November 20, 2020

Meet the Teacher: Devin Berry

As a member of the IMS Teacher Training Program, Devin Berry stands at the center of an emerging movement of next-generation dharma teachers who are likely to reshape the Western insight tradition for generations to come. A meditator for over 20 years, Devin is a community teacher at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, CA, where he co-founded the Teen Sangha and the Men of Color Sangha, and has served as a core leader with San Francisco POC Insight Sangha. He is a visiting teacher at Spirit Rock and serves on the Board of Directors ofInsight World Aid, a vipassana-based nonprofit organization that seeks to alleviate suffering worldwide.

We recently caught up with Devin as he sheltered-in-place in Western Massachusetts during the pandemic. Our interview has been lightly edited for length and content.

Thank you for sharing time with our readers today, Devin. For those who are not familiar with the IMS Teacher Training Program, would you give us an overview?

There are 20 of us in the program, training to be residential retreat teachers. We are the most diverse group that has been trained by IMS and one of two cohorts that are studying simultaneously, including one on the West Coast at Spirit Rock.

We’re in year four and we’ve grown quite close. We’re all colleagues and friends and a number of us are queer and Black and mixed race and Asian. We see people that look like ourselves and our life experiences and stories and narratives are shared. I think our natural diversity is going to shift the dharma landscape quite a bit as we bring our voices and full expressions to the forefront.

We speak most Friday’s on Zoom where we get together and talk about suttas, practice, retreats that we are doing, family relationships—it’s wide open. At this point we refer to each other as dharma siblings.

You were already a dharma teacher when you signed on for a four-year commitment to the Teacher Training Program (TTP). What inspired you to dedicate such an extended amount of time to further your dharma education?

The unfolding of the practice was so profoundly moving to me, and motivated such a deep transformational shift in my own life that it was absolutely worth it. I wanted to learn more.

But this has been a difficult decision in terms of livelihood. We are not earning much.

Your answer points to the challenges of the hybrid-lifestyle that lies between householder and renunciate. Are you a partial renunciant?

I think so. There was a point where I spent over three of six years in retreat. I’d spent more time in a yogi room at IMS or at the Forest Refuge than anywhere else. I’d given up my rented condo. I’d given up my car. When I would leave retreats, I might be on a friend’s sofa for days. I was cat sitting and dog sitting. I camped all over the California coast at state beaches. I housesat all over the country. I took care of an elderly woman. I took care of autistic twin boys, so their mom could go to her job. I made it work.

Having that taste of a renunciate life—or as much as I could without being a monastic—has been personally beneficial. I’m not advocating everyone doing this. Explaining gaps in my work history and resume was a challenge and noting that I spent weeks, months, years on retreat, or traveling in Asia, didn’t always go over well or ring true during the hiring process.

The TTP seems like a particularly unique way to deepen practice because you also have the support of a community. Can you describe what it means to have your peers on this four-year journey with you?

I think it will bring out the best in each of us. We are holding each other accountable and more importantly, creating a sense of belonging to each other.

Maybe we’re a bit more intimate than some other generations of teachers in that we have some engagement around our various social locations and embrace and celebrate our differences. When I say, “May all beings be happy …,” I will add “Black bodies, and trans bodies, and queer bodies, and Jewish bodies, and people of different faiths.” We can all be within this practice.

I needed teachers to explicitly name this as an early yogi, to “see me” from the teacher’s seat. It felt rare that I would get that invitation to belong. Now I’m with a group of people that explicitly bring it into the room.

We are acknowledging all these identities and by practicing with them and sitting with them, we actually learn to hold them lightly. That’s one of the things I most appreciate with our cohort and what we do for each other.

When I hear you speak, I hear a beautiful new freedom of expression coming from the teacher’s seat. As a group, does the TTP cohort have a vision for what you want to see and hear in dharma spaces moving forward?

Both consciously and subconsciously, we are continuing to hone that. There’s nothing that we’re needing to throw out and nothing that we’re needing to replace. It’s just creating a bigger tent. Adding our voices. And I think somewhere along the way, we will start to see how it is changing, broadening, deepening.

I was speaking with a friend who posed the question, “What would it be like if one of the lead teachers sitting on the stage wore a yarmulke, next to someone who has a Muslim name, next to a Black trans woman?” That’s what I’m talking about. Where it doesn’t skip a beat—this 2,600 year old teaching mixed in with our various cultures and pieces. I think it’s quite interesting and possible.

As a cohort, we’re also interested in seeing more feminine energy or expression—a little bit more of the devotional. Again, we’re not talking about throwing anything out. We’re talking about allowing people to come into the spaces and see variety—something that’s really rooted in the dharma, but that is reflective of who we all are.

Aren’t there some things that need to be discarded? Are there some parts of what has been created by human beings in this specific cycle of Buddhism in the West that should simply be left behind? 

(Laughing) Men talking all the time, and leading all the time, and being the authority figures—whether they’re monastics or lay teachers—maybe that needs to go. If we’re talking about inclusivity and diversity and equity, then we need to value the range of voices. So, where are the senior nuns? Where are the women? Where are the queer community? Where are the BIPOC folk? Let’s uplift all.

