Excerpted from "Dreaming Me: An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey" (c) Jan Willis 2001, with kind permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

One morning after spending the night at [my friends] Rand and Rob's, I sat perched upon the grassy knoll just above the little house that served as Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa's abode. Lama Yeshe pushed open his door, toothbrush in hand and towel draped across his arm, heading for the bathroom on the other side of the house. For a brief moment he paused, looked up at me piercingly, and before continuing his journey, said, "Living with pride and humility in equal proportion is very difficult, isn't it? Very difficult!"

More on Being Black and Being Buddhist

Author Angel Kyodo Williams talks about practice, racism, and the true nature of American Buddhism.

  • Check out a passage from "Being Black" by Angel Kyodo Williams.
  • Read Charles Johnson's review of both books.
  • Join the discussion on race and Buddhism.
  • In that moment, it seemed to me, he had put his finger on one of the deepest issues confronting not only me but all African Americans. There is a great existential difficulty in attempting to count oneself a human being equal with all others after having suffered through the experience of centuries of slavery. Our very humanity was challenged and degraded at every turn and yet, through it all, we have maintained the desire to stand tall, with dignity and love of self. Only two decades before Lama Yeshe's remark, throughout the civil-rights marches in the southern United States, African Americans had carried signs that poignantly proclaimed, "I am a man!" and "I am somebody."

    It is the trauma of slavery that haunts African Americans in the deepest recesses of our souls. This is the chief issue for us, the issue that must be dealt with head-on--not denied, not forgotten, not suppressed. Indeed, its suppression and denial only hurt us more deeply by causing us to accept a limiting, disparaging, and at times even repugnant view of ourselves. We as a people cannot move forward until we have grappled in a serious way with all the negative effects of this trauma. With just a glance that morning, Lama Yeshe had captured my heart's dilemma: How to stand dignified, yet humbly, in the world?

    I was soon to discover that Tibetan tantric Buddhism offers tools to help with this dilemma, for it provides methods that show both how to get at those deep inner wounds and how to heal them. One method, for example, employs the meditative notion of divine pride. According to this theory, we are all inherently pure, or divine, at our cores. Our task is to realize this truth.

    There is, of course, a very fine line between confidence and arrogance. Belief in one's own innate purity and power can easily be confused with an all-too-human pridefulness. The consequence of understanding this crucial distinction, and of thereby going astray, is the creation of more suffering rather than the elimination of it. Hence the great need for a true and authentic guide on this most important journey of discovery. This fact was brought home to me personally and powerfully in the ensuing weeks.

    One day as we were finishing up a session with him, Lama Yeshe surprised me by saying, "I think you should go and study with my teacher, Geshe Rabten. He is a great teacher and especially skilled in teaching about Buddhist wisdom." I felt both proud, that he recognized my academic intellectual side, and a bit rejected, since he made it clear that Randy and Rob were to stay with him in Kopan. I told myself that this arrangement would be better. I would finally get to be with the wisdom-being, the master teacher I wanted and deserved. Surely, pride goeth before the fall.

    I would finally get to be with the wisdom-being, the master teacher I wanted and deserved. Surely, pride goeth before the fall.
    Join the Discussion
    comments powered by Disqus