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Guess Who's Coming to Dharma:
Black Women Embrace Western Buddhism

by Carol Cooper

In the half-century since Buddhism re-entered American pop culture via the Beats (having first enjoyed a passing vogue during the 1890s), more and more black females--children of the civil rights movement, champions of black nationalism, feminist iconoclasts, and intellectuals--have been finding their way to Buddhist practice. Quietly, without much visibility or commercial fanfare, these women meditate daily, then take the insights they receive "on the cushion" into their lives as mothers, mates, social activists, and career women. From Tina Turner's autobiographical hat-tip to Nichiren Shoshu to bell hooks's describing her personal synthesis of Buddhist meditation, Christian prayer, and Sufi mysticism in 1999's Remembered Rapture to Alice Walker's outing of herself as a practitioner last year in The New York Times, black women have unwittingly become the world's most spontaneous lay Buddhist preachers.

The public face of convert Buddhism in America is predominantly white and male and middle-class. Historically, the presence of blacks and women within this developing scene has been largely glossed over or ignored, much like the black Beats that contemporary historians are always "forgetting" to include in new anthologies. Martin Baumann in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics estimated there were between 3 and 4 million American Buddhists as of 1997, and concluded that only 800,000 of them were "Euro-American." Lack of official representation belies the truth, and one of the central goals of this week's Tricycle conference in New York City on Buddhist practice and inquiry is to make American Buddhism more comfortable with its own inherent diversity.

From Friday, June 29, through Sunday, July 1, Buddhists from around the world will gather at the Marriott World Trade Center to tackle the secular and esoteric concerns of those clinical psychiatrists, Harvard professors, theoretical physicists, and other contemplative types who subscribe to the abstruse doctrines formulated some 2500 years ago by a Nepalese prince-turned-itinerant-philosopher. (The term Buddha is an honorific title not unlike Christos, and simply means one who has awakened from confusion into clarity.) Among the 40 experts Tricycle's editor in chief, Helen Tworkov, has recruited will be bell hooks and Dr. Jan Willis: two African American scholar-practitioners who each have at least 30 years of Buddhist praxis. Yet Willis and hooks hardly represent the entire scope of black involvement with the dharma (or "wisdom teachings"), and they'd be the first to point out how suspiciously slow Western-convert Buddhists usually are to recognize potential or genius among the black dharma students in their midst.

"I have been fascinated in general," hooks observes wryly, "[by the fact] that white folks have shown themselves willing to follow men of color from Tibet and other places--who barely speak English--but I don't think that white people in America have shown themselves willing to follow any black guru."

Willis, a tenured professor of religion at Wesleyan University, includes issues of class as a factor in this odd reluctance: "I think all of us are affected by our backgrounds, and I think it doesn't occur to people of privilege that they should extend themselves to other people. And I don't think you can really expect that Buddhist sanghas ["communities"] are going to be any different than the people who comprise them."

Although hooks has lectured at Naropa University and Willis gives guest teachings by request, neither woman is yet a formally recognized dharma teacher with a school and/or disciples of her own--unlike a majority of the conference panelists. Traditionally, teachers are expected to anoint their successors--in other words to tell students when they're ready to teach. Thus far no high-profile white lama, guru, or sensei (with established financial resources and pedagogic influence) has chosen a black dharma heir. "I think that people are disturbed," says hooks, "not by a black presence, but by a black presence that seeks to revolutionize" and democratize the power structure of American Buddhism.

Positioned somewhere between philosophy, religion, and psychotherapy, Buddhist practice can be very slow and difficult going. Depending on the school or style of practice you choose, there can be mantras to memorize, mudras to learn, and complex mental pictures to visualize. Not to mention the demanding discipline of sitting-meditation, which leads to a depth of introspection that can be by turns painful, tedious, or exhilarating. Choosing among a plethora of schools and styles--from the austere rigor of Zen to the straightforward efficacy of Vipassana to the seductive complexity of Tibetan tantra--highly motivated black female Buddhists instinctively develop syncretic meditation exercises prompted by the same impulse that made black pianists turn classical music into ragtime.

