I am smiling as I write this. Because, even though I felt great sadness when I learned the news yesterday of Bhante’s death on December 29, at the same time all kinds of wonderful memories of him are flowing through my heart. And I know I am only one of thousands of people who were privileged to have been in the beam of Bhante’s smile and good life.
So this post is dedicated to the spirit of Bhante Suhita Dharma, and offers a little glimpse of him through the places his life intersected with mine.
First, the facts, as they say….
Bhante was the first African American to be ordained a Buddhist monk. He was ordained by Ven. Thich Thien An, the first Vietnamese Buddhist master to come to Los Angeles. Bhante also had the rare distinction of being ordained in all three major Buddhist lineages: Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayana.
Bhante had professional training as a social worker, and found deep joy in working with the homeless, those with HIV/AIDS, ex-offenders, and many others on the margins.
There is a lot that I don’t know about Bhante… simple facts like where and when he was born… I searched online and could not find those. He was not a Buddhist celebrity, so you won’t find much about him on the internet. He worked largely in the realm of the invisible. My guess is that Bhante was in his 70s, and I know he had a strong affinity for Louisiana, so perhaps there was a life connection there.
What I do know is this: Bhante’s presence was filled with deep love and a quiet, unshakeable commitment to do the right thing.
- Co-creating the “Coming Home Project” with Bhante at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF) almost 10 years ago, and Bhante’s dedication to supporting people coming out of prison as they entered a world that was often hostile to them.
- Getting emails from Bhante about Baton Rouge and New Orleans, with photos of the devastation post-Hurricane Katrina. He urged me to mobilize the BPF community to help the folks from underserved communities who had been overlooked in that disaster.
- Listening to Bhante give a beautiful dharma talk on socially engaged Buddhism, along with Robert Thurman, at a fundraising event for BPF in 2006. Just two days ago as I was cleaning up some piles, I came across the CD of that talk. Now hearing the news of his passing, I will convert it to an mp3 and share it with you all soon.
- Walking with Bhante and the Buddhist Peace Delegation in Washington, DC, in 2007. Hundreds of us had gathered from dharma centers across the U.S. to call for peace in Iraq. Fortunately, we had filmmaker Ed Herzog along with us to document the weekend. Here’s a video Ed made… you can see Bhante throughout the video, but he has some eloquent words to share at the 4-minute mark.
I had not seen Bhante for probably about six years, but we’d run into each other once in a while on Facebook and every so often he’d give me a friendly poke. My hope is that you’ll learn a lot more about Bhante in the coming days as others write about their memories of him. He truly was a dharma jewel. Thank you, dear Bhante.
Here are some more photo memories of Bhante:
January 3, 2014 UPDATE
Here are links to remembrances that other dharma teachers and practitioners have written about Bhante… a dharma bouquet…
- Bhante’s longtime spiritual friend and co-teacher Mushim Ikeda’s beautiful tribute to Bhante
- Kimberly Alidio of fckyhdkkh shared lots of great vignettes of Bhante, including the LA bicycle blessing!
- Karen Waconda-Lewis’s remembrance of Bhante
- Max Airborne writes about her experience of receiving the precepts from Bhante in 2012
- San Francisco Zen Center’s In Memoriam article