Indigeneity and Dharma

- through Francois Leclercq

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Taken from

“When you know where you are, the practice begins. »

– Dogen

From the start, let's be clear: I am not the right person to write this month's column. It should come from a native person, perhaps someone who practices Buddhism. But whatever role I may play as a bridge builder from my own life experience, I will do my best to fill in and point you toward Indigenous voices for deeper learning if that calls you.

As I ponder what to write for this month, I am very aware of the celebration of Indigenous Peoples' Day in the United States. I also feel how where I live influences a large part of my life. I live on ancestral Tewa lands, in what is now known as northern New Mexico. Over the three waves of colonization that have passed through this place (Spanish, Mexican and American), where I live has come to be called the town of Española, nestled between several Pueblos – called reservations in other parts of the United States – including Santa Clara and San Ildefonso to the south and Ohkay Owingeh to the north. There are also other Pueblos along the Rio Grande, these are the ones closest to me.

For the past seven years, I have had the honor of working here with an indigenous-led non-profit organization, Tewa Women United. Sharing time with these women and men and discovering the Tewa way of life gave me a better understanding of what it means to be indigenous. This understanding comes from the outside in, etic as we would say in anthropology, because it is not my own experience. But it's something, and I realize what a rare opportunity it is for a non-Native white person to have this.

So, in my own imperfect way, I would like to explore what it means to be Indigenous, as I understand it, and the intersections between Indigeneity and Buddhism.

As I first got to know the people of the Tewa communities here and spent time in meetings and conversations, and later in events that mixed with ceremonial elements, one of the things that What struck me was how many parallels there are between Dharma and indigenous spirituality. – which can be more accurately described as ways of life, because “spirituality” is not a distinct entity as it so often is in Western cultures.

Above all, the teaching of interbeing, as Thich Nhat Hanh called it, is central to Buddhism and the indigenous worldview. There is no separate self or existence, the world is a vast network of connections. All of life must be lived from this knowledge, what we might call in Buddhism Right View.

These connections can fray due to various causes and conditions, but they are never broken. The way they become unraveled is what gives rise to illnesses of all kinds, and healing is a process of retying these threads. This healing could take the form of renovating a plot of land that has been desecrated by replanting native crops; this may come from people remembering their language, which the forces of colonization tried to take away from them; it could come from working with other indigenous peoples and allies to protect waters that are meant to feed people, not be drained for fracking or threatened by oil pipelines. There are many paths to healing, but they always involve rebuilding what has been broken.

In Buddhism, interdependence can sometimes seem like a noble concept that we try to learn through teachings and words. But if you've been on a multi-day meditation retreat, you know how you begin to learn the truth about interconnectedness throughout the body - the way we must calibrate to one another during walking meditation, the way how we begin to see how our sitting practice impacts that of the people sitting around us and their practice impacts us, how we can get a sense of the chain of causes and conditions that brought us our food when we let’s take a mindful bite.

These practices are similar to the ways of participating in ceremonies that indigenous peoples hold: ceremonies that mark the seasons with dances dedicated to particular animals or plants, sweat lodges and their purification rituals that continue into the night , healing circles, etc.

What does it mean to be indigenous? I believe it's about being in relationship – a word I learned from Elder Kathy Sanchez of Tewa Women United – with the country you come from. Some might say that everyone is indigenous to the place they live. Although there is some truth in this, it is important to note the qualitative difference between people who have lived in the same place since time immemorial. While I can develop a relationship with my garden and commit to staying here long term, it will never be the same as a people who have a generational legacy of knowledge of how a particular ecosystem works, the plants and animals that call to him. at home and are their loved ones. It will never again be the same as a people who inherited vibrant spiritual and cultural practices from their ancestors and who had to fight to keep them alive and protect them in the face of colonization and assimilation.

In fact, perhaps this is the great tragedy of those of us who are white: we have lost much of that connection to our own ancestors and our own cultures, because at some point our ancestors had to assimilate to succeed in this society. country – I write from the perspective of someone who lives in the United States. Of course, this thread has not completely disappeared. But it's a very different relationship than the one that indigenous people have. You can see and feel it if you are lucky enough to witness one of the dances at a party here in the Pueblos. These rhythms, these prayers of a dance, have been protected and passed down through countless generations.

And here is another intersection. In Buddhism, too, the great gift of Dharma has been entrusted to us, passed down through a line of teachers beginning with Shakyamuni Buddha. Various Buddhist traditions place more emphasis on this transmission than others, but this dimension is always present.

Even though many of us are not indigenous according to the definition of the word as I use it here, we can cultivate our relationship with the place where we live in a way that leads us to an understanding of the Dharma where we Let's actually embody the teachings of interdependence and compassion, not just read about them. It can also serve as a starting point to learn about the strengths and struggles of indigenous people, in order to stand in solidarity with them.


The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery offers these questions as a good place to start:

  1. What is your connection to the land you live on? Do you take walks or garden in your backyard? Do you know the waterways? Do you know which plants are native to your area and which are not?
  2. How do you consider the earth sacred? What lands are sacred in your tradition? Are sacred lands buildings, like a church, or outdoor spaces like national parks?
  3. Who are the indigenous peoples of the territory in which you live? Who has called your land home for generations? Where are they now and how did they get there?
  4. How is the land sacred to indigenous peoples? What places where you live are sacred to indigenous people? What can indigenous ways of thinking teach you about the land you live on?
  5. How can you honor all lands as sacred? Do you pick up trash when you see it? Do you walk or cycle instead of taking your car? Do you stop and listen to what the world around you has to say?

You can try to think of these questions as practices that you integrate into your own Buddhist practice and see where that takes you.

See more

Buddha in Redface, by Eduardo Duran (Good reading)
Indigenous Dharma: Native America and Buddhist Voices, by John Travis, Eduardo Duran, Fred Wahpehpah, Lorain Fox Davis, Tsultrim Allione, Susan Murphy (curious mind)
The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery (Facebook)
The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery

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Indigenous Art Matters – The bold and contemporary work of artist Gregg Deal
Restoration and Justice: Interview with Dr. Natalie Avalos on Indigenous Spirituality and Buddhist Allies
View of the Buddhist gate: Indigenous Relations – Restoration and Restitution

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Over Dharma Compass by Maia Duerr

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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