Author Charles Johnson reviews two new books by African-American Buddhists.
An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey
Janice Dean Willis
Riverhead Books: New York, 2001
352 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)
Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace
Angel Kyodo Williams
Viking Press: New York, 2000
In countless stories that record an American’s odyssey to Buddhism we repeatedly find the broad outline of a spiritual paradigm: first there is the experience of duhkha, or suffering, in one (or more) of its myriad samsaric manifestions, followed by exposure to the teachings of the Tathagata, and finally the embracing of a practice that leads to enlightenment and liberation. However, for African Americans suffering takes a uniquely pernicious and psychologically damaging racial form—namely, the seismic blows to self-esteem in a society where blacks have since the seventeenth century been defined as this country’s untouchables. Yet seldom, if ever, do we acknowledge in our apolitical and nonracial discussions of Buddhism the fact that for many African Americans the “three jewels” of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha provide, like Christianity, not only solace in the face of life’s general sufferings (sickness, old age, and death) but also a clarifying refuge from white racism, Eurocentrism, Western hegemony, and even certain crippling aspects of black American culture itself during the tender, beginning stages of one’s practice.
It is timely, then, that as a new millennium begins and Buddhism enters its twenty-sixth century, two African-American women have published books that attempt to provide insights into how the dharma can undo the damage inflicted on the embattled psyches of people of color.
The first of these works is Dreaming Me: An African American Woman’s Spiritual Journey by Jan Willis, who describes herself as a “Baptist-Buddhist.” Even if Willis, a Sanskritist and Indo-Tibetan scholar at Wesleyan University, had never heard of Buddhism, her inspiring (and slightly self-aggrandizing) memoir would nevetherless be the narrative of a fascinating American life. Raised near Birmingham, Alabama, in Docena, a former mining camp frequently terrorized by Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings, Willis went to segregated schools and saw up close the brutality unleashed upon Civil Rights activists in 1963. For example, she and her family marched during the Birmingham campaign and were only a few feet away when Sheriff “Bull” Conner’s dogs tore at the trousers of a black man, an image captured in what is now one of the movement’s classic and most frightening photographs. The world of Willis’s youth was one in which “many black children had been blinded by acid or hot lye thrown through open car windows.” It was a fear-drenched world where, she writes, all the signs and signals around her “told us that we were less than human, a people cursed by God to live degraded lives; told us that we were lazy, stupid, and unfit for society.”
Despite these oppressive childhood experiences, Willis’s intellectual ability (she skipped one grade and fell only two points shy of attaining Mensa status on an I.Q. exam) won her a scholarship to Cornell, which she entered in 1965 as one of only eight African-American students. There she majored in philosophy, spent her junior year studying Buddhism in India, and as a senior transported guns to members of the Black Student Alliance that took over Cornell’s student union in 1969. Increasingly torn between her attraction to Buddhism and the violent militancy of the Black Panther Party (which she almost joined) between “a piece or peace,” as she puts it, Willis opted for returning on a fellowship to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal: the year before she had been warmly welcomed by the head monk, who told her, “You should stay here and study with us.”
During her period of study at the Gelugpa Monastery, Willis met Lama Thubten Yeshe, who lived nearby in Kopan. He became her beloved teacher for fifteen years. “I had come to Lama Yeshe loaded down with guilt, shame, anger, and a feeling of utter helplessness,” she writes. “I couldn’t think or see past the rage I felt from the untold indignities I’d experienced in life prior to meeting him. Such anger had crippled me in countless ways and had almost sent me down the path of violence. Yet, wounds like mine had a flip side, too, a false and prideful view of entitlement: Look at all that I’ve endured. I’m great.”
Her practice, that of tantric Buddhism, with its emphasis on “deity-yoga” (visualizing oneself as infinitely compassionate, wise, and fearless) combined with “voidness-yoga,” meditation and mantra, enabled Willis to begin the arduous, decades-long task of dissolving the many negative conceptions of herself accumulated since childhood; to let go of her rigid clinging to the self; to see her hatreds for what they were. (“Emotions,” a Tibetan friend tells her, “are empty. They come from the mind; but they come and go.”) Practice brought her to a place where she was able to “sit right down in the middle of [her] problems and wounds, welcome them in, and look at them squarely and directly with focused yet relaxed concentration.” And finally, it let her achieve for several days a “tantalizingly blissful awareness” in which “the duality of 'subject’ and 'object’ simply dropped away and disappeared.” Always candid, Willis acknowledges that she is still on the path, in process, and confesses, “I still find myself doing battle with the burden of guilt.”
Dreaming Me is, one might say, a twenty-first century “slave narrative” rendered in Buddhist terms. It brims over with memorable anecdotes (her meeting the Dalai Lama, who told her how to deal with policemen, and her lovely father-daughter relationship with Lama Yeshe) sprinkled along this upasika’s spiritual journey. In one, she realizes that the same spirit infusing Buddhism exists in Christianity as well (a nice affirmation of the truth of “dependent origination” of all things). In another, delicious story, when Willis was in Nepal, she and Lama Yeshe noticed from the upper deck of his Kopan monastery a group of Western students in the courtyard below them. “Suddenly, Lama Yeshe grabbed my arm and began calling out to all of them below. In a booming voice, he called, 'Look, all of you! Look! Look! You want to see women’s liberation? This is—’ pointing at me and patting me on the shoulders—'This is women’s liberation! This is women’s liberation!’”