It’s not throwing anything out though. If I look at the teachers that I have learned from and dearly love, there are a number of white men there. I’m not throwing them out. I love what they taught me and how they guided me. And … if we want to have a full expression of the dharma and really embrace and include everyone, we all need to be there at the table. Not as an afterthought, but sitting on the boards and teacher’s councils. I think that is happening and, I’m sure for some, it needs to happen faster. For others, they don’t see the change at all. But, as a cohort, we’re thinking about how to go forward and be embraced.

In addition to considering who is on the teaching platform, what do we need to think about in regards to who is in the room meditating? 

I definitely would love to see the demographic change beyond seeing a roomful of POC during a POC retreat.

I’ve sat in the meditation hall on a Three-Month Retreat, as one of a very few POC yogis. I had a lot of practice and context to get me there and was able to easily be in that room. But that’s not the case for many. I think as our cohort and the Spirit Rock cohort comes more into play, maybe some of that demographic changes. As things change at the front of the room, that situation could change as more folks feel embraced.

We also have to be quite open and honest—maybe not a lot changes or at least in the ways that we want. Keep in mind, we have had to be measured in our approach, because that’s what we’ve learned in dealing with the dominant culture in academia, and educational settings, and social settings, and in our jobs and work. So, we’re bringing all those things here. It’s a little bit of a dance.

But I think having some POC and queer teachers out front actually will shift the demographic down the road. I taught a retreat at Spirit Rock with an all POC teaching team, but it was a general retreat open to everyone. And the demographics of that retreat were fantastic. It was absolutely beautiful to see.

I look around at the airports, bus, and train stations I frequent while traveling in D.C., L.A. or New York. That’s what I’d actually like to see sitting in the IMS Meditation Hall—a little bit of everything and a little bit of everyone from everywhere. That’s the mark that I’m trying to hit.

Earlier, you talked about the need to hear from more nuns and other women in the insight tradition. Why hasn’t the feminine perspective played a more prominent role in insight meditation in the West?

That’s one of the juiciest questions that a few colleagues bat around. This idea of wisdom has really taken root and you don’t see some of the other aspects.

It’s really interesting because I think perhaps POC communities are more drawn to that feminine energy. It’s what I’m most drawn to. I look at our cohort and there are a number of us that teach with a lot more of the feminine energy. A big infusion of the devotional and that divine feminine energy in this Western insight culture would make all the difference in the world. I also acknowledge that for many the idea of “feminine energy” doesn’t ring true at all and I want to be careful as maybe I should not assume puja, chanting, the devotional, and ceremony haven’t been infused with the patriarchal [custom].

How did you discover the Dharma?

I had traveled to both Thailand and India as a backpacker—not consciously seeking at all. Somewhere along the way I stayed at a guest house with a couple of Sri Lankan people and they chanted every day. The whole time I was there, I was listening to their chant and the tune—the Metta Sutta—stayed in my head forever. I didn’t know the words but it would play in my head over the years.

Someone gave me a copy of “The Miracle of Mindfulness” and “Peace is Every Step” and I fell in love with the poetry dharma of Thich Nhat Hanh. That set me on a course of being the armchair Buddhist, just continuously reading Dharma books.

Then, coming across Jack Kornfield’s books, and Joseph Goldstein’s books, Sharon Salzberg’s lovingkindness book, and eventually getting myself to San Francisco Zen Center and not really feeling at home there. But I ran across a teacher by the name of Issan Dorsey—a former junkie and gay man in San Francisco who started the Hartford Street Zen Center. I thought, “This is my kind of guy.” I wasn’t doing very well myself at all, but he and a couple of folks around him were quite welcoming and embracing. I wasn’t necessarily meditating but I was being embraced by these folks who were taking good care of the dharma.

Eventually, I became involved in the Thich Nhat Hanh community, and started going to some of his retreats in Southern California. I was blown away by Thay’s presence and teaching. I was a part of that community for several years and met my very first teacher, Lyn Fine. I would go to her house for a “morning light sangha” that met at 6:00 am. She mentored me for many years.

I wanted to sit formal meditation so I started going to Spirit Rock, learning with Larry Yang, and a few other teachers around at that time, and then eventually made my way to IMS and the Three-Month-Retreat. From then on, I really saw what the meditative process can do and the transformation that can happen in the sovereignty of silence.

Were there any early signs when you were a young person that the dharma would be a potential path for you?

I had a couple of traumatic events early in my childhood that led me to not speak for a period of time, and I developed a pretty severe stutter as a result. A speech therapist taught me breathing exercises—putting my hand on my belly, my diaphragm. It wasn’t until I got to my very first Three-Month-Retreat, and some instruction was given on the Anapana Sati [Meditation on Breathing], that I made the connection—this was an instruction that I received when I was seven or eight years old.

For the first time, there were tears, and there was no sound, and it was a sense of relief. As a kid who had been traumatized, right at that moment sitting in the meditation hall, being with the felt sense of the breath and having thoughts and emotions and having it not be a problem. There was a sweetness with the breath. It was shelter and refuge.