Willis has been teaching Tibetan visualization techniques to inmates of the all-female York Correctional Institute and has found them as eager and able to benefit from these empowering tools as anyone--anointed or otherwise. "For me the issue is accessibility. So I take it to places where it wouldn't ordinarily go."

Angel Kyodo Williams is a thirtysomething New York-based student at the Village Zendo, studying under its white, female founder, Pat Enkyo O'Hara. Williams adores her teacher and her sangha, but feels neither can adequately support her desire to spread the dharma into the black community. She recently published Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace (Viking Compass), her own introduction to the practical aspects of Zen thought for the curious but unconverted. Written in the unpretentious, conversational tone black people tend to use among themselves, Being Black is no more informal or "irreverent" than many books white Buddhists write to attract new people to the religion. Yet little things like Williams's calling the "Four Noble Truths" the "Four Simple Truths" to minimize the aura of elitism that hovers around an archaic term like "noble" in the 21st century makes conservative elements within American Buddhism reject her presentation as heretical. Many Buddhist bookstores have already refused to stock it, claiming "it's a black book, it's not a Buddhist book."

"I think we need interpreters, communicators," Williams says about her style of teaching Buddha dharma. "I thought of building a bridge, but it's not a bridge into the practice of how white Americans practice Buddhism, but a bridge into developing our own language around the practice."

As a young woman of the hip-hop generation whose first exposure to Asian philosophy (like thousands of blacks and Latinos since the '50s) came through the martial arts, Angel Williams is as conversant with Wu-Tang Clan as with the message of the Dalai Lama. She feels a strong connection to both and would love to use Buddhism's profoundly anti-elitist, anti-authoritarian, and antisectarian essence to revitalize black political activism in this country. "Before, when we joined a movement--be it SNCC, NOW, or Greenpeace--we were trying to dismantle something outside ourselves, when we really needed first to have a revolution from within." Later Williams adds, "What Buddhist practice does for black Americans is it solves the identity crisis for us. How? By slowly eliminating our need to be externally defined."

Although it's a fact that every people or nation that has embraced Buddhist thought has added something of its own to the teachings, not everyone can accept the notion that black folk might "jazz up" Buddhism. Nevertheless "black dharma"--for lack of a more descriptive term--is emerging from black practitioners whether the white Western Buddhist hegemony is ready or not.

Willis managed to sidestep the sense of alienation some black students have experienced with white teachers--or even with white-identified Asian teachers--by learning Sanskrit and Tibetan, then studying Buddhism with male Tibetan teachers in India and Nepal. Her memoir, Dreaming Me (Riverhead Books), centers around her "Baptist-Buddhist" conversion and chronicles Willis's hegira from her working-class origins in a KKK-plagued Alabama mining town, to a collegiate flirtation with the Black Panther Party, to her 15-year-long discipleship under a Tibetan lama. It is a contemporary namthar ("inspirational parable of enlightenment") that is no less "Buddhist" for its black American context.

Talk to any black female Buddhist long enough and you will get the sense that they see a straight line of evolution from the galvanizing power of the black Christian church during the civil rights movement to the dormant potential of an entire population of emotionally whole black Buddhists. Was it purely accidental that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted the notion of ahimsa ("nonviolence") from a Hindu holy man or that he nominated the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize the year before he was assassinated-- bell hooks, who frequently quotes both King and Hanh in her books, describes her ongoing friendship with Hanh as a communion of spiritual equals. "It was very deep when I met Thich Nhat Hanh. He embraced me as a fellow teacher, not as if 'Oh, you're coming to bow down to me.' He had no difficulty [giving me] that expansive sense of 'Your work has been doing the work of dharma, and I see that.' "

Published in: Village Voice, 3 July 2001