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Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace

Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace

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by Angel Kyodo Williams

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In this elegant, practical book, Angel Kyodo Williams combines the universal wisdom of Buddhism with an inspirational call for self-acceptance and community empowerment. Written by awoman who grew up facing the challenges that confront African Americans every day, Being Black teaches us how a "warrior-spirit" of truth and responsibility can be developed into the


In this elegant, practical book, Angel Kyodo Williams combines the universal wisdom of Buddhism with an inspirational call for self-acceptance and community empowerment. Written by awoman who grew up facing the challenges that confront African Americans every day, Being Black teaches us how a "warrior-spirit" of truth and responsibility can be developed into the foundation for real happiness and personal transformation. With her eloquent, hip, and honest perspective, Williams -- a Zen priest, social activist, and entrepreneur -- shares personal stories, time-tested teachings, and simple guidelines that invite readers of all faiths to step into the freedom of a life lived with fearlessness and grace.

Editorial Reviews

New York Times
More than just a paean to Buddhism, it is also a call for black Americans to look inward.
Venus Magazine
Like her philosophy, the literary presentation of Buddhist principals and precepts in Being Black is gentle, simple and clean.
Shambhala Sun
A hip and intelligent delivery....Williams's book speaks to everyone.
Black Issues Book Review
Powerful and poignant prose...Williams offers a uniquely refreshing flavor of food for the soul...
Girlfriends Magazine
Williams's personal story movingly demonstrates that pain can be a doorway to compassion...Grade: A
Williams introduces us to a new way of thinking about and invoking the higher spirit. She incarnates her warrior spirit.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Compatibility with other traditions is an unsung strength of Buddhism. Here, ordained Zen priest Williams makes a compelling case for African-Americans to embrace this practice that originated far from their fundamental roots on the continent of Africa. Although she does not advocate that African-Americans replace their traditional religions with Buddhism, she does believe that Zen's practical approach to ordinary life can help them, noting also that Buddha was a brown-skinned person. Williams, who is African-American, quite comfortably employs black vernacular, balancing such light moments with meatier discourses on the particular history and weight of blackness. Williams's primary thrust, however, encompasses the basic whats, hows and especially the whys of Buddhism. Under her effective touch, such concepts as Bodhisattva Vows, Pure Precepts and the Eightfold Path become accessible possibilities for a better everyday life. Postures and procedures round out this unassuming primer that squarely embraces Zen (meaning "meditation"). With subtle persuasion and highly readable prose, Williams advocates that a "warrior spirit" of truth and responsibility is a good fit for people who "want to know how to be here in this life and be okay just as we are." She has reached well beyond her stated audience, for to whom does this not apply? (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Williams is by no means the only African American Buddhist in America, but she may be one of the most vocal and certainly the most intriguing. She is a Zen priest, founder of the Urban Peace Project, and cofounder of Koko bar, the first black-owned and -operated Internet cafe. Her engagingly written book is in fact a very good primer on the essentials of Zen Buddhism for all readers, of any color; "mindfulness," "being still," and "loving kindness" are among her subjects. Her special message to African American readers is that "it is the separation from our true selves that keeps us from enjoying personal happiness." Highly recommended. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

DIANE Publishing Company
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Four Simple

    Wouldn't it be nice if someone offered you a map to navigate and negotiate your life by? It wouldn't be a complex city-type map, with so many signs and symbols that you don't know which way to go. Instead, this life map would be simple and clear, more like a treasure map. The map would have a very neat circle representing a specific destination, a place to arrive where you could rest and feel content, at ease.

    Obviously, if there is a destination to which you can go indicated on your map, there would also be a path to get there. It would be bold and clear, and would stand out from all its surroundings.

    If you traced your finger backward along the line, the map would have a thick red X to show you the starting point. That way, no matter where you were in life, if you felt lost, you would only have to look at the big X to gain perspective on how to continue on your journey.

    Finally, like all good maps, this life map would have a key. The key would be your reference point for understanding the map. It would be the foundation on which the map was built. If you studied the whole map for a while, you could put it down and probably still remember the important things when you really needed to.

    What if you paid extra-special attention to the map, gave it your full concentration, until you knew it by heart? No doubt you would be able to approach the task of making your way through life with a deeper understanding of the bumps, curves, mountains, and valleysthat you are sure to encounter every day.

