Guess Who’s Coming to Dharma

Black Women Embrace Western Buddhism

"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.

Angel Williams is as conversant with Wu-Tang Clan as with the message of the Dalai Lama.
Photograph by Bryce Lankard
Angel Williams is as conversant with Wu-Tang Clan as with the message of the Dalai Lama.

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.' "


For information about this conference, see www.tricycle.com/conference.html or call 1-800-989-9337.

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