“I was always more interested in the spiritual and mystical dimensions of religions,” says Dana Gregory Griffith, “and not so much in the morality aspect that many religious institutions stress and want to enforce on their members.” “Growing up, I found myself easily attracted to the Eastern religious traditions that I learned, developed an expertise in, and ended up teaching,” he adds.
Griffith, in fact, is a Buddhist who follows the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism and who has been attending, for the past seven years, the Gaden Samdrupling (GSL) Buddhist Monastery, a community center for Buddhist study, practice, and culture, located on Colerain Avenue, in Cincinnati.
Born in Appalachian coal mine country, in South Eastern Kentucky, Griffith moved at an early age, with his poor parents, to Warren County, north of Cincinnati, where his father could find better work.
“I was exposed very young to poverty and I saw workers being abused and exploited for their labor,” he says. “I developed as a result a very strong sense for social justice.”
Growing up, Griffith was close to his mother, a religious Christian, who took him along to the various churches she attended. There, he took Bible study classes, received religious instruction and thus became well familiar with the New and Old Testament. At the age of 15, however, he lost interest and stopped going to church.
He attended public school in the 60s and 70s, a period ripe in social justice issues nationwide, and experienced related changes in the type of education he received.
“Education became more focused on us, young students, who we are and our differences. It empowered us.” says Griffith. “And at the same time our parents’ approach became more permissive, treating us as full pledged human beings.”
Even though living in a predominantly white working middle class area, Griffith was exposed to the few African American and Asian families residing in the community, and thanks to the boy scouts he had joined, he learned to question racial stereotypes and appreciate diversity. The boy scouts also opened his eyes to the importance of the environment, the plants and animals in it, and to what negatively impacted them.
“We would go out along the Little Miami river, clean up sections of its riverbanks, and learn about nature and its vital role for all of us.”
After High School, Griffith attended for less than a year ITT technical institute in Vandalia, OH, north of Dayton, studying to become an architectural draftsman. Realizing, however, that he did not have the necessary technical drawing skills, he withdrew and enrolled at UC.
“I was also all along very much interested in writing and creative pursuits and wanted to be a writer and a poet,” he says. “So I joined the English literature program, and remained at UC throughout my doctoral studies graduating with a PhD degree in English and comparative literature, with a strong component in creative writing.”
It took Griffith more than 20 interrupted years to obtain his PhD degree but these years were the opportunity for him to learn and develop an expertise in the Eastern religions, also to teach them.
“When I joined UC, I was already fascinated with sacred literature from different religions,” he says. “So I took undergraduate courses in new and old testament literature, also a course on the effect of Eastern religious thoughts on American literature. Seeing religious texts as literature and not only as dogmatic teachings, understanding how they were constructed and how they came into being, opened my eyes to a different appreciation of religion and sparked my interest in mysticism and spirituality as a religious path.”
Along the way Griffith had met many teachers expert in Eastern religions and had learned a lot from them and on his own. He also became very interested in the Hindu yogic tradition, not the one focusing on health and exercise practices prevalent in the US, but the one with deeper religious and spiritual roots. He discovered as a result sahaja yoga, a meditation only yoga that emphasizes awakening of the kundalini energy in the body leading to a feeling of enlightenment and bliss. He studied it, practiced it for many years, meditating, contemplating and worshiping, but started also longing for a more traditional religious community and became more interested in Tibetan style Buddhism.
Griffith was still taking courses in the various Eastern religions and started developing deep knowledge of them, particularly Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. In addition to the classes he had been teaching in English literature, writing and composition, he was asked to teach courses pertaining to religion, part of UC’s religious studies program, the certificate of which he later directed.
“I taught courses on Buddhism and Hinduism, my forte,” says Griffith, “but also courses around certain themes that I approached comparatively, for instance a comparative course on “Suffering and Death in World Religions”, one on “Spirituality and Mysticism,” one on “Religion and Healing.””
