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bell hooks is a seeker, a feminist, a social critic, and a prolific writer. Her books include "Ain't I a Woman?": Black Women and Feminism; Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black; Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with Cornel West); and, most recently Black Looks all from Southend Press. She was born Gloria Watkins forty years ago in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, and was educated at Stanford and Yale. Currently she teaches English and Women's Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by editor Helen Tworkov.
Tricycle: What was your first exposure to Buddhism?
bell hooks: When I was eighteen I was an undergraduate at Stanford and a poet and I met Gary Snyder. I already knew that he was involved with Zen from his work, and he invited me to the Ring of Bones Zendo for a May Day celebration. There were two or three American Buddhist nuns there and they made a tremendous impression. Since that time I've been engaged in the contemplative traditions of Buddhism in one way or another.
Tricycle: And that excludes Nichiren Shoshu? Which is the only Buddhist organization in America with a substantial black membership?
bell hooks: Yes, Tina Turner Buddhism. Get-what-you-want Buddhism—that is the image of Buddhism most familiar to masses of black people. The kind of Buddhism that engages me most is about how you're going to live simply, not about how you're going to get all sorts of things.
Tricycle: How do you understand the absence of black membership in contemplative Buddhist traditions?
bell hooks: Many teachers speak of needing to have something in the first place before you can give it up. This has communicated that the teachings were for the materially privileged and those preoccupied with their own comforts. When other black people come to my house they say, "Giving up what comforts?" For black people, the literature of Buddhism has been exclusive. It allowed a lot of people to say, "That has nothing to do with me." Many people see the contemplative traditions—specifically those from Asia—as being for privileged white people.
Tricycle: We find references and quotes from Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh throughout your work. Is part of your attraction to him his integration of contemplation and political activism?
bell hooks: Yes. Nhat Hanh's Buddhism isn't framed from a location of privilege, but from a location of deep anguish—the anguish of a people being destroyed in a genocidal war.
Tricycle: In addition to Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist references in your work extend to those books that fall into the category you defined as exclusive. How did you get past that?
bell hooks: If I were really asked to define myself, I wouldn't start with race; I wouldn't start with blackness; I wouldn't start with gender; I wouldn't start with feminism. I would start with stripping down to what fundamentally informs my life, which is that I'm a seeker on the path. I think of feminism, and I think of anti-racist struggles as part of it. But where I stand spiritually is, steadfastly, on a path about love.
Tricycle: Does it have a name?
bell hooks: If love is really the active practice—Buddhist, Christian, or Islamic mysticism—it requires the notion of being a lover, of being in love with the universe. That's what Joanna Macy talks about in World as Lover, World as Self (Parallax, 1991). Thomas Merton also speaks of love for God in these terms. To commit to love is fundamentally to commit to a life beyond dualism. That's why love is so sacred in a culture of domination because it simply begins to erode your dualisms: dualisms of black and white, male and female, right and wrong.
Tricycle: Considering your critiques of the sexist, racist patriarchy, this path of love is pretty challenging.
bell hooks: That's why I enjoyed Stephen Butterfield's article (in Tricycle Vol. I, Number 4) dealing with sexual ethics and Buddhist practice—precisely because he said, Let's leave this discourse of right and wrong, and let's talk about a discourse of practice. Something may in fact work for one person, and may be fundamentally wrong for another, and that's complex. If I'm a teacher and you enter this room, it's a lot more difficult to think about what would be essentially useful to you than to think what the rules are. That's about love, and I think that's what Butterfield tries to say in talking about passion. Teacher/student relationships are arenas for disrupting our addiction to dualism, and we are called upon to really strip ourselves down, to where we don't have guides anymore. In real love, real union, or communion, there are no rules.
Tricycle: As a prominent black feminist, how difficult is it for women, especially other black feminists, to hear you say that your fundamental sense of yourself is as a seeker on the path? Does it evoke a sense of betrayal?
bell hooks: I think so, certainly a few years ago it did. But feminists in general have come to rethink spirituality. Ten years ago if you talked about humility, people would say, I feel as a woman I've been humble enough, I don't want to try to erase the ego—I'm trying to get an ego. But now, the achievements that women have made in all areas of life have brought home the reality that we are as corruptible as anybody else. That shared possibility of corruptibility makes us confront the realm of ego in a new way. We've gone past the period when the rhetoric of victimization within feminist thinking was so complete that the idea that women had agency, which could be asserted in destructive ways, could not be acknowledged. And some people still don't want to hear it.