    In many ways, we are like noble warriors that have somehow been separated from our tribe or clan. We are out in the woods lost and alone, without a map to guide us back. We have forgotten how to use the skills that are the marks of true warriors. In our hearts, we know that we have something great, even beautiful, to accomplish while we are here. We know that we have a grandness and elegance inside us, and we really want to live up to it. But without our skills, we feel stuck and cannot move forward. We know, very deep down, that we do have the ability to manage any situation that comes to us. But because we have lost touch with our true nature and awareness of our abilities, we remain in fear.

    It is only natural that as human beings we want to feel happy, satisfied, and secure. But early on, we are given messages that attack our sense of ease with who we are. We are not bright enough, or tall enough. As black people, we learn that our skin color is not right, our hair too kinky or curly, our lips too full and our presence too strong. Sometimes these messages are subtle, and at other times they are harshly direct. We carry all of these lessons inside us everywhere we go. They become the box from which we operate and see ourselves. Inside this box, we become smaller and smaller, and forget how amazing we really are.

    Because it seems way too hard to confront, and because we were never taught differently, we put many of these feelings in our back pockets. Our coping mechanism of choice is to ignore. To say "sall good" or "That's alright ... whatever," when really we do not feel alright. We learn to turn and look the other direction whenever something uncomfortable or negative comes our way. As a result we live with these small, nagging sensations of inner dissatisfaction and inadequacy without rest. This internal discomfort plagues us on a daily basis. From time to time it reveals itself as a questioning of the meaning of our lives. We want to know why we cannot be happier than we are, feel better than we feel, get more of what we want, and enjoy life more than we do.

    On the surface, in full view of the world, we are working our jobs and paying our bills (or trying to, anyway). We are trying hard to manage our existence. But many of us feel lost, out of place. We describe this feeling in many ways. We say, "I don't know, I'm just not happy." "I know I should be doing something more with my life." "I feel as if I haven't found my purpose." Often we are not only unable to express how we feel, we do not even know what these feelings are about. Instead, we just feel ill at ease and move through our lives with a sense of agitation and irritability. We may even treat other people with disregard because we don't know how else to express our inner dissatisfaction.

    This feeling of being out of place is particularly disturbing to us because we usually feel as if we are experiencing it alone. Everyone else seems to belong to this life, to this universe, more than we do. We feel powerless because we believe we do not have the skills we need to master our lives.

    Life is truly an art form. It is like any art form—painting, sculpting, playing an instrument or a sport—in that you have to develop your skills in order to be masterful. Even though you may not think of it this way, no matter how excellent you get at whatever your art is, you started out with the basic ingredients for that skillfulness right from the beginning. When we watch Michael Jordan soar high above the rim, hear a Miles Davis riff, or look at a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, it seems amazing that they could be so good at their arts. It's as if they were just born that way. And it's true, they were. So were you and I.

    We have all the basic skills we need to master the art that we call life. But usually, we forget this. Either we are not reminded of it enough or we were simply never told. So we go around in life feeling as if we don't really know what we are doing. Or we spend a lot of time pretending that we're in control when deep down, we feel exactly the opposite. Either way, we end up wishing someone would give us a cheat-sheet that we could use to find a quick fix to everything that bothers us. We want to know how we can just get everything right, fast.

    There are lots of things I don't know, but the one thing I know for sure is that there is no quick fix for our lives. The first reason that the quick fix doesn't exist is because nothing truly valuable happens quickly. Every art requires practice, even if you are a natural. Michael lived in his backyard basketball court. Miles played relentlessly and constantly. Basquiat studied the masters.

    The second and more important reason that we never find a quick fix is because we don't need it. There is nothing to fix. We already have the skills we need to accomplish everything we truly want, to access everything we really need. The only thing we have to do is to see that the skills are present in ourselves and then sharpen them up with practice so we can use them effortlessly.

    The closest thing we can get to a cheat-sheet might be some guidelines and pointers that help us look in the right direction. So a map, with a key, would be very helpful. In fact, such a map is available for us already.

    Some 2,500 years ago, a warrior-prince who felt the same sense of unease left his comfortable, wealthy life, his palace and his clan behind him. He set out on a journey searching for the essential truth about life. He wanted to know why old age, sickness, and death existed; why life seemed plagued with misery. After a lot of effort, this prince who would become known as the Buddha, meaning "the awakened one" or "one that has been enlightened," saw clearly the truth about life. From that point on, he made it his life's work to create a map that others could use.

    He broke his directions down to Four Simple Truths that go something like this:

1. Life is uncomfortable.

At first, this simple truth seems so simple that there is no revelation in it at all. And really, that is exactly the case. As a part of our ongoing life experience, we are prone to discomfort.

