This review was reprinted from the Summer 2001 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

An African American Woman's
Spiritual Journey
Jan Willis
Riverhead Books: New York, 2001
352 pp., $23.95 (cloth)

Zen and the Art of Living With
Fearlessness and Grace
Angel Kyodo Williams
Viking Press: New York, 2000
200 pp., $23.95 (cloth)

In countless stories that record an American's odyssey to Buddhism, we find the broad outline of a spiritual paradigm: First there is the experience of dukkha, or suffering, in one (or more) of its myriad manifestations, followed by exposure to the teachings of the Buddha, and finally the embracing of a practice that leads to enlightenment and liberation.

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 an excerpt from "Dreaming Me" by Black Panther-turned-Buddhist scholar Jan Willis.
  • Join the discussion on race and Buddhism.
  • For African Americans, however, suffering takes a uniquely pernicious and psychologically damaging racial form--namely, the seismic blows to self-esteem in a society where blacks have, since the 17th century, been defined as this country's untouchables.

    Yet seldom, if ever, do we acknowledge in our apolitical and nonracial discussions of Buddhism the fact that for many African Americans the "three jewels" of the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha provide, like Christianity, not only solace in the face of life's general sufferings (sickness, old age, and death) but also a clarifying refuge from white racism, Eurocentrism, Western hegemony, and even certain crippling aspects of black American culture itself.

    It is timely, then, that as a new millennium begins and Buddhism enters its 26th century, two African American women have published books that attempt to provide insights into how the dharma can undo the damage inflicted on the embattled psyches of people of color.

    The first of these works is "Dreaming Me: An African American Woman's Spiritual Journey" by Jan Willis, who describes herself as a "Baptist-Buddhist." Even if Willis, a scholar of Sanskrit and Indo-Tibetan studies at Wesleyan University, had never heard of Buddhism, her inspiring (and slightly self-aggrandizing) memoir would nevertheless be the narrative of a fascinating American life.

    Raised near Birmingham, Alabama, in Docena, a former mining camp frequently terrorized by Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings, Willis went to segregated schools and saw up close the brutality unleashed upon civil rights activists in 1963. The world of Willis' youth was one in which "many black children had been blinded by acid or hot lye thrown through open car windows." It was a fear-drenched world where, she writes, all the signs and signals around her "told us that we were less than human, a people cursed by God to live degraded lives; told us that we were lazy, stupid, and unfit for society."

    Despite these experiences, Willis' intellectual ability (she skipped one grade and fell only two points shy of attaining Mensa status on an I.Q. exam) won her a scholarship to Cornell, which she entered in 1965 as one of only eight African American students. There she majored in philosophy, spent her junior year studying Buddhism in India, and as a senior transported guns to members of the Black Student Alliance that took over Cornell's student union in 1969.

    Increasingly torn between her attraction to Buddhism and the violent militancy of the Black Panther Party (which she almost joined), between "a piece or peace," as she puts it, Willis opted for returning on a fellowship to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal; the year before she had been warmly welcomed by the head monk, who told her, "You should stay here and study with us."

    During her period of study at the Gelugpa Monastery, Willis met Lama Thubten Yeshe, who lived nearby in Kopan. He became her beloved teacher for 15 years. "I had come to Lama Yeshe loaded down with guilt, shame, anger, and a feeling of utter helplessness," she writes. "I couldn't think or see past the rage I felt from the untold indignities I'd experienced in life prior to meeting him."