Merle Kodo Boyd
I finally purchased this magazine; it whispered to me every time I passed it in a different store. “Gurrl….I know you see me… I got something in here for you…” Many young (and old) black artists have dabbled in (and converted to) zen buddhism, along with yoga and obsessive raw veganism at some point – I am no exception. And I do have an old copy of Tricycle magazine somewhere. So I am no stranger to this type of impulsive purchase.
My forays into Zen Buddhism grew from exposure to Asian culture, religion, and politics in World History class at Johnston Middle School (Houston, TX). (I was also introduced to Jainism which still has my brain spinning.) In adulthood this interest later expanded to sporadic meditation classes/lectures and confused, but revelatory visits to ashrams and temples. Recently, the oft-overlooked Rothko Chapel more frequently provides much-needed sanctuary from Houston traffic and deafening monkey mind. My Intermittent rendezvous with meditation over the years sort of evolved as an alternative to or an extension of Christian prayer. As I gradually transitioned out of Christianity, I subconsciously looked for ways to replace, replicate or at least retain the essence what prayer is in the southern Baptist church tradition. It’s a meditative space that functions both privately and publicly. Engaging with this practice was a way to begin challenging what it means to be Black, Southern, and Religious/Non-religious .
There aren’t a lot of Black faces on magazines unless they are explicitly for Black People. And those that are fortunate enough to grace the cover usually aren’t older and definitely not bald. I figured the Black person on this cover must be important if they are featured on the cover of a magazine about a spiritual practice from Asia but is consistently ( at least visually) represented by White American + European faces (at least here in the US). Inside I discovered that this was not man but a woman with a bald head. I wear my hair shaved close. As I look at the woman on the cover, I find myself wondering why black women wearing really short hair raises so many questions about illness, masculinity and sexuality. In looking at her image, I reflect on the humility of this aesthetic and the way that radiates even on the cover of a magazine.
This cover woman, Merle Kodo Boyd, leads the Lincroft Zen Sangha in New Jersey. She was born and raised in Houston, TX; her father was a sociology professor at Prairie View University. Though she’s been out of Texas for quite sometime, it was interesting to read that her childhood and adolescent experiences in Texas during racial segregation (bus boycotts, etc.) in part, led her to Zen Buddhism. As a former PVAMU professor, I can attest to the environment and the comradery and rich history that must have been part of her upbringing-black scholars, academics and visionaries struggling against social injustice and laboring to educate each other.
She is not the first black buddhist leader I have encountered over the years. Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace by Angel Kyodo Williams is one of the first books I came across as a young seeker. Another book about by a black zen buddhist nun helped me prepare me for the death of my grandmother a decade ago. I imagine this book had to be Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist – One Woman’s Spiritual Journey by Jan Willis- another extraordinary woman. These women represent an evolution in black female aesthetic and philosophical orientation.But, what’s most fascinating is to see another example of one of the trillion ways to be Black on this planet (and other planets). Merle Kodo Boyd’s interview communicates how one uses racial, gender, and geographical modifiers to encounter other belief systems without feeling the need to first slough off what is useful and compatible about those identities. Her story belongs among other subtle, yet radical acts of “being.” Her efforts to weaken the effects of oppression by transformative meditation, study, and service can influence the ways we further construct our identities, build communities, and develop art practices with substance.
Check out the interview here: tricycle article