    There are the mundane, everyday discomforts: This apartment is too hot. Outside is too cold. The train is too crowded. My parents make me crazy. My kids are too grown. My lover is cheating. I hate my job, I hate my boss, I hate doing dishes, and will somebody please turn that hip-hop off! There is a constant stream of small distractions that plague us like flies buzzing in our ears.

    Physical pain is part of this discomfort as well. The aches and pains of our own bodies come from many different sources. When we are not careful, we cut ourselves with a knife or the edge of a piece of paper. We lift something that is too heavy and our backs suffer. We overdo it at the gym and end up sore the next day. As we get older, parts of our body that were unprovoked begin to nag at us. Our knees get stiff and we can't get up as fast as we used to. Older still, our bodies begin to seem no longer our own. We cannot walk as fast or run as far. Stairs suddenly seem twice as long. As with any complex machinery, especially if we have not taken good care of our bodies, or have just outright abused them, they will begin to fail us.

    There are also the discomforts of illness and disease. We may suffer from stress and get ulcers. We may abuse alcohol or drugs that damage our bodies inside and out. Our lungs may become blackened from excess cigarettes, cigars, or marijuana. And while the rest of the country is becoming more educated about AIDS, black people—and black women in particular—have the fastest growing number of cases. We lose our minds to Alzheimer's and our bodies to cancers. Suffering and discomfort seem to be everywhere and without end.

    If that isn't enough, our lives are punctuated by crises that cause us pain. We lose the job we thought we hated but now, unemployed, our dilemma is greater than before. The predicament of a cousin in jail or a sister fleeing an abusive partner brings home to us how profoundly we can all be affected by family turmoil. As so many of us know firsthand, heartbreak can feel just like it sounds, bringing with it large doses of pain that are not always easy to let go of. Finally, there are the deaths of our loved ones, bringing with them grief and sadness that seem too much to bear.

    More so than our daily discomforts, the pain of tragic, abrupt or otherwise upsetting events in our lives serve as sharp reminders that life is not within our control. We feel shuffled around by it, cast this way and that with nothing to hold on to. There seems to be no end to the potential for discomfort and pain, and we live our lives in fear of meeting them again. We become intimate with pain and discomfort very early in life. From our earliest lessons that not everything is within our control, to this very moment, most of us are in a neverending battle with our own discomfort.

    So life is uncomfortable, that much is true. But we knew this already, didn't we? Even if we have not said it in such simple terms.

    We may feel a moment of relief at having it revealed in such a clear way: It is not just me. I am not crazy, nor am I alone. The truth is that life is full of suffering and pain. Everywhere you look, whether you turn on the television or walk outside your own door, once you are aware of this truth, you notice it more readily. Look! There is pain. There is pain among people of all ages, races, incomes, and education levels. We are all experiencing discomfort. We are all suffering.

    Once you know this simple truth in your heart, it becomes the key to understanding the nature of your own existence. It may not happen in this very second, or tomorrow, or next week, but some experience or feeling at some time will bring this simple truth home to you. It will not be words in a book or a passing thought; you will feel it. It will open up before you and be as clear as the bright blue sky on the most perfect day. In that moment, the First Simple Truth that life is uncomfortable will be profound.

2. Desire causes discomfort.

As humans, we are in a constant state of suffering over who we are and our life situation. By this, I mean that we feel that we are poor when it comes to what we have in our package to present to the world. We never feel that we have enough. We always want more of this or extra that. If I had that coat, I would be so happy. If I could just get this job or meet the right person, everything would change and my life would be better. Of course, when you get the coat or the job or the new lover, there is another someone or something that comes along in a few days or months or years that seems better, brighter, and more appealing.

    We do this in all areas of our lives, from the smallest to the greatest. It is this wanting, this ever-present, unchecked desire that is at the root of our discomfort. We possess a constant craving and insistent desire for things to be either different than they are or to stay the way we want them to be longer. We develop fixed ideas about the way things should be and the ways we always imagine things should be different. We think we should have a bigger car or get with that person (or situation). If you tell yourself often enough that this is the way it should be, you begin to believe that idea in your mind, no matter where the idea came from to begin with.

    As human beings, we have a habit of attaching ourselves to things, people, and situations, and holding on tight. In turn, that clinging becomes the single source of our conflict, tension, and frustration. Why? Because we really can't control all of the elements that go into making up life. And because we are human, we are self-centered, so it is heartbreaking to realize that things do not necessarily go our way and we are not the center of the universe.

