institution set on eliminating one’s freedom and diminishing one’s hu-
manity—can be an act of subversion.22 Godrej remains committed to the cen-
trality of political critique and mass movement for achieving structural change
within the prison-industrial complex and beyond, but she also encourages us
to free ourselves from dualistic logics and see how freedom often exceeds the
restrictions we place on it.
Buddhist Feminism: Transforming Anger Against
Patriarchy by Sokthan Yeng
One of us (Rowe) was recently speaking with a friend, explaining to them that
he was writing a chapter on Buddhist feminism for an upcoming book. e
friend quipped, “well, that will be a short chapter to write.” Like other major
religions, Buddhism has been shaped by patriarchal social relations, and so it
makes sense that this individual would think of Buddhist feminism as merely
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON MARIOTTI
14 The Arrow JournAl
a contradiction in terms with little substance to discuss. And yet there is also a
long history of resistance to patriarchal relations from within Buddhism itself,
even if that history is regularly obscured in the Euro-American world. In Bud-
dhist Feminism: Transforming Anger Against Patriarchy, Sokthan Yeng develops
a nuanced analysis that attends to the gender-based oppression within Bud-
dhism, and resistances to that oppression, while also exploring how Buddhism
and feminism—both projects committed to liberation—can better support
each other.
A key paradox that Yeng explores in her book is how at the level of theory,
Buddhism provides ample support for gender equality, and yet in practice the
tradition has been shaped by patriarchal oppression and exclusion. Yeng notes
that the “metaphysics of Buddhism does not judge women to be essentially in-
ferior to men” but later observes that “men still hold most of the valued posts in
Buddhist communities.23 To remedy this mismatch between theory and prac-
tice, Yeng encourages Buddhists to craft communities or sanghas that “work
toward the improvement of the lived experiences of women and other politi-
cal out-groups. A feminist sangha, in contrast to conventional sanghas, places
women, rather than monks, in positions of social and moral leadership.24
Yeng thinks that Buddhist communities have much to gain from inter-
sectional feminism, particularly Black feminism.25 e authors of the famed
Combahee River Collective statement, which is credited as an activist precur-
sor for intersectional theory, argued that because Black women experience so
many compounding oppressions, “if Black women were free, it would mean
that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate
the destruction of all systems of oppression.”26 For Yeng, this intersectional
analysis would help Buddhist communities become catalysts for justice, rather
than sites where oppression is replicated. She observes how “Buddhism does
not provide a denitive means to dierentiate the oppressed from the oppres-
sor or identify patriarchal power relations.27 is lack of a well-established
power analysis within Buddhist discourse has limited its ability to correct injus-
tices within and outside of Buddhism. Yeng notes, for example, that anti-Black
racism has been perpetuated within majority white convert communities in
North America, as well as by some Asian teachers.28 For Yeng, Buddhism can
better achieve the liberation of all beings if it is informed by the intersectional
power analysis honed by Black feminists.29
Yeng turns primarily to Black feminists such as bell hooks and postco-
lonial feminists like Chandra Mohanty to inform the “feminism that she
wants to see better paired with “Buddhism.is is an important development
within academic Buddhist feminism. “Because Anglo-Europeans dominate
both Buddhist and feminist studies,” writes Yeng, “it can be dicult to see
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
15
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
a path forward for Buddhist femi-
nism that does not fortify the priv-
ileges of Western systems and white
women.”30 Perhaps the best known
and most prolic Buddhist feminist
within North American academe
has been Rita Gross. While even her
critics recognize the importance of
her contributions, Gross has been
challenged for perpetuating a West-
ern-centric view of the world, despite
her commitment to a non-western
tradition.31 For example, in a famous
passage from her book Buddhism
After Patriarchy, Gross argues that
“the most powerful agent promoting
post-patriarchal Buddhism is the aus-
picious coincidence of feminism and Buddhism in the West.32 is framing
obscures and belittles the ongoing activism of Buddhist women in Asia. Yeng
is careful to document multiple historical and present-day examples of Asian
Buddhist women organizing to challenge patriarchal relations.33
ese political expressions can look dierent from feminist activism in the
West, leading to their erasure within Western feminism. For example, Yeng ex-
amines the case of spirit possession in many Asian countries. She notes that be-
cause “many Asian cultures believe showing anger to be taboo, those who wish
to voice displeasure often do so by invoking spirit possession.34 Since Buddhist
practice and meditation are often seen as a cure for spirit possession, women
who become aicted are able to gain entry into practice communities that
otherwise prohibit them.35 For Yeng, “spirit possession allows them to voice
challenges to patriarchal structures while also providing cover they would not
have if they voiced their grievances in a direct manner.36 In other words, many
instances of spirit possession can be read as manifestations of feminist anger.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, anger is central to Yeng’s study. She
wants to push back against the denigration of anger, particularly female anger,
Sokthan Yeng
Buddhist Feminism: Transforming Anger against Patriarchy
(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020)
ISBN 978-3030511647
ISBN (eBook) 978-3030511623
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON MARIOTTI
16 The Arrow JournAl
in Western philosophy by exploring Buddhist accounts for what they can oer
feminist praxis. Anger can provide righteous fuel for activism against injustice.