There was the brief thought—”I’m such an idiot. I learned this all the way back then. And I’d forgotten it all.” And then of course I realized, “No, that’s the story you always do. You beat yourself up. Just be with it.” It really felt like everything came into alignment then—I could stand upright in the storm.

I didn’t have to be afraid. I didn’t have to be traumatized. The pain could be there. The fear could be there. It could all be there and I could still operate. After that, I kept coming back. This was my refuge.

So many people meditate and they may even have a breakthrough like the one you’re describing, where they taste liberation. Yet, many don’t make the choice that you made to dive fully in. When you reflect on your own choices, what gave you the inner resolve to continue on the path of Dharma rather than repeating the patterns that were unsatisfactory?

Somewhere along the way, with a number of spectacular failures I knew that all of the things that I was trying to do were ultimately not going to make me happy.

So, this is my evolution, this is my revolution. In some ways, I experience the Dharma as ancestral. It’s not Devin sitting here. It’s all of my ancestors sitting here—what they went through, what they survived, so that I could thrive. It’s all in service to what has happened before me, and seeding conditions for generations beyond me. Understanding myself as not separate and always interconnected has been helpful and something to come back to over and over again.

What do the words freedom and liberation mean to you?

One of the French philosophers said, “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to be as free as possible.” There’s something there. I aspire and practice to be as absolutely free as possible. In all ways.

Our freedom, the world, this country—we’re bound together. We have forces or ideologies that are working against all of us, promoting confusion and hatred. This isn’t the time to bypass. This isn’t the time to just sit and only talk conceptual ideas and theories about the minutiae of the teachings. Our freedom or liberation is bound together. If Nibbana is me sitting on the other shore waving at you now that I’ve reached it, it means little to me, especially if you are handcuffed on the other side.

Even in this era of long overdue social change, one reality is that some Buddhist leaders are still struggling to move off the cushion and to become more active in social justice. What advice would you offer those who are stuck in the bypass?

I don’t say this to be flip, but to be real … get out of the way so the rest of us can really engage with each other. We’re not throwing you away but if you’re sitting in power and not willing to act or support us in acting, maybe you need to move out of the way at this point. We can’t wait for you to figure it out.

Maybe it’s my visceral response to openly fascist, racist, and state sanctioned violence that is happening in present, real time. It impacts us all and certainly directly impacts this Black male body that I’ve incarnated. We are all aware of how this country was founded and the ensuing genocide of the indigenous peoples, enslavement, its continued legacy, and robust afterlife. We’re not doing that. Not now. No. The practice provides us the capacity to acknowledge our complicity in systems of oppression as well as to assert agency to bring about change. I’m talking fierce compassion, the strength to love and support us all in belonging

Looking at the Buddhist teachings going back, politics is embedded. Protest is embedded. The idea of change is embedded. Looking at systemic oppressions is embedded. So, you can debate it all you want, I would just ask that you talk about it off to the side because everybody else is here in the front room, looking for change and how to be with and embrace and engage each other and use the practice.

Can you elaborate on the idea that social and cultural protest is embedded in Buddhism?

The Buddha left his palace, and seeing old age, sickness, and death, pulled the blinders off his own privilege during his exploration. He’s examining privilege. His family had the money to get the mortgage, the Tesla, the education, and everything else, and he said, I’m going to chuck it and explore this dissatisfaction. I mean how radical is that? Is this not a form of social justice activism?

He was also helping to refute and break through the caste system, against the stream of what everyone else was doing at the time. He showed up in a park to teach 400 people a meditation technique. They loved it so much that they recruited more people. It’s absolutely a socio-political action as well.

How did you transition from dharma student to dharma teacher?

That was a difficult process. I saw myself as a long-term student. I was asked to teach by Larry Yang at East Bay Meditation Center. I found that some of the things that came out of my mouth—versus that I had prepared to teach in that class—gave me a deep sense of joy and love for the practice. It also terrified me because it was the first time I really experienced transmission. And I realized, this isn’t about me. It’s my responsibility and service.

Sitting on the stage at IMS for the first time was incredibly difficult. Mostly because that was the site of so many of my dharma insights and growth and edges. So, I would look out, and I would just sort of see myself looking back at various stages and speak from my voice and from my expression.

How would you describe your teaching style? 

I’m a faith practitioner so I try to instill faith. The emotion is going to be there. I’ve heard people say, “I’m looking for something that’s rooted in empirical evidence and research and you’re giving me anecdotal and folksy stories.” And I answer, “Yes. I’m giving you some anecdotal evidence and folksy stories—it’s my experience and I actually count. This is just one expression of a Black male bodied person and as with everything else this expression is ever changing.”

I’m playful and irreverent at times. I’m a storyteller, I love a good joke. Sparking the pilot light in the heart with joyful inspiration and compassion imbued with awareness is something I aspire to. I’m trying to encourage an inner revolution so that you can go and engage your communities and be in service, while being deeply rooted in your Dharma practice.