Teacher Profile: Ofosu Jones-Quartey
By Editor | Apr 8 2011
by Holly Selzer
Ofosu teaches IMCW’s Family Meditation class and is an accomplished musical artist known as Born. He talks to IMCW ENews about his life, his goals, and how his Buddhist practice and music intersect.
How were you first introduced to Buddhism, insight meditation and IMCW?
I guess the cliché Buddhist answer would be that everything is intertwined [laughs]. I first learned of Buddhism from my mother when I was very young. I remember going to her to yoga classes and to temples with monks in brightly colored robes. Those moments were informative and always stuck with me. As I came into my own, I began exploring different philosophies and religions. One day as a college senior, I walked into a class showing Martin Scorsese’s movie “Kundun” — the story of the current Dalai Lama. It took me back to my Buddhist roots. I started reading about religions of the East and threw myself back into practice. From college, I studied at the Bhahavana Society monastery in West Virginia, where I met an African monk named Bhante Buddharakkhita. He held the rare distinction of being the first Theravadin Buddhist monk from Uganda. We immediately connected, both of us being African and practicing Buddhist meditation. He offered to teach me Vipassana and that was where it really started. He remains my teacher to this day.
My introduction to IMCW came a few years later. I was just riding the bus in DC one day and noticed someone reading a Buddhist magazine and — being a bit of a Dharma-junkie at the time and excited by anything Buddhist — I struck up a conversation with him. It was Carl Skooglund, the founder and teacher of the Family Meditation class at IMCW. We kept running into each other and developed a deep friendship. Over time, he invited me to help to teach the FM classes and he eventually nominated me to become part of the teacher’s council (on the teachers training track) at IMCW, which was a great honor. I co-taught for two or three years and when Carl retired as primary teacher, he asked me to take the helm this year.
What do you hope to accomplish in the family classes you teach at IMCW?
At this age — the kids in my classes are about 5-14 years old — I find that children are most impressed by sights and sounds. So what I want to do is create the kind of experiences we can all remember having as kids, those moments that gave you a serious jolt of happiness and that you come back to later to help define what you want out of life. I’m trying to distill some heady teachings into something simple and basic that the kids can wrap their minds around and have fun with. Part of the way I teach is to act out the things that hinder us by trying to personify our moods — our grumpiness or greediness or whatever — and show how they can pose a problem. I want to really connect the idea of paying attention to yourself and to your life with joy and with a sense of exploration and fun. Part of the Buddha's point is that even though the things inside our minds pose problems, the real problem is investing too much energy and belief in them. So, I try to show how outrageous and incongruent our thoughts and emotions can sometimes be in relation to people and situations in a way that is humorous.
If I can get the kids to laugh at the things that normally hinder us, it hopefully it helps them to deal with these things with some ease as they come up. I think when Buddhist practice initially came to the West, the general idea was that it had to be little bit of drag, because as adults we have a lot to work through after years of psychological and habitual buildup and it can make the practice more difficult. So I also want to make the impression early on that it doesn’t have to be hard if you start early. And I try and make it engaging for parents and young kids. Some things are just universally appealing.
Do you bring your music into the classroom?
Not exactly. I bring a musical element into classroom, but not my own professional music. I do plan to make some Buddhist-themed songs for kids in the near future. For now, I have a few chants and some songs I like to sing in class, but it’s not my music per se, although I have written some of the chants. I make somewhat of a distinction between what I think is acceptable for an older, more mature audience and what is good for younger kids. Most of my music is definitely for people 16 or older and up.
How do your beliefs and spiritual practice affect your music?
I was in a group before working as solo artist called Shambhala. The music we made was very Buddhist-centric, very heady rap and hip hop. The lyrical content was quite intellectual, which was great, but the people who were most receptive to it already had that kind of bent. So we weren’t really reaching new people. What I really want as a solo artist is to encourage people to take a look at their lives in a critical enough way to clear the things that make them unhappy and embrace what makes them happy: like compassion, love for one another, wisdom, seeing reality for what it is. When I went solo, I spoke with Bhante Buddharakkhita about whether I should keep a heavy Buddhist theme or distill it down to entice the listener into its deeper meaning, however slowly, and he agreed with that approach. The idea is to attract the wider audience and bring us to a deeper place overall. That way I’m not hitting anyone over the head with a spiritual message, but I think it’s easy to detect a deep spiritual drive that moves my music. If the Dharma is a jewel, than the jewel is tremendously valuable even if it’s very small.
What might listeners take away from the spiritual themes currently in your music?
