A Buddhist and one of America’s preeminent African-American writers applies the suffering of the First Noble Truth to the suffering of blacks in white America, and traces the history of Dharma among black artists.
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The black experience in America, like the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, begins with suffering.
It begins in the violence of seventeenth-century slave forts sprinkled along the west coast of Africa, where debtors, thieves, war prisoners, and those who would not convert to Islam were separated from their families, branded, and sold to Europeans who packed them into pestilential ships that cargoed 20 million human beings (a conservative estimate) to the New World. Only 20 percent of those slaves survived the harrowing voyage at sea (and only 20 percent of the sailors, too), and if they were among the lucky few to set foot on American soil new horrors and heartbreak awaited them.
As has been documented time and again, the life of a slave—our not-so-distant ancestors—was one of thinghood. It is, one might say, a frighteningly fertile ground for the growth of a deep appreciation for the First and Second Noble Truths as well as a living illustration of the meaning of impermanence. Former languages, religions, and cultures were erased, replaced by a Peculiar Institution in which the person of African descent was property systematically—legally, physically, and culturally—denied all sense of self-worth. A slave owns nothing, least of all himself. He desires and dreams at the risk of his life, which is best described as relative to (white) others, a reaction to their deeds, judgments, and definitions of the world. And these definitions, applied to blacks, were not kind. In the nation’s pulpits, Christian clergy in the South justified slavery by picturing blacks as the descendents of Ham or Cain; in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson dismissed slaves as childlike, stupid, and incapable of self-governance. For 244 years (from 1619 to 1863) America was a slave state with a guilty conscience: two and a half centuries tragically scarred by slave revolts, heroic black (and Abolitionist) resistance to oppression, and, more than anything else, physical, spiritual, and psychological suffering so staggeringly thorough it silences the mind when we study the classic slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano or Frederick Douglass, or see the brutal legacies of chattel bondage in a PBS series like Africans in America. All that was over, of course, by the end of the Civil War, but the Emancipation Proclamation did not bring liberation.
Legal freedom brought segregation instead, America’s version of apartheid, for another hundred years. But “separate” was clearly not “equal.” The experienced law of black life was disenfranchisement, anger, racial dualism, second-class citizenship, and, as the great scholar W.E.B. DuBois put it in his classic The Souls of Black Folks (1903), “double-consciousness.” Can anyone doubt that if there is an essence—an eidos—to black American life, it has for three centuries been craving, and a quest for identity and liberty which, pushed to its social extremes, propelled this pursuit beyond the relative, conceptual realities of race and culture to a deeper investigation of the meaning of freedom?
If the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha are about anything, they are about a profound understanding of identity and the broadest possible meaning of liberty—teachings that sooner or later had to appeal to a people for whom suffering and loss were their daily bread. In the century after the Emancipation Proclamation each generation of black Americans saw their lives disrupted by race riots, lynchings, and the destruction of entire towns and communities such as the Greenwood district of black homes, businesses, and churches in Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31, 1921. These Jim Crow years witnessed the birth of the blues and a white backlash that fed poisonous caricatures of black people into popular culture and the national consciousness—films like Birth of a Nation, the writings of the Plantation School, and endless stereotypes that distorted black identity in newspapers and magazines—images that made the central question of the black self, “Who am I? American? African? Or something other? Can reality be found in any of these words?”
During these centuries of institutionalized denial, black Americans found in Christianity a spiritual rock and refuge. Although first imposed on some slaves by their owners as a way of making them obedient, Christianity in black hands became a means for revolt against bondage. Then, in the twentieth century, the black church provided consolation in a country divided by the color-line. It became a common spiritual, social, economic, and political experience and was the place where black people could reinterpret Christianity and transform it into an instrument for worldly change. It became a racially tempered institution, one that raised funds to help the poor and to send black children off to college.
Historically, no other institution’s influence compares with that of the black church, and I believe it will continue to be the dominant spiritual orientation of black Americans. It provides a compelling and time-tested moral vision, a metaphysically dualistic one that partitions the world into good and evil, heaven and hell, posits an immortal soul that no worldly suffering can harm, and through the agapic love of a merciful Father promises in the afterlife rewards denied in this one. Christianity, in part, made black Americans a genuinely Western people, on the whole identical in their strivings and sense of how the world works with Northern Europeans in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
But as early as 1923, Du Bois reflected deeply on the nature of black desires and a Western weltanschaaung in a speech entitled, “Criteria of Negro Art.” It was published in The Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for The Advancement of Colored People, which Du Bois himself edited, and in this document he raises fundamental spiritual questions—what Buddhists might call Dharma doors—for a people whose dreams were long deferred.
