Q: In re reading the chapters in remembered rapture about faith & writing and how you came to your own philosophical synthesis, it occurred to me that you’ve already done the work of syncretizing in your own spiritual practice something that I’ve been beginning to call “black dharma” even though I know the term will be controversial and loaded for some who hear it. Especially when I compare your take on Buddhist Philosophy to that of Jan Willis, Angel Wiliams, Alice Walker, and other black female activist/ intellectuals. Buddhist philosophy seems to be the next step in their evolution as they engage it during their 30s, 40s & 50s.
Bell: Which is very different from my experience, because I came to Buddhism as a 17 year old through the Beats.
Q: Yes, yet you were the first black woman who I started reading in terms of her thoughts about Buddhist ideology, and who was writing about Buddhism from a practitioner’s perspective in some of the high profile Buddhist journals. You were also the first I saw who didn’t seem to fear outing herself in terms of her serious take on this, and who realized — as with every other engagement Black Americans have had with art, culture, and religion per se — that we tend to transform the things we embrace. We make it ours. It’s one of the reasons why we’re still here. And it occurred to me that with the emergence of Jan Willis’s biography and Angel K. Williams’s being black that there is a kind of critical mass building in a somewhat spontaneous way around people who have been investigating Buddhist philosophy very seriously for a long time, (but have also been processing it through their identity and reality as black american women) that this critical mass is going to create something that’s going to be recognized as new and recognized as syncretic.
Q: When I went back to your book remembered rapture it seemed very clear to me that you have done this spade work so to speak, and already created a syncretic form of Buddhism which informs your practice. I am correct in thinking this?
Bell: But I think that’s because my development . . . I was thinking as you were talking — about how differently the three of us, Jan, me, Angel, come to Buddhism. Jan comes to Buddhist philosophy from a very traditional relationship to Buddhism . . . I think it’s interesting that I come to Buddhism through the Beats. I’m reading Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac . . . they’re all talking about Zen, at 17 years old I’m gonna meet Gary Snyder, he’s gonna say, “why don’t you hitchike up to my place in the mountains,” and here I am this black southern girl who’s been told ‘stay away from white men and don’t get in their cars.’ But I’m gonna hitchike up to the mountains in California and go to this Buddhist kind of event that Gary Snyder is having at his house! So for me, I think Buddhism was always fundamentally connected to the renegade experience, to jazz, to the Beats. Whereas I think someone like Jan comes through the total traditional study of patriarichal Buddhism. Which is why I think that even though Jan has been around in the dharma for a long time, she’s just now getting visibility as a voice. Because I don’t think she claimed that voice fully. Because I don’t think the traditional patriarchical dharma encourages women to claim that voice.
Q: Well that’s an issue.
Bell: And then Angel comes to Buddhism as a young black woman who’s always wanted to find her sort of stardom place. She’s been troubled in her life, She knows people like myself that are into Buddhism, then she investigates it, and she finds, hey, this works for me. And then she can parlay it into her book, or her what-have-you. But she’s kind of a baby dharma person in a lot of ways. But because black people are not there, she’s made these big leaps in a short amount of time in being seen and in projecting herself as a force. But I think those are three different directions. I feel like people have tried to marginalize me because I haven’t come through that traditional thing of . . . finding my one teacher and sitting at their feet. Because I came to it all through that sense of the rebellious artist expanding [her] mind.
Q: I find that if you give people a chance they will always try to make you conform in some way. But to me, the glory of what you three, plus Alice Walker, plus a number of other people who are finding their way to dharma teachings, is that they all *are* approaching it in their own unique ways. And to a certain degree — I read your essay and the other essays in Buddhist Women on the Edge — even though each person brings all their own stuff to the dharma, there is still a certain unity of perception as to what some of the obstacles are, and also the need to define what it is for yourself. A need to break out of any need for all black women to conform to one set notion of what dharma means or for all practitioners in general to conform. I think this is going to be the next big battle and will be one of the things brought up in this Practice and Inquiry conference. Becasue if you look at the program book, they’re almost really trying to confront it this time. The fact that there has been a certain trend or movement towards homogenization in Western Buddhism, and the fact that the Zen people and the more traditional — and as you say patriarchical — identified practitioners will look down on NSA for example, because it did reach out to blacks and Latinos, and working class people. These folks will try to say that NSA is not “real” Buddhism. And that’s such an elitist perspective for people who claim to have divested themselves of ego and “dualistic thinking”.
Bell: That’s the thing that I’ve found consistant. On the one hand Thich Nhat Hahn can say “If I have to choose between Buddhism and peace, I’ll choose peace,” or he can say continually that you don’t necessarily have to have a teacher to have enlightenment. But then when you get among the real hierarchy within [[institutionalized]] Buddhism they’ll say, “No way you can reach enlightenment without having a teacher!” And so . . . it’s funny because at one point Kerouac said: “y’know, Buddhism is just words. I quit Buddhism because it preaches against entanglement with women, and to me, the most important thing in life is love.” And now I think that we’re seeing a whole movement away from and a resistance to that old patriarchical kind of Buddhism that was all about obedience to authority.
