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Daily Life

Juneteenth, Buddhism and a Brighter Future

Photo by Dave Goodman.

by Carolyn Colby and Dave Goodman
SGI-USA Practicing Buddhism as People of African Descent Group Women’s and Men’s Leaders

At this time of year, we are reflecting on Juneteenth, a day that cannot be separated from a history rooted in the suffering of countless people over generations. At the same time, the day honors a legacy of never giving up hope, which exemplifies the strength we possess as Black people. We wanted to draw from this history to reaffirm our tremendous mission to share hope.

On Jan. 1, 1863, amid the Civil War, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to “all persons held as slaves.” However, this order was not enforced, and, for two years, slavery continued in the 10 Confederate-controlled states.

In April 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered after the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia, marking the end of the war. With this, Union soldiers were able to advance into the Confederate states to enforce the order.

On June 19, 1865, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger delivered to the people of Galveston, Texas, General Order No. 3, which read, in part:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

With this, the last 250,000 enslaved people finally learned of their freedom. This day became known as “Juneteenth,” a verbal shorthand for its date. And on Dec. 6, 1865, slavery in the U.S. was formally abolished with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Reflecting on this history, we thought of the parable of “The Jewel in the Robe”—a Buddhist story in the Lotus Sutra of awakening to a treasure one already possesses:

There was once a very poor man who had to search for food to survive. One day, a friend invited the poor man to dinner. After enjoying his time, he fell asleep.

The friend had to leave early the next day. Concerned for the poor man but not wanting to disturb him, he sewed a precious jewel into the lining of the poor man’s robe and left. When the poor man woke, he continued his struggle for survival, unaware of the priceless treasure in his possession.

When the two friends reunited after a while, the friend was shocked to see the poor man barely making ends meet. He revealed the precious jewel that had been sewn into his robe all along.

Shakyamuni tells this parable to explain that we all possess the most precious jewel of Buddhahood within. Often unaware of it, we are buffeted by life’s challenges. But once we awaken to our inherent Buddhahood, we can transform our circumstances and become absolutely happy.

We can see a parallel here—of being unaware of the jewel of wealth or freedom already in one’s possession.

Ikeda Sensei states in a dialogue with Vincent Harding, a confidant to Martin Luther King Jr.:

This parable shows, in simple terms, the principle that every human being is endowed with the Buddha nature of infinite potential and inestimable worth. It teaches us that the key to overcoming the constraints of our present reality, whatever they may be, lies within ourselves. (America Will Be!, pp. 137–38)

Each person inherently possesses infinite potential. But often, it can take someone—like the Union soldiers or the poor man’s friend—to help open our eyes to see this truth.

In today’s world, many are lost in their sufferings without a way forward. Nichiren Buddhism proclaims that all human beings are powerful in their own right; we all possess the capability to
become absolutely happy through human revolution. That’s why we have to share it—to awaken others to their jewel of Buddhahood.

Surely all of us came to realize our own potential through the heartfelt encouragement of someone in the SGI. Having awakened to this, we now have a responsibility to do the same for others. Just imagine what society would look like if more people came to truly realize the jewel they have always possessed!

This summer, as representatives of the Practicing Buddhism as People of African Descent Group, we are determined to awaken as many people as possible to this jewel. And in September, we look forward to sharing our victories with you all at our conference at the Florida Nature and Culture Center!

June 14, 2024, World Tribune, p. 10

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