Griffith also designed and taught an honor course titled “Understanding Religious Intolerance.” It was not only a theoretical course as his students were required to find real examples of religious intolerance in the community, research them, explore their why and how, write essays to understand them, and propose solutions on how to address them.
“I use my teachings to reach students and the community and to promote and disseminate the values mostly, but not only, of the Eastern religions,” says Griffith. “Also to address misconceptions and inaccuracies about religions, particularly prevalent in today’s era of social media, that do injustice to the religions and that could easily lead to intolerance.”
Griffith’s teaching spills outside the classroom, first through his students whom he prepares, giving them the tools and information to fight, wherever they are, religious stereotypes and injustice; but also into the community where he is frequently invited to speak and teach, representing Buddhism, other Eastern religious traditions, their values, and promoting interfaith coexistence and tolerance.
He was for instance invited to be part of a panel on anti-Semitism and religious intolerance when a swastika was spray-painted on the Hebrew Union College sign at the entrance to its Cincinnati Clifton Avenue campus. He also marched, demonstrated and spoke when a UC Muslim student was nearly run down and harassed with anti Muslim slurs at a road intersection near the campus. Griffith was also invited to serve on the steering committee of the 1st Cincinnati Festival of Faith that took place this past June at Xavier University. The goal of the festival was to promote visibility and exposure to the various faiths in the city, and also to foster an interfaith dialogue.
“I would like to be part of any kind of work in the city that promotes religious tolerance,” he says, “also get more involved in community outreach and social justice projects.”
When asked whether his teaching and public speaking represent his engagement and activism, Griffith acquiesces, adding:
“When I participate as a speaker in an event that centers on social justice, when I teach or lecture about a religion or a religious topic, I am purposefully disseminating my knowledge and sharing my values, shedding light on what should or should not be. I prefer though to be invited to do so by fear, otherwise, of being perceived as chauvinistic or of imposing my own white male privileges.”
Griffith just left UC and accepted a full time position at Christ College of Nursing, where he will be teaching world religions and giving courses in writing to future nurses.
“Many religious issues relate to health and health is often influenced by religions,” he states. “Future nurses need to be aware of them and be prepared to deal with them should they present with their patients.”
Griffith remains a faithful member of the GSL Buddhist monastery where he goes every Friday evening for instruction and to listen to his mentor Jamyang Lama or to other guest Lamas. He participates also there in the Buddhist rituals that involve prayers, mantras, symbolical offerings (light, incense, flowers, water…); also mind visualization of and devotion to deities who each personifies a given value, for instance compassion, or a given universal energy beneficial to the world and to its beings, such as healing or sustainability.
Even though most of his actions are at the individual level, Griffith, nevertheless, reaches the many through his religious teachings which are all to promote peace, justice, interfaith respect and coexistence. He aims at connecting others with the sacred in the world and thus, help to foster a better place for all.
A text that Dana Gregory Griffith likes to quote: from Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva, Chapter 3 “Commitment,” Verses 17-22 All those who slight me to my face Or do to me some other evil, Even if they blame or slander me, May they attain the fortune of enlightenment! May I be a guard for those who are protectorless, A guide for those who journey on the road. For those who wish to cross the water, May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge. May I be an isle for those who yearn for land, A lamp for those who long for light; For all who need a resting place, a bed; For those who need a servant, may I be their slave. May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of wealth, A word of power and the supreme healing, May I be the tree of miracles, For every being the abundant cow. Just like the earth and space itself And all the other mighty elements, For boundless multitudes of beings May I always be the ground of life, the source of varied sustenance. Thus for everything that lives, As far as are the limits of the sky, May I be constantly their source of livelihood Until they pass beyond all sorrow. Note: Shatideva was an 8th Century Buddhist monk at Nalanda Monastic College in North East India. He is considered a great Mahayana Buddhist saint. The Way of the Bodhisattva is one of the best known and most highly revered works of Buddhist literature.