Q: Yes. even though there are gatekeepers who are trying to enforce this hierarchical notion of Buddhism in terms of “it must be practiced a particular way” — that is certainly not what you find when you go back and broadly investigate how the dharma was practiced in those countries where dharma teachings have existed for thousands of years.
Bell: Yes, one of the things that I think all the time is that one has to distinguish between the practice of Buddhism and the commodity of Buddhism. Because the commodity of Buddhism is what is so driven towards “you must have a teacher, you must pay this, you must travel here or there.” And a lot of that commodified Buddhism is orchestrated by privileged white Westerners who have benefitted economically from [it.] The fact is, I don’t know of a single black person who derives their livelihood from the commodification of Buddhism. But the kinds of established hierarchies of Buddhism within the U.S., are pretty much not only white, but also white male, — though a few white women recently are coming into the mix.
Q: Yes, the feminist contingent within American Buddhism has been fairly dynamic and aggressive of late. Female led sanghas and dharma centers are starting to take off, and female teachers are starting to gain visibility and gain teaching roles in various retreats. But what you don’t see, is an equivalent upsurge of authenticated black teachers within American Buddhism. And I find this to be a problem.
Bell: I think that people are disturbed by what you started off saying, not by a black presence, but by a black presence that seeks to revolutionize. In a sense, Jan embodies the traditional black presence in [American] Buddhism which is: “I’m here . . . but I’m gonna follow the “rules”.
Q: Right, and not assert myself as a teacher or a leader on my own.
Bell: And what you find is that when you start wanting to [become a leader] that there is this space of containment. LIke what I try to address with Melvin at Shamballa Sun magazine. — “Why don’t you ever want to put me on the cover? You put these white people that we don’t know anything about on the cover?”. But I think it’s all about how is a teacher made in the West. And I also think that as black people who are involved in spirituality,(and I know you remember reading this in remembered rapture) , we come out of traditions that really emphasize a lot [the notion of] modesty, and not arrogance.
And we take that into our practice. Which is the idea that: I should not be arrogant, I should not be projecting the idea that I’m “all that!”, Whereas, we know that white Americans don’t think that way. They get into Native American religions for two seconds and they’re a “shaman”!
Q: I know! It’s such unbelievable arrogance, but they have no problem with it.
I used to chalk that up to the fact that black people are just too “nice” in terms of how we try to comport ourselves in the world. But truly, a lot of that [behavior] is informed by fear, which has very valid roots. You know,” I don’t wanna stand out too much, don’t want to attract too much attention to myself, because I could be hanging from that tree.”
Bell: I’m talking about something deeper. I’m talking about a sense of the sacredness of spiritual practice (that is inherently humbling). Let’s face it. Everything about black experience that gets commodified, we lose something. And I think that black people have become very cautious about the dangers of commodification, so I think that makes you more hesitant. When Tricycle first called me and wanted to interview me, — I said “oh no, I’m not a real Buddhist . . . ” I felt concerned about being used. And so part of me wanted to stay in this place of my private relationship to Buddhism because I didn’t want to be used by this machinery of whiteness for their own ends. And I knew that I didn’t have a space to control [how I was used.] But it wasn’t like any kind of fear on my part. It was more like “lemme be cautious,” because a lot of times when white folks start coming to us it’s to enhance them. So I felt like, let me step back here.
But I have been fascinated in general [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.
Q: Yeah, they have a problem with it, but they’re gonna have to get over it.
Bell: Well , yeah. And to be fair, I think that’s changing. People come up to me out of Buddhism and say “you are my spiritual guide.” I just think that a lot of black folks feel cautious about pride. Just think what a better place the world would be if masses of white people had been more cautious about pride. The first time individuals started saying to me “Can I study with you, you’re my spiritual leader”, I felt cautious about that. Like, I always say to my ego, “down, boy!” Y’know? Because I think we’re cautious about assuming that [superior] positionality. Whereas I think a part of white cultural imperialism is often a lack of caution about assuming those positionalities.
Q: I’d agree, but I still see a need for qualified black dharma teachers to step up to the plate.
Bell: I do too! That’s why I’ve been coming out of the closet myself about spirituality period. Because I don’t think we can afford to stay in the closet, our circumstances are too dire. You know what I mean? I came out of the whole, “my spiritual practice is private bag” because I just thought, hey, our people are suffering. What is the way out of this suffering? And I’m not true to my own commitment to service if I have found a way and I’m not willing to share it with others.
Archive material, unpublished, 2001.