Floating Onward: Honoring Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma
We share the following tribute to expand and amplify the beautiful writings, already circulating the web (see Maia Duerr’s and Kimberly Alidio’s for a start), that honor the recent passing of Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma, an inspiration and guide to many on the engaged dharma path. A former staff member at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Bhante was the Prison Program Coordinator and helped steer the Coming Home Project, dedicated to supporting people coming out of prison.
With sadness for losing Bhante in this lifetime, and gratitude for all he has done to turn the wheel of dharma, we give thanks to Mushim Patricia Ikeda for this vivid, illuminating, and personal account. May we all learn from his pathbreaking and humble life, and be blessed to feel the presence of his wisdom: perhaps “when we least expect it!”
December 28, 2013
Dear Dharma Friends,
It is with the utmost sadness that I wish to share with you that one of my oldest friends, the most Venerable Bhante Suhita Dharma, whose Vietnamese Dharma name and title was Hoa Thuong Thich An Duc, passed away around 5 am this morning in his room at Chua Dieu Phap Temple in San Gabriel, California, at the age of 73 or so. I know that he approved of the photo I’ve attached, because he used it as his Facebook profile pic. His death was sudden and unexpected, and evidently without pain or struggle, possibly due to cardiac arrest.
Ven. Suhita Dharma was the first African American to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. He was my co-teacher for a number of years for the People of Color annual meditation retreat at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge outside of Taos, New Mexico. Born in Texas, he was a monk for 58 years of his life, entering the Trappist monastery when he was 14 and a half, and later becoming a fully ordained Buddhist monk. He never saw any contradiction between his Catholic family roots and his early life as Brother Anthony of the Trappists on one hand, and his life as a Buddhist monk, on the other hand, seeing all of monastic life as being essentially very similar. He often told me that he considered the Rule of St. Benedict to be the best and most comprehensive set of monastic rules. He also once said that when he was with the Trappists, who are a silent Order, that all of the brothers were joyful and that he “never once saw a long face among them.” He was among the last generation of so-called child monks in the Trappist Order, as they soon thereafter raised the minimum age for ordination. Before becoming a Trappist monk, Bhante Suhita had been a star altar boy in Texas, where his family lived for a number of years, and he always said that he was asked to be there if a visiting dignitary came, because even though he was so young, he had memorized all of the services and could do them perfectly. He said he loved high ritual, and was not pleased when the services in the Catholic Church switched from Latin to English.
As a Buddhist monk, he loved to travel, and he spent extensive periods of time in Sri Lanka, where he rose to the status of “Mahathera”; Thailand; Nepal; and I believe in Malaysia as well, plus some other countries. Some years ago, he was given the title “Hoa Thuong” in the Vietnamese Buddhist Church, which he told me was the equivalent of a bishop in the Catholic Church. His circle of connections within the monastic Buddhist world was huge, and included monks and nuns from every Buddhist country. Within the last several years, he divided his time between residing at Chua Dieu Phap temple in San Gabriel, California and his hermitage and Sangha in Juarez, Mexico. He told me several weeks ago that he hoped to do one last pilgrimage in Europe and to visit a number of monasteries and sacred sites there. He also told me that one of the few regrets he had about his life was that he had once had an opportunity to enter the Carthusian monastic order (the Order of Saint Bruno) and to live as a cloistered monk, in silence, but that he’d become very ill, had to go into hospital in England for an extended period of time, and after he recovered his life took him in a different direction.
Bhante Suhita Dharma and I have been the best of Dharma friends for around 28 years, since we first met at the International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC) in Los Angeles in 1985. He would say publicly that he had five spiritual friends, and that I was one of them. I never asked him who the other four were, since I always figured that if he’d wanted to tell me, he would have done so. In reality, he was a teacher and good spiritual friend to many, but held this role lightly and without attachment or possessiveness. I think it’s fair to say that he wanted people to be curious and free in their spiritual development, and to be street smart and self-reliant and to trust their own common sense (which he called “mother wit”), to stay grounded and real. As one of the most senior monks in North America, he was experienced in many different forms of meditation and spiritual practice, but always taught people to remain simple, sincere, and disciplined in spiritual life, and to keep the goal of helping others front and center at all times. He had little patience for laypeople who romanticize their idea of monastic life, or for anyone who, as one U.S. practitioner of color put it many years ago, is “hiding out in the emptiness zone.” He was an eminently practical person, a trained social worker, and had spent many years working with formerly incarcerated men, homeless persons, people with HIV-AIDS, as a prison chaplain, and as founder of the Metta Vihara hospice in Richmond, California.
