The following excerpt from "Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace" is reprinted with permission from Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam Publishers.

The most difficult part of engaging in a Buddhist practice for me had always been the idea of doing it within a community. On the outside, I was friendly and communicated well with people. But that was something I had taught myself a long time ago to cover up the sadness and loneliness I had experienced earlier in my life. As I got older, I didn't feel that sadness all the time, but I realized that I still had a tendency to be by myself and do things alone.

More on Being Black and Being Buddhist

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

  • Check out a passage from "Dreaming Me" by Black Panther-turned-Buddhist scholar Jan Willis.
  • Read Charles Johnson's review of both books.
  • Join the discussion on race and Buddhism.
  • So, after a while, I went searching for a Zen teacher who could help me. I had read that in Zen practice the relationship between a student and teacher is very intimate, so I took my search very seriously.

    I found Sensei Pat Enkyo O'Hara, who leads a meditation group in Greenwich Village in New York City. I guess because of that and because Pat is so open and welcomes everyone, our sangha, or community (which I've been with now for four years), seems like a misfit group. Village Zendo has a few lawyers and writers, a potter, a pathologist, some activists, a martial arts master, a few therapists, an architect, a finance wiz and some college students. Some of them have money and others don't. The ages range from 20 to almost 70. They don't seem to have anything in common at all. And when I first got there, everyone was white except for one very fiery Japanese woman whose spirit I really loved. I think I got used to this strange group because they were so different from each other, so I didn't stand out quite as much.

    About a year later, I came to a very, very hard place in my life. I didn't know which way was up. The business I had put all my heart into failed. I moved out of the city to an isolated area in upstate New York. The roommate that I moved upstate with had once been a close and trusted friend, but when she moved out, she took some of my things with her and left some of her bills behind. And finally, my relationship fell apart.

    At first, I was so depressed that I stopped eating for nearly three weeks. I felt weak, dull, and disconnected from everything, as if I were not really alive anymore. It was as if I had stopped breathing and it would just be a matter of time before I collapsed. I had no money and was too depressed to find a job. My life was like a bad dream, and I was stuck in it. Having become accustomed to keeping my deepest feelings to myself, I was positive that no one could understand where I was and I was certain they didn't care. So I just stayed home, alone and miserable.

    Then one day I received a calendar from the Village Zendo in the mail. In just a few days, the weeklong summer sesshin, or retreat, would begin. Sesshins are periods set aside for intensive meditation practice. You leave your daily life behind to take an opportunity to look deeply inside yourself and "touch mind." By that time, I was desperate to get out of the hole I was in. So, strange as it seemed even to me, I went to stay in a big house with 30 or so people to try to be by myself, but not alone. I didn't think the retreat would solve my problems, but at least I would have to get out of bed in the mornings and there would be three meals a day. Thankfully, the retreat would be silent, so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone.

    As soon as I sat down in a private interview with the Zen teacher, I blurted out how screwed up my life was, how I couldn't stand my own self anymore. She looked at me and said, "You have to be gentle with Angel."