Tricycle: To what extent has the issue of victimization in feminism been diffused by the national obsession with—as you call it—victimage?
bell hooks: In a culture of domination, preoccupation with victimage is inevitable.
Tricycle: And this keeps dualities locked in place?
bell hooks: I used to believe that progressive people could critique the dualities and dissolve them through the process of deconstruction. But that turns out not to be true. With the resurgence of forms of black nationalism that say white people are bad, black people are good, we see an attachment to notions of inferiority. Dualities serve their own interests.
Tricycle: How does this come up for you in your daily life?
bell hooks: Life was easier when I felt that I could trust another black person more than I could trust a white person. To face the reality that this is simply not so is a much harder way to live in the world. What's scary to me now is to see so many people wanting to return to those simplistic choices. People of all persuasions are feeling that if I don't have this dualism, I don't have anything to hold on to. People concerned with dissolving these apparent dualities have to identify anchors to hold on to in the midst of fragmentation, in the midst of a loss of grounding.
Tricycle: Your anchor is love?
bell hooks: Yes. Love and the understanding that things are always more complex than they seem. That's more useful and more difficult than the idea that there is a right and wrong, or a good or bad, and you just decide what side you're on.
Tricycle: We see this in your relationship with Thich Nhat Hanh. You quote him with obvious reverence, but not with blind devotion. You have also referred to gender-related problems with his teaching.
bell hooks: When Nhat Hanh is talking about work or our engagement in social issues, his vision is so vast, so inclusive, so generous. But on questions of family and marriage and sex, we get the most conventional notion of what's good. Celibacy is good or having a family is good. There's nothing between celibacy and family life.
Tricycle: I've been puzzled by the same contradiction in his work. But I've wondered if it's a contemporary pragmatic response to the lives of his students.
bell hooks: One of the threads that I see in all his writing is a particular kind of memory of childhood that he holds to: a childhood of preawareness of anguish, one might say. He evokes the child as an aware being but it's the child who has no anguish and no sense of horror. And in his romantization of the heterosexual family—which is always biased—it's very clear that it remains biased in favor of the old order of patriarchy and hierarchy.
Tricycle: Have you ever met Thich Nhat Hanh?
bell hooks: I've been afraid to. As long as I keep a distance from that thread, I can keep him—and I can critique myself on this—as a kind of perfect teacher. Reading about his attachment to certain sexist thinking in a book is one thing, but actually experiencing it at a gathering would be another thing. That would be sad for me. I want his wisdom to extend into his thinking about family and gender relations or sexuality, and I don't see that.
Tricycle: Do you see it anywhere?
bell hooks: Trungpa Rinpoche's thinking is still the most progressive in terms of desire and sexuality. Whether he was able to live those theories out in their most expansive possibility is another thing. What I get from him and Merton, that I don't get from Nhat Hanh, is a real willingness to think of pleasure as a potential site of spiritual awakening and enlightenment. Thich Nhat Hanh cuts off sensual pleasure from any continuum that would lead to desire and to sexuality.
Tricycle: In your interview with Andrea Juno (in Angry Women, Re/Search, 1992) you talk of having been a cross-dresser, which, for women is, among other possibilities, a foray into the dominant culture. How does it experiment with the deconstruction of the self and, simultaneously, with the patriarchy?
bell hooks: I thought of it as an experience of erasure. When Joan of Arc erased herself as female, she was also trying to erase the self to which she was most attached. And her experience of cross-dressing was a path leading her away from the ego-identified self. She didn't replace one attachment with another—"Now I'm the identity of a man." It was more, "Now I'm away from the identity I was most attached to."
Tricycle: This is the same kind of experimentation as using your grandmother's name—bell hooks—for writing?
bell hooks: I think so. It's primarily about an idea of distance. The name "bell hooks" was a way for me to distance myself from the identity that I most cling to, which is Gloria Watkins, and to create this other self. Not dissimilar really to the new names that accompany all ordinations in Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic traditions. Everyone in my life calls me Gloria. When I do things that involve work, they will often speak of me as "bell," but part of it has been a practice of not being attached to either of those.
Tricycle: As in: "I'm not trying to be bell hooks."
bell hooks: The point isn't to stay fixed in any role, but to be committed to movement. That's what I like about notions in Islamic mysticism that say, Are you ready to cut off your head? It's like asking, Are you ready to make whatever move is necessary for union with the divine? And that those moves may be quite different from what people think they should be.