Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva

There is a joke that circulates in Buddhist circles that seems to suggest that it’s not always easy being a Buddhist. A Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist arrive at the pearly gates at the same time. An angel appears before them and says, “Before you can enter into heaven you must each answer one question.” The angel turns to the Christian and says, “How do you spell God?” The Christian replies, “G-O-D.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Next the angel turns to the Muslim and says, “How do you spell Allah?” The Muslim replies, “A-L-L-A-H.” “Well done,” says the angel, “Go right in.” Finally he turns to the Buddhist and says, “How do you spell Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva?”

On the altar today there is a statue of Avalokitesvara, who is a bodhisattva we can appreciate even if we can’t spell his name. However, this morning I want to speak about Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad and for the purposes of today’s sermon I want to give her the same honorific title Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.

Harriet Tubman wasn’t a Buddhist. Tubman was born in 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland, which wasn’t exactly a hub for the study of the Eastern religions. Her religion was the gospel grounded in the oral tradition of her family and itinerant preachers. Once she escaped slavery by going north she eventually settled into membership in the AME Zion Church. And yet her life is an embodiment of many of the values taught in Mahayana Buddhism.

In the 19th century there were hundreds of people who escaped slavery in the South through the Underground Railroad. However, there were very few who returned to help others escape slavery. Not many people were willing to return and risk being caught, captured, killed or re-enslaved in order to lead others to freedom. This is what made Harriet Tubman unique. She was not content to rest after having liberated herself. She felt impelled to work for the liberation of others.

Which leads me back to Buddhism. In the Theravada Buddhism it is enough to liberate our selves. No one can save us but us. However in Mahayana Buddhism once we have liberated ourselves we find our fulfillment in liberating others. To take on this commitment to liberate others is to become a Bodhisattva and for this reason I speak of Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva.

However, before I say more about the meaning of being a bodhisattva I want to say more about Harriet Tubman. To say that Harriet Tubman was born a slave is to make an inaccurate statement. I am reminded of a note a social studies teacher posted on the door of her classroom that read, “Dear Students. They didn’t steal slaves. They stole scientists, doctors, architects, teachers, entrepreneurs, astronomers, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters and made them slaves.” So it is not accurate to say Harriet Tubman was born a slave. She was born a human being and then forced into slavery. Many aspects of her story will be familiar to us because of the huge number of children’s books that have been written about her. Although, Harriet Tubman was already the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad she is now even more famous with the release of the Hollywood film Harriet.

I encourage you to go see the movie. Admittedly the film is another example of history meets Hollywood, where it is not always easy to discern which moments are Hollywood and which are history. So don’t stop with the movie, read a book. There are many to choose from. Most recently I picked up this one Bound for the Promised Land by Katie Clifford Larson which I saw it in the bookstore of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. It’s well researched with good use of primary documents allowing as much as possible for Harriet Tubman to speak in her own voice.

Since the topic for today’s sermon is Harriet Tubman Bodhisattva I want to focus on her spiritual beliefs. When I was in college I majored in sociology and was particularly interested in the sociology of religion. I continue to be interested in how for some people religion is about accepting the status quo and for others religion is about challenging the status quo. While there may be a time and place for every kind of prayer there are, to paraphrase Angela Davis, some of us who tend to pray to accept things we cannot change while others pray to change the things we cannot accept. Harriet Tubman leaned in the direction of change.

Tubman seems to have taken the apostle Paul at his word and endeavored to pray without ceasing. Her prayers were for both personal and social change. “Appears like I prayed all the time,” she said, “When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, I took up the water in my hand and I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean!’ Then I take up something to wipe my face, and I say, ‘Oh Lord, wipe away all my sin!’ When I took the broom and began, I groaned, ‘Oh Lord, what so ever sin be in my heart, sweep it out, Lord, clear and clean.’” When I hear these words it seems to me that Tubman had created for herself rituals that contemporary liturgists might call body prayer, where our inmost prayers are aligned with our outward motions bringing harmony to mind, body and spirit.

At other times her prayers were for her oppressors. Her most fervent prayer was for white people to change; to stop being cruel and start being kind. When her master threatened to sell her she said, “I prayed through all the long nights – I groaned and prayed for ole master. ‘Oh Lord, convert master! Oh Lord, change that man’s heart.” Finally, when she became convinced that her master would not change she became angry and she prayed that her master would die –and here’s the thing – he did die – giving a whole new meaning to the power of prayer. While a materialist will find other explanations for the death of this 47 year old man Tubman was unsettled and felt some guilt and responsibility for the power of her prayers.