“Let go, dear. Just let go,” this gentle lama often counseled her during meditation. “The point,” writes Willis, “was to let the drives and the worries go; to let the ambitions go.” She admits that following this injunction, and those in the Dhammapada, will be a daunting challenge “for blacks and other people of color who have been historically demeaned in a world where racism still rules.” After three decades of practice and teaching the history of Buddhism, her advice is simple yet profound: “When oppressive situations arise, I silently intone, 'All beings wish happiness and all seek to be free from suffering.’”
The second book, by Angel Kyodo Williams, is entitled Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace. Like Willis, Williams feels that Buddhism offers a cure for numerous black pathologies. “It’s not the way of white folks we need to get a grasp on,” she writes, “it’s the way of life.” For this author, “Each one of our spirits suffers from the guilt of every negative image, idea, and stereotype about black people ever conceived,” which creates a litany of social and spiritual woes: false cravings in the national non-culture created by capitalism; a selfish individualism that divides communities along the lines of class, skin complexion, and national ancestry; and the destabilization of relationships and families. What she urges throughout Being Black is
Acceptance for who we are, just as we are, whatever that may be: funky attitude, arrogant, self-pitying, too fat, kinky-haired, pimpled, freckled, too tall, too short, not enough money, always late, high-strung, unmotivated, skinny as a rail, high yellow, chinky-eyed, Kunta Kinte-looking, half-breed, flat-nosed, dim-witted, still living with your momma, working at McDonalds, conceited, know you better than anyone else, Cuchifrita, Coconut, Spic, Negro. . . So say to yourself, 'Here I am, in the best way I can be at this moment.’ And that is all that should ever count.
Written with urgency and humor, this book’s hope is to deliver to black America the tools for survival and self-transformation. Ironically, therein lies its downfall. As a poet friend remarked to me, Being Black tries to do too much, resulting in a congeries of well-worn Zen chestnuts. In just 192 pages, Williams gives the reader condensed personal commentary on The Four Noble Truths, the Three Refuges, the Eightfold Path, the Bodhisattava Vow, the Zen ethical precepts, a chapter on how to meditate (with illustrations), a call for the American Sangha to promote diversity, and a final chapter on spiritual role models, books for further study, organizations to contact, websites to visit, and Buddhist magazines to read. Multivolume treatises have been published on any one of these serious doctrinal topics. But Williams didn’t want to produce either a scholarly work or even the story of one black woman’s spiritual evolution. Rather, Being Black aspires to be a “practical,” introductory, how-to handbook pitched toward “real world” black audiences, one that interprets Zen Buddhism in terms of the quotidian concerns, language, psychology, social problems, and “personal style” of African Americans. Williams’s ambition deserves an “A” for effort, and her final product a “C”. More importantly it raises a critical—even controversial—question for the future of both American Buddhism and a multiracial society (“Are black Americans unable to understand and accept the dharma, or for that matter anything that originates outside their historical experience as a group, unless it is delivered with a supposedly 'black flavor’?”), which I will return to in just a moment.
Its overreachings lead Being Black at times to a misleading, Zen-lite interpretation of canonical principles and practices. For example, during her discussion of the Three Refuges, she blurs the distinction between the sangha (the Buddhist community of monks, nuns, and lay followers) and the broader community of everyone in a murky interpretation that is admirably civic-minded and all-embracing but hardly accurate. Her explication of Right Understanding is also less than veridical. Furthermore, Williams errs in equating the Zen experience of “original nature” with what Westerners define as “instinct.” She cannot tell the difference, in one baffling anecdote, between “mindfulness” and self-absorption. (She and a friend thoughtlessly shattered with raucous laughter the reverential silence in a church where Thich Nhat Hahn was about to speak, and Williams was offended that a woman nearby scolded her lapse from Right Speech and said, “Shhhh!”). These self-centered interpretations are of a piece with the list of activities Williams includes to help readers “explore yourself and find the things that nourish you.” Among these we find: “Be at ease. Take ten very deep breaths, holding each for a few seconds before exhaling and relax in the arms of your lover.”
At bottom, Being Black is an Oprah-style self-help manual shored up by pop Zen and a relativistic “Rashoman” vision of truth. I have no problem with any of that if it leads readers to further study, although I must point out that Williams’ glancingly brief discussions of the dharma allow her to gloss the deeply radical dimensions of Buddhism. What I do have a problem with is the condescending notion that any subject, Buddhism included, must be presented in a supposedly “black” style in order for African Americans to find it accessible. That racially essentialistic belief, which is assumed from the first page of Being Black, is an epistemological dead end. It is refuted by the many black (and Hispanic) Soka Gakkai Buddhists who do not need copies of the Lotus Sutra written in “black English.” By her own account, Jan Willis entered easily enough into The Life of Milarepa, thank you, without having a “hip” version of that text. For, if the truth be told, the same “letting go” of the (black) self that is the ultimate fruit of practice is also required, at least in part, for the first steps on one’s journey. It is that illusory “black” self that Williams still seems attached to, and therein lies Being Black’s most valuable lesson for us all: Even after a lifetime of dhyana and sustained periods of what Willis called “tantalizingly blissful awareness,” each and every one of us can be caught by Mara’s snare of ethnic dualism and vestigial samsara.
Charles Johnson won the 1990 National Book Award for his novel Middle Passage and holds the University of Washington's first endowed chair for writing. His latest book is King: The Photography of Matin Luther King, Jr. (Viking Studio).
Image © Ron Blalock.