Going Beyond Ethnic Dualism

Author Chares Johnson reviews two new books by African-American Buddhists.Charles Johnson

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

[a]cceptance 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.

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