Going Beyond Ethnic Dualism

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

© Riverhead BooksDreaming Me:
An African-American Woman’s Spiritual Journey
Janice Dean Willis
Riverhead Books: New York, 2001
352 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)

© Viking PressBeing Black:
Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace
Angel Kyodo Williams
Viking Press: New York, 2000
200 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)

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.

© Ron BlalockThe 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.’”

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