Over time, the nature of her prayers changed. There is an African proverb that says, “When you pray, move your feet.” Don’t just pray to receive something. Pray with a willingness to do something. Eventually Tubman came to the same realization that Frederick Douglass did before he made his journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad. “Praying for freedom never did me any good,” Douglass declared, “until I prayed with my feet.” At some point Tubman decided she was going to do a little less talking with the Lord and a little more walking with the Lord. In the words of the old gospel song, she decided to steal away to freedom.

Through many dangers, toils and snares she traveled before she could escape slavery and find freedom in the north. Fortunately, she had help along the way from Quakers, itinerate preachers, safe houses, sanctuaries that allowed her safety in between stretches of her journey toward freedom. In her time she would have been called a fugitive slave in our time she might be called an illegal immigrant or refugee.

Members of the Underground Railroad made note of her faith. Thomas Garret said of Tubman that he, “never met with any person of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken directly to her soul. Sarah Bradford said she seemed to have “direct intercourse with heaven.” Materialists have sometimes reduced Tubman’s visions to the symptoms of epilepsy, a condition aggravated by the beatings she received from her overseer. However, those who traveled with her got used to the idea that she would stop when God told her to stop, get off the road when God told her to get off the road, and that her intuition did not fail her or her fellow travellers but often saved them from danger. As one person noted, “her trust in Providence was better than many sermons.” As Tubman said herself, “God was always near..He gave me strength, and he set the North Star in the heavens; he meant for me to be free.” An astronomer will have a scientific understanding of the North Star but for Tubman it was an outward and visible sign that God wanted her to be free.

Tubman paid a price for her willingness to seek freedom. She knew heartbreak. Her first trip back was to retrieve her husband but when she got there she found he had made a home with another woman. She had brought along clothes for him to wear that would help him pass as a freeman on their journey but he decided to stay. She was able to help others escape on that trip but when she returned she made light of her pain with comic timing. She told friends, “I returned with my husband’s clothes but no husband.”

Harriet Tubman took 19 trips back South and rescued over 300 people from slavery. She was a master of disguise. She could disguise herself as a young man or an old woman. She demonstrated what we would now call gender fluidity. She would adopt any disguise to throw people off her track.

Tubman was not a pacifist. She carried a rifle with her on her journeys back south and was prepared to use it to keep her passengers safe. She once led a successful jailbreak in upstate New York liberating a fugitive slave, physically assaulting the sheriff and deputies, shouting, “Give me liberty or give me death.” Later during the Civil War she volunteered for the Union army where she was a nurse, cook, spy, field scout and military commander. On June 1,1863 she became the first woman in America to plan and implement an armed expedition that liberated 800 slaves with no soldiers lives lost or injured.

Over the years, she had friendships and partnerships with members of our denomination. She worked with Unitarians and Universalists for the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. The Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson led fundraising efforts so that Tubman would be able to retire in old age with dignity. He helped raise money for her because she had done so much to raise money for others.

To call Harriet Tubman a bodhisattva may seem presumptuous. As far as I know she never even heard of Buddhism. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion and Harriet Tubman was someone who walked and talked with the Lord. However, whenever I look at that statue of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva in my office, an image of a bodhisattva, part mythology/part history, I see a person with many arms and many eyes and many ears I am reminded of the words of Saint Theresa that could just as easily be the words of Harriet Tubman and her fellow laborers on the Underground Railroad, “God has no hands but our hands with which to do the work of healing. No eyes but our eyes to see the work that needs to be done. No feet but our feet with which to walk around doing good.”

Harriet Tubman spent most of her adult life praying with her feet. Not content to liberate only herself she was compelled to work for the liberation of others. For this reason I’ve always felt that it was very appropriate that the Knoxville Family Justice Center that offers shelter and sanctuary for victims of domestic violence is located on Harriet Tubman Street.

Harriet Tubman was not a Buddhist, but I think it is fair to call her an honorary Bodhisattva. So let us bring this sermon to a close with a Buddhist vow that can offer guidance to people of all faiths, words that can serve as our North Star, words worthy of a bodhisattva.

May I become at all times…
A protector of those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a helper to all in need.IMG_4994




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