What do we want? What is the thing we are after? As it was phrased last night it had a certain truth: We want to be Americans, full-fledged Americans, with all the rights of other American citizens. But is that all? Do we want simply to be Americans? Once in a while through all of us there flashes some clairvoyance, some clear idea, of what American really is. We who are dark can see America in a way that white Americans can not. And seeing our country thus, are we satisfied with its present goals and ideals?
If you tonight suddenly should become full-fledged Americans, if your color faded, or the color line here in Chicago was miraculously forgotten; suppose, too, you became at the same time rich and powerful;—what is it that you would want? What would you immediately seek? Would you buy the most powerful of motor-cars and outrace Cook County? Would you buy the most elaborate estate on the North Shore? Would you be a Rotarian or a Lion or a What-not of the very last degree? Would you wear the most striking clothes, give the richest dinners and buy the longest press notices?
Even as you visualize such ideals you know in your heart that these are not the things you really want. You realize this sooner than the average white American because, pushed aside as we have been in America, there has come to us not only a certain distaste for the tawdry and flamboyant but a vision of what the world could be if it were really a beautiful world; if we had the true spirit; if we had the Seeing Eye, the Cunning Hand, the Feeling Heart; if we had, to be sure, not perfect happiness, but plenty of good hard work, the inevitable suffering that always comes with life; sacrifice and waiting, all that—but, nevertheless, lived in a world where men know, where men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life. It is that sort of a world we want to create for ourselves and for all America.
Others echoed Dr. Du Bois’s question, “What do we want?” As early as the 1920s, some black Americans were quietly investigating Far Eastern philosophies like Hinduism and the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism after experiencing Du Bois’s “flashes of clairvoyance.” Preeminent among these spiritual seekers was Jean Toomer, who regarded himself as “a psychological adventurer: one who, having had the stock experiences of mankind, sets out at right angles to all previous experience to discover new states of being.” His classic work, Cane (1923), kicked off the Harlem Renaissance, the first outpouring of black American creativity after World War I. It is fitting, in a way, that Cane inaugurated the Renaissance, which scholar Alain Locke described as the dawn of “The New Negro,” for Toomer’s book is a hypnotic, language-rich montage of poetry and fiction that delivers a portrait of Southern black life as so mythic and shot through with elemental mysteries that it clearly belongs in the tradition of American Transcendentalism stretching back to Emerson and Thoreau. Furthermore, the year after its publication, Toomer began the first of many summers in Europe studying, then teaching the philosophy of George I. Gurdjieff, which remains an original restatement of esoteric wisdom influenced by Tibetan and Sufi teachings. For Toomer, the task was to transcend false concepts of dualism, ontologically restore to our sense of life its original wholeness, and emphasize the enduring mystery of being.
During his years as a teacher for the Gurdjieff Institute, Toomer declared, “I am of no particular race. I am of the human race, a man at large in the human world, preparing a new race”—a new man, whom he describes in his sweeping, Whitmanesque poem “Blue Meridian” (1937), a song of this country’s possibilities, which also offers us a bridge between the black experience and the profound reflections on selfhood long a part of Vedic literature. In that remarkable poem, Toomer prophecies that the new man of tomorrow’s America will be a “blue man.” He selects this color, I believe, to invoke the image of Krishna in Hindu pictorial art, where that deity’s skin, blue and borderless as the sky itself, suggests the infinity and nonduality of being.
Toomer’s “new (blue) man” is, therefore, emblematic of a being who has shed likes and dislikes, “prejudices and preferences.” A cross-cultural being. A breaker of racial and gender polarities (“Free the sexes, I am neither male nor female or in-between; I am of sex, with male differentiations”). So that, when he writes, “It is a new America/To be spiritualized by each new American,” he urges us to avoid all forms of bondage and enslavement that arise from a racially fractured society, vulgar materialism, and naive naturalism.
Let it go that we may live.
A pin, a watch-fob, a card of identification,
A name, pain and emptiness,
A will to perpetuate what has been, blind
To distinctions between the useful and the
And, of course, an ego
That which you have held has got hold of you
And would sink you as it goes down.
In 1931, Toomer self-published a remarkable collection of aphorisms entitled Essentials. Therein, he observed that “I is a word, but the worm is real,” letting us know that the self was in part a product of language, which can conceal as much as it reveals about the world (“In this multiple simultaneous world words only dole out one thing at a time”). He understood, as the earliest Buddhists did, that “The assumption of existence rests upon an uninterrupted series of pictures” and, more importantly, that “Whatever is, is sacred.” He knew that all things were interdependent and transitory. He was no stranger to the renunciation of an illusory, empirical ego (“Unless a man dies consciously he will die.”) Indeed, Toomer even glimpsed, decades before Fritjof Capra, how nuclear physics in the 1920s was revealing “matter” to be a construct beneath which whirled an invisible subatomic world of protons, electrons, and hadrons in constant movement, transformation, and mutation (“While the world produced by science is growing more immaterial, science itself is growing more immaterial”). Although his work after Cane was rejected by publishers, and he slipped into literary obscurity until the 1960s, Toomer was a spiritual trailblazer whose creative “journey to the east” inspired post-1960s authors, myself among them, to probe the “multiple simultaneous world” he first charted and took to heart such aphorisms as “The realization of nothingness is the first act of being” and “We do not possess imagination enough to sense what we are missing.”