I’m looking at it as upaya, or skillful means. Thanissaro Bhikkhu said once that in Buddhism, it’s not necessarily about what’s right or wrong, it’s about what is skillful. I really believe that Buddhist teachings are transcendent and can be applied to any situation. But there is so much embedded materialism here in the West that I don’t think a model of Buddhist practice that asks people to get rid of their possessions and materialist impulses is going to work in a wide enough way to affect change culturally. But through music, I can tell people OK, you can have your things and your money, but if you really want to be happy, share it with the community around you. We don’t need to hold on to everything with such a tight fist. We can apply universal concepts of wisdom and compassion within the context of a materialistic society. It’s not realistic to think we’re going to have a revolution where people give away their cell phones and big houses. But if these are impulses embedded in culture, it is realistic to ask: How can we share our good fortunes with our fellow community and act in a responsible way as we try to satisfy our basic desires for comfort? By moving slowly, we might see some dramatic changes over time. My hope is that this community will be patient with my vision to create a gradual awakening.
Given the generally low numbers of people of color involved in Buddhism, do you hope your music will broaden awareness among that community?
Yes, I hope my work helps gives some confidence to African Americans and practitioners of color who are solitary practitioners like I was for a long time. There’s a huge champion of that cause at IMCW, La Sarmiento. She does so much valuable work to make our community more diverse and to make people of diverse backgrounds feel at home within it. For me, it’s a little scary to be a representative for the African or African American community on a wide scale, because I tend to be more unorthodox in my presentation of Buddhist thought and philosophy. I don’t want people to see what I’m doing, disagree with it and then make assumptions about all people of color who are Buddhists. I’m committed to my unorthodox approach but sensitive that others may prefer a different one. Yet I do see the importance of somebody like me being active in this community. The idea that it’s possible for a young black male to be a teacher of predominantly young white kids is beautiful. There are so many cross-cultural barriers and stereotypes that are shattered in being a young black, Buddhist and teacher and rap artist. So even with my apprehensions I feel very fortunate to be in this position because I really would like to see the Western Buddhist community — including IMCW, which is pretty diverse compared to similar communities — to be more diverse.
Hopefully I can encourage people to be brave enough to take on what I believe to be the most worthwhile practice there is, the Dharma, if that’s what they choose. From a traditional African American standpoint, holding religious belief systems outside Christianity or even Islam is generally viewed as taboo. If there’s one thing that a family can agree on, it’s supposed to be their spiritual tradition, and Christianity has been such a big part of African American experience for so long. So if you’re stepping away from that, it’s a serious thing. And I’m sure there are parallels in other races and religions. But I don’t think you have to apply Buddhist practice to the exclusion of the faith you were born into. For me, I went headlong into it but the remnants from various religions I’ve studied are still a part of my spiritual fiber.
What are you working on musically now?
I just released a single — that’s kid-friendly — called “Number One.” It’s a response to what I saw happening in the Middle East. It’s about solidarity and taking control of your destiny, being strong in the face of adversity. Each time someone purchases it, a portion of the proceeds goes to Human Rights Watch. I also put together a video showing footage of revolution in the Middle East as well as revolutionary moments in history like the March on Washington and the first Independence Day in Ghana. It visually depicts that there’s a universal drive for us as humans to have control over our own destiny. From a Buddhist standpoint, we’re exhorted to make ourselves free from emotions and activities that oppress us. That translates politically as well. In January, I released an album I’m really excited about called “Tomorrow Is Today,” which is for grown-ups — at least 16 and up. I’ll be releasing more singles from my album in the coming months.
Where can people hear you play locally?
I’ll be performing at Live nightclub on March 23. On April 2, I’ll be performing at the Warehouse Loft as part of a big electronic music event called the Forward Festival. More dates are in the pipeline, management is just working out the "deets" as we say. Also, people might see me walking around with t-shirt that says “Kill Your Genre." It's my new clothing line. I love it because I work in so many musical genres — which isn’t always the case in this industry — rap, hip hop, electronic, world music and several others. This stems from my spiritual outlook that we shouldn’t make unnecessary distinctions that cause separation among people. My goal in life, in my spiritual practice and with my music is to bring people together and to put aside all of the ways in which we divide ourselves. So yes, there can be a young hip hop guy who teaches Buddhism. Someone can do rap and electronic music. All these different expressions of society have the same basic vibe underneath: Pretty much everyone wants to be happy and they don’t want to suffer. And my mission is to highlight that.
To view Ofosu’s latest video, and to hear and purchase his latest single “Number One” and other music, visit www.bornimusic.bandcamp.com
Holly Seltzer is a DC-based writer and volunteers for IMCW ENews.