    Some days it seems like the world has it in for us, trying to ruin our days or plans in a series of bad events stacked up one after the other. But life really has no interest in whether we want it to turn left or turn right. It is only the fact that we view our own desires as special that makes us think we should have things exactly as we want them. Our desires must be more special than anyone else's. It may be perfect in our minds that the grocery store is open on a holiday because we forgot to get bread. But the cashier is miserable because he wanted to go to the movies instead of working. Had he not come to work, he may have lost his job. In that moment you are happy and he is not. But we are only concerned with the benefits that we get from each situation. That is what I mean when I say that we are self-centered.

    Our wanting and desires are often in direct conflict with the reality of the current moment. No matter how much we want it to be dry and sunny because we have plans for our day, the fact is that it is raining. There is nothing we can do about it. So we sulk and curse and complain. If it hadn't rained, I could have done my laundry or gone to the park. Why did it have to rain today? How, inconvenient this is for me. Nature goes about its business despite our plans and it continues to rain. We are inside, miserable and discontented. We can become intensely self-centered in these moments.

    Sometimes, our wanting seems grand and altruistic, and we do not think of it as something that we cling to. All I want is to he a better person. I would become more spiritual if I went to temple (or church or the mosque) more often. I will speak quietly and keep my eyes cast to the floor. I will become a reverend, a priestess, or a nun. I'll be the perfect father. I'll be a Super Wife. Secretly, we may begin to think of the result. If I do these things, I will be better than these people around me. They will see me as special and I will be revered. We shouldn't fool ourselves, because before we know it, such a goal can become one and the same as wanting and desire.

    In communities of color, we have lived for a long time without access to the material possessions that signify success in our country. We know that we are just as worthy, and we desperately want to have a measure of our equality with white people. This has contributed to a rampant, crippling case of a need for instant gratification. This may be the cornerstone of American culture in general, but it seems to be in overdrive where black folks are concerned, where there's an entrenched belief that who you are is directly related to what you have.

    When persistent craving is combined with a need for instant gratification, the possibility for discomfort is doubled. If desire sends us on a journey toward accumulation, instant gratification propels us at light speed. By giving in to this need, we rob ourselves of thoughtful decision-making. We are more likely to spend recklessly. We do not save. We are even less realistic about what we actually need. The desire for instant gratification is at the heart of substance abuse. We want to "feel good," so we drink, or we smoke, or do anything to get a high. Soon we are unable not to want it, and an addiction is born.

    Our teenagers see their peers—white, black, and otherwise—with the latest jeans, video game, or sneakers. They have been taught that they need status symbols to maintain a strong appearance, to be important. Aggression and violence are fueled by the sense that we should have what we want immediately and without regard or respect for anyone that gets in the way. If someone else has it and I want it now, why shouldn't I take it from them?

    We compete amongst ourselves for ownership of the title of "Having the Most" or "Looking the Best." Instant gratification promotes divisiveness amongst our children and ourselves. As a group, we have become easy targets for advertising and marketing. Contrary to popular opinion, the black consumer market is the most brand-conscious. We are easily sold on alcohol and cigarettes. We spend more of our income on commercial products than any other group in this country. If you can brand it, you can be sure that black people will buy it.

    There are many cases in which we have to work harder than someone else to reach the same goal. This makes it even more urgent that we make an effort to be aware of how our desires operate in our lives. We can become so full of the sense of wanting, that we do not take the time to feel whether we really want or not. We do not know where wanting ends and where we begin.

    We become very accustomed to giving unnecessary attention to each and every thing that does not suit us. We spend a lot of time wanting, wanting, wanting, and even when we get what we want, we find ways to be dissatisfied. We fret that something is not just the way we want it, how we want it, when we want it.

    Soon, what starts out as just our personal preference can take over and become the perspective from which we see our lives, and even the lives of other people. Eventually, less and less of the way things are is satisfactory to us. Given the fact that we don't have control over every aspect of life, it is not just our desires that cause us discomfort, but the sense that we are most important. The idea of me and mine, separate from everything else, is what creates a sense of craving.

    When we finally recognize our desires, and the way in which we attach ourselves to them, as the root of our discomfort, we gain a reference point for ending our pain. When we are feeling pain, we can remind ourselves that some desire or another is the source of it. Knowing this alone doesn't make the pain go away, but it does help. For most of us, the not-knowing makes us even more uncomfortable.

    With desires and cravings as persistent and pervasive as they are, we may be tempted to give in to the idea that this is just the way it is. Obviously there's no way around discomfort, which is tucked into too many places in our lives. But it is possible to move beyond it.

3. It is possible to end discomfort.

If we aren't supposed to want anything, you may be wondering, is the solution to discard all of our possessions, be naked and live off the land? Should we really only eat and drink what is absolutely necessary to sustain our lives? And what about love and happiness? Should we stop wanting joy and pleasure in our lives?

    The answer to all of these questions, thankfully, is a loud NO.

    It is basic to all beings to want to achieve happiness. Not only is it basic to our nature, it is our fundamental right. We not only want happiness, but we should have the freedom to be able to pursue it to the fullest of our capacity. We all want to experience life in a way that makes us feel complete and connected to all that is good.

    The Third Simple Truth is very easy and a logical conclusion to come to. Once we have discovered that our wanting is the source of our discomfort, it makes sense that if we could eliminate or, at the very least, reduce the wanting, the discomfort would go right out the door with it. Reducing our desires and eliminating false neediness is the answer to resolving the nagging inner discomfort that we feel.

    Yet if it is me that is wanting, how is it possible to rid myself of unnecessary wanting without getting rid of me?

    Many people mistakenly believe that the way to be spiritual and find peace in their lives is to wrestle the "me" to the ground. To conquer it. To force themselves to submit to a set of ideas about how they should be. They begin a process of tightening themselves, cutting off their feelings or pretending not to see, in order to reach their goal. "I am not angry," they tell themselves. "I will stop drinking alcohol right now and never drink it again." "I will not do anything wrong, ever."

    This doesn't work. Instead, this new desire to achieve a goal takes over and it is just another desire. We can't simply look in the mirror and say we want to be better and believe that such thoughts will make it so. The wanting takes over again. Wanting is wanting is wanting. What we are looking for is not-wanting.

    If we release our fixed ideas about how the world should appear, desires can simply fall away. Our attention is paid to releasing, not wanting to release. We have heard this called "letting go." Once we let go of our desires, we find that a calmer, more graceful way of existing is revealed. It has been there all along, but the wanting has made it difficult to recognize.

    So the question is, How can we release our wanting, and with it our discomfort, without creating another problem at the same time?

4. Meditation and the eightfold
path can end discomfort.

When the Buddha went out on his journey to find the answer to life, he didn't hit on it right away. He followed a lot of different teachers and took up different practices. For a while, he even became fanatical and was very harsh with himself and his body. But he soon realized that this was not the way to go either.

    In the end, he simply sat down and paid attention to the way in which his mind worked. What he saw was how busy his thoughts were and how difficult they were to control. After a while, he stopped trying to control them. With practice, his mind became quiet. With his mind quiet, the Buddha could finally see that so much of what we react to in the world is just something we have made up in our minds. It was there, in the stillness of his mind, that he found the way to eliminate discomfort. If we didn't spend so much time reacting to things, we would spend less time feeling bothered. We would be able to relax in our lives the way our mind relaxes in meditation.

    Meditation (discussed fully in Chapter 7) is one of eight steps that we can follow to reduce the troubling sense of unease that we live with. What we will find when discomfort is reduced is that we can be in the world in a way that is less difficult and distracting. We can see the world in a way that allows us to open our hearts to everyone else in it. When we begin to understand the nature of everything, our vision of ourselves and our lives expands.

* * *

These Four Simple Truths are the key, starting point, path, and destination on our map to negotiate life by. If we purposely or lazily ignore the fact that we have a map, we are more likely to remain lost.

    These truths, and the idea of enlightened being have nothing to do with any religion. They are universal and belong to all of us. Being human, with all our flaws, faults, and broken parts, is a unique and precious gift. We have been blessed with consciousness of our actions, and with that, the ability to change them.

What People are Saying About This

Dr. Christopher Queen
Angel shares her life and her Zen training in ways that recall Dr. King's famous dream-- we can be a great family when our greed, anger and ignorance become generosity, love, and understanding. There is a freshness and wisdom here that conveys the black experience and Buddha's dharma all at once. There is also a smart and heartfelt introduction to Zen here--enlightening for readers of any color.
— Dr. Christopher Queen, Harvard University
Jack Kornfield
Angel's work is an important new step for Dharma in the West, her book is a classic.

Meet the Author

Angel Kyodo Williams is an ordained Zen priest and founder of the Urban Peace Project. She has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, and Essence, and is a columnist for Ms.

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Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book is very helpful if you are 'angry black man (or woman) who is searching for your point in life.