If Toomer felt alone in his time (“It is as if I have seen,” he said, “the end of things others pursue blindly”), he might have been comforted by the fact that some black American soldiers returning from service overseas came home with exposure to the Dharma—exposure that only increased as black soldiers returned home with Korean and Japanese Buddhist wives. In his superb novel Kingsblood Royal (1947), Sinclair Lewis writes the story of a white man who discovers he has a black ancestor; he seeks to better understand people of color, and realizes the great diversity of black Americans in his town—among them, writes Lewis, are Buddhists.
By the mid-1950s, as the Beats looked toward Zen, so did a few black musicians and poets; and of course by then the Civil Rights Movement was underway, led magnificently by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who took Mahatma Gandhi as his inspiration. After a pilgrimage to India in 1958, where he visited ashrams and sought to learn more about nonviolence not simply as a political strategy but as a way of life, King came back to America determined to set aside one day a week for meditation and fasting. In the 1960s, he nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize the outstanding Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. King was, at bottom, a Baptist minister, yes, but one whose vision of the social gospel at its best complements the expansive, Mahayana bodhisattva ideal of laboring for the liberation of all sentient beings (“Strangely enough,” he said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be”). His dream of the “beloved community” is a sangha by another name, for King believed that, “It really boils down to this: that all of life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
The fourteen-year public ministry of Dr. King is emblematic of the philosophical changes that affected black Americans in the 1960s. Another milestone is the remarkable success of Soka Gakkai in attracting black Americans for three decades. Its members include entertainers with the high visibility of Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner. Although I do not belong to this Nichiren Buddhist group which, according to writer Jane Hurst, represents 50,000 to 150,000 Americans (with 25-30 percent of these being black and Hispanic), my sister-in-law in Chicago and her friends are practitioners who have chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo since the early 1970s.
In a recent conversation with my sister-in-law and one of her associates, I was informed that Soka Gakkai’s initial attraction for them came about because they discovered that through chanting they could transform their lives, in fact, that they alone were the architects of their own suffering and happiness. For my sister-in-law, raised Baptist and impoverished in a housing project on Chicago’s South Side, the black church with its white Jesus had always been an unsatisfying experience, one from which she felt emotionally distant since childhood; for her friend, a woman raised as a Catholic, Soka Gakkai provided—through its explanation of karma and reincarnation and its foundation in The Lotus Sutra—a reason for the individual suffering she saw in the world, convincing her this was not due to the will of God but instead was based causally on each person’s actions in this life and previous ones. Global peace is their goal. Chanting is their tool for self-transformation, empowerment, and experiencing the at-oneness with being they both had sought all their lives. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, they said, invested them with boundless energy, individual peace, and, as my sister-in-law’s friend put it, “a natural high like I never had before.”
Many white Buddhists new to the Zen and Tibetan traditions dismiss Soka Gakkai for what they consider its skewed, Christian-oriented, materialistic version of Buddhism. For me, Soka Gakkai is but one branch on the Bodhi tree. Yet its success in recruiting black Americans indicates that people of color find in Buddhism the depths of their long-denied humanity; centuries-old methods of meditation—very empirical—for clearing the mind of socially manufactured illusions (as well as personally created ones); an ancient phenomenology of suffering, desire, and the self; and a path (the Eightfold Path) for a moral and civilized way of life.
The emphasis in Buddhist teachings on letting go of the fabricated, false sense of self positions issues of Race as foremost among samsaric illusions, along with all the essentialist conceptions of difference that have caused so much human suffering and mischief since the eighteenth century. It frees one from dualistic models of epistemology that partition experience into separate, boxlike compartments of Mind and Body, Self and Other, Matter and Spirit—these divisions, one sees, are ontologically the correlates of racial divisions found in South African apartheid and American segregation and are just as pernicious.