Bhante Suhita had lived through Jim Crow, and he recalled that, as a little boy, he once went into a public restroom in Texas, where a white man told him to get out. He was with his grandmother, Big Mama, at the time and when he came out of the restroom and told her what had happened he said that she opened her purse and took out a switch blade and was going to storm into the men’s restroom, but evidently restrained herself from doing so, and the family put both her and her grandson on a train to San Francisco to stay with other family members for awhile.
Bhante Suhita Dharma’s view of life was global and inclusive. His Dharma was subtle, profoundly deep and broad, and fairly invisible. He never wanted to become known as a Buddhist teacher and liked to remain independent and unattached to form and image. As one person who tried to interview him for a Buddhist journal once said thoughtfully, “There isn’t a lot of self there.” He enjoyed ice cream, fried chicken, and old school horror movies. He greatly disliked tofu and personal drama. Wherever he lived he had a television that was always turned on to a news network, and if I wanted to find out more about any current event I would usually ask him for the scoop. He also loved books on Buddhism and Catholic monasticism and collected them avidly. He was very close to my son, who knew Bhante from the time he (my child) was born. They had a deep connection to one another through their similar approaches to off-the-radar everyday Buddhism in action and their penchant for mordant commentary and feisty conversational ripostes.
The brief bio, below, was written by Bhante himself for the faculty section of Vallecitos Mountain Ranch, some years ago. He chose the attached formal photo of himself in traditional saffron robes to accompany it. He liked being alone and always said he was a card-carrying hermit and member of the Raven’s Bread Hermit Ministries organization. Although he knew many people, as far as I could tell, he always preserved a deep inner silence and eremitical vocation. The etymology of the Japanese Zen term unsui works pretty well to describe Bhante Suhita’s spirit as I knew him over 28 years — according to Wikipedia, the term unsui, which literally translates as “cloud, water” comes from a Chinese poem which reads, “To drift like clouds and flow like water.” Helen J. Baroni writes, “The term can be applied more broadly for any practitioner of Zen, since followers of Zen attempt to move freely through life, without the constraints and limitations of attachment, like free-floating clouds or flowing water.”
Bhante Suhita Dharma was an adventurer, and now that he is flowing and floating onward, I know (or think I do!) that what he’d want from us would be for each of us, in our own way, to help others as much as we can, and to become the practitioner described in the Metta Sutta:
This is to be done by one skilled in aims
who wants to break through to the state of peace:
Be capable, upright, & straightforward,
easy to instruct, gentle, & not conceited,
content & easy to support,
with few duties, living lightly,
with peaceful faculties, masterful,
modest, & no greed for supporters.
Do not do the slightest thing
that the wise would later censure.
Think: Happy, at rest,
may all beings be happy at heart.
Whatever beings there may be,
weak or strong, without exception,
seen & unseen,
near & far,
born & seeking birth:
May all beings be happy at heart.
Bhante was always cheerfully getting ready to die, and when I taught with him, he would sometimes say to the practitioners in the meditation hall: “I will always be with you. And when you least expect it!“
With palms together, I bow to my Kalyanamitta (Great Spiritual Friend),
and to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha,*
December 28, 2013
* Bhante Suhita often ended his letters with the words, “Blessings of the Triple Gem.”
Venerable Suhita Dharma
Ven. Suhita Dharma, Mahathero (called “Bhante” by his students), is a well-known senior Buddhist bhikkhu ordained in the three Buddhist lineages: Mahayana, Theravada, and Varjayana. He is the first African American to be ordained a Buddhist monk; he was ordained by the late Ven. Thich Thien An, the first Vietnamese Buddhist master to come to Los Angeles. Bhante has been traveling to Mexico recently on a pilgrimage to pay respects to the ancient deities of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, praying to ask permission for the establishment of a Buddhist center in Mexico at the request of the Mayans, Yaquis, Tarahumaras, Pimas, and Aztecs and to meet with the chief shamans in those traditions. A longtime social justice activist and social worker, Bhante began working with Indo-Chinese refugees entering the U.S. in 1975 and has since worked with homeless persons, people with HIV-AIDS, and ex-offenders. Bhante teaches compassion meditation for everyday life and practice for those who are working with people in different communities, emphasizing a one-on-one approach as well as introducing students to the practice of the Kalyanamitta (spiritual friend) and helping those who are within the sea of samsaric suffering.