But all-encompassing anger can also lead to people taking out their pain on
those closest to them (sometimes referred to as “lateral violence”). Anger can
be both a helpful power-source and a destructive poison. For Yeng, Buddhisms
non-dualistic orientation allows it to make helpful sense of anger’s power and
dangers. “Buddhists think of anger as an unwholesome tendency,” she writes,
“rather than like an irredeemable sin, which resists dichotomies with an imper-
meable opposite.37 She continues by noting that if “we, like Buddhists, do not
see a clear split between anger and compassion (a wholesome tendency), we can
see that the two are not only interconnected but also that there is a possibility
to transform anger into something more wholesome and positive.38 It is ne
and good for anger to fuel our activism, but that doesnt mean we need to per-
manently harbour it in a xed state. Everything is impermanent, including our
anger and the institutional arrangements we may be righteously angry about.
is outlook allows us to hold our anger with a lighter touch. Yeng encourages
expressions of anger “within a zone of mindfulness” that acknowledges the u-
idity of all emotion and gives practitioners more capacity to fuel their activism
without becoming consumed by negative aect and possibly harming others.39
In conclusion, Yeng asserts that intersectional feminism oers Buddhists
important critical tools for naming and transforming oppression within and
beyond Buddhist communities. She also argues that Buddhism can support
feminist praxis, particularly by oering a non-dual outlook on anger. Indeed,
many Buddhist traditions encourage the acknowledgement of realities that are
regularly obscured in Euro-American thinking (whether anger, impermanence,
suering or death). From a Buddhist perspective, turning away from these
realities and trying to buer ourselves against them through defensive ego-for-
mation is a primary cause of both existential and political suering. Yeng en-
gages Buddhist thinkers who argue that an important driver of anger and hate
is dissatisfaction with our impermanent situation.40 And yet Euro-American
critical theories, including many feminisms, don’t regularly attend to the ways
in which aversion to impermanence and escape towards ego can fuel behavioral
and structural injustices. Despite the shortcomings of her writings, Rita Gross
nevertheless made a crucial observation in an early essay that “feminism does
not address itself to the inadequacies we experience as humans whose existence
is nite.”41 Yeng’s Buddhist Feminism—both the book and political project—
seeks to correct this limitation in the pursuit of a more fulsome liberation
project for all beings.
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
17
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
inking ese ree Books Together
ere are several overlaps between Vesely-Flad, Godrej, and Yengs texts that
point towards emerging trends in contemplative studies. First, all three authors
argue that contemplative philosophies and practices can powerfully support
bids for social change, even resulting in “superpowers” for practitioners—even
if that superpower is often about quiet healing more than the dramatic displays
of heroism that we are used to seeing in the movies. Interestingly, all three texts
also overlap by emphasizing a particularly important superpower in our cur-
rent conjuncture: the ability to honor and transform anger. As already noted,
that capacity is a central contribution that Yeng believes Buddhist feminism
can make to the broader feminist multiverse. Likewise, Vesely-Flad shares how
Black Buddhism can help practitioners channel their righteous rage. “If I allow
it” writes one of her interviewees, “rage consumes me to the point that I am
in 100% reactivity mode. Even when… my rage is justiable, I cause harm to
myself and others when the rage isnt channeled.42 e capacity to harness and
transform anger is a power that can limit lateral violence and increase social
movement cohesion and eectiveness.