More than anything else, the Dharma teaches mindfulness, the practice of being here and now in each present moment, without bringing yesterday’s racial agonies into today or projecting oneself—one’s hopes and longings—into a tomorrow that never comes. You watch the prismatic play of desires and emotions (for example: joy, fear, pride, and so-called “black rage”) as they arise in awareness, but without attachment or clinging to name and form, and then you let them go. One is especially free, on this path, from the belief in an enduring “personal identity,” an “I” endlessly called upon to prove its worth and deny its inferiority in a world that so often mirrors back only negative images of the black self. Yet one need not cling to “positive” images either, for these too are essentially empty of meaning as well. Indeed, you recognize emptiness (shunyata) as the ultimate nature of reality. In my own fiction I have worked to dramatize that insight in novels such as Oxherding Tale (1982), a slave narrative that serves as the vehicle for exploring Eastern philosophy; Middle Passage, a sea adventure tale about the slave trade (and a rather Buddhist African tribe called the Allmuseri); and Dreamer (1998), a fictional account of the last two years of Martin Luther King’s life that highlights his globally ecumenical spirituality.
Buddhist insights continue to multiply among contemporary black authors. In Right Here, Right Now, a recent novel by Trey Ellis, which won a 1999 American Book Award, we are offered the story of a black man who creates a new world religion that borrows heavily from Buddhism and underscores the central theme of impermanence and change. And Octavia Butler, a MacArthur fellow and much celebrated science-fiction writer, features in Parable of the Sower (1993) a narrator in 2024 who broods on the fact that “Everyone knows that change in inevitable. From the second law of thermodynamics to Darwinian evolution, from Buddhism’s insistence that nothing is permanent and all suffering results from our delusions of permanence to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes ('To everything there is a season . . .'), change is part of life, of existence, of the common wisdom. But I don’t believe we’re dealing with all that that means. We haven’t even begun to deal with it.”
Canonical Zen documents like “The Ten Oxherding Pictures” of twelfth-century artist Kakuan Shien also appear in recent black poetry. In the preeminent journal of black letters, Callaloo (Vol. 22, No. 1), the distinguished poet Lucille Clifton revisioned the Ch’an teachings of the “The Ten Oxherding Pictures” in which the stages of Zen understanding are depicted by a man who follows the footsteps of an ox, which represents ego. He finally glimpses the ox, slowly tames it, then trains it to do what he wants, not what ego wants. Only after he has completely transformed himself does he happily ride his ox back into the marketplace. Clifton writes these lines for the eighth picture, in which both the ox and oxherder disappear; here, the emptiness suggests the dissolution and arising of forms and the essence of interdependence is represented by a circle:
"The Ox and The Man Both Gone Out of Sight"
man is not ox
I am not ox
no thing is ox
all things are ox.
Through meditation, Du Bois’s flashes of clairvoyance are sharpened and the internalized racial conflict of “double-consciousness” is transcended, enabling those of us who live in a violent, competitive society steeped in materialism to grasp the truth of impermanence (anitya) that first turned twenty-nine-year-old prince Siddartha Gautama from the ephemeral sense pleasures of his palace to the pursuit of liberation and enlightenment. After one had abandoned experiencing the world through concepts and representations, after he realizes the cessation of mental constructions, he perceives the interdependence of all things, how—as Thich Nhat Hanh says—”Everything is made of everything else, nothing can be by itself alone” (anatman) in a universe of ceaseless change and transformation. Then and only then is it possible to realize Dr. King’s injunction that we “Love our enemies” in the struggle for justice because once one approaches the “enemy” with love and compassion the “enemy,” the Other, is seen to be oneself.
All things, we learn, are ourselves. Thus, practice necessarily leads to empathy, the “Feeling Heart” Du Bois spoke of, Toomer’s sense that all is sacred, and the experience of connectedness to all sentient beings. No matter how humble the activity—whether it be walking, sitting, eating, or washing the dishes—one approaches it with mindfulness, acting, and listening egolessly as if it might be the most important thing in the world, for indeed all that is, has been, and will be is contained in the present moment. In this nondiscursive, expansive spirit discrimination is inconceivable. After the practitioner has charged his battery, so to speak, in meditation, he eagerly works and creates to serve others—all others—with humility, a boundless joy in giving, fearlessness, and disinterest in all personal “rewards.” And though the number of black Buddhists is small, they are growing in an increasingly multicultural America with the promise of more black people turning the Wheel of Dharma as a new millennium dawns. For through the Dharma, the black American quest for “freedom” realizes its profoundest, truest, and most revolutionary meaning.
Charles Johnson is recipient of the 1990 National Book Award for his novel, Middle Passage (the first African-American male to win this prize since Ralph Ellison in 1953). He has authored three other novels, a collection of short stories, and numerous essays, screenplays, critical books, and reviews. Johnson, a Ph.D. in Philosophy and published cartoonist, holds the University of Washington’s first endowed chair for writing.
Image 1: W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was one of America's most influential black intellectuals. Courtesy Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
Image 2: Jean Toomer's exposure to Gurdjieff led him to proclaim the coming of a new, raceless "blue man." National Portrait Gallery.
Image 3: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was inspired by Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh. Courtesy Robert Sengstacke.
Image 4: Soka Gakkai Buddhists chanting sutras in New York City. Courtesy Kirk Condyles.