Tributes honor passing of Ven. Suhita Dharma, first African-American Buddhist monk

Heartfelt tributes are arriving as friends and sangha members mourn the passing of Ven. Bhante Suhita Dharma on December 28 at the Chua DieuPhap Temple in San Gabriel, CA. Bhante, as he was affectionately known, led a dharma life distinguished by firsts: he was the first monastic disciple of Ven. H. T. Thích Thiên Ân (himself the first Patriarch of Vietnamese Buddhism in America) and was the first African-American ordained as a Buddhist monk in any tradition. Bhante’s ecumenical monastic career began well before that. He was in the last group of “child monks,” entering the Catholic Trappist order at age 14 in his native Texas. At least one account says he also held a position in the Eastern Orthodox Church and underwent further ordination ceremonies in the Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions.

Bhante, a trained social worker and prison chaplain, was well known for using the Buddha’s teachings as the basis for social justice work on behalf of underserved populations: refugees, homeless people with AIDS, migrant workers and the working poor, ex-offenders (he co-created the “Coming Home Project” for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship), disaster victims in the lowest-income neighborhoods, and many others in the overlooked segments of society. He founded the Metta Vihara hospice in Richmond, CA.

As on tribute said, “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.’”

Another remarked, “Bhante’s presence was filled with deep love and a quiet, unshakeable commitment to do the right thing.”

Bhante focused some of the activity at the end of his life in Juarez, Mexico, where he founded the Seeds of Compassion Buddhist Center, showing overt respect to the ancient deities worshiped by the Mayans.

Click on the links to read a remembrance of Maia at the Jizo Chronicles and one by Mushim Ikeda at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship blog.