Godrej’s interviews also reveal the transformative power of contemplation
when it comes to anger. One of her incarcerated interlocutors observes, “I
used to get angry very easily. Yoga and meditation have allowed me to calm
my anger, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t see things for what they are or
cannot act when it’s necessary. If anything, these practices have given me the
tools to be able to act. I have never felt so empowered and so liberated in my
life.”43 Actually invoking the language of superpowers, another one of Godrej’s
interviewees talked about yoga and meditation opening their eyes “to the su-
per-hero within.44
All three authors also emphasize the power of non-dual experience com-
mon to many contemplative traditions. Yeng encourages a non-dual under-
standing of anger that increases our capacity to harness its power without
causing internal or lateral damage. Godrej encourages a non-dual orientation
to the value of contemplative practices themselves. Even when these practices
are deployed in prisons and workplaces—where they tend to be disconnected
from political critique—they can still grow capacities for spiritual and polit-
ical freedom. Critical judgement is integral to political cultures on the Left,
but perhaps learning to delay judgement, or become more capacious in our
analyses, can help social justice movements become more eective. Finally,
Vesely-Flad’s analysis encourages a non-dual approach to the dyad of spiritual
versus political change. She observes how for many Black Buddhist teachers,
“the interlocking spheres of spiritual and political liberation cannot be sepa-
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON MARIOTTI
18 The Arrow JournAl
rated.”45 She cites angel Kyodo williams who advocates for a third space that is
“internally oriented and externally facing… in the ongoing struggle to protect
Black lives.46
While all three authors agree that contemplative praxis can grow power
and capacity for social change, none of them view it as sucient for achieving
beloved communities. Vesely-Flad, Godrej, and Yeng are all attuned to the
role of political structures in shaping injustice and the need to target those
structures with collective movements. Following this insight, all three authors
prioritize the power of the Black radical tradition for informing an intersec-
tional power analysis that can ground contemplative communities in genuine
bids for collective liberation. As the Combahee River Collective wrote in 1977:
e most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that
we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and
class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated
analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression
are interlocking. e synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of
our lives.”47 As Vesely-Flad, Godrej, and Yeng all emphasize, this is a fulsome
political orientation that can support contemplative communities in their ef-
forts to promote genuine liberation for all beings.
JAMES K. ROWE is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
at the University of Victoria. He is currently writing a book called
Radical Mindfulness: Death Denial and the Will to Supremacy, discussing
the transformative potential of mind/body practices within the context
of social movements. His research aims to improve the internal function
of social movements so that they can better overcome dominations such
as the concentrated economic power of elites, white supremacy, settler
colonialism, human supremacy and heterosexism.
FARAH GODREJ is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Univer-
sity of California, Riverside. Her areas of research and teaching include In-
dian political thought, Gandhi’s political thought, cosmopolitanism, glo-
balization and comparative political theory. She also studies contemporary
issues such as environmental justice, food politics and mass incarceration.
Her research appears in journals such as Political eory, Political Research
Quarterly, eory & Event, e Review of Politics, and Polity, and she is
the author of Cosmopolitan Political ought: Method, Practice, Discipline
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
19
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
(Oxford University Press, 2011), and Fred Dallmayr: Cross-Cultural eory,
Post-Secularity, Cosmopolitanism (Routledge, 2017). Her new book Free-
dom Inside? Yoga and Meditation in the Carceral State (Oxford University
Press, 2022) examines the role of yogic and meditative practices in U.S.
prisons.
SHANNON MARIOTTI is Professor of Political Science at Southwestern
University. Her scholarship focuses on democratic theory and practice,
with a focus on the politics of everyday life and social reproduction. She
often explores the politically valuable modes of perception, aesthetics, and
experience that arise from contemplative and somatic practices as forms of
embodied social change. She is generally interested in the unconventional
democratic value that arises from critical and contemplative practices in
seemingly apolitical spaces of retreat and withdrawal. Her current book
manuscript is titled Contemplative Democracy: Embodied Social Change
as Ordinary Political eory. She is the author of Adorno and Democracy:
e American Years (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016) and
oreau’s Democratic Withdrawal: Alienation, Participation, and Modernity
(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010). She is also co-editor of A
Political Companion to Marilynne Robinson (Lexington: University Press of
Kentucky, 2016).
JAMES K. ROWE, FARAH GODREJ, & SHANNON MARIOTTI
20 The Arrow JournAl
Notes
1. Rima Vesely-Flad, Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition: e Practice of Stillness
in the Movement for Liberation (New York: NYU Press, 2022), 1.
2. Ibid, 93.
3. Ibid, 96.
4. Ibid, 214.
5. Ibid, 132.
6. Ibid, 130.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid, 235.
9. Ibid, 272.
10. Mark Epstein, e Trauma of Everyday Life (New York: Penguin, 2013), 12.
11. Ibid.
12. Given the awkwardness of writing about one’s own work for a review essay, this section
on Freedom Inside? was written by Rowe and Mariotti.
13. Farah Godrej, Freedom Inside: Yoga and Meditation in the Carceral State, (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2022), 87.
14. Ibid, 58.
15. Ibid, 269.
16. Ibid, 268.
17. Ibid, 269.
18. Ibid, 19.
19. Ibid, 115.
20. Ibid, 260.
21. angel Kyodo williams, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace
(New York: Penguin, 2000), 174.
22. Godrej, Freedom Inside, 130.
23. Sokthan Yeng, Buddhist Feminism: Transforming Anger Against Patriarchy (Cham, Swit-
zerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020), 7 and 42.
24. Ibid, 146.
25. Ibid, 9.
26. e Combahee River Collective, “e Combahee River Collective Statement,” in Kee-
anga-Yamahtta Taylor (ed), How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combhaee River
Collective (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017), 23.
27. Buddhist Feminism, 50.
28. Ibid, 81.
29. Alexis Shotwell makes a similar point in her essay on Buddhist feminism for this journal.
See “‘Like Water into Water,’ If Buddhism, en Feminism. But What Sort of Femi-
nism?” e Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture, and Politics 3, no. 1 (2016):
12, https://arrow-journal.org/buddhism-feminism/.
30. Yeng, 144.
31. Kawahashi Noriko, “Review of Buddhism After Patriarchy,Japanese Journal of Reli-
gious Studies (1994) 21(4), pp. 445-459; Amina Wadud et al., “Feminist eology and
Religious Diversity: Religiously Diverse Neighborhood or Christian Ghetto?” Journal of
Feminist Studies in Religion (2000) 16(2), pp. 73-171; Nirmala Salgado, Buddhist Nuns
and Gendered Practice: In Search of the Female Renunciant (New York: Oxford, 2013), 9;
Hsiao-Lan Hu, “e White Feminism in Rita Gross’s Critique of Gender Identities and
CONTEMPLATIVE SUPERPOWERS FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
21
Vol. 9(3) | Winter 2022/2023
Reconstruction of Buddhism,” in G. Yancy and E. McRae eds., Buddhism and Whiteness:
Critical Reections (New York: Lexington, 2019), pp. 293-305.
32. Rita Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of
Buddhism (Albany: State University of New York, 1993), 218.
33. Godrej, Buddhist Feminism, 124.
34. Ibid, 133.
35. Ibid, 136.
36. Ibid.
37. Ibid, 48.
38. Ibid, 49.
39. Ibid, 114.
40. Ibid, 48.
41. Rita Gross, “Suering, feminist theory, and images of the Goddess,” Anima (1986)
13(1), 41.
42. Black Buddhists, 238.
43. Freedom Inside, 259.
44. Ibid, 264.
45. Black Buddhists, 235.
46. Ibid, 65.
47. e Combahee River Collective Statement,” 15.
The Arrow
A JOURNAL OF WAKEFUL SOCIETY, CULTURE & POLITICS
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• • •
Vision
At e Arrow Journal, we envision an awake society in which humans create political, economic, and cultural
practices and institutions that support all people in discovering their innate worth, wisdom, and compassion;
in living meaningful and fullling lives; in celebrating and respecting human diversity; and in promoting the
health, resilience, and ourishing of the more-than-human world.
Mission
e Arrow Journal fosters thoughtful, nuanced, and scholarly investigation of the applications of contem-
plative wisdom traditions to addressing global challenges. We aim to be a tool of compassionate disruption
of habitual cultural, political, and economic norms that wreak havoc on people and planet. In this way, we
encourage contemplative practitioners to sharpen their understanding of how dharma calls on them to show
up for suering and injustice in the world. Simultaneously, we invite policymakers, scholars, and activists to
consider alternative ways of knowing that fall outside the western mainstream as necessary and useful perspec-
tives for meaningfully confronting the challenges we face as a global community.
What’s in a name?
In many cultures, the arrow is a traditional image of bravery and precision. Within the speed and chaos of our
present world, the arrow symbolizes the courage to dene a clear direction for how we might benet others
and society.
Subscribe to
The Arrow Journal THE ARROW
A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture & Politics
VOLUME 9 | ISSUE 3 | WINTER 2022/2023VOLUME 9 | ISSUE 3 | WINTER 2022/2023
Online ISSN 2768-055X | Print ISSN 2768-0568
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Book
Freedom Inside? offers a combination of personal narrative and scholarly research in order to examine the role of yoga and meditation in US prisons. It offers a glimpse inside the system now known as mass incarceration, which disproportionately punishes, confines, and controls those from black, brown, and/or poor communities at exponentially higher rates, diminishing their life-chances and creating a vast underclass of disempowered, subordinated citizens. How do self-disciplinary practices such as yoga and meditation work when they are taught inside unjust systems? Do they produce political passivity, quietism, and compliance, if offered as palliatives to accept, cope, and comply with unjust power structures? Or, might they prove disruptive to mass incarceration, if offered as tools to develop awareness and attunement toward injustice, to engage in nonconformist responses that include critique and challenge? The book explores both the promises and pitfalls of yoga and meditation when taught in prisons in different ways. It is based on four years of immersion in prisons and prison volunteer communities, along with ethnographic work inside a detention facility, and many in-depth interviews with those who teach and practice inside prisons. It interweaves academic narratives with personal experiences of collaboration with volunteers and incarcerated practitioners.
Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace
  • Williams Angel Kyodo
angel Kyodo williams, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace (New York: Penguin, 2000), 174.
Combahee River Collective Statement
  • E Combahee River Collective
e Combahee River Collective, " e Combahee River Collective Statement," in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (ed), How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combhaee River Collective (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017), 23.
Alexis Shotwell makes a similar point in her essay on Buddhist feminism for this journal. See "'Like Water into Water
Alexis Shotwell makes a similar point in her essay on Buddhist feminism for this journal. See "'Like Water into Water,' If Buddhism, en Feminism. But What Sort of Feminism?" e Arrow: A Journal of Wakeful Society, Culture, and Politics 3, no. 1 (2016): 12, https://arrow-journal.org/buddhism-feminism/.
White Feminism in Rita Gross's Critique of Gender Identities and Reconstruction of Buddhism
  • Hsiao-Lan Hu
Hsiao-Lan Hu, " e White Feminism in Rita Gross's Critique of Gender Identities and Reconstruction of Buddhism," in G. Yancy and E. McRae eds., Buddhism and Whiteness: Critical Re ections (New York: Lexington, 2019), pp. 293-305.
Su ering, feminist theory, and images of the Goddess
  • Rita Gross
Rita Gross, "Su ering, feminist theory, and images of the Goddess," Anima (1986) 13(1), 41.
e Combahee River Collective Statement
  • Ibid
Ibid, 65. 47. " e Combahee River